Friday, 27 April 2012

Book Reviews: 27 April


books1ALWAYS BY MY SIDE Christina Schmid (Century, £12.99)

The face of Christina Schmid at her husband's funeral still most effectively sums up the futility and grief of war. Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid was a bomb disposal expert seconded to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. On the last day of his last tour, he was blown up while dismantling a bomb. Since his death, Christina has had a high profile in the UK, not least because she was prepared to reveal her husband's bad state of mind during his last 48 hours, and to speak out against the findings of the inquest into his death.

'From the start I felt it was a sham,' she says in this, her first book. 'In my opinion it was to be another whitewash inquest, avoiding controversy, without recommendations... no deeper interest in saving lives or looking at the real issues. Just another box-ticking exercise.' It's pretty damning stuff.

Since her husband's death, Christina has campaigned for better equipment for soldiers in Afghanistan and has presented her own Panorama investigation into the work of high-threat bomb disposal officers.

And as you'd expect from someone whose life, even if inadvertently, has taken a political turn, her book is articulate and well-written, and also touchingly forthright about her love for her late husband and their life together. Its publication is a potent message to the Army and to the politicians who continue to send apparently ill-equipped young men out to Afghanistan.

'From now on I expect our peacemakers to show they are working as hard as [Oz] did to preserve life...' she writes at the end of the book. 'I want to see them tirelessly fight with his same spirit, dedication and integrity... Please do not let him die in vain.'                                                                                                                            Carolyn Hart

THE INNOCENTS Francesca Segal (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)



Francesca Segal's fi rst novel is a reworking of the Edith Wharton classic, The Age Of Innocence. The story centres around Adam Newman, newly engaged to his teen sweetheart Rachel Gilbert, and equally enamoured by Rachel's warm and tight-knit family and the contemporary north London Jewish society of which they are a central part. But Adam's parochial world is rocked when Rachel's troubled younger cousin, Ellie, moves back to London, prompting Adam to question everything familiar.

Knowing The Age Of Innocence, I wondered whether Segal would successfully refl ect, in the modern-day London of her book, the corseted and rule-based society of 1870s New York, which underlies and drives Wharton's plot. In fact, the north London Jewish context works well – the intertwined families, overbearing matriarchs and meticulous mores having familiar echoes. There is also a convenient visual link between the women's gallery of the synagogue and the family boxes at the New York opera, which are a central device in Wharton's story.

Despite being a reworking of a novel written a century ago, the central story transcends time, reflecting the omnipresence of love and its conflicting web of duty, confusion, temptation and lust.                                     

Camilla Ter Haar



ONE GIRL AND HER DOGS Emma Gray (Sphere, £7.99)

If you're idly wondering about a career change, maybe you should take a look at this book first. Emma Gray became Britain's youngest shepherdess at the age of 23. Two years on, she works a remote National Trust farm in Northumberland. Sound idyllic? Well, yes it is, but you also have to take into account the isolation, the lack of mains electricity, not to mention a dearth of single men and the propensity of sheep to start lambing very early on cold January mornings.

'I want this life,' Emma writes, 'but it can be so hard sometimes... it is raining again today... the wind is howling through the trees, the rain slicing the air horizontally' – and that's in the summer.

'I have wanted to be a farmer for as long as I can remember,' she continues, 'but there have been plenty of times when I've wished I wanted to do something else.' She could always, on the strength of this book, move to London and become a journalist, but again on the evidence of this book, she'd probably be hot-footing it back to Northumberland before you could say 'copy deadline.'                                                                                    

Lola Sinclair



It's a cat's life

CATS AND DAUGHTERS Helen Brown (Two Roads, £14.99)


This is the follow-up to Helen Brown's bestselling tale of Cleo, the cat who helped her family to recover from the death of her nine-year-old son. When Cleo died, Helen swore never to get another cat. Enter Jonah, the crazy Siamese kitten that made an unscheduled appearance following a visit to a pet shop. Jonah is the kitten equivalent of a hoodie – destructive but in need of a good hug. His arrival coincides with further crises in the household: Helen is diagnosed with cancer, her son is getting married and her elder daughter wants to become a Buddhist nun. As Helen wryly remarks: 'cats and daughters... they don't always come when called...'

This is a moving account of family life going off the rails, but saved by love and the realisation that by allowing cats and daughters to roam, they'll come home in the end.

Carolyn Hart


Double trouble

Master of farce Michael Frayn's new book will have you howling with laughter in public places, says Jane Thynne

SKIOS Michael Frayn (Faber, £15.99)

books3Dr Norman Wilfred, a fat, jaded academic, is en route to the Greek island of Skios to lecture on his life's work, the management of science, or scientometrics. At the same time Oliver Fox, a handsome young wastrel, is travelling to the island for a licentious rendezvous with a girl he picked up in a bar. This being the universe of Michael Frayn, our greatest practitioner of farce, these polar opposites are never going to reach their destination with their suitcases, let alone their identities, intact.

For anyone who has not yet caught the revival of Frayn's brilliant Noises Off in the West End, Skios is a more than adequate compensation. Like a perfect Mediterranean holiday, it is refreshing, light and utterly pleasurable. As the farce spirals into a chaos of coincidence and misunderstanding, Frayn sustains the improbable chain of events with skilful hilarity.

Dr Norman Wilfred is due to deliver the annual lecture of the Fred Toppler Foundation, an upmarket Summer School where wealthy Americans gather for seminars on Minoan cooking and medieval flower arrangement. Oliver Fox is a charming no-hoper who has borrowed a friend's villa for a week of sex with Georgie, a girl he has met precisely once.

Inevitably, courtesy of switched luggage, the two men end up at each other's destination and are forced to make the best of things. Fox decides to impersonate Dr Wilfred and discovers that it is possible to imply great academic wisdom with a few enigmatic and pretentious statements. Indeed the guests at the Foundation adore him. Dr Wilfred, expecting five-star luxury, arrives at an empty hilltop villa surrounded by

goats. Yet he discovers that life outside the international lecture circuit holds many surprises. The scene in which Georgie, late at night, finds herself creeping into bed with the balding academic she has mistaken for her young lover, caused me to howl with laughter in a public place.

In the work of Michael Frayn the idea of mistaken identity always hints at deep philosophical undercurrents. 'Do I actually exist? Or have I somehow vanished like my suitcase?' wonders Dr Wilfred, a doctor of management who cannot manage his own life. But ultimately, you will be laughing too much to care about any such subtexts. And if you take this novel on holiday, guard it carefully because comic novels, like identities, can get mysteriously misplaced.


BLITZ FAMILIES Penny Starns (The History Press, £12.99)

What's it like to be a child in a wartorn city? Penny Starns's moving study of the children who weren't evacuated during the Second World War takes on a special significance in light of the Syrian bombardment of Homs and the Arab Spring. This book gives us plenty of first-hand stories including one eight-year-old's account of a night spent in an air-raid shelter with an unexploded bomb resting overhead.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME Rowley Leigh (Clearview, £9.99)

First published by Fourth Estate in glamorous hardback, Rowley Leigh's brilliant cookbook has been condensed into this handy pocket-sized, picturefree version. You can take it away with you on holiday and rustle up terrific, no-fuss seasonal grub such as Greek salad, raspberry gratin and chilled avocado and almond soup.


You may be a 21st-century woman at university and in the offi ce, but the moment you have a baby you're transported straight back to the 1950s. That's Asher's theory anyway, and, as you dash back from work to cook the evening meal, grapple with the children's homework and tackle a mountain of washing-up, it's hard not to agree. A hard-hitting, polemical debate that's amusingly presented.


THE RIGHTEOUS MIND Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane, £20)

Subtitled 'why good people are divided by politics and religion', this lucid thesis questions whether liberals are more blinkered than conservatives.

THE LIFEBOAT Charlotte Rogan (Virago, £12.99)

A first novel, set in 1914, about the dilemmas that ensue when a liner goes down, Titanic-style, and the survivors wait three weeks to be rescued.



FEAR IN THE SUNLIGHT Nicola Upson (Faber, £12.99)

Featuring Josephine Tey, author of detective stories during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – the action kicks off with the murder of ageing star Bella Hutton. Two groups are staying at a hotel, Tey's party and a group of people employed by Alfred Hitchcock, comprising actors, film crew and wannabes. More dark deeds are perpetrated while the sun beats down, but the sangfroid and restraint of a 1930s novel is always present. Upson has recreated the English crime novel of that era, but updated the format by adding a darker subtext more familiar to modern readers.

MISSING PERSONS Nicci Gerrard (Penguin, £7.99)

Nicci Gerrard is one half (with Sean French) of the author duo Nicci French, and her latest solo offering is the story of a family whose son goes missing from university during his fi rst term. The middle-class idyll on the Suffolk coast is torn asunder and we are shown the effect on the family. How to explain the inexplicable? Gerrard doesn't really try, thus avoiding appearing too pat or smug. She simply allows the damage to unfold page by page. This is a bleak and unswerving look at the myths families tell themselves.

THE FATAL TOUCH Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury, £11.99)

Set in Rome, this story features Commissioner Alec Blume. American by descent, he lives alone in his parents' fl at and cuts a lonely and slightly unorthodox figure at the police station. When an elderly Englishman is found dead in a piazza in Trastevere he is paired with new-girl Caterina Mattiola to investigate the case. This is a drier, more disillusioned take on the Italian dream than, say, Donna Leon's Brunetti series.

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