Monday, 04 January 2016

Book Review: 1 January

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


books-little-aunt-craneLittle Aunt Crane by Geling Yan (Harvill Secker, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
China during the years of Chairman Mao is the setting for this evocative and moving novel. Following devastation in Manchuria in the late stages of the Second World War, a Japanese girl, sole survivor of a mass suicide in her defeated village, is sold by traffickers to a wealthy Chinese family.

Her position in the household is complex, but she soon becomes indispensable. The family’s only son is torn, politically and personally, between his feelings for the newcomer and for his wife. And against all odds, the two women form an unexpected bond. Years and events unfold quickly, but in the characters, transformations develop gradually, revealed occasionally through inner perspectives or outward bursts of long suppressed feeling.

Yan captures the mood of the times deftly. Upheaval and a sense of injustice are prevalent to the last line. A beautifully crafted, atmospheric novel that explores the effects of war on private lives, and the unlikely bonds formed across national and domestic fault lines.
Philippa Williams

books-margaret-thatcherMargaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two:
Everything She Wants by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, £30; offer price, £24)

Fast-paced and admiring, but not sycophantic, part two of Moore’s biography of the ‘Iron Lady’ begins in June 1982, shortly after Britain’s victory in the Falklands, and ends with her third general election win in 1987. Only the toughest survived in Thatcher’s cabinets: this was the era of tax cuts, the miners’ strike, privatisation, the Anglo-Irish agreement and glasnost.

Although she shared a crisp dress sense with the Queen, they did not get on. She charmed Gorbachev and Reagan, but also made enemies – the IRA tried to assassinate her during the 1984 Conservative Party conference. Thatcher authorised this biography on condition that its publication was delayed until after her death. This has given Moore access to private papers, archives and interviews with people who knew her. Even if your knowledge of 1980s politics is sketchy, this is a fascinating, if dense, read. Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher was a towering political figure who changed the course of history. Pity she’s not around today to deal with Isis.
Rebecca Wallersteiner


books-book-of-the-weekBEYOND THE FELL WALL by Richard Skelton (Little Toller, £12; offer price, £10.80)
The name Richard Skelton may be familiar from Robert Macfarlane’s celebration of language and landscape, Landmarks. Skelton, a musician, artist and writer, is, like Macfarlane, a word hoarder, although one who – despite here compiling an enchanting five-page glossary of upland words – knows well their inability to do justice to ‘the occult language of hill and meadow’.

Skelton’s territory is Cumbria and in this slim volume he takes as his point of departure the dry stone walls that knit the fells into their distinctive patchwork. While these structures may seem timeless, Skelton reminds us of their relative youth, recalling an earlier age when boundaries were beaten and, before that, when trees occupied the slopes and wolves prowled the hills.

This, however, is no lament for a landscape free of human taint. Skelton’s walls have a character and magic entirely of their own: dividing lines, yes, but also private shrines, nesting places, look-outs and the canvas for magnificently garish displays of lichen. The wall, reflects Skelton, ‘is living, and lived in. It is as much composed of cavities, tunnels and vents – of breath itself – as it is bodied by stone.’

Part meditation, part prose poem, and strikingly illustrated throughout, this study is both intimate and highly evocative.
Stephanie Cross


100 CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS by Hans Werner Holzwarth (Taschen, £34.99; offer price, £31.49)

If you can’t tell your Koons from your Kapoor, this is the perfect introduction to contemporary art: a comprehensive survey in the form of a stylish, twovolume, slip-cased edition. Full-page illustrations feature some of the most exciting and iconic images in contemporary visual arts, from the provocative work of Chinese artist and social activist Ai Weiwei to Beatriz Milhazes’s vibrant, floralinspired abstracts. There is Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, of course, but also photographer Darren Almond’s haunting moonlit landscapes: in short, something for everyone, even those who may not think contemporary art is quite their thing.
Juanita Coulson



WITTGENSTEIN JR by Lars Iyer (Melville House, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
The campus novel gets a wildly inventive makeover: at once satirical bildungsroman, poignant love story and angry howl against the rampant monetisation of contemporary British intellectual life. Set in the world of the still glittering but increasingly nihilistic young things of Cambridge, it is told by undergraduate Peter, as he and his friends attend the seminars of a suicidal philosopher they nickname Wittgenstein Jr for his relentlessly gloomy, obsessive pursuit of serious philosophy. Iyer’s pastiche of Wittgenstein nods to FR Leavis, but the despair is acutely contemporary.
Steve Barfield

The Celebration Husband by Maya Alexandri (TSL Publications, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
In Africa during the Second World War, Baroness Tanya von Brantburg is running intelligence missions for British forces. She meets a German who implores her to betray the British and, to complicate matters further, a former lover is determined to win her back. Amongst the complexities of love and war, she becomes involved in a rescue operation on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It is a promising plot, but unfortunately the prose is too modern and the characters lack the polish of old-world aristocrats. Still, a fun read for those who enjoy the antics of the Happy Valley set.
Lyndsy Spence

This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (Vintage, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
The award-winning Danish author takes us on a listless journey into the dissatisfied life of its protagonist, Dorte. A drifting 20-something, Dorte’s passivity paves the way for an array of characters that flit in and out of her life. Helle’s stripped-back, frank prose reinforces the emotional detachment of Dorte’s life. Strangely absorbing, even though at times we’d like to slap its indecisive anti-heroine into action.
Lilly Cox

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