Friday, 26 February 2016

Book Reviews: 26 February

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


books-black-notebookThe bLack notebook by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti (MacLehose Press, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
French novelist Modiano has won just about every big award, from the Prix Goncourt to the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature – but it’s only since he won the latter that most of his works have been translated into English.

In this one, a reclusive, ageing writer looks back on his youth through the gauzy layers of memory. As Jean walks the streets of Paris’s less salubrious quarters, he begins to piece together events from his 20s. His road map is a notebook from the period, full of scribbled names and dates. At the centre of his quest is a mysterious woman he has loved and lost. Dannie (one of many aliases, as it turned out) once asked him casually, ‘What would you say if I’d done something really serious?’ Only decades later, with Dannie long disappeared, does the full extent of that ‘something’ emerge.

Modiano’s darkly seductive prose draws the reader into a trancelike state, not unlike Jean’s meditative walks. His reminiscences are played out in seedy cafes and dimly lit hotels – crepuscular, liminal spaces where past and present seem to coexist. More an extended prose poem than a novel with a traditional narrative arc, it is a masterful exploration of identity and memory.
Juanita Coulson

books-graceGrace: The Remarkable Life Of Grace Grattan Guinness by Michele Guinness (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99; offer price, £16.99)
Given the subject, one could be forgiven for thinking this book is a religious text. It tells the story of Grace Guinness, who at 27 married the 68-year-old speaker and evangelist Henry Grattan Guinness.

Travelling the world, the Guinnesses spread the word of God, while experiencing the upheavals of childbirth, death and disease. Widowed after less than a decade, Grace was left with two sons and no money. Ignoring social conventions dictating that a well-bred woman should not work, she opened her own hotel, toured the country giving talks and wrote religious texts. An anomaly in any era, due to her religious views, she became an early champion of Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, heralded the suffragettes and spoke openly about taboo subjects such as birth control.

Told through Grace’s diaries, letters and notebooks, Michele Guinness’s engaging narrative is written in the first person from her protagonist’s point of view. This is the story of a pioneering woman who not only challenged society’s ideals, but in spite of her famous surname, lived by her own rules. An inspiring read.
Lyndsy Spence


books-book-of-the-weekCreature discomforts
BEING A BEAST by Charles Foster (Profile Books, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
Charles Foster is a barrister, a vet and a Fellow at the University of Oxford. In the course of this book he also has serious stabs at becoming a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer and a swift.

Why? Well, it’s partly a case of why not – after all, as Foster points out, these creatures are family, give or take a few million years and the vagaries of evolution. Nevertheless, tapping into one’s inner Tarka isn’t easy: for a start, otters consume around 20 per cent of their body weight each day, which in human terms translates to 88 Big Macs. Foster, however, is keen to get to grips with a more authentically animal diet – if you’ve ever wanted to know what an earthworm tastes like, this is the book for you.

Of course, he fails miserably in most of his (often stomach-churning) endeavours, but the more he fails, the more interesting his quest becomes. Repeatedly he comes up against the big questions – consciousness, empathy, language, morality – and in so doing, insists that the reader reflect on them too.

Bristling, barking and frequently hilarious, this book features something on virtually every page that will pull you up short – then send you out into the world a little more curious about what it means to be human, a little more alive. Stephanie Cross


THE SEA CHART: The Illustrated History Of Nautical Maps And Navigational Charts (second revised edition) by John Blake (Conway, £25; offer price, £21.50)
Monsters, mermaids and marauding pirates burying treasure on remote islands all spring to mind at the mention of sea charts. Unlike those on land, sea routes are continuously altered by the winds and tides, and to be useful for mariners, charts had to reflect these factors.


Beautifully illustrated and covering the history of marine navigation from the 13th to the 20th century, John Blake’s voyage starts with the earliest charts – little more than lists of ports around the Mediterranean – before proceeding to voyages of discovery to the Indies, the Pacific and around the world. A must for lovers of antique maps and maritime history.
Stephen Coulson


Jumpin ’ Jack Flash : David Litvinoff And The Rock’N’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim (Jonathan Cape, £16.99; offer price, £14.99)
Witty, furtive and well connected, Litvinoff befriended rock stars, aristocrats and gangsters alike. An elusive man, he once shared a lover, and a flat, with Ronnie Kray. Born into a Jewish family in the East End, he used his lightning wit to move across 1960s bohemian London. A Lucian Freud lookalike (and sitter), he shared the artist’s reputation as someone ‘never to be crossed’. But the two men fell out, and it was rumoured Freud took out a contract on him.

This is an absorbing account of Swinging London’s underworld, involving interviews with Marianne Faithfull, Eric Clapton and Bob Geldof, who now owns the Chelsea house where Litvinoff killed himself. Not for the faint-hearted. Rebecca Wallersteiner

LITTLE APPLE by Leo Perutz, translated by John Brownjohn (Pushkin Vertigo, £7.99; offer price, £7.49)
Russia in the aftermath of the Great War is the setting for this vertiginously paced story of revenge and derring-do. Released from a POW camp in Siberia, young Austrian officer Georg Vittorin returns to Vienna, but cannot settle into his comfortable old life – secure job, loving fiancée – until he fulfils his pledge to pay back the sadistic camp commander Selyukov.

Setting off in late 1918, he hunts down his elusive quarry in an action-packed pursuit through a country torn apart by revolution and civil war, and the war-ravaged capitals of Europe. But his obsession for revenge destroys the lives of his family and fiancée. Despite a somewhat heavy-handed moral message and allegorical undertones, which feel dated, this is a gripping portrayal of a conflicted man and his time.


This week we celebrate two thoroughly British passions, the Aga and the allotment. By Juanita Coulson
THE COMPLETE AGA COOKBOOK by Mary Berry and Lucy Young (Headline, £25; offer price, £21)
No other appliance conjures up images of home comforts and country conviviality quite like the Aga. The nation’s favourite cake-mistress has been closely involved with the brand for over 30 years, with two previous Aga books to her name. Here, she teams up with long-time assistant Lucy Young to produce the ultimate Aga bible – for seasoned users and newcomers alike. Favourite recipes get a revamp, and there are plenty of useful tips, such as melting chocolate on the back shelf and making slow roasts overnight. And those of us sadly lacking in the Aga department aren’t excluded: all the recipes can be adapted for conventional cookers. A classic.

THE ALLOTMENT COOKBOOK by Pete Lawrence (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
Largely introduced around the turn of the last century to enable the urban poor to feed themselves, allotments have become a distinctive feature of British life across the social spectrum. Whether you are one of the many thousands of Britons who plough their own furrow, or are simply interested in a more sustainable way of eating, this book offers plenty of ideas for cooking with seasonal, local produce. Allotments may be a national obsession, but the recipes have a predictably foodie Continental feel. From red pepper and feta fritters to panna cotta with rhubarb, they are hardly original – but this is more about a cultural phenomenon than groundbreaking cookery.

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