Friday, 04 July 2014

Book Reviews: 4 July

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


Books-July04-ArentWeSisters-176AREN’T WE SISTERS? by Patricia Ferguson (Penguin Books, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Lettie Quick, trained by Marie Stopes herself, schools married women about contraception. Her job is legal, but the written requests she receives are not.

Norah Thornby, too ashamed to even speak of ‘family planning’, is a spinster living in genteel poverty. Her mounting debts have forced her to take in Lettie as a lodger. With their clashing views, can they learn to co-exist?

Meanwhile, Rae Grainger, an unmarried film star, lives in isolation in a large house by a lake. She’s simply biding her time, until paid professionals discreetly deliver her baby. This time reality has overstepped the mark, polluting her perfect, fantasy world.

The juxtaposition of the three women’s stories makes for an insightful depiction of how a married woman, a spinster and a single mother were perceived – and judged for their lifestyle choices – in the 1930s.

With dialogue and characters that sound authentic for the era, Ferguson has conjured up a thought-provoking plot.
Lyndsy Spence

Books-July04-WomanInThePic-176THE WOMAN IN THE PICTURE by Katharine McMahon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
It is London, 1926, and lawyer Evelyn Gifford is not one to let convention get in her way. After taking on the male establishment, she is proving to be a force to be reckoned within the legal world. But in the tense days leading up to the General Strike, her private life is not going to plan: she is heartbroken following a failed love affair and her closest relatives are leaving Britain for greener pastures.

This novel’s skilfully crafted atmosphere draws the reader in from the first page, and the protagonist’s compassion for the people she defends is impressive. The cases she becomes embroiled in are interesting, but the love story is the most gripping part.

McMahon is a talented writer whose twists will keep you turning pages. It can be easy to forget that not so long ago, women were still fighting to be taken seriously in the workplace – this book reminds us it was not in vain.
Sinéad Nolan

Books-July04-WeightOfBlood-176THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD by Laura McHugh (Hutchinson, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
Lucy Dane lives in the small Ozark town of Henbane, where everyone is related and people know each other’s business.

Or do they?

Her mother, an outsider to this tightknit community, disappeared when Lucy was one – she has been searching for answers ever since. When her childhood friend also disappears, and is found dismembered and hanging from a tree, Lucy is compelled to investigate.

Soon she is wading through a tangled situation where all the answers seem to lead back to her own family: love, loyalty and the truth all come into conflict.

A plethora of narrators makes it hard, at times, to remember who is telling the story – much reviewing of chapter headings is required. As a result, the plot seems disjointed and somewhat thin.
Victoria Clark


Books-July04-TheArsonist-176Highly flammable
ARSONIST by Sue Miller (Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99; offer price, £13.99)
In a small town in New Hampshire, the mounting personal doubts and disappointments of its inhabitants are mirrored by increasingly frequent and carefully planned arson attacks. This is the curious and highly effective storyline of bestselling author Sue Miller’s latest novel.

For a potentially suspenseful tale, the pace is relatively slow, but it does not matter. In fact, it emphasises the introspection of the characters, unaccustomed to such events and bewildered by the questions the attacks are making them ask themselves.

The principal character, Frankie, appears matter-of-fact and rational. But internally, she is searching and intelligent, although uncertain. She is also profoundly troubled by recent experiences: the hardship of Africa, from where she has just returned; her father’s Alzheimer’s; and the guilty marital resignation of her mother. Frankie’s new relationship with Bud, the owner of the local paper, is presented early on and is well developed throughout the book.

The role of …fire in the story is instrumental, but also symbolic – reminiscent of Max Frisch’s play, The Firebugs. It brings skeletons out of cupboards. It provokes reactions but doesn’t solve problems. As house after house goes up in ‡flames, the town’s hidden, highly ‡flammable tensions and troubles ignite, too.
Philippa Williams


MICHELANGELO: COMPLETE WORKS by Frank Zöllner (TASCHEN, £44.99; offer price, £40.50˜)

The Italian master’s vast and wide-ranging works need no introduction, encompassing as they do some of the finest and most influential sculptures, paintings, drawings and buildings in Western art. More often than not we are used to seeing these masterpieces from a distance, whether in a crowded public space or scaled down in a photograph.


But the excellent reproductions in this book zoom into details: the expression in the eyes of angels; a prophet’s furrowed brow. Zöllner’s essays are erudite but accessible, and the elegant slipcase doubles as a bookstand. Divine.
Juanita Coulson


IN LOVE AND WAR by Alex Preston (Faber & Faber, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
Preston’s third novel, with its swift and engaging prose, is full of eloquent descriptions of 1930s Florence in all its chaos and beauty.

Fact and fiction are masterfully woven to create an intimate portrait of a remarkable man. Enter the naive upper-class graduate, Esmond Lowndes, sent to Italy by his father to set up a radio station as a link between The British Union Of Fascists and Mussolini. Escaping a failed aff air with a Cambridge classmate, Esmond has much to prove.

This is partly the coming-of-age story of a young man experimenting with love, art and politics. But, bubbling under the surface, there is also an undercurrent of political intrigue and brutality. With a dramatic finale, it is an enthralling and visually spectacular epic narrative.
Lilly Cox

THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN by Kate Furnivall (Sphere, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Dodie Wyatt finds a dying man down a dark alley in the Bahamas. With the help of the victim’s friend and the wife of a diplomat, the mystery of the murder is unravelled.

With a heady combination of violence and lust, this tale is packed with racial tension, intrigue and a sweet drop of romance.
Rebecca Maxted


THE EXTRAŸ ORDINARY LIFE OF FRANK DERRICK, AGE 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Books, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
After being run over by a milk float, cantankerous Frank meets exuberant home-help Kelly – a breath of fresh air in his mundane and lonely life. This story of small victories, set in the recognisable scenario of a disconnected modern family, brims with black humour.


  • UNDER MILK WOOD by Dylan Thomas
  • THE MABINOGION Anonymous
  • HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY by Richard Llewellyn


RETURN TO MANDALAY by Rosanna Ley (Whole Story Audiobooks, £25.52; offer price, £22.96)
A work trip to Burma gives Eva Gatsby the chance to unearth the mystery of her grandfather’s wartime past. Exotic locations, family ties and an intriguing artefact make for an irresistible yarn. Utterly transporting.


True stories about spooks seem to be a constant source of fascination, but only if they’re well told. By Stephen Coulson
Separated by over 60 years, the subjects of two new biographies passed crucial state secrets to Russia for ideological reasons. The Spy Who Changed The World by Mike Rossiter (Headline, £20; off er price, £16) looks at the life of Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb, working for the US and Britain but also spreading the secrets to Soviet Russia.

A committed communist, Fuchs learned his craft at Kiel University in the 1930s, while fighting Hitler’s storm troopers. On the run from the Nazis, he sought asylum in Britain, from where, at the height of Stalin’s purges, he contacted Soviet intelligence, with the news that scientists in Birmingham University were working on the weapon.

No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton, £20; offer price, £16) has a more recent spy in its sights. In 2012, Edward Snowden was a US army dropout working as a computer operator for the American National Signals Agency (NSA). He disagreed with US intelligence collection policy, but he stayed in the job, aiming to obtain documents on global counter-terrorism that he could leak to journalists – and to Russian intelligence.

Both books are sadly peppered with mistakes, as is often the case when journalists tackle a complex blend of statecraft and science. The difference is in the telling. Rossiter tells a convincing story, blending history with human interest and nudging the reader to feel for Fuchs. In contrast, Greenwald’s diatribes make it hard for the reader to have sympathy for Snowden.

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