Friday, 02 October 2015

Book Reviews: 2 October

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


books-first-thing-you-seeTHE FIRST THING YOU SEE by Grégoire Delacourt (W&N, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
How much do our looks define our lives and identity? Can there be desire without the body? Delacourt’s graceful novel asks these questions through an unusual love story.

In a sleepy French village, a young garage mechanic opens his door to find Scarlett Johansson – an unlikely but intriguing premise. Arthur, handsome but frustratedly single, takes in the distraught Hollywood star when she asks for refuge. But although the spitting image of Johansson, she turns out to be a very different person: Jeanine Foucamprez, model and Scarlett impersonator, and survivor of child abuse.

Jeanine is more cursed than blessed with good looks, attracting the wrong sort of male attention. Arthur, who lost his father and sister at a young age, is obsessed with big breasts, but also a lover of poetry. Neither is ‘the first thing we see’, but until they meet no one else has bothered to look beyond the surface.

We are told early on that the span of their life together is brief, but the tragic events that cut short this meeting of damaged souls still come as a shock. And, after an initial promise of redemption, it is something of a low blow.

There is every shade of humour – slapstick, grotesque, black, schoolboy – but this being French writing, it is also a novel of ideas: a meditation on identity, perception and the nature of desire. Quotes from Jean Follain’s poetry are sprinkled liberally but thoughtfully throughout.

At once tender and harrowing, lighthearted and profound, it is a highly original and affecting read.
Juanita Coulson

books-acrcadian-nightsARCADIAN NIGHTS: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling (Gerald Duckworth & Co, £18.99; offer price, £17.09)
Playwright and historical novelist John Spurling’s latest work offers an excitingly fresh take on the myths, gods and heroes of ancient Greece.

By reimagining the classical canon, including the tales of the ill-fated House of Atreus and their travails in the Trojan War, the much-putupon Heracles of 12 labours fame, and Perseus, the saviour of Andromeda, he brings alive some of the most loved, and most feared, figures in ancient literature. Monsters abound too: no book on Greek mythology would be complete without the Minotaur.

Where details have been lost with the passing of time, Spurling injects his own ideas to great effect. Classicists who know their Clytemnestra from their Charon may find some of his creative imaginings hard to swallow, but for those less acquainted, this engaging and accessible book serves as vibrant introductory material.

An excellent read that examines the intricacies of storytelling and the complexities of human nature.
Helena Gumley-Mason


books--book-of-the-weekGRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter (Faber, £10.99; offer price, £9.99)
Ted Hughes’s Crow provides the inspiration for this sui generis prose poem, which was recently nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. Opening in the days following the death of an unnamed woman, it captures the struggles of her husband, a Hughes scholar, and their two sons to adjust to their sudden and devastating loss. The family is not alone for long with their grief: when the bell rings one night, Crow whooshes into their London flat to take up residence.

Alternating between the voices of its central characters – ‘Crow’, ‘Dad’ and ‘Boys’ – this extraordinary narrative takes many forms: a reading comprehension exercise one moment, lists and verses the next. As shapeshifting as the figure of Crow himself – selfproclaimed ‘friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter’ – it is jagged, macabre, fantastical and funny.

True, there are moments when the book doesn’t quite connect, a victim both of its ambition and compression (it runs to just over 100 pages). However, there are many more when it sears, surprises and moves. ‘We were careful to age her, never trap her,’ confides one son, years after his mother’s death. ‘Careful to name her Granny, when Dad became Grandpa. We hope she likes us.’
Stephanie Cross


WALKING ON ART: Explorations In Carpet Design by Deirdre Dyson (Thames & Hudson, £38; offer price, £34.20)
Deidre Dyson, wife of inventor James, is a well-respected modern carpet designer with a shop in London’s King’s Road. Her first book is beautifully produced, with lots of illustrations.
Her designs are both geometric and figurative – there is one lovely rug based on her vegetable garden. What is comparatively rare in books of this nature is that she has written the text herself, rather than employing a writer. Deidre explains the full process of creating multicoloured rugs, and therefore it makes very interesting reading for anyone who loves to work in wool or silk.
Hugh St Clair


AFTERNOON TEA AT THE SUNFLOWER CAFÉ by Milly Johnson (Simon & Schuster, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Johnson returns on top form with another heart-warming tale of plucky women joining forces to overcome adversity. When Connie discovers her husband has been cheating for years, she teams up with a female boss at his company and plans revenge. Much plotting and sisterly nattering follows over tea at the café of the title and – the cherry on the cake – dashing chocolatier Brandon appears, adding a layer of romance.

As we discovered at The Lady’s latest literary lunch, she writes just like she speaks. Heartfelt and optimistic – just the tonic for anyone going through a break-up.

OXFORD DICTIONARY OF HUMOROUS QUOTATIONS edited by Gyles Brandreth (OUP, £10.99; offer price, £9.99)
The writer and broadcaster has updated the classic compendium of hilarity, with 1,000 new quotations, including his personal favourites. Organised by themes (from ‘ambition’ to ‘weddings’ via less obvious candidates like ‘debt’), they come from a variety of sources.

The usual suspects such as Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde return, but more surprising ones appear (an American general: ‘Retreat, hell! We are only attacking in another direction’). The quality suffers in the quest for breadth; some are simply not that funny.

We are told the book will ‘add sparkle to any speech or presentation’ – but if you need to plunder a reference tome to be funny, perhaps you’d better play your speeches straight.


More than pretty pictures, every week we will be casting a culinary and critical eye over the new batch of cookery books. By Victoria Clark

More Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless (WW Norton & Co, £22; offer price, £19.80)
To the English mind Mexican food is often synonymous with Old El Paso adverts and fast food establishments late at night in town centres. Although popular as a concept it is not a cuisine that sits naturally upon the tables of Albion.

Perhaps this cookbook goes some way to explaining why. Apart from the general unavailability of ingredients like agave leaves and tomatillos in the local supermarket, real Mexican food still seems strangely alien despite our pan-cultural approach to cuisine. This is a tome for the brave and the bold who are willing to source unusual foodstuffs in the search for a very different taste in the kitchen.

Courtyard Kitchen: Recipes And Growing Tips For Herbs And Potted Fruits by Natalie Boog (Murdoch Books, £18.99; offer price, £17.09)
In an ideal world we would all be harvesting vegetables in abundance from our own acres and allotments, but this book provides an alternative. Boog has created a herb garden in her courtyard – hanging baskets, stacked pots and window boxes – showing that fresh herbs are available to us all.

However, all the recipes can also be made with supermarket bunches… with delicious and fresh recipes for flourless orange and rosemary cake, pad thai rice and beetroot sorbet as well as herby dressings and storage tips. This is a fresh and inspiring look at the use of herbs.

Tweet us your recipe reads @TheLadyMagazine using #ladyrecipereads

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