Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Reviews: 13 November

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


books-invention-of-natureThe Invention Of Nature: The Adventures Of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero Of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray, £25; offer price, £22)
He has more of the natural world named after him than anyone else: the Humboldt Current in the Pacific, the Humboldt Glacier in Greenland, rivers, mountains, 300 plants and 100 animals. Although now almost forgotten, in the 1850s the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was a celebrity of his age. Born into rigid Prussian society, Humboldt was driven by a deep thirst for knowledge and wanted to know how ‘all forces of nature are interwoven’. After his domineering mother died, he set sail for South America and explored Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, visiting remote places never before studied by a scientist. He paddled up crocodile-infested rivers and scrambled up Ecuador’s mountains collecting plant species to bring back to Europe, many of which were newly discovered.

Handsome and debonair, women flocked to him, but he preferred friendships with intellectual men, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Immanuel Kant. He inspired a young Charles Darwin to set sail on the Beagle. He is, Wulf suggests in her perceptive biography, ‘the founding-father’ of environmentalism, worrying about deforestation and climate change.

This ambitious book restores Humboldt to his rightful place in the pantheon of scientific history. The best chapters describe his exciting travels.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

books-fallen-gloryFallen Glory by James Crawford (Old Street Publishing, £25; offer price, £22.50)
Man’s grandest ambitions and his vindictive ability to destroy are best exemplified in cities and their notable buildings. Architectural historian James Crawford traces the rise and fall of the greatest settlements on earth and their iconic structures, from Babylon and Mycenae to the Twin Towers and the first virtual city. He treats buildings as characters with a life story: birth, battles, dramas and death – an approach that makeswhat could have been a dry, scholarly tome utterly compelling.

Many of the ruins of the ancient world, from Greece and Rome to Mesopotamia, lay undisturbed until just over 100 years ago when the Germans and British led the way in excavating them and removing their treasures to European museums. It is shocking to read that, in our modern age, the US army built airbases over ancient sites in Mesopotamia and allowed pillaging from Iraq’s National Museum.

This is a fascinating read that tells the story of famous lost or ruined buildings, and brings to life the people and societies who erected them, destroyed them and discovered the sites.
Hugh St Clair


books-book-of-the-weekCockfosters by Helen Simpson (Jonathan Cape, £15.99; offer price, £12.99)
In the title story, two women pursue a lost pair of spectacles to the end of the Piccadilly Line. Mission accomplished, they wait at Cockfosters to return to town.

Simpson specialises in such instantly recognisable scenarios, often played for laughs, but hers are slices of life that also get swiftly to the heart of things. ‘I do wonder what happens next,’ the spec-less Julie muses; ‘next’ being that stage when children have flown the nest, parents are becoming dependent and one’s body is starting to flag. ‘It’s annoying not knowing how long we’ve got left, don’t you think?’

Not that Simpson’s protagonists intend to get depressed about any of the above, being both refreshingly resilient and shrewd. Thus, in ‘Kythera’, a woman looks back on her adult daughter’s difficult teenage years: ‘I started to feel quite glum; until, one day, ding! It dawned on me that it was nothing personal.’ And in the hilarious ‘Arizona’, two women discuss the approaching menopause, with the titular US state seeming to provide a hopeful metaphor for the onset of its more settled emotional weather. ‘Already I’m not as quickly moved to tears as I was 10 years ago,’ one character says. ‘Soon I’ll have cried all my tears and only laughter will be left.’

Clever, affecting and frank, but above all, terrifically entertaining.
Stephanie Cross


VERMEER: The Complete Works by Karl Schütz (Taschen, £99.99; offer price, £79.99)
Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) is considered a Dutch master; crowds flock to view his paintings, yet in his lifetime he was barely known outside his native Delft. His portrait Girl With A Pearl Earring, also known as the Dutch Mona Lisa for its inscrutable expression, has inspired a bestselling novel and a Hollywood film.


He painted scenes of domestic life – women cooking, sewing, writing – but managed to imbue these seemingly unambitious subjects with a compelling atmosphere, conveying whole narratives in the tiniest of details. This large-format edition features his entire oeuvre in reproductions of the highest quality.



The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill (Turnpike Books, £12; offer price, £10.80)
Although best known for her children’s books, the late Irish writer Janet McNeill, who died in 1994, also produced adult novels of a rare, painterly beauty. She was a superb chronicler of middle age; its disappointments and absurdities as well as its joys and consolations. First published in 1964, this is perhaps the finest example.

Sarah Vincent, a teacher, looks back on her youth and wonders, is it ‘worse to be 14 and not know any of the answers, or to be 52 and know them all and that they [are] inconclusive?’ McNeill is unflinching about the bodily indignities of age in a youth-obsessed consumer society – there is an excruciating scene in a department store fitting room.

But she also turns her sharp, twinkling eye to late-blossoming love, and to the bonds and barbs of female friendships. A rediscovered classic.
Juanita Coulson

The Book Collector by Alice Thompson (Salt Publishing, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
In this haunting novella, set in Edwardian England, bibliophile Lord Archie Murray marries Violet, a young woman who recently lost her parents. After the birth of their son, Violet suffers terrifying hallucinations, and is committed to the local asylum, from where women have gone missing. Upon her release, she goes to London where her husband’s dark past is exposed – and his plans for her. This tale can be absorbed in one sitting, or longer if one wishes, to prolong the eeriness. A brief, but substantial, horror story.
Lyndsy Spence

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Set in the same
uncanny universe as his
novel The Bone Clocks,
Mitchell’s novella takes
us to a world where the
boundaries between life
and death, mortality
and immortality, are
not so much trespassed
upon as trampled over
with gusto.
It begins in 1979,
with a boy called
Nathan and his mother,
both on Valium, visiting
the house of the title:
accessed through a
shabby dark alley and
an iron door with no
handle and too
grand for its
location, it is
both enticing
and ominous.
The narrative
then moves in
increments until
a shocking
conclusion around
Halloween 2015.
Home to sinister
twins with a predatory
strategy for immortality,
the house is haunted by
nightmarish visions and
the ghosts of ‘guests’
who are summoned
there every nine years…
never to emerge again.
A sequence of
unexplained events
attracts the attention
of Detective Inspector
Gordon Edmonds,
‘local crank’ Fred Pink
and a veritable tableau
of eccentrics.
For too long David
Mitchell has been
known as the ‘author of
Cloud Atlas’. Hereafter
it should be ‘author of
Slade House’, given the
marvellously horrific,
sharp and concise
masterpiece he has
delivered. Its brevity
should not lead the
reader to underestimate
just how much punch
Mitchell’s prose packs.
His fiction is
intoxicating and his
ideas are hauntingly
Martyn Colebrook

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