Book reviews: 15 June
ALWAYS YOU, EDINA by VG Lee (Ward Wood Publishing, £9.99)
The Lady contributor VG Lee is no slouch. Already the author of several well-regarded novels, when she turned 60, she decided to train as a stand-up comedian. While her previous books have concentrated on lesbian relationships, in Always You, Edina, she tells the story of a 10-year-old girl whose world implodes when her father embarks on an affair with her favourite aunt, Edina.
While visiting her grandmother in a nursing home, Bonnie Benson finds herself transported back to her childhood days in 1960s Birmingham. At that time, she had two idols in her life: her school friend Joanna Bayliss, the most popular girl in her year, and Aunt Ed who 'could light up a room – if there was a man in that room'.
Entranced by her aunt's pretty house, pink wafer biscuits and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, Bonnie falls under Edina's spell. So does her father, Ken. Bonnie watches the affair develop without fully comprehending its tragic consequences. A moving piece – Lee writes tenderly about a young girl's struggle to face up to the uglier truths of an adult world.
THE IDLE TRAVELLER by Dan Kieran (AA Publishing, £12.99)
Or the art of slow travel... since Dan Kieran is a travel writer who does not fly. Indeed, he's spent 20 years slowly traversing the globe by train, boat, bus – once even milk float – and on foot. But now his time has come. Kieran is an obvious role model for the explorer who wants to avoid the hell of modern airports. How does he do it?
The chapter headings are a bit of a giveaway. Stay At Home advises one of them (ie, see your home environment with the mindset of a traveller); Embrace Disaster And Follow Your Instinct. All good advice for those who consider the business of travelling to be as important as the getting there and therefore want itineraries not bound by flight times – something that often seems impossible in this modern world.
'What Dan has attempted in this book,' notes Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler Academy, in his introduction, 'is to outline a particular philosophy of travel, where travel becomes part of one's own therapeutic journey, rather than simply an escape.' This is the travel guide's equivalent to the horse-drawn carriage: slow, calming, allowing a close-up study of your surroundings, rather than an overall view, but getting you there in the end.
THE LOWER RIVER by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
When a novel begins with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, you know the characters therein can expect a rough ride. And so it transpires. In fact, 62-year-old Ellis Hock's marriage falls apart on the first page. With little left to lose, he sells up his small-town Massachusettian clothing store and goes to Africa where, 40 years before, he was happiest.
The Lower River is not a popular district of Malawi – swamp, mosquitoes, termites – but in the mud-hut village of Malabo, the young Ellis had helped to build a school, earning respect and affection. On his return, Ellis fi nds the school vacant and vandalised, and the church a ruin. Moreover, while the village chief, Manyenga, is welcoming, Ellis comes to see that he is just as cunning (and dangerous) as the local snakes.
This novel may lack a strong hook – the narrative is essentially that of Ellis's infernal downward descent – but it's as taut as any thriller. Paul Theroux's searing portrait of a place lost to poverty, cynicism and hopelessness, however, seems, terribly, to owe more to fact than fi ction.
THE FOLLY OF FRENCH KISSING by Carla McKay (Gibson Square, £7.99)
Scandalous school gossip sends teacher and poet Judith Hayoff to take refuge in a village near Montpellier in the south of France. But Vevey turns out to be the Gallic equivalent of something out of Midsomer Murders, much to the joy of visiting Tim Lavery, disaffected journalist on the Tribune. 'What a cracking story for the Sunday papers,' he thinks, as events unfold in this idyllic part of the world. McKay, former fiction editor of the Daily Mail, has written a terrific novel, intriguingly based on her own experiences during a six-month stay in a similar community in the Languedoc.
The square root of all evil
THE FEAR INDEX Robert Harris (Arrow Books, £7.99)
If you didn't catch it in hardback, grab it now in austerity-Britain paperback. Harris's latest bestseller is a gripping, funny and timely tale of money – losing it or, more terrifyingly here, making too much of it.
Alex Hoffmann, a Genevabased algorithmic hedgefund manager, has devised a theory that enables his clients to make consistently vast piles of cash out of the stock market. Complications arise after a break-in; Alex is knocked out with a fire extinguisher, now someone – or something – seems to be impersonating him in cyberspace. Or is he just losing his mind? A high-speed plot, deft characterisation... and Harris even manages to explain what a hedge fund is.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Nicolette Jones reviews a story about friendship at the court of King George III
A HUMBLE COMPANION by Laurie Graham (Quercus, £16.99)
Laurie Graham's early novels, from The Ten O'Clock Horses to The Future Homemakers Of America, revealed the drama and the grandeur of the lives of ordinary people. She captured their voices with a perfect ear, and they were poignant and funny, rather like Alan Bennett characters.
Then she began to use ordinary folk as observers of the more obviously grand. The lives of Edward and Mrs Simpson were examined from the perspective of an old school friend of Wallis's, Maybell Brumby, in Gone With The Windsors, and the Kennedy clan seen through the eyes of a nursemaid, Nora Brennan, in The Importance Of Being Kennedy.
In A Humble Companion, the narrator is Nellie Welche, the daughter of a royal steward, and the observed are the household of George III, who went mad, in the late 18th century. Nellie's facial disfigurement qualifies her as a suitably unthreatening companion to Princess Sophia, one of the King's 12 children, in a sort of experiment in keeping in touch with the experience of subjects. This book is Nellie's memoir of that companionship.
Sofy is a sheltered innocent and the plot exposes a scandalous secret, of which she is the victim, at the same time as chronicling painful developments in Nellie's own life; both are trapped by their gender and class. For Nellie, there is a misunderstanding and a lost opportunity for love. The reader recognises the misunderstanding long before Nellie does, but this only intensifies the suspense.
The odd anachronism or Americanism creeps in: 'named for' says the King, instead of 'named after', for instance, but these are surprising flaws in a novel so attuned to what voice, manner, gesture and action tell us about character.
Once again, Laurie Graham makes us accept her interpretation of history, sweeping aside any anxiety about what really happened. We are won over by neatly built storytelling; by small, witty, sharp-eyed observations; by the universally recognisable emotions, qualities and failings of regents, grooms and foreign princesses brought in as brides; and by the bond between Nellie and the lifelong companion she cannot publicly presume to call a friend.
ALL IN ONE BASKET, NEST EGGS by Deborah Devonshire (John Murray, £9.99)
Debo, last of the Mitfords and recent star of the behind-thescenes TV series on Chatsworth, wrote her first book about this great house in 1982. Thirty years later, this is a collected edition of her occasional writings from Counting My Chickens and Home To Roost, plus some 'newly laid' pieces. One describes her father's stint at this magazine: 'My father reported for work accompanied by his pet mongoose, whose job was to get rid of the rats in the nether regions of The Lady building.'
SHADOWSTORY by Jennifer Johnston (Headline Review, £7.99)
Seventeenth novel by the 'best writer in Ireland' according to Roddy Doyle. In wartime Ireland Polly, oblivious of grown-up grief and worry, has secrets of her own – specifically the whereabouts of her missing Uncle Sam, five years her senior and poised to cause all kinds of trouble.
THE STRANGER'S CHILD by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, £8.99)
A visit made to a suburban house in 1913 by Cecil Valance, heir to a baronial estate, affects the lives and loves of a teeming cast of characters over the course of nearly a century. Changing social, sexual and cultural attitudes all contribute, of course, but it's the disturbingly insouciant Cecil who drives this excellent novel.
THE DREAM OF THE CELT by Mario Vargas Llosa (Faber and Faber, £18.99)
Vargas Llosa's first novel since winning the Nobel Prize gives a fictionalised account of Roger Casement, the British diplomat and Irish republican rebel knighted in 1911 for services to the UK, and hanged for treason in 1916.
PRINCE WILLIAM: BORN TO BE KING by Penny Junor (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99)
Controversial look at William's upbringing – in Junor's view, Diana's vulnerabilities were damaging to her role as mother – focusing on the prince's school days and troubled relationship with the media.
Fiona Shoop explores the eReader phenomenon
They're not objects of beauty, and will certainly never furnish a room, but the eBook (electronic version of a book) and the eReader (device on which the eBook is read) are here to stay. Advantages include being able to download an eBook whenever you want and the lighter weight when travelling. Text size can be increased; eReaders also come with an in-built audiobook device.
eREADERS TO CONSIDER
- Kobo Wireless (from £43.99) Pros A great starter eReader, it comes with 100 free eBooks already loaded. Cons It doesn't have an in-built keyboard and the square navigational device doesn't appeal to all.
- Kindle (£89) or Keyboard 3G (£149) Pros Easy to use, especially the Keyboard version, and many publishers work exclusively with Amazon and only sell through it. Cons Unlike the other eReaders, it is not compatible with the format used by library books or from mainstream eStores such as Waterstones and WHSmith. You can only buy eBooks for your Kindle from Amazon.
- Sony eReader PRS-T1 (from £119) Pros The most comfortable eReader for me, and also the world's lightest and smallest. You get 100 free eBooks when you register your eReader with Sony. Cons The screen could be brighter but clip-on lights are easy to use and cost about £2.99.
- iPad (from £329) Pros You can download the Kindle and iBooks apps, allowing you to buy eBooks from different retailers. The backlighting also makes the eBooks easy to read. The iPad is far more than just an eReader, hence the price. Cons Price and the size – it's larger than the other devices, so won't fit into all handbags. Some people will find it uncomfortable to hold. Handle before buying.