Monday, 27 July 2015

Book Reviews: 24 July

The Lady reviews of the best books available to buy or download now


Books-Jul24-NathanielRotschild-176The Unexpected Story of Nathaniel Rothschild by John Cooper (Bloomsbury, £30; offer price, £25)
Why has the name of the first Jewish peer, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Mayer Rothschild, faded from memory in spite of his extraordinary success?

One hundred years after his death, a new biography reveals that Natty destroyed many of his personal papers to hide secrets of his own life and that of his mentor, Disraeli, the first Prime Minister of Jewish heritage, perhaps making him less appealing to biographers.

Born to a controlling mother who accused him of hoarding money, he learnt to conceal his thoughts. Despite her criticism, his financial acumen helped Britain to overcome the crisis of 1914, and he saved Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms. Elected several times to the House of Commons, Natty could not take the Christian oath (and so could not take his seat) until the oath was later modified. An ambitious, demanding read, full of historical insights, bringing this elusive philanthropist back to life.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

Books-Jul24-GreatAuk-176An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass (JM Originals, £10.99; offer price, £9.89)
The atmospheric title story in this debut collection is as economical as its title is long. Narrated by an anonymous sailor who recalls his part in the extinction of the bird, it is unsettling and timely: ‘We killed so many more than we needed, without thinking about what might happen the next year.’ Yet when the birds are gone, leaving their ‘dowager’s hump’ of an island desolate, it still seems easier to blame the auks themselves for their demise than to accept responsibility for their extinction.

Themes of loss and loneliness thread through these tales, whose settings range from a soul-sapping call centre to 16th-century Strasbourg, where an alchemist and doctor tries to comprehend a ‘dancing plague’. Elsewhere, a young student is separated from her lover for the summer, only to find that their reunion fails to follow the script she has imagined. In the standout On Time Travel, a young girl escapes her grief by imagining herself as the protagonist of an Edwardian children’s book. While some of the stories are slender, they all pack a punch.
Stephanie Cross


Books-Jul24-BookOfTheWeek-176Tunes and tensions
THE SONG COLLECTOR by Natasha Solomons (Sceptre, £16.99; offer price, £13.99)
Harry Fox-Talbot, known as Fox, is a famous composer who wants to be left alone. His wife, the famous singer Edie Rose, has recently died; he struggles to communicate with his grown-up daughters and fails to understand his grandchildren. Grief-stricken and unable to write a single note of music, he finds comfort in old memories. The narrative reverts back to 1946, when he was an unworldly young man, before fame and fortune came his way, and when he first met Edie, then his brother’s wife.

Meanwhile, in the present day, he forms a bond with his four-year-old grandson, a boy with communication problems but who is also a gifted piano player. Fox takes the boy under his wing and mentors him. With their inner struggles, they escape into a world of music. As they address their issues, Fox acknowledges the part he played in stealing his brother’s wife, the hurt he has caused, and the secrecy surrounding Edie’s lower-class Jewish background.

Natasha Solomons brings her characters to life with sympathy and understanding for their flaws and shortcomings. She offers engaging descriptions of post-war English life and the old-world charm of a crumbling family estate past its salad days. This novel is a profound story of love, loss and reconciliation. A captivating read that examines the power of music.
Lyndsy Spence


SHIGERU BAN: Complete Works 1985-2015 by Philip Jodidio (Taschen, £34.99; offer price, 31.49)
When Japanese architect Shigeru Ban won the Pritzker Prize in 2014, the judges praised his ‘endless innovation’, ‘infallible eye’ and ‘acute sensibility’. From houses without walls to a cathedral made of cardboard, he has always challenged expectations, but he has also shown a commitment to humanitarian projects, such as the emergency shelters he designed for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


This updated monograph showcases his wide-ranging designs from a career spanning three decades – a perfect balance of environmental awareness, inventive use of repurposed materials and a cutting-edge aesthetic.
Juanita Coulson


LIVING WITH ARABS by Joan Ward (Um Peter, £8.95; no offer price available)
During a holiday to Jordan in 2004, Joan Ward, then a teacher just a year away from retirement, fell in love with the country and decided to move there. She secured a post at the International Community School in Amman and spent her spare time travelling among the Bedouin tribes of Petra, eventually settling with them after retiring.

Her book offers a vivid and intelligent account of the place, the people and their way of life. Ward depicts dusty, makeshift ‘villages’, women’s bravery in the face of extreme gender inequality, tribal weddings and street fights. Like a modern Freya Stark, Ward throws herself into the thick of things. This is no rose-tinted tourist’s travelogue, but an insightful portrait of a complex people.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (Vintage Classics, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
An advertisement in The Times calling for ‘Those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine’ brings together four women at a castle on the Italian Riviera. Lady Caroline is fleeing London and the male attention she despises. Mrs Arbuthnot and Mrs Wilkins are having a break from their unappreciative husbands, while the elderly Mrs Fisher wishes to remember better times. A perfect summer read – light, romantic and witty.
Helena Gumley-Mason

Searching for Grace Kelly by MG Callahan (Sphere, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
New York’s Barbizon Hotel is the most coveted address for small-town girls with big-city ambitions in 1955. Laura arrives from Connecticut for a summer internship at a magazine. Her romantic room-mate, Dolly, is at secretarial school, while Vivian, a feisty red-headed Brit, works as a cigarette girl in a nightclub. We follow their lives as they are swept from the bright lights of Park Avenue and Greenwich Village into the arms of the men who will alter their lives. A light and frothy antidote to Mad Men withdrawal symptoms.


Our pick of this summer’s essential reading, no matter where you are enjoying a well-deserved break. By Victoria Clark

BLACK RABBIT HALL by Eve Chase (Michael Joseph, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
Searching for a wedding venue, Lorna stumbles on Black Rabbit Hall, a wreck of a house in Cornwall. Despite its unsuitability and dragon-like inhabitant Mrs Alton, she is drawn to it. Simultaneously, the story of the summers of 1967 and 1968 is told by Amber, a wild Alton child. As their tales intersect, secrets rise to the surface and events are set in motion. Brilliant.

REQUIEM FOR A SOLDIER by Oleg Pavlov (And Other Stories, £10; offer price, £9.50) Finishing his army service on the bleak steppes of Russia, Alyosha is promised a steel tooth by his commanding officer as a farewell present. While collecting the corpse of a soldier, Alyosha encounters a nightmarish world of crumbling social, moral and physical decay. A brutal and thoughtprovoking book.

DANDY GILVER & THE UNPLEASANTNESS IN THE BALLROOM by Catriona McPherson (Hodder and Stoughton, £19.99; offer price, £15.99) Dandy and her partner Alec are employed to save the day. Sir Percy Stott’s daughter is due to make a good marriage, but won’t stop dancing in preparation for ‘The Champs’ at the Locarno Ballroom. And she has been receiving threats. Wit, flair and caustic social comment. Highly entertaining.

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