Thursday, 03 March 2016

Book reviews: 4 March

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


books-yuki-chyanYUKI CHAN IN BRONTE COUNTRY by Mick Jackson (Faber & Faber, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
Following on from his Booker Prize-shortlisted The Underground Man, about an eccentric Victorian aristocrat tunnelling his way across London, Jackson’s similarly quirky new novel charts the adventures of a young Japanese woman in contemporary Yorkshire. On a coach trip to Haworth with a contingent of Brontëmad elderly Japanese ladies, Yuki is no ordinary tourist on a literary pilgrimage. She is retracing the steps of her late mother’s visit 10 years previously, which apparently led to her death. Armed with a handful of photographs, an OS map and her own incisive, lateral-thinking mind (not to mention a few whiskey-and- Cokes), Yuki sets off on an investigative quest to locate the sites of the photographs, in an attempt to solve the mystery of her mother’s downfall.

The Brontës’ parsonage, the Yorkshire moors and the minutiae of everyday English life are seen afresh through Yuki’s startlingly unique viewpoint. Her musings are by turns lyrical, hilarious, poignant and slightly trippy (free-diving, underground airports and the changing properties of snowflakes are recurring obsessions). The narrative voice assumes the protagonist’s youthful eccentricity and sustains it throughout, which occasionally feels strained but nonetheless adds up to a charming and utterly absorbing meditation on grieving and identity.
Juanita Coulson

books-portableThe Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Fourth Estate, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
Veblen Amundsen- Hovda struggles enormously: she is intelligent, warm and plucky, yet bottles up even more than she realises. She treats her impossibly neurotic mother with kindness. She translates from Norwegian, empathises with an uneaten bean, and communicates with squirrels. Her fiancé Paul is a neurologist facing a dubious venture in his career, and trying to rise above an unconventional childhood.

Their future together seems awkwardly but rather lovably destined, with difficulties to be tackled and sometimes overcome. The humour is savage, quick-fire conversation plentiful, and the satirical is constantly juxtaposed with the lyrical.

It is difficult to pin this book down. It lacks a clearly defined aim, but is infused with eccentricity – the cause of both its successes and its failures. Large parts of the story, if not the writing, are not strong enough to sustain the free-ranging quirkiness, and this prevents it from being as memorable as it might be. A lasting vitality is missing from the heart of this novel, which is still clever, entertaining and interesting – but with an original style that, sadly, seems not to reach its full potential.
Philippa Williams


books-book-of-the-weekAlone in a crowd
THE LONELY CITY: Adventures In The Art Of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Canongate, £16.99; offer price, £14.99)
It has happened to us all – the sense of being deep in a crowd and yet totally alone. There is perhaps no place more lonely than a city, where countless fleeting interactions only emphasise a lack of more meaningful connection, and perhaps no lonelier city than New York. And that is where Olivia Laing found herself adrift following the disintegration of a love affair.

In this intensely involving and affecting book, Laing’s own experience forms the basis of an exploration of the state of loneliness itself. Art is at the heart of her inquiry, and in particular artists such as Edward Hopper, whose work spoke to her situation. There are also many unfamiliar names here, such as that of Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor and ‘outsider artist’ whose boarding-house room, when he was forced to vacate it, was found to be crammed with extraordinary paintings.

Laing’s superb study extends far beyond art criticism. Isolation, she makes clear, is not just a product of personal circumstances. Wider structural forces contribute: that’s what makes it such a hard trap from which to escape. Yet she ultimately argues that loneliness is nothing to be frightened of. It is natural, part and proof of life. ‘What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity,’ she writes. Amen to that.
Stephanie Cross


books-coffee-table-bookPainting the Modern Garden: Monet To Matisse by Monty Don and Ann Dumas (Royal Academy Publications, £48; offer price, £43)
Accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy, and with essays by various authors, this gorgeous book explores the relationship between Impressionist painters and their gardens. Monet declared he ‘owed his painting to flowers’. He was not alone: during the year Van Gogh spent in an asylum, he found solace in painting sunflowers and irises, using strong colours to express his violent emotions. In contrast to Monet’s meticulously ordered garden at Giverny, Bonnard preferred a more natural ‘jardin sauvage’. Kitchen gardens were beloved by Pissarro, while Renoir preferred untamed ‘verdant retreats’. All of them relished their garden’s stillness and silence. A sumptuously illustrated study of the Impressionists’ world and their techniques.
Rebecca Wallersteiner


The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman (Aardvark Bureau, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
Telling the story of Jean Batten, known as ‘the Garbo of the skies’, Kidman presents her biographical study as historical fiction. From her childhood as a clever girl from a broken home, through her ambition to challenge the male attitudes of the day, Batten rises to become an aviatrix star.

Courted by royalty and Hollywood actors, she receives honours and breaks aviation records before falling out of the public gaze. After a series of setbacks, she becomes a recluse and dies in penury in Majorca, where she is buried in a pauper’s grave. A thrilling tale of adventure and heartbreak – Kidman has triumphantly brought this inspirational heroine to life.
Lyndsy Spence

THE HOUSE AT BAKER STREET by Michelle Birkby (Pan Macmillan, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Ever wondered what Sherlock Holmes’s landlady made of the goings-on at 221b and her infuriatingly smart lodger? The latest offering in a burgeoning trend for novels focusing on overshadowed female characters from wellknown literary works, this entertaining and intelligent story gives Mrs Hudson a voice of her own. From the kitchen of the famous house, she joins forces with Watson’s wife Mary to solve a case Holmes has turned down. Cleverly incorporating muchloved elements of the original Conan Doyle novels, this is a witty feminist take on the crime classic. No spoilers here – suffice to say the ladies emerge as the brains of the outfit, just as we suspected all along. JC


Spanish recipes for those without much spare time as well as budding gourmets. By Juanita Coulson

QUICK AND EASY SPANISH RECIPES by Simone and Inés Ortega (Phaidon, £19.95; offer price, £17.95)
The late Simone Ortega, author of the seminal 1972 cookery bible 1080 Recipes, was Spain’s answer to Delia Smith. In this cheerful, user-friendly book, her daughter Inés has collected 100 of her most straightforward recipes for the time-poor cook. From the perfect tortilla española to spicy patatas bravas and the Hispanic version of crème brûlée, crema catalana, all the dishes featured can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, without compromising on freshness or flavour. Even a kitchen novice will be able to impress guests with a proper Spanish feast, guaranteed to bring cheer and a sunny holiday mood to the dreariest of winter evenings.

ARZAK SECRETS by Juan Mari Arzak (Grub Street Publishing, £30; offer price, £27)
At the other end of the spectrum, those with unlimited time and a passion for food as edible art will love this exclusive peek into the kitchens of one of Spain’s most acclaimed restaurants. Sculptural, delicate and as visually striking as they are exquisite, Arzak’s dishes epitomise craftsmanship and creativity. He has been hailed as ‘the most important figure in Spanish cooking’ by none other than super-chef Ferran Adrià. Combining the theatricality of a matador with the intricacy of a bailaora’s footwork and the country’s poetic flair, these recipes are perhaps best seen as sources of inspiration, although braver cooks may wish to try them at home.

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