Thursday, 09 August 2012

Book reviews: 10 August


Culture-Books-Aug10-The-Uninvited-176THE UNINVITED by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

An original, nightmarish, eighth crime novel from Liz Jensen, whose last, Rapture, was shortlisted for the Brit Writers' Award and selected as Channel 4's TV Book Club Best Read. Similarly fastpaced, The Uninvited transports the reader to an apocalyptic world on the brink of destruction – recalling Margaret Atwood's haunting The Handmaid's Tale.

When a seven year old girl shoots her grandmother with a nail gun, detectives pronounce it an unfortunate anomaly – but they are proved wrong – as chilling murders by children begin to sweep across the globe. Loner anthropologist Hesketh Lock, divorced and missing his young stepson, tracks the crimes from his remote Scottish island retreat.

Suffering Asperger's syndrome, Hesketh struggles to maintain close relationships and has achieved career success investigating corporate espionage – studying behavioural patterns. Spotting a connection between the seemingly unrelated incidents of children brutally turning on their families, challenges everything science and experience have taught him.

When his Taiwan business contact dies inexplicably and his beloved stepson, Freddy, begins to behave increasingly bizarrely, Hesketh emerges from his island sanctuary and draws upon his understanding of group psychology and hysteria to prevent doomsday. A compelling, poetic and subtle psychological thriller – but unsuitable for readers easily upset by violence.

Rebecca Wallersteiner


Culture-Books-Aug10-come-to-the-edge-176COME TO THE EDGE by Joanna Kavenna (Quercus, £12.99)

Imagine a cross between Cold Comfort Farm, Tamara Drewe and a film by Danny (Olympics Opening Ceremony) Boyle, and you'll get a sense of this riotous comic novel. Our unnamed narrator is unrepentantly suburban: she shops at OKA, has a woodburning stove, and receives news of her husband's desertion as she listens to Today. At this point our heroine recalls an ad for a widow's companion – 'not completely young, but not entirely decrepit either' – and thus swaps suburbia for the freezing Cumbrian farmhouse of Cassandra White.

Cassandra – staggeringly beautiful but batty as they come – believes in selfsufficiency and thunderbox toilets and claims never to have understood 'the contemporary fetish about washing' (she has a supply of cracking lines). Yet despite her madness – and our narrator's aversion to country life – Cassandra is compelling. And so our heroine, already on the edge, finds herself drawn into her crazy plan whereby the valley's empty properties (City types' second homes) are turned over to locals.

There's no denying that Joanna Kavenna extracts maximum mileage from this premise, but it's hard to begrudge a novel that bowls along with all the wild, unstoppable energy of a full Cumbrian spate.

Stephanie Cross



 Culture-Books-Aug10-Twelve-Rooms-176THE TWELVE ROOMS OF THE NILE by Enid Shomer (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

Enid Shomer, an award-winning American short-story writer, has now embarked on her first novel. It's an intriguing, if occasionally wrong-headed story based on a fictional meeting between Gustave Flaubert (before he wrote Madame Bovary) and Florence Nightingale (before she became the Lady of the Lamp, rescuing wounded soldiers in the Crimea).

Shomer's imagined friendship is forged on a journey along the Nile in 1849, beginning unpromisingly as Flaubert takes a potshot at a 'tall white bird standing on a dead snag'. This causes Florence, who was travelling in another party, to berate him for discharging a firearm in a public place.

'I am unhappy,' she tells him. 'All women are unhappy,' Flaubert thinks to himself. 'He understood women to be powerless and therefore demanding, and had confided to his mother that he would never marry...'

At this point you'll either continue reading, relying on that well-known 'willing suspension of disbelief' to carry you through the following 459 pages, or you'll throw The Twelve Rooms out of the window and determine on finding a copy of Madame Bovary instead.

The former course means that you'll be in for a long, not overly demanding but frequently enjoyable, holiday read, ideal for anyone who wants something compatible with which to while away the hours on an Egyptian idyll. The latter course would probably be much better for you.

Lola Sinclair

Culture-Books-Aug10-MustRead-176MUST READ

A medic's tale

DOCTOR, DOCTOR by Dr Rosemary Leonard (Headline, £12.99)

Dr Leonard is the resident medic on BBC Breakfast, and has been a practising GP for 25 years. As you'd expect, it's her south London surgery that provides the 'incredible true tales' recounted here. These include the time she was 'taken hostage by a patient... and the resulting court case'. It's like a reallife version of the BBC serial Doctors, given extra edge by the barmier elements of society that wash around any NHS outpost in London. Dr Leonard deals with an ecoprotester stuck up a tree with appendicitis, a woman trying to get pregnant, one who didn't know she was, and an octogenarian with syphilis. All human life... She has a breezy, confident style that makes this an entertaining glimpse into the sharp end of medicine.






The boy from Pieve di Cadore

Theo Walden reviews a life of Titian, the famous Venetian artist


TITIAN: HIS LIFE by Sheila Hale (HarperPress, £30)

Despite taking 832 pages to recount the life of Titian, there are still some things Sheila Hale cannot tell us about this most famous of artists. His age, for one thing. Titian's earliest biographers (and there hasn't been a substantial book about him since 1877) posited birth dates between 1477 and 1484. Titian himself claimed to have been born in 1474, which would have made him 102 when he died in 1576. Hale thinks it was more likely he was born in or around 1490.

Titian's career began when he arrived in Venice from the mountain village of Pieve di Cadore. He was a half-educated teenager sent to learn painting from Giovanni Bellini and soon became one of the most celebrated painters in the Veneto – adept at acquiring commissions from Venetian toffs and neighbouring dukes, playing them off against each other and often postponing portraits for years if a better offer came along.

His first benefactor was the third Duke of Ferrara, who invented cannons; he traced his ancestry back to the Knights of the Round Table and used to walk around Ferrara in the nude. Ferrara commissioned some of Titian's raciest early mythologies. Indeed, Hale has quite a bit on Titian's enjoyment of his models – he revelled in the 'soft elasticity' of their flesh and the glowing colours of their clothes – and his lively, not unrelated, sex life.

But, like his birth date, Titian's private life remains opaque. His first wife Cecilia died young, leaving him with three small children (the eldest, Pomponio, did not speak to his father for the last nine years of Titian's life; the younger son, Orazio, became a painter). The name of his second wife has never been discovered.

Hale, who wrote an acclaimed travel guide to Venice in 1983, evades these domestic gaps by bringing the Venetian background to glorious life.

She provides, alongside Titian's life, a vivid portrait of the cruel and watery city in which he lived, evoking its population of merchants, sea captains, prostitutes and noblemen, and the babble of market traders.



NEAR THE MOTORWAYS by Hugh Cantlie (Cheviot Books, £14.95)

Ninth edition of this handy book, which offers affordable alternatives to motorway service stations. Inspired. No more fuming at the ghastly food/dire coffee at these over-priced venues. Now you can come off the M5 at junction 23, for instance, and in five minutes find a 200-year-old pub that doesn't mind dogs, has a dining room and two bars, plus a smokers' shelter.

A DOG'S PURPOSE by W Bruce Cameron (Pan, £7.99)

The reincarnation of a philosophical canine – Bailey starts life as a stray and winds up as a puppy, having spent the intervening years as an ebullient companion for Ethan, aged eight. Bailey has an original take on human life. In an ideal world, you'd give this to your dog.

WORTH by Jon Canter (Vintage, £8.99)

'Both tense and funny' said Craig Brown of this, Jon Canter's third novel. You'd expect that from an author who's also a comedy scriptwriter, but Worth goes beyond that with a terrific tale of escaping the London rat race for a modest cottage; indulging in 'reverse commuting' to keep up with his lost life, and then finding that your new neighbour represents everything you thought you'd left behind. Or does she? Acute, horrifying and entertaining.



FORAGING: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO FREE WILD FOOD by John Lewis-Stempel (Right Way, £6.99)

The author spent a year living on what he could forage – and survived to tell the tale. So buying his book is certainly not going to kill you. Indeed, consulting its pages (many edible foraged plants are accompanied by a recipe) could save you from starvation in these straitened times.

BROTHER MENDEL'S PERFECT HORSE by Frank Westerman (Harvill Secker, £16.99)

A history of the Lipizzaner – the grey pedigree horses that were bred as personal mounts for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. The author reconstructs the story of four generations of the steeds, which survived the fall of the Habsburg Empire, two world wars and insane genetic experiments carried out under Hitler's rule.




WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE by Stanley Johnson (Stacey International, £9.99)

Politician and author Stanley Johnson writes about his travels. Meeting blue-footed boobies and getting charged at by mountain gorillas is all part of the fun – as is climbing Kilimanjaro and catching cold in Glastonbury. Be it Ecuador or Exmoor, Johnson finds adventure, even tracing ancestors back to Turkey. The classic Johnson wit runs throughout, but a deep-rooted passion for the environment prevails.

THE GOLDEN DOOR: LETTERS TO AMERICA by AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

In a series of essays, Gill explores how the world's perception of the USA has shifted in the last half century. Living there in the 1970s, Gill recalls it was a golden land of promise and opportunity and questions why it is now ridiculed and recklessly hated. Packed with trivia and cultural history, The Golden Door is Gill's tribute to the States. Delving into American life with his trademark hilarity, he explores immigration and sex, philanthropy and guns, surmising the change in attitude towards this country stems from 'dinner party snobbery'.

WALKING HOME by Simon Armitage (Faber & Faber, £16.99)

Across fells, through blustery wind, Simon Armitage walks the 256-mile route from the Peak District to his home in Kirk Yetholm, on the other side of the Scottish border. An emotional and physical journey, he observes nature at its most raw and beautiful. Giving poetry readings in locations along the way (pubs and sitting rooms), Armitage travels penniless, relying on the kindness of strangers for sustenance. A heartfelt read that reinforces one's love for the natural British landscape.

Edwina Langley

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