Thursday, 16 August 2012

Book Reviews: 17 August


Culture-Books-Aug17-JustLikeProperGrownUps-176JUST LIKE PROPER GROWN-UPS by Christina Hopkinson (Hodder, £13.99)

Marriage, children, and growing up – three large words that the characters in Christina Hopkinson's new book are all trying to find ways to deal with.

There's the gorgeous carefree Tess who, despite nearing 40, is positively glowing. The reason, she explains to her four friends over dinner, is that she's pregnant. And she wants her quartet of pals, all juggling life, the reality of growing up and, dare they say it, becoming an adult, to be godparents.

Lucy takes to her new responsibilities like a duck to water, possibly thanks to her own grown-up life. But is she throwing herself into the role of godparent to distract herself from the cracks in her own seemingly perfect life?

Michael, who clearly adores Tess, has decided to hide his feelings for now, but he soon slips into the role of surrogate father. But will this mean his feelings for Tess will be reciprocated? And then there are Owen and Sierra. Owen can only be described as the 40-something wannabe cad who, shortly after agreeing to be godfather, proposes to yet another unmarriageable fiancée. While Sierra, thanks to her unconventional upbringing, is far too busy falling into bed and 'enjoying' bad sex with even worse men. This new novel from Hopkinson reveals the truth behind the closed doors of modern life – messy relationships, sex, growing old and the fascination both sexes have for youth and beauty. Just Like Proper Grown-Ups is a hugely witty read, which will appeal to almost everyone. After all, who hasn't been preoccupied with those thoughts before?

Melonie Clarke



LUCK: WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT MATTERS by Ed Smith (Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99)

Ed Smith's elegantly written fourth book challenges the Victorian belief that bad luck is invariably the outcome of indolence. As a young 


cricketer, Ed captained Middlesex Cricket Club and played for England. His meteoric career seemed to demonstrate that sportsmen make their own luck through determination, hard graft and perseverance. A freak accident at Lords in 2008 caused him to break his ankle and retire from professional cricket, which forced him to re-evaluate his life.

Smith traces the history of factors outside our control – fate, genes and luck, which infl uence the course of our lives and have challenged philosophers from Socrates to Jung. He backs his theory with fascinating interviews and historical examples. Winston Churchill survived numerous brushes with death, including his train being derailed by murderous Boers, his capture, escape from prison and, in 1931, being mown down and dragged by a taxi in New York. Ninety-four-year-old Bill Green flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain and survived his plane being shot down and his parachute failing to open.

And Smith feels that he is lucky to have met his beautiful wife by chance – on a train that neither of them had intended to catch.

Rebecca Wallersteiner








ARCHIPELAGO by Monique Roffey (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)


Most of us have dreamed of running away to sea, but Gavin Weald has more reason than most. Eleven months ago a flood destroyed his home in Port-of- Spain, Trinidad, robbing him of his wife and baby son. Left alone with his six-year-old daughter, Océan, and his ancient bull terrier – one of the most joyful fi ctional dogs I've encountered – Gavin has tried to rebuild. But suddenly the lure of the sea becomes irresistible.

Monique Roffey's beguiling novel follows this unlikely trio of sailors – man, girl and dog – on their odyssey around the Caribbean's archipelagos and beyond. Roffey writes with fluid ease, her prose intensely evocative: iguanas resemble armoured conquistadors, a sandy beach is like an 'empty street of white velvet'. But if this novel is in part a love letter to the Caribbean, it is also a sharp-eyed dispatch: stray bundles of cocaine float in the water and supersize liners rule the waves. Ultimately, Archipelago is a tenderly drawn and affecting portrait of a father and daughter together, coming to terms with loss and their place in the scheme of things.

Stephanie Cross









A topsy-turvy world



A spirited defence of the Narnia books by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The Narnia books were written by CS Lewis when he was a 'middle-aged bachelor teaching Eng Lit at Oxford'. They have always attracted much criticism – not least from Lewis's contemporary JRR Tolkien who loathed their 'cheerful carelessness with mythology, mixing in Greek fauns and dryads, Norse giants and dwarfs, and then chucking in Father Christmas as well'. More recently, JK Rowling decided they were sexist, but Williams praises Lewis's ability to show that 'everything we take for granted as true is turned upside down... there is always more going on here than we realise'.








Salt tales from the sea

Christopher Hirst reviews a collection of coastal myths and legends


THE FABLED COAST by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood (Random House, £20)

Though commonplace on old maps and maritime tattoos, mermaids are eschewed by modern biology. So what was the 'bonnie lassie, clear in complexion' with 'greenish-blue eyes with arched eyebrows' and a 'fish-like tail' spotted by landowner Alexander Gunn near Cape Wrath on 5 January 1900? Or the creature with breasts and 'straight hair little more than shoulder length' seen off the Moray coast on 15 August 1814 by fi shermen Thomas Johnston and William Gordon? Or the 'exceptionally handsome' female, whose morning ablutions were observed by a family near Aberystwyth in July 1826? There are any number of explanations. The sudden mist known as a sea fret or haar transforms the familiar into the spectral. The seafarer's legendary fondness for alcohol is another possibility. Yet the collectors of these salty tales from Britain and Ireland conclude, 'These creatures are convincingly described. One would give much to know what it was that the men really saw.'

Another item in this epic trawl is real enough to merit a Latin name. Cyanea capillata is the mysterious killer in the 1927 Sherlock Holmes story The Lion's Mane. Actually, this jellyfish is neither so toxic nor graceful as Conan Doyle suggests. When I was stung by one off the Yorkshire coast a couple of years ago, it resembled a lump of old carpet. A lifeguard spattered me with Sarson's vinegar as an antidote to the sting.

Among the briny info, we learn that dried skate was regarded as an aphrodisiac (hence its cheery nickname of 'merry meat') and Hebridean islanders poured buttery porridge into the sea to ensure a good crop of seaweed for fertiliser. The host of maritime taboos included pins, clergymen and, of course, women. Another superstition banning words such as 'crab' and 'salt' made communication difficult. A captain whose crew had been too profligate with the condiments might say to another vessel: 'We need something that we dinnae want to speak aboot.'

As might be expected, the Celtic fringe accounts for over half this fabulous book. Based on a mass of legendary flotsam and jetsam gathered by the great folklorist Jennifer Westwood, who died in 2008, it has been magnificently completed by the Scottish expert Sophia Kingshill. Yarns ranging from the Kraken (probably a giant squid) and Corryvreckan whirlpool to Drake's Drum and the real story of Whisky Galore will transport beached mariners on misty nights.





SYLVIA PANKHURST: THE REBELLIOUS SUFFRAGETTE by Shirley Harrison (Golden Guides Press, £17.99)

Biography of the rebellious suffragette who was rejected by her mother, estranged from her sister Christabel, and a thorn in the side of almost every contemporary leader, including Churchill, Lenin and Hitler. GB Shaw thought she was an 'idiot genius'. Harrison's biography tells a riveting story that will fuel interest in the Pankhurst family after their starring role in the Olympic opening ceremony.

THE GENIUS IN MY BASEMENT by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

Difficult to categorise this story of mathematical genius Simon Phillips Norton, a man who inhabits the basement beneath Masters's flat. Both an account of a deeply eccentric man who lives in semi-darkness, eats tinned kippers and Bombay mix and is obsessed by bus timetables, and an introduction to higher maths. Idiosyncratic, witty and compassionate.

FAR FROM THE EAST END by Iris Jones Simantel (Penguin, £6.99)

Unloving parents and a childhood spent playing in the rubble of bombed-out buildings in wartime Dagenham meant that Simantel's evacuation to Wales was far less traumatic than it might have been. Here she found a nurturing family and an idyllic life that lasted a year. Back in London, how was she to cope? Simantel's memoir won the Saga Life Stories competition.




EDDIE'S TOOLBOX: AND HOW TO MAKE AND MEND THINGS by Sarah Garland (Frances Lincoln Children's Books, £6.99)

Aimed at three- to seven-yearolds, Garland's charming picture book tells the story of a boy who learns about DIY from a new neighbour, but it should also appeal to any grown-ups intrigued by the notion of recycling (all of us, these days). Eddie discovers he can make a boat and a bird table from offcuts as well as how to mend a cup, doll and a scooter. Domestic dramas accompany all this practical advice and there's even the hint of a possible romance between the two households.










CROSSBONES YARD by Kate Rhodes (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99)

Alice Quentin is a psychologist at Guy's hospital and cares for her brother who has never recovered from a breakdown. This follows her entanglement with a serial killer, after discovering a body killed in the signature style of Ray and Marie Benson, clearly modelled on the Wests. Despite her psychology degree and the fact the killer is dancing around with red flags above their head, she fails to spot their identity. Which is a bit of a shame...

THE DEVIL'S CAVE by Martin Walker (Quercus, £18.99)

A bit of A Year In Provence with murder, satanism and fraud thrown in. Bruno Courreges is the local policeman (with special forces training) who charms both locals and ladies, is kind to animals, renovates his house and cooks up a storm. A punt containing the body of a naked woman, black candles and a decapitated cockerel floats through the market one day, and Bruno starts to investigate. With elderly heroes of the Resistance, girlfriends, more food and a puppy, this is comfort reading at its best.

DANDY GILVER & A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES by Catriona McPherson (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99)

The seventh in the series is set in late 1920s Scotland. Dandy is the kind of brisk, eccentric Englishwoman who never seems to die out. Bored with her duties as chatelaine of a Scottish estate, she formed a detective agency with the dashing Alec Osborne. When a childhood friend engages them to sort out her baby sister, Dandy and Alec set off for St Columba's School for Girls, where the corpses pile up. All jolly good fun, with the twists of Margery Allingham and lightheartedness of PG Wodehouse

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