Thursday, 11 October 2012
Book reviews: 12 October
OUT NOWRENEGADE by Robyn Young (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
A gripping new historical novel from the author of Brethren – Renegade is the second novel in Robyn Young's Insurrection trilogy and tells the story of Robert Bruce. Carefully researched and set, like Brethren, in the medieval world, Renegade is the story of conspiracy, power and betrayal.
In Insurrection, the first of the trilogy, a youthful Robert Bruce grows to manhood in a divided Scotland. Renegade picks up where Insurrection left off, with the King of Scotland dead and lawless nobles fighting over the succession, unaware that King Edward of England, inspired by an Arthurian prophecy, is plotting to invade Scotland and unite the British Isles under one crown. He has already subjugated Wales and is in the process of crushing Ireland. One man alone can thwart the English King's growing ambitions and he is Robert Bruce.
In Bruce's veins runs the blood of Kings and he also has a claim to the throne of Scotland. He will heroically defy King Edward and unite powerful Scottish families, riven by age-old blood feuds to save Scotland's independence. An epic tale of greed, intrigue and war, set against a wild landscape.
A CURIOUS INVITATION by Suzette Field (Picador, £14.99)
What a brilliant idea – a compendium of the 40 greatest parties in literature, each one described in terms of the host, the invitation, the venue, the guests, the dress code and the food. Occasionally there's room for snippets of conversation and notes on the outcome, or 'legacy' of the gathering in question.
The parties themselves range from Christopher Robin's Pooh Party and the ghastly faux pas made by the new Mrs de Winter at the Manderley fancy-dress ball in Rebecca, to the Beverly Hills bash given by Ross Conti (faded movie star and first class sh**) in Hollywood Wives and the ball at Mansfield Park where a horrified Fanny realises that she must open the dancing with caddish Henry Crawford.
Author Suzette Field is a partyplanner in real life, so can cast a professional eye over these fictional festivities. Occasionally,
in her view, things don't quite come up to scratch. The food at Mansfield Park 'seems rather meagre... soup and negus'; in Douglas Adams's flying party in Life, The Universe And Everything, it's 'cheese crackers, avocado dip and spare ribs... which all have to be sourced from the planet below...' a nightmarish task for a professional planner.
In her opinion it 'takes an Italian writer to give us proper descriptions of the food' – the Ponteleone ball in The Leopard being a case in point: 'coraline lobsters boiled alive, waxy chaudfroid of veal, steely-lined fish immersed in sauce, turkeys gilded by the ovens' heat and rosy foie gras...' The ball goes on until 6am, but 'everyone wishes they'd gone home three hours earlier'.
The beauty of A Curious Invitation is that you can arrive and depart from your chosen party whenever you choose...
BATTLE CASTLES: 500 YEARS OF KNIGHTS AND SIEGE WARFARE by Dan Snow (Harper Press, £20)
Anyone who entertains even a passing curiosity in battle castles and the sieges that defined them in the Middle Ages will find much to enjoy in Dan Snow's latest book. Focusing on the last 500 years of medieval history, Battle Castles serves both as historical reference and coffeetable book, thanks to illustrated manuscripts, paintings, and photographs that illuminate almost every page.
Snow explores six of the world's greatest siege fortresses in Britain, Europe and the Middle East, detailing their histories, construction and military battles. Tales of intrigue are woven into every chapter, recreating each castle's most tormented moments – such as the epic siege and capture in 1204 of Château Gaillard in Normandy (then an English settlement) by Philip II of France. Or the battle of Tannenberg in June 1410 at Malbork Castle, which heralded the beginning of the end of the Teutonic Knights and their crusades.
Other fortresses under the microscope include Dover Castle in the UK and Krak des Chevaliers in Syria.
Snow also details the roles that carpenters and brickmakers played in castle building, gives potted histories of charters and explanations of medieval weaponry, Crusaders and Teutonic Knights. And Snow does a great job of describing what life in a medieval castle would have been like: cold, dangerous and crowded, apparently...
BOOK OF THE WEEKPerfectly Formed
Richard Ingrams's new book is a gem says Sam Taylor
QUIPS AND QUOTES by Richard Ingrams (The Oldie Publications, £9.99)
Picasso once said that painting was merely another form of writing. That the story is told in every brush stroke. In Quips And Quotes, Richard Ingrams delivers a new form of memoir; one that manages to avoid the genre's usual traps of being either too dense or self obsessed. It is a brilliant, hugely entertaining, moving, perfectly formed little gem. It is what Ingrams calls a 'commonplace' book, a concept handed to him by his childhood friend, the writer Paul Foot – the idea being that you transcribed anything you found interesting. The book is partly formed from five decades of his fascinating jottings. I should declare a vested interest here, like most journalists of my generation, Richard is one of my own heroes and this book goes some way to explaining why.
Quietly, the small details that define him are revealed. In the section headed simply, Drink, he explains that he gave up alcohol completely in 1967 on the advice of a doctor friend who suggested it was either that or death. Like Boswell, he says, he can practise 'abstinence but not temperance'.
His maternal grandfather, Sir James Reid, was Queen Victoria's favourite physician, who, on hearing that he had become engaged to her maid of honour, was completely outraged – she rather thought of him as her private property. Sir James
apologised profusely and assured her that it 'wouldn't happen again'.
For those of us who like to have a couple of books on the go, Ingrams gives us the chance to dip in and out with the promise of finding something immediately satisfying. Malcolm Muggeridge on Anthony Eden: 'He is not only a bore but he bores for England.' Denis Thatcher's Useful Tips: 'Whales only get shot when they spout'.
His friend and fellow Private Eye conspirator was the late Willie Rushton. His satirical cartoons and bon mots were perfect portraits of their time. One of my favourites is a joke he delivered at a grand literary lunch: 'Where would we be without a sense of humour?' (Very slight pause). 'Germany!' Like Ingrams himself, not madly PC but impossible to resist.
MUST READA Compelling Tour
TITANIC LIVES: MIGRANTS AND MILLIONAIRES, CONMEN AND CREW by Richard Davenport-Hines (Harper Press, £9.99)
More than 1,000 books have been written about the sinking of The Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York in 1912. That's getting on for one book for each person who lost his life in this terrible disaster. Is there anything new to say? In this latest look at The Titanic's doomed passage, the answer is yes. Davenport-Hines, while not eschewing the welldocumented fate of the firstclass passengers, also sheds some light on the lives of the builders, the owners, the crew and those travelling steerage as well. He takes the reader on a compelling tour through pre-disaster cabins and bars, into galleys and dining salons, before refl ecting on the ship's final hours – 'a climax of deadly folly' as he sees it. A terrible story, grippingly
OUR LADY OF ALICE BHATTI by Mohammed Hanif (Vintage, £7.99)
The patients of the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments are looking for a miracle. Alice Bhatti, nurse, exprisoner and parttime healer, wants a job. Put the two together and you get an amusingly anarchic tale of Karachi life. LS
WHO'S THE FOOL? by Hermione Ainley (CreateSpace, £7.50)
How to start a restaurant or, more accurately, 276 pages explaining why you shouldn't. 'Opening night was an unmitigated disaster,' writes Ainley breezily. 'I was in the kitchen. Richard [coowner] ran front of house with quiet despair. 'Is your Médoc drinkable?' he was asked as he passed. 'Barely' he replied, continuing on his way...' Much more of the same follows. Surprisingly, Edwards [the restaurant in question, created out of a derelict building by a canal] went on to become a success. Ainley's new career as a writer is clearly heading the same way. LS
THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, £7.99)
Dual timeframe narratives can be difficult to pull off but that is not a problem in Moyes's new novel. Set
in occupied France in 1916 and modernday London, two female protagonists, separated by a century, fight to be with the one they love. This is a superbly written story of war and love – touching, heartwarming and heartbreaking. A brilliant read.
RATBURGER by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99)
Rats, ice cream, a villain called Burt, a lazy stepmother and a school bully – Walliams's story about a little girl and her pet rat is a brilliant combination of hilarity, pathos and bravery.
SPILLOVER by David Quammen (Bodley Head, £20)
Viral mutation, zoonosis (infectious diseases that leap from animals to humans) – the products of a world seething with infection and bugs are explored in this terrifying book by an awardwinning, naturalhistory writer.
A classic updatedIn print for almost 150 years, Brewer's is still as idiosyncratic as ever. By Clare Russell
BREWER'S DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE, 19TH EDITION (HODDER EDUCATION PUBLISHERS, £35)
Brewer's much celebrated, but deeply eccentric, Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable was published in 1870. It's been continuously in print, therefore, for almost 150 years. Compiler Ebenezer Cobham Brewer is an enigma – less wellknown
than his magnificent book. He was born on 2 May 1810 in Norwich, read law at Cambridge, and was ordained in 1838.
He then disappears to France (possibly for financial reasons) before reappearing as author of the bestselling A Guide To The Scientific Knowledge Of Things Familiar. 'The popularity of this book,' Brewer later wrote, 'brought me in a large number of questions on all imaginary matters. I kept these questions and their answers until they grew into a large book...' That book was the Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable.
Brewer's Dictionary with its idiosyncratic nature and odd collection of idioms and proverbs, fables and explanations of saints' names, was an instant hit. This updated 19th edition still bears his original touch, although its author might be shocked, indeed baffled, to find an entry for 'jogger's nipple' nestling next door to 'Joel, the prophet whose colourful warnings of disasters are set forth in the brief Old Testament book named after him'.
It's this sense of alphabetical happenstance that so enchants the reader today. Open the book anywhere and find a charming list of incongruous items: Lamington (a sponge cake coated in chocolate, popular in Australia), Lammas Day (1 August, a Scottish quarter day), Lamp (including usage by Milton), Lampadion (a petulant courtesan in later Greek comedy), Lampon (Greek, bright one) and Lampoon (satire, derived from the French lampons 'let us drink', part of the refrain of a 17th century drinking song...) are all contained in just one column on page 768. Irresistible.
TOP OF THE HOPS – ENTRIES IN BREWER'S
- Hop: Hopalong Cassidy, black garbed hero of the Old West created by writer Clarence E Mulford
- Hop it: be off with you
- Hop o' my thumb: a pygmy
- Hopping mad: very angry
- Hop the twig: depart suddenly, derived from hunted birds that take to the air after being fired at
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BE careful with your mouth make-up. By careless work you may obliterate well-cut lines, and you will always achieve a badly groomed look if your lipstick is smudged and badly applied."The Lady, Make-Up for Mouths, 8th January, 1942
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Q: The Queen has received a £5m boost in the funds she receives from the taxpayer to carry out her official duties. Do you approve?
Yes - the Queen does a great job and is well worth it - 59.5%
No - the UK economy is struggling and this is unfair - 40.5%