Monday, 20 July 2015
Book Reviews: 17 July
The Lady reviews of the best books available to buy or download now
OUT NOWField Notes From The Edge by Paul Evans (Rider, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
This book’s fragmentary style can be rather off-putting at first – it is restless, full of poetic imagery and obscure allusions. But then Evans’s skill as a nature writer, and his clear expertise, knowledge and understanding, come through to great effect.
A discussion of the hypnotic dance of stoats, and its relationship to their infestation with the parasitic nematode Skrjabingylus nasicola, is completely fascinating, while his musings on lapwings and the massive decline in their numbers are deeply affecting. Evans clearly knows his stuff, even if it is seen through the eyes of a poet rather than a scientist.
Although many wildernesses are mentioned, from disused quarries to remote islands, the real strength of Field Notes From The Edge lies in its wonderful description of the natural world. Close to the end is a section on the history of the hybrid species leylandii, and then the hybrid diseases of trees that have become global. There is great sadness, interest and beauty in this book: a very worthwhile read.
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
Upon the death of the mystic Oleander, her relatives inherit a set of seed pods, which may hold important answers about the family’s history. Oleander believed in ‘everything’ – and this is mirrored in the novel’s expansive tone. With dashes of philosophy, fantasy and humour, and very modern lives, the characters fight various demons and confront the seed pods’ spiritual and physical powers.
It is a clever idea, with much potential, but in its delivery, the experimental style is really put to the test. So much is crammed in; however, the different branches of the story complement one another. The most ordinary, everyday actions carry significance, and there are some dazzling, reflective passages shifting between characters, with a blend of reality and imagination.
Yet the resulting variation in levels of detail is, more often than not, ill-judged. It is largely uncertain where the emphasis is really meant to lie. Slang and colloquialisms are used plentifully throughout more than 400 pages – this jars after only a dozen.
What the approach doesn’t lack is novelty. Ultimately, though, there are too many flaws in the writing for the cleverness of the idea to flourish fully.
BOOK OF THE WEEKDevil in the detail
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
Natasha Pulley’s elegantly composed, atmospheric and wholly compelling first novel seeps into the reader’s consciousness in the manner of the miasmic late Victorian London, Oxford and Japan – the settings about which she writes so evocatively.
The year is 1883, and Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraph operator at the Home Office, returns to find an intruder has broken into his flat and, instead of stealing, has left the most mysterious of gifts: a gold pocket watch.
Elsewhere, Grace Carrow, a theoretical physicist, adopts the guise of a man to work in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Connecting them by hitherto unknown forces is the third point of the triangle: the watchmaker of the title, Keita Mori, a wealthy but unassuming Japanese artisan based in London. As their lives intersect, Thaniel will find his loyalties tested.
Pulley’s style is reminiscent of filigree: a decorative work of fine strands woven together into a delicate tracery, which underpins the overarching plot. With music and time at the heart of this intriguing novel, the skilfully rendered interplay speaks volumes about the talent and imagination at work behind such an intricately beautiful piece of writing. A stunning debut by a promising new voice.
COFFEE TABLE BOOKA Dylan Odyssey compiled by Literature Wales (Graffeg, £20; offer price, £18)
Part anthology, part travelogue, and inspired by the people and landscapes he loved, this book brings to life Dylan Thomas’s poetry in the settings that shaped him. His granddaughter, Hannah Ellis, takes us back to unruly, bohemian family life at the Boathouse, in Laugharne, and actor Griff Rhys Jones leads us through the streets of Fitzrovia, where Dylan met his future wife Caitlin Macnamara in a pub, The Wheatsheaf, laying a ‘beerfuddled’ head on her lap and stealing her away from a livid and libidinous Augustus John.
This delightful and lavishly illustrated book leaves you both enlivened and enriched.
LILLIAN ON LIFE by Alison Jean Lester (John Murray, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Waking up next to her latest lover, 50-something Lillian looks back on her life. Taking us from her upbringing in Missouri to her adventurous stints in post-war Munich, Paris and London, and laced with a string of romantic conquests, Lillian’s first-person narrative pulses with sensuality and zest for life.
Food, fashion and fast cars; the pleasures and perils of living abroad; hook-ups and break-ups – she has something witty to say about them all. Her list of lovers may read like Don Giovanni’s catalogue, but she is less sexual predator than explorer, endlessly curious about and fascinated by other people.
What emerges is a voice so quirky and candid, a story so rich in telling detail, that it is easy to forget this is a novel, not a memoir. I wish Lillian were real and could do lunch – she’d be a hoot.
THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock (Myriad Editions, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
It’s 1947 and, in the Mojave Desert, Jim Harrison has just become the fastest man alive. A US Air Force test pilot, he is one of a select few to break the sound barrier. Meanwhile, his wife is about to give birth to their much-longed-for child. But as time passes and Jim is selected to be among the first astronauts, he suffers a loss that sends his world into crisis.
With its Lucky Strike-smoking hero, pithy prose and terse, no-frills dialogue, this classic tale of love and loss is steeped in the American tradition, but is in fact an English novelist’s debut.
Although the idea of the personal and professional in conflict is a familiar one, this big-hearted, atmospheric narrative is charged with the tension of the times and carried along by its compassionately imagined characters. Stephanie Cross
THE LADY'S HOLIDAY READSOur pick of this summer’s essential reading, no matter where you are enjoying a well-deserved break. By Victoria Clark
AT THE BEACH
Redemption Road by Lisa Ballantyne (Piatkus, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Margaret is rescued from the wreckage of her flaming car by a complete stranger who then disappears. As she searches for him to thank him, memories of her forgotten childhood begin to surface and the steady ground upon which her life is based begins to crack. Who is the hideously scarred man who rescued her and what did happen to her in childhood? A touching, if horrifying, study of loss.
IN THE CITY
A Fish Supper And A Chippy Smile by Hilda Kemp (Orion, £6.99; offer price, £6.64)
This memoir of married life in post-war Bermondsey will make the contemporary Londoner’s eyes boggle. Before the sleek glass apartments there was grinding poverty and semi-starvation, but a great sense of community and friendship. Hilda survives through the love of a good man and her job at the fish shop. Gut-wrenching.
IN THE GARDEN
With out The Moon by Cathi Unsworth (Serpent’s Tail, £11.99; offer price, £10.79)
Set in wartime London, this moody and atmospheric tale follows the Blackout Ripper, an attractive airman who preys on ladies of the night, or any other female struggling home by the light of her torch. DCI Greenaway is in pursuit; more suited to tracking down racecourse gangsters, he has been promoted to the Murder Squad. A classic noir novel in every way.
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