Friday, 20 May 2016

Book reviews: 20 May

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


books-Green-on-BlueGREEN ON BLUE by Elliot Ackerman (Daunt Books, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
The powder keg of switching tribal alliances and clashes that is modern-day Afghanistan is explored with knowledge, insight and compassion in this stunning debut novel.

A highly decorated US Army veteran, Ackerman has firsthand experience of life and combat in the dusty villages, desert plains and mountains of the troubled country – a world he portrays in nuanced detail. He combines this with masterful storytelling, unfolding a tale of loss, coming of age and survival through the eyes of a Pashtun boy. After losing both parents in an attack by a local warlord, and with his brother severely wounded in hospital, young Aziz is recruited into the Special Lashkar, fuelled by a desire for revenge, and to pay for his brother’s hospital care. But after accidentally killing a fellow soldier, he must leave the relative security of military life and fend for himself as a spy, still in the pay of his commander.

Badal and nang (revenge and honour) are the ever-present counterweights in an implacable system of retributive justice, but the moral landscape Aziz must negotiate is far more complex. Caught in the crossfire of a self-perpetuating war, the young protagonist is movingly and convincingly voiced, his quest peppered with unforgettable characters. A gripping story, told with empathy but no sentimentality.

books-MultitudesMULTITUDES by Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
It’s no surprise that the dialogue in this collection of 11 short stories is pitch-perfect: Lucy Caldwell is a playwright as well as the author of three previous novels. But it’s her unerring ability to get beneath the skin of her protagonists – most of them girls on the cusp of adolescence – that is perhaps most impressive.

Set largely in 1980s Belfast, these are rites-of-passage tales, full of dares and sleepovers, strawberry lip balm and primitive home computers. COFFEE TABLE BOOK In ‘Poison’, a floppyhaired French teacher becomes the object of an obsession; in ‘Thirteen’ a friendship falls victim to distance.

Caldwell is superb at evoking the perilously shifting sands of schoolyard cliques, but she also captures those moments when the tectonic plates move deep inside, when lives irrevocably tip and their future courses are forever altered.

Particularly powerful is the final, title story, in which the mother of a sick nine-day-old baby is plunged with him into the nightmare world of intensive care, but this is a consistently affecting and beautifully judged collection, and rarely misses the mark.
Stephanie Cross


books-book-of-the-weekMISFITS AND METAMORPHOSES BLIND WATER PASS by Anna Metcalfe (JM Originals, £10.99; offer price, £9.99)
Surrounded as we are by voluminous novels, sequels and trilogys, I often find myself longing for exquisitely crafted conciseness. The short story, where no word can be wasted and there is no scope for padding, was described by Truman Capote as ‘the most difficult and disciplining form of prose’.

It is a delight to find stories like Metcalfe’s, which achieve that elusive alchemy: creating a compelling world, a mood, a host of provoking questions in a few pages. They revolve around isolation, displacement, miscommunication. An English teacher in a poor Beijing school makes entitled demands to his baffled employers. An immigrant woman driving a taxi in Paris reveals how she plotted her escape to a new life armed with just a map of the city, courage and imagination. In the title story, a Chinese girl supplements her job collecting plastic bottles along a tourist trail by uttering made-up Confucian proverbs to awestruck visitors.

Most characters are in transit, in transition – whether the refugees fleeing zones of conflict in ‘Sand’ and ‘Rock Sparrow’, or the girl emerging from a painful childhood to define herself in ‘Mirrorball’. The stage is always set with tangible domestic detail, but a contrasting undercurrent of human menace or uncanny otherworldliness soon makes its presence felt.

Metcalfe’s prose is precise, deceptively effortless but backlit by arresting images. An assured debut collection by a promising writer.
Juanita Coulson


HOUSE & GARDEN SIXTIES HOUSE: Interiors, Design & Style From The 1960s by Catriona Gray (Conran, £30; offer price, £27)
House & Garden magazine has mined its archives to show us this bold, bright and innovative style. What fun to see interiors by Lionel Bart and Barbara Hulanicki. Formica and plastic were the smart new materials, and popular tones were pink, orange and turquoise.

books-coffee-table-bookStyle in the 1960s: colour was all the rage

David Hicks persuaded the old guard to bring the zest of the new into their country houses: he employed what we now call eclectic design by setting period antiques against strong blue hexagonal carpets and wallpaper. A book to bring back memories and inspire young people when at last the colourful room is back in fashion.
Hugh St Clair



THE EMERGENCY ZOO by Miriam Halahmy (Alma Books, £6.99; offer price, £6.49)
In 1939, 750,000 pets were culled as people believed that they wouldn’t cope with bombs and gas. Thankfully, after war was declared, the mood changed and letters of remorse began appearing in newspapers, with owners apologising to their dead pets.

Set in the days leading up to the Second World War, this is the story of Tilly and Rosie, animal-loving 12-yearolds. When they find out that their pets are to be ‘put down’, they hide them in a derelict hut in the woods. Soon, other children start bringing them their rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, turning their secret den into an ‘emergency zoo’.

A tautly written and compelling novel, it is a stirring defence of animal welfare. It presents complex ideas accessibly, and should appeal to adults as well as children.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD: True Stories Of Imaginery Illnesses by Suzanne O’Sullivan (Chatto & Windus, £8.99; offer price, £8.49)
For a quarter of a century, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan has looked after very sick patients. Her debut book (winner of the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize) is an exploration of the mysterious no-man’s-land between psychological and physical illness. She writes about seven patients who all suffered from extreme symptoms – crippling back pain, chronic fatigue, blindness and paralysis – with no identifiable physical cause. This isn’t uncommon in the NHS: one third of patients visiting their GPs have medically unexplainable symptoms. O’Sullivan believes that ‘psychosomatic disorders are physical symptoms’ brought on by ‘emotional distress’. A compassionate, honest and compelling read, although readers of a hypochondriac disposition are likely to be ringing their GP for an appointment.


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