Thursday, 17 January 2013

Book Reviews: 18 January


Culture-books-Jan18-TinyWife-176THE TINY WIFE by Andrew Kaufman (The Friday Project, £6.99)
A bank robber targets a group of ordinary people, but instead of stealing their money, he steals their souls. In the days that follow, each one of them is overcome by a unique and extraordinary affl iction. One lady is continually chased by a lion, another fi nds her body made entirely of sweets, and a man is literally crushed by history. The narrator of the book fi nds that his wife is gradually shrinking. ‘Learn how to grow your souls back, or you will die,’ says the thief. Can they work out a solution before it’s too late?

Like the title, this is a tiny book indeed. It can be read cover to cover in one evening but has you pondering it for days after you’ve fi nished. Nonsensical but gripping, it is interspersed with spooky illustrations by Tom Percival, and reads like a modernday fable. Of course, it is up to the reader to discern the lesson. A little book with a big impact.
Fiona Hicks

WIN We have 10 signed copies of The Tiny Wife to give away. To enter, just visit

Culture-Books-Jan18-LightShiningForest-176LIGHT SHINING IN THE FOREST by Paul Torday (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £12.99)
Set in the windswept, wooded borders between England and Scotland, this is an unsettling, haunting story of ordinary people becoming entangled in a case of missing children that the police have classed as runaways.

There’s Norman Stokoe, career civil servant and Children’s Czar Designate for the Northeast, currently with a title and salary but no actual job; his cheerful PA, Pippa, and a determined investigative newspaper journalist, Willie Craig. Faced with the distraught parents of the children and egged on by the others, Stokoe fi nd himself deciding against his nature to investigate the disappearances.

Together they uncover a story that is as much about a search for the lost children, and a serial killer, as about the platitudinous indifference of the offi cial system that Norman himself represents – and the novel turns increasingly into a tale about supernatural intervention.

Torday has created some strong characters in this memorable, atmospheric and tense novel and raises uncomfortable questions about the truth of our society’s commitment to safeguarding children. His prose is controlled, elegant and measured and his totally unexpected conclusion is very powerful.
Steve Barfield

Culture-Books-Jan18-GoodFather-176THE GOOD FATHER by Noah Hawley (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99)
Dr Paul Allen, a successful rheumatologist, struggles with shock as he tries to understand why his estranged son from his fi rst marriage, Daniel, has shot an American presidential candidate. This powerful and compelling novel is as much an exploration of America’s brutalising gun culture and obsession with assassination, as it is of the relationship between a modern father and a wayward son. Allen’s guilt-wracked journey across America frames both a tense investigation of whether the crime was part of a secret conspiracy, and his relentless questioning of whether he failed as a father towards Daniel. Steve Barfield


Road to redemption?
Stephanie Cross marvels at this tale of endurance

Culture-Books-Jan18-BookOfWeek-176WILD: A JOURNEY FROM LOST TO FOUND by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic, £12.99)
In 1995, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles along America’s Pacifi c Crest Trail (PCT), from California to Washington State. Four years earlier she had lost her beloved mother to cancer. A few months beforehand she had divorced her husband, her infi delity having destroyed their marriage. And only 48 hours before setting out, she shot up with heroin, vowing it was for the last time.

Cheryl Strayed: if ever there was a case of nominative determinism, this would seem to be it, but in fact the author chose her surname at the time of her divorce. ‘Its layered defi nitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild…’

As Strayed fi nds, life is a lot simpler on the PCT; that, indeed, is its appeal. Each day presents only two choices – forward or back – and the latter isn’t an option for Strayed, even when her monstrous backpack rubs her waist raw and her toenails come off. This, she acknowledges, is not what she’d imagined: ‘I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips.’

For the reader, however, it is precisely this frankness that makes Strayed such a terrifi c companion, eschewing as she does tortured soul-searching and stagey epiphanies. As it is, some corniness does creep in – a hushed encounter with a deer most notably – and it is easy to see why Strayed numbers Oprah Winfrey and Nick Hornby among her fans. But her account is also smart, sassy, wise and full of selfdeprecating humour (not least on the subject of ‘using the bathroom’ which, as Strayed notes, doesn’t translate to the wilderness). That said, she knows exactly how to land a punch in the guts, and at times as she recalls her various losses, Strayed’s pain is almost unbearable.

This, though, is the tale of a survivor, and there’s no shortage of things to survive on the PCT: bears, snakes, dehydration, ice fi elds, Bigfoot (perhaps)… ‘Women,’ concludes one of the men that Strayed encounters, ‘are the ones with the cojones’. True, and as this indelible, exhilarating, redemptive rollercoaster of a book suggests, Strayed has cojones to spare.


Culture-Books-Jan18-MustRead-176Not giving in… 
NO! I DON’T NEED READING GLASSES! by Virginia Ironside (Quercus, £14.99)
It starts with a hangover on New Year’s Day and a list of resolutions ranging from ‘never drink again’ to ‘sort out the entire house’. Virginia Ironside’s follow-up to her bestselling No! I Don’t Want To Join A Bookclub continues the story of Marie Sharp, the 60-something singleton with a life that seldom goes to plan.

This time Marie decides to reactivate her painting career, a decision that is scuppered by other considerations, such as cats, grandsons and ailing men. Ironside’s view of oldie life is caustic, funny, often agonisingly sad – and familiar. You’ll have a wry smile as Marie tries to save an endangered stag beetle by putting a glass over it and carrying it into the garden, or is thwarted when trying to take knitting needles on a plane. Even the bad back makes a bruising appearance, accompanied by a joke-aminute taxi driver: ‘These days my back goes out more often than I do,’ he tells Marie, as she staggers, bent and bloodied, into his cab. A thoughtful novel to start the year.
Lola Sinclair


THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE by Anne Tyler (Vintage, £7.99)
It begins with one of those sentences that impels you to read on: ‘The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.’ Aaron’s wife Dorothy dies as a result of an accident that also destroys his house, but she continues to materialise, fi rst for brief periods, and then for considerably longer. As the novelty wears off, Aaron fi nds that he and Dorothy are starting to bicker, just as they always did. Their marriage, imperfect in life, is not improved by death. Tyler’s haunting tale of love and loss is intelligent, unsentimental and often wryly funny. LS

THE LOVE CHILD by Amanda Brookfield (Penguin, £7.99)
Estranged parents and a 16-year-old daughter; it’s a potent mix, and one fully exploited by bestselling novelist Amanda Brookfi eld in this lengthy (504 pages) exploration of friendship, divorce and the healing power of love. She starts with the kind of altercation all too familiar to parents of teenagers: where have you been, why are you so late and have you been smoking, and the story descends swiftly into crisis thereafter. LS

NAVEL GAZING by Anne H Putnam (Faber, £12.99)
As a teenager, Anne Putnam weighed more than 20 stone and hated her body. She dieted and went to weight-loss camps but, aged 17, she chose to undergo weight-loss surgery with all its seductive promises of a new beginning: ‘a new life with a new body’. Of course nothing is that easy. Putnam may have changed her body – she’s 10 sizes smaller than she was – but nothing can change her perception of it. Her book, recounting the journey from dangerously obese to merely plump, is both sympathetic and funny. Clare Russell


Culture-Books-Jan18-AlsoPublished-176THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY: WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM TRADITIONAL SOCIETIES? by Jared Diamond (Allen Lane, £20)
How can successful western societies learn from the past? Diamond, now 75, and a recognised philosopher, anthropologist and scientist, refl ects on how we may be doing some things right (we’re richer, healthier and live longer) at the expense of others (child and geriatric care, walking and talking). It’s a thoughtprovoking book about the possibilities of relearning things we are in danger of losing completely.

COSTA BOOK AWARDS previewed by Stephanie Cross

The Costa Book Awards, which pit the best novels against poetry, biography and children’s fi ction, have generated plenty of column inches this year. Here’s our guide to the 2012 category winners and contenders for the overall Costa Book of the Year Award, to be announced on 29 January.

COSTA NOVEL AWARD: Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Since 2002, a novel has won the overall prize fi ve times, most recently in 2011 (Pure by Andrew Miller). 2012 Booker-winner Mantel is the bookies’ favourite again this year.

COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD: The Innocents, Francesca Segal
Northwest London was literary hot property in 2012, with a starring role in Zadie Smith’s NW, and also in this debut, which relocates Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence to contemporary NW11.

COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD: Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes, Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Written and illustrated by a husband and wife team, this graphic novel tells two stories: that of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, and of Mary Talbot, the book’s author, herself the daughter of a Joycean scholar.

COSTA POETRY AWARD: The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie
According to the judges, ‘This is the collection that will convert you to poetry’. Jamie also published an acclaimed book of nature writing, Sightlines, in 2012.

COSTA CHILDREN’S BOOK AWARD: Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner
Philip Pullman was the last children’s author to win the overall award but this ‘truly outstanding’ dystopian tale has drawn universal praise.

The inaugural, reader-judged Costa Short Story Award will also be announced. Vote before 23 January:

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