Book reviews: 5 October
A POSSIBLE LIFE by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, £18.99)
According to the author, this is a book concerned with 'the limitations of human identity'. Neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, it's perhaps best described as five variations on that theme, some more successful than others. The opener, 'A Different Man', features Geoffrey Talbot, a linguist-turnedschoolmaster- turned Second World War secret agent, who experiences first-hand the full horror of the Holocaust. It's perhaps the least successful episode in this intriguing book, sketched too coolly for comfort.
The final part, which focuses on American singer Anya, is the most enjoyable, thanks to some cracking dialogue. But it's ideas that dominate this book, and while Sebastian Faulks is a masterful storyteller, these narratives are a little too schematic.
THE OTHER MITFORD: PAMELA'S STORY by Diana Alexander (The History Press, £16.99)
Is there anything left to say about the Mitfords? The reminiscences collected here in this latest example of Mitfordia, a life of Pamela, the second, hitherto undocumented, sister suggest not. Pamela, born in 1907, three years after Nancy, did not write witty novels, fall in love with Hitler or run off to war in Spain with her cousin. Instead Pam, known as 'woman' in the family for her tendency towards nurturing, grew things, ran a farm, and occupied a stalwart place in the background as her extraordinary siblings ranged across Europe and the politics of the period.
She suffered from polio as a child, married a scientist, was admired by Betjeman, and spent a contented old age at Woodfield House in the Cotswolds, which is where Alexander met her: 'for 12 very happy years I worked as her cleaning lady and also became her friend'.
Alexander, not a proper cleaner, but a 'resting' journalist, had no idea that Pamela Jackson (her married name) was one of the Mitford sisters. And her book reveals very little about Pamela, or anything about the Mitford family, that one hadn't already gleaned from her sisters' diaries, letters and novels. Presumably, this is because Pamela, uniquely in a family that were largely 'off their heads' to quote their long-suffering mother, was relatively normal and therefore unremarkable.
This is one for Mitford collectors, perhaps, rather than those in search of new gems.
BETWEEN THE LINES: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Victoria Pendleton (HarperSport, £20)
Unlike many of her rivals, Victoria Pendleton – one of this year's Team Brit Olympic heroines and reigning World Champion in the velodrome – is slim and pretty, likes make-up, clothes (both putting them on and taking them off) and cries a lot. She's not your run-of-the-mill athlete therefore, and her book, ghosted by Guardian sports journalist Donald McRae, reflects this.
Pendleton won gold in Beijing, but barely had she stepped off the winner's podium, when she was embroiled in a row with the organisers of British Olympic cycling about her relationship with one of the support team. In relationship terms, at least – although she still did plenty of crying – 2012 seems to have been a much happier gig for Pendleton; but the cycling remained pretty much the same – general adulation for biking speedily round a big room in circles 'like crazy people on bikes without brakes...' is how she describes it, 'churning and turning our legs in quiet desperation.'
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Rachel Johnson marvels at Nicholas Coleridge's mastery of details in his latest, sizzlingly funny novel
THE ADVENTURESS by Nicholas Coleridge (Orion, £14.99)
It is one of the London literary world's abiding mysteries. Why is author and magazine supremo Nicholas Coleridge not as famous and bestselling as, say, Jilly Cooper? He writes a novel a year, a treat I await with as much greedy expectation as a Double Caramel Magnum. When a new Coleridge arrives, I seclude myself in some fine and private place, I unwrap it, and I abandon myself to hours of unbridled pleasure, howling with laughter, page after page. His latest fun-packed novel, The Adventuress, is 544 pages of sheer delight. It tells the panoramic immorality tale of one Cath Fox, who is a Becky Sharp for the Hello! and X-Factor generation. Tattooed Cath starts off as an assistant matron at a Sloaney girls' boarding school. But she has an eye for the main chance and is a cracker in the 'cot' and soon has men of means chasing her. She always marries up, and then moves on, like the Olympian social climber she is: with each union, each new platform, she launches herself to richer, glossier heights.
As I burned through the book, I marvelled at Coleridge's mastery of detail. Cath's first real job (apart from giving retired Colonels 'happy endings' in a Clubland massage parlour) is with Imperial Magazines. This is a world the author knows well and spoofs mercilessly – the group publishes titles called Your Gun, Your Pregnancy and What Carp, and sozzled, feuding editors attend awards ceremonies noted for their 'incredible length and the volume of alcohol drunk during the evening'.
Sizzlingly funny and incredibly filthy, each scene bubbles with mischief and white-water-rapids you to the next. There is also a touching sub-plot involving Annabel Goode, the daughter of the first married man Cath puts the moves on, and Cath's adopted daughter Jess.
The three plotlines are drawn exquisitely tightly until the satisfying resolution at the end of this indescribably pleasurable and entertaining novel, which even name checks The Lady in the final furlong. As I say, if any man were ever to steal the crown from our Jilly, in the sense that he delivers hugely readable, witty, sharp and sexy fiction, it would have to be Condé's clever Nicholas Coleridge.
MUST READComedy Compendium
I'M SORRY I HAVEN'T A CLUE, Foreword by Stephen Fry (Preface, £20)
Those who like radio shows to remain aural rather than visual, may feel they should give this solid compendium a wide berth. But they'll be missing a treat. I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue contains the best of 40 years of this most listened to comedy programme on British radio, and remains even after nearly 300 pages of photographic illustration and written explanation, something of an enigma.
Of course, if you're a fan, the barmy goings on involving a quartet of players (Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer and a guest) engaged in quiz rounds of 'handy hints' (how can I ensure my lipstick lasts longer? Just do one lip), 'Pensioners Songbook' ('I can see clearly now the specs have come...'), 'Killer First Lines' (Waiting for Godot: 'Hello Godot...') and 'Mornington Crescent' (there never has been an explanation for this one) will be reassuringly familiar, a reminder that British comedy used to be funny. For those who happen on this book unawares, it'll open up a whole new world of (largely) oldie hilarity and excellent jokes.
THE DIARIES OF NELLA LAST: WRITING IN WAR & PEACE (Profile, £12.99)
Nella Last's diaries, written in response to a Mass Observation project during the Second World War and its aftermath, cover 1939 to 1955. Last wrote thousands of words recounting daily life in wartime – a rich mix of invasion speculation ('so chokingly afraid when we think of Dunkirk') and domestic privations involving blackouts, rationing, and the 'lips pressed tightly to keep back the cry that would have keened out into the silent night...' Courageous and moving. LS
ALL CHEESES GREAT & SMALL by Alex James (Fourth Estate, £8.99)
This is James's account of leaving Blur (he was the bass player in the band), falling in love and buying a farm in
Oxfordshire where he lives with his wife, five children, assorted animals and a cheesemaking dairy. 'There's a lot going in the country,' he writes, 'if you know where to look'. LS
JOSEPH ANTON: A MEMOIR by Salman Rushdie (Cape, £25)
Rushdie's account of his years spent under the threat of Iran's fatwa – only the Queen and the prime minister were considered to be at more risk – in which he settles some old scores and reveals what it's like suddenly to be locked inside a bulletproof cocoon.
THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling (Little, Brown, £20)
Most-hyped/eagerly awaited book of the year, JK Rowling's fi rst book for adults is now released from purdah and in a bookshop near you. Despite it's rather low-key plot – the sudden death of a local councillor leading to disquiet in the parish – it's already a bestseller.
This Year's Booker FinalistsStephanie Cross previews the contenders for the 2012 Man Booker Prize
UMBRELLA by Will Self (Bloomsbury, £18.99) 11/4
What's it about? Wrong question: this is a modernist novel. Mostly, a victim of the sleeping sickness epidemic of the 1920s.
How it begins: I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man...
Critical verdict: 'Extraordinary'.
BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £20) 9/4
What's it about? Continuing the story of Thomas Cromwell that Mantel began in 2009's Bookerwinning blockbuster, Wolf Hall.
How it begins: His children are falling from the sky.
Critical verdict: As good – if not better – than its predecessor.
THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon, £12.99) 5/1
What's it about? The relationship between a retired Malayan judge – the survivor of a Japanese wartime camp – and a mysterious Japanese garden designer.
How it begins: On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
Critical verdict: 'Tantalisingly evocative'.
THE LIGHTHOUSE by Alison Moore (Salt, £8.99) 5/1
What's it about? Middle-aged Futh attempts to escape his past on holiday in Germany, but runs into difficulties with a hotelier's temptress wife.
How it begins: Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands.
Critical verdict: 'Quietly creepy'.
SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy (Faber and Faber, £7.99) 6/1
What's it about? The Jacobs' family holiday is thrown off course by the appearance of a naked woman, the troubled Kitty, in their villa's pool.
How it begins: When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.
Critical verdict: 'As sharp as a wasp sting'.
NARCOPOLIS by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber, £12.99) 8/1
What's it about? Spanning three decades, a hallucinatory tale of opium addiction and Bombay's underworld.
How it begins: Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroine of this story...
Critical verdict: 'Blistering debut'.
Odds, supplied by Ladbrokes, correct at time of going to press.