Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book reviews: 18 March

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


books-anatomy-of-soldierANATOMY OF A SOLDIER by Harry Parker (Faber, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
What an extraordinary debut this is. The character at its centre is a young British Army captain, Tom Barnes, who experiences life-changing injuries after being blown up in combat. But Barnes is not the narrator of his own story (which echoes author Harry Parker’s own).

Instead, the voices we hear belong to objects involved in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the blast. These short accounts range from that of a battlefield tourniquet to those of the prosthetic legs with which Barnes is fitted when he returns to the UK, but their clever, non-chronological ordering ensures that the tension is maintained throughout.

What really impresses about Parker’s conceit, however, is the way in which it provides a window into Barnes’s ordeal while also holding readers at a distance – Barnes is, after all, a Captain, and conscious of maintaining his British stiff upper lip, something that makes the glimpses we do get of his suffering even more potent.

That despair does not win out is in keeping, too – and among the many reasons why this book leaves such an indelible impression.
Stephanie Cross

books-few-days-in-countryA FEW DAYS IN THE COUNTRY AND OTHER STORIES by Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
Best known for her internationally acclaimed novels, the elusive but brilliant Australian author Elizabeth Harrower is also a master of the short story. Collected here for the first time, Harrower’s tales conjure up immersive worldswithin- worlds, from the painful explorations of girlhood to the life-affirming celebrations of friendship.

Her quietly moving and painterly Alice appeared in The New Yorker last year. It was a delight to find the story again in this book, a long-overdue showcase of Harrower’s short fiction.

The girl of the title grows up in Depressionera rural Australia, under the shadow of an overbearing mother, spoilt brothers and later hopeless husbands – only finding her own voice in old age. Both tender and searing, Alice is a brilliant character study.

Elsewhere, another girl is packed off to live with relatives under duress. Her suppressed anger and anguish boil over after an encounter with a sinister dwarf and giant double act – the pair’s insincerity and powerplay of scale mirroring her own twisted relationship with the adult world.

Wide-ranging in mood and style, this is a virtuoso but warm-hearted display of the genre.


books-book-of-the-weekPeering into the abyss
VERTIGO by Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories, £8.99; offer price, £8.49)
Walsh’s collection of short stories has the explosive force of well-crafted poems: the same economy of means, the condensed power of unexpected imagery, the gaps through which meaning and feeling seep.

Her characters are mothers, daughters, wives and observers, delving into the emotional storms beneath the surface of everyday life. As they grapple with ageing or dying parents, sick children and unfaithful husbands, their detached observations contrast with their high-voltage emotions that, because only ever implied or elided, are all the more affectingly conveyed.

A straying husband’s virtual mistresses are ‘voices trapped on a flat plane, damaged, heard under water’. Divided worlds and fractured selves are a recurring theme, as is the fraught bond of mothers and daughters.

There is a slow-motion, cinematic quality to the stories – shifts in perspective contribute to a heady sense of alienation. A chiaroscuro of wry wit and humorous compassion, Walsh’s prose is incisive and destabilising. Her lens zooms into her characters’ inner worlds, revealing the ugly detail we’d rather not see, but proving that, in the act of observing, there is beauty and meaning.

Short and sharp as lightening bolts, these stories continue to bathe your world in a weird light long after their end. Juanita Coulson


BOTTICELLI REIMAGINED by Mark Evans and Stefan Weppelmann (V&A Publications, £40; offer price, £35)

books-coffee-table-bookThe Renaissance of Venus, 1877, by Walter Crane

Accompanying the exhibition at the V&A, this exquisitely illustrated book pays homage to Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s timeless vision of female beauty. It traces the history of European fascination with Botticelli and his Venus, which has influenced artists as diverse as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jeff Koons.

Throughout the book, Botticelli’s goddess of love rises everywhere from her giant shell: on gowns by Dolce & Gabbana, projected onto the back of René Magritte’s bowler-hatted man and even on Lady Gaga’s album cover. This book sheds light on the artist’s techniques and our tireless fascination with his dreams – but we learn next to nothing about the man himself, as elusive and mysterious as his eternal Venus. A visual feast.
Rebecca Wallersteiner


LABRADOR by Ben Fogle (William Collins, £8.99; offer price, £8.49)
Labradors are the nation’s favourite dog breed, loved for their trainable, affectionate and easy-going temperament. They are also, as writer and presenter Ben Fogle reveals in his history of the breed, the world’s most popular and versatile.

Exploring their origins in Canada, Fogle unearths incredible exploits by early specimens, questions the belief that they are all related to just one dog, and studies the development of the breed and its colour variations.

As well as family pets par excellence, we encounter working Labradors on rescue missions, as trusted guide dogs for the blind, in the shooting field and at war.

Anecdotes about Fogle’s own Labrador, Inca, who accompanied him on many of his adventures, add a personal touch.

A charming book to read with your Labrador curled at your feet – or your spaniel running rings round you: the choice is yours.

THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, £8.99; offer price, £8.49)
The mystery of a lost love is at the centre of this cleverly structured and deeply affecting tale of betrayal and reconciliation. Julian, quite aptly a Milton scholar, has lost his own version of paradise. Grieving after his partner Julia has left, and unable to work, he looks back on their past.

He was a student when they met, she a married older woman. Odds and sensible advice were against them, but they ignored it all. He became a respected writer, and purchased his childhood home, Firdaws, in a bid to recreate his remembered idyll. But their daughter contracts a life-threatening illness, and Julia has been keeping a secret.

In the novel’s second half, we see their story through Julia’s eyes: the full scale of her deception and the reasons for the break-up are revealed. With impeccable plotting and arresting imagery, Samson has produced a compelling second novel.


If you’d like to be more adventurous in your cooking, these books will bring the world into your kitchen. By Juanita Coulson


A KITCHEN IN FRANCE: A Year Of Cooking In My Farmhouse by Mimi Thorisson (Hardie Grant Books, £25; offer price, £22)

Thorisson’s move from Paris to a small town in the Médoc transformed her approach to cooking: along with new recipes, she learnt to grow her own vegetables and buy seasonal produce from farmers’ markets. Structured around the seasons, her book offers a taste of rural France with minimum fuss and maximum flavour. Evocative images of her country kitchen, local markets and beautifully presented food make one long for a French holiday. Interspersed with her reflections about family and food, the recipes are simply fabulous. Roast chicken with crème fraiche and herbs followed by sugared almond tart would make the perfect Easter lunch.

THE MODERN PANTRY by Anna Hansen (Ebury Press, £25; offer price, £22)
It’s difficult to get excited about ‘fusion’ cooking, but Hansen proves that the rather overused East-West formula can be revived in the right hands. Her two restaurants in London serve thoughtful dishes that balance British ingredients with Asian flavours. Her first cookbook advocates a multicultural store cupboard that will expand the home cook’s horizons – if you have adventurous ingredients to hand, there is no excuse to get stuck in a rut. The condiments section is particularly good: saffron and caraway pickled rhubarb will give any dish a lift. With refreshingly unpretentious photography and a list of stockists, this book is practical as well as elegant.

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