Book Reviews: 8 June
BBC SPRINGWATCH BRITISH WILDLIFE The Springwatch Team (Collins, £20)
Accompanying book to BBC's Springwatch that fills in the background information busy programme presenters don't necessarily have time for.
In five self-explanatory parts (Birds, Mammals, Insects, Reptiles and Fish, and Plants), it takes you at a brisk trot through each species. Thus 'Birds' ranges from sparrows – something of a novelty for today's children – whose decline Springwatch puts down to 'changes in farming practices... and the "yuppification" of our towns with loft conversions...', to ospreys, 'our best known bird of prey'. 'Mammals' has delightful images of stoats, weasels and harvest mice, while 'Plants' (from cotton grass to the carnivorous butterwort and the amethyst deceiver, a purple mushroom) shows how truly diverse our countryside is.
ABDICATION Juliet Nicolson (Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99)
Moving on from the First World War and its aftermath (subjects of her previous, non-fiction books), Juliet Nicolson has used her considerable knowledge of the period to produce a historical novel. Abdication is set in the 1930s and tells the story of May Thomas, 19 years old and on the run from a stultifying existence in Barbados. She winds up as a secretary to Sir Philip Blunt, chief whip in Baldwin's government, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with an old school friend of Wallis Simpson. Royal indiscretion, Blunt's handsome son Rupert, not to mention the increasing inevitability of war, make this a terrificfi ctional debut – possibly your next Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs television blockbuster, indeed...
THE SERVER Tim Parks (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
An austere Buddhist retreat is the setting for Tim Parks's energising new novel. It's a place where inmates are meant to leave their egos, along with their sandals, at the front door. Beth Marriot, a young woman with a colourful past, has buried herself at the Dasgupta Institute for the last eight months, chopping up turnips in the strictly vegetarian kitchen. Sex, writing and eye contact are all banned at the retreat, and men and women are kept segregated. But it's while carrying out cleaning duties in the men's section that she stumbles upon an illicit diary. Unable to stop herself from reading it, she comes face to face with its bearded author. Also distracting her from a Life of Equanimity is Mi Nu Wai – the Institute's pale priestess, a doll-like figure with whom she longs to eat, sleep and meditate.
As Beth intelligently unpicks the dark complications of her past existence, we sigh with relief to have escaped the Institute's halfbaked mantras and bean-based stews. A playful novel written with perception and wit.
DEAR LUPIN... LETTERS TO A WAYWARD SON Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer (Constable, £12.99)
'I never seem to hear of you unless some disaster, major or minor, has taken place. Owing to lack of communication on your part, I have not the remotest idea of what is going on at Eton or how you are progressing, if at all, in your work...'
Thus resigned father Roger Mortimer, one time racing correspondent for The Sunday Times and author of The History Of The Derby Stakes, opens this book of letters to his 'wayward' son Charlie, incarcerated at Eton in the 1960s and not working very much, as it turns out. 'Your mother came back rather sad and depressed after seeing you yesterday,' Roger continues. 'You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge...'
The knife-edge referred to is that Charlie is on a fi nal warning, following a fl ogging from the headmaster, as punishment for 'visiting a certain Denise Bunny in London', but even this indiscretion fails to dent the tone of wry affection with which Roger addresses his boy, nicknamed Lupin after Mr Pooter's son in The Diary Of A Nobody.
His letters continue up to Roger's death in 1991, long after 'Lupin' has left school and become a 'middle-aged, middle-class spiv' with interests in car restoring and pop-group management. Rediscovery of these wonderful missives must have induced feelings of love, guilt and terrible loss.
For the disinterested reader, however, they are entirely delightful: funny, wise and full of insights into the relationship between fathers and sons.
Letters of Love
JUST SEND ME WORD Orlando Figes (Allen Lane, £20)
Two Moscow scientists, Svetlana Ivanova and Lev Mishchenko, fall in love in Stalin's Russia. When Hitler invades in 1941, Lev signs up as a Red Army offi cer. He's captured by the Germans, interned at Buchenwald and at the end of the war, is – insanely – convicted of 'treason to the Motherland' and given 10 years in the labour camp at Pechora. How did he survive? The couple's 1,246 smuggled letters give historian Figes unparalleled insights into life in a labour camp: the cold, the violence, the daily search for food. Released in 1954, Lev marries Svetlana and when Kruschev denounces Stalin, returns to his pre-war work. A gripping record of human endurance.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Cecily Gayford on Hilary Mantel's magnificent follow-up to Wolf Hall
BRING UP THE BODIES Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £20)
In Hilary Mantel's next instalment in the life of Tudor courtier Thomas Cromwell, the hero considers the imminent executions of those accused of cuckolding the king. He has 'found men who are guilty', he reassures himself, 'though not perhaps guilty as charged'.
Through such small asides, Mantel evokes the Machiavellian world of Tudor politics in all its dark romance – and yet, as a place, its reality is immediately convincing.
Mantel's subject is power, for which Henry VIII's court – a dense mesh of ambition and greed, linking and diverging as the winds of power shift – is the perfect setting. This claustrophobic world is Cromwell's territory; the lives and untimely deaths of its inhabitants are shaped by his careful strategising and the king's whim.
Wolf Hall dealt with the Reformation and the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn; nowHenry has tired of Anne's 'dark glitter' and her failure to provide an heir. His eye has lit on Jane, the 'milksop' daughter of the ruthless Seymour family. And Cromwell must manage these tangled threads to the king's satisfaction, settling his own scores along the way.
His chosen route, the exposure – or fabrication – of a Hello!-worthy tale of queenly adultery, brings many bodies up to the scaffold. It is a gripping farstory, though in an unusual way: perhaps because we all know how things will unfold, the pace is slow, measured, and almost dreamlike. You are absorbed, not by revelations or cliffhangers, but by the sinuous grace with which Cromwell brings about well-known events.
Mantel invites you into the innermost thoughts of a man changing the course of our country's history. He emerges an ice-cold pragmatist, nonetheless possessing deep and unexpected recesses to his soul. As he watches the execution of Anne, reduced to a 'bundle of bones' for his political convenience, he wills her not to suffer, feeling a stab of pity.
It takes enormous skill to bring such familiar material, and such complex characters, fully to life. Mantel's style combines clarity with a rich descriptiveness: her luxuriant sentences are tightly reined in, just as the opening scene sees hawks soar 'weightlessly' before they return to the grasp of their master. Wolf Hall was a literary smash hit, and a tough act to follow – a mixed blessing for any author. Not that it seems to have daunted her: this is an excellent novel – the equal of its forebear.
ILLYRIAN SPRING Ann Bridge (Daunt Books, £9.99)
Fleeing from her overbearing husband and bullying children, artist Grace Kilmichael arrives at the Illyrian coast in the company of an unsuitable young man. Illyrian Spring was first published in 1935 and inspired a vogue for travel to the Adriatic (Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson went there on a much publicised jaunt). It still makes the perfect holiday read – a wryly amusing story about the plight of the unfulfilled woman.
A NURSE ABROAD Anne Watts (Simon & Schuster, £6.99)
Qualified in the 1960s, Anne Watts is a practitioner of 'extreme' nursing, pursuing her career in war zones, Arctic Canada and the Australian Outback. Her account of working in these parts of the world is fascinating – even more so when Watts takes time off to have a night out. 'This is when I learned that a bottle of Scotch could buy a miner a "squaw" for the night,' she notes on one occasion.
CRAZY AGE Jane Miller (Virago Press, £14.99)
Aged 70, academic Jane Miller decided to write about what it means to be old in this youthobsessed society. Her book takes in everything from the loss of friends and a growing indifference to acquiring things, to a surprising appreciation of the young. Consolingly, despite the inevitable mental and physical deterioration, she finds she likes being old a lot more than she liked being young.
WHY SPENCER PERCEVAL HAD TO DIE Andro Linklater (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
Intriguing, if occasionally farfetched investigation into the death of Spencer Perceval, evangelical father of 12 and the only British Prime Minister (so far...) to be assassinated.
LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, £18.99)
Bestselling author of What I Loved turns to essay writing with a collection of pieces exploring aspects of her own life (migraine, her mother, sleeping/not sleeping), imagination and the visual arts.
CRIME ROUND-UP BY VICTORIA CLARKE
A QUESTION OF PROOF Nicholas Blake (Vintage, £8.99)
First published in 1935, this is an enchanting and nostalgic tale, both in the decency of its adult characters and the charm of its little boys. Set in the grounds of Sudeley Hall, a boys' prep school, it centres on the murder of the insufferable nephew of the headmaster, 'Pedantic' Percival Vale. Matters are complicated by the English master carrying on with the head's young wife. Things look bad for Michael Evans, our hero, but languid amateur detective Nigel Strangeways comes to the rescue and outwits the stern, thick-necked policeman.
DEATH IN THE SUN Adam Creed (Faber and Faber, £12.99)
Continuing the chronicle of Inspector Wagstaffe, Staffe to his friends. Recuperating in Spain from a close encounter with death, Staffe is aimless and despondent. He has friends in his village, principally Manolo, the goatherd with mysterious antecedents, and his pregnant sister lives in the hills above him. Yet still he is not at ease. When he is present at the discovery of a man killed in a style used in the Spanish Civil War, all his instincts are aroused and he starts to investigate.
THE BLACK PATH Åsa Larsson (MacLehose Press, £18.99)
Set in the far north of Sweden, Åsa Larsson's The Black Path is a world away from cosmopolitan Stockholm and the action takes place among ice fi shermen, Sami and hunters. Rebecka Martinsson is a lawyer who has survived a brutal attack and a subsequent nervous breakdown. She has returned to her roots in Kurravaara where she takes up a job in the local prosecutor's offi ce. Anne- Maria Mella is the local police inspector and, when Inna Wattrang's body is found in a deserted ice-fishing hut, Martinsson lends her research expertise to the police team.