Friday, 15 April 2016

Book reviews: 15 April

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


books-israelUNEXPECTED ISRAEL: STORIES YOU NEVER READ IN THE MEDIA by Ruth Corman (Gefen Publishing House, £29.50; offer price, £25)
Beautifully illustrated with photographs by the author, Unexpected Israel brings to life a rich cast of characters that you would normally never meet. Corman has a genius for spotting people who are different (often eccentric) and getting them to tell her their stories: from an Ethiopian nonagenarian nun to a boxing champion from Uzbekistan. My favourite involves the Hai Bar Nature Reserve, established in the 1960s to repopulate Israel with extinct wildlife species mentioned in the Bible. They have successfully bred roe deer, fallow deer, Egyptian vultures and fish eagles – but were not quite so successful with ostriches.

One of the most inspirational people in the book, Sister Tsegue- Mariam, lives in a convent in Jerusalem and is a cult figure in music circles, whose ‘smile seems to light up the dark, tiny cell in which she lives’. Despite her age, every day this remarkable woman composes new pieces in her head before committing them to paper.

Whether she is photographing owls or oranges, caviar or camels, soldiers or stallholders, Corman’s photos and stories have an unpretentious freshness and exuberance. This book is a feast for the eyes: a very different Israel from the negative image we usually see in the media.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

books-churchillALL BEHIND YOU, WINSTON: CHURCHILL’S GREAT COALITION 1940-45 by Roger Hermiston (Aurum Press, £20; offer price, £17)
Coalition governments have had a bad press recently, associated with the failure of one party to win a majority. When the Second World War really got going with the invasion of France in May 1940, the prospect of defeat in battle, rather than at the ballot box, led to the fall of Chamberlain’s government.

Winston Churchill formed a coalition comprising politicians from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties as well as distinguished technocrats. This was a genuine government of all talents that steered Britain from defeat in France to defeating Germany.

Coalitions are as much about people as the events they tackle: in this highly readable account, Hermiston describes the cabinet members and how they co-operated and bickered through five years of war. The ideological differences and personality clashes between the large egos of Bevin and Morrison, Beaverbrook and Attlee are described in fascinating detail. Less convincing is the plotline that the Conservatives concentrated on winning the war, while Labour looked towards building a welfare state afterwards. This reductionist view misses the opportunity to explore who really understood strategy and its implementation.

A great book, but journalism rather than history.
Stephen Coulson


book-of-the-weekCaste-crossed lovers
BLACK TAJ by Mohini Kent (Hope Road, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
The sizzling cauldron of religious and caste tensions that is 1990s India is the setting for this utterly absorbing novel – at once a searing social critique, love letter to the country and sweeping romance.

Sami, emerald-eyed daughter of a wealthy Hindu family, is about to make a choice that will shake up her world. Single at 25, she rejects the traditional arranged marriage. At her cousin’s wedding, she meets handsome doctor Imran Chaudhry, who would be a perfect match except for one thing: he’s a Muslim. As they work together to improve conditions in the city’s slums, their controversial romance unfolds.

Imran is the grandson of a deposed Nawab, but royal blood cannot placate Sami’s formidable grandmother, an acid-tongued matriarch who cannot even bear to utter the word Muslim. With her allegedly liberal parents opposing the match too, Sami must redefine her identity in a clash between tradition and modernity.

Kent paints a vibrant picture of modern India, a place of contrasts where the wounds of partition are far from healed. Leavened with humour while exploring serious issues, her novel sizzles with dramatic scene changes. Vibrant descriptions of saris, jewels and food make it an immersive read: all the pleasures of travelling around India minus the Delhi belly.


FASHION DESIGNERS A-Z by Valerie Steele (Taschen, £44.99; offer price, £39.99)
Drawing on the permanent collection of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, this informative and sumptuously illustrated book presents a panoramic view of great fashion from the past 100 years. The work of creative geniuses such as Azzedine Alaïa, Cristobal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel is showcased in beautiful detail and explored in essays by the museum’s curators.


More than 500 garments are featured, each of them chosen not only because they are exquisite but because they somehow condense each designer’s philosophy and vision. From the timeless chic of Dior to the avant-garde creations of Comme des Garçons, this is a stylish tour de force through a century’s worth of high fashion.


THE GODWITS FLY by Robin Hyde (Persephone Press, £14; offer price, £12)
Iris Wilkinson (1906- 1939), who wrote as Robin Hyde, was relatively unknown during her lifetime. A poet and journalist, she had a modest following in her native New Zealand. This funny, lyrical and autobiographical novel tells the story of Eliza, growing up in a troubled, working-class family in early 20thcentury Wellington. It paints a fascinating picture of the period, detailing what people ate, read and talked about (the Boer War), the clothes they wore and their longing for ‘the old country’.

Like a human godwit (a long-legged wading bird), Eliza yearns to make ‘the long migration’ north, back to a largely idealised world of country cottages, ‘primroses’ and ‘robins in the snow’. Hyde made it to England, but tragically killed herself in Notting Hill Gate. Her writing fell out of fashion and was rediscovered in the 1970s – she is now considered of New Zealand’s greatest writers.

The style is sometimes more akin to poetry than fiction. Enchanting.

KEEP ME POSTED by Lisa Beazley (Text Publishing, £10.99; offer price, £9.49)
Beazley’s debut novel explores family, relationships and communication in the digital age. Sisters Sid and Cassie Sunday were once inseparable. But with Cassie in New York and Sid in Singapore, they feel further apart than ever before, even when they communicate by email. Sid suggests that they resort to old-fashioned letter writing and very soon their relationship starts to revive. This charming if sometimes slow read is an uplifting and laugh-out-loud piece of writing – stick with it for the dramatic twist at the end.
Helena Gumley- Mason

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