Book Reviews: 31 August
THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS by Louise Welsh (John Murray, £16.99)
The name Louise Welsh is synonymous with dark, clever crime thrillers, of which this is another finely tuned example. At its heart is heavily pregnant Jane, a former bookshop manager newly arrived in Berlin to join her German lebenspartner Petra, who has been busy setting up house.
But while their new pad is immaculate, its views – a rookhaunted graveyard and a spooky, deserted tenement block – aren't exactly cheering, and the neighbours aren't ideal either. In fact, it soon becomes clear to Jane that Doctor Alban Mann is abusing his teenage daughter, Anna, whose make-up and bad attitude can't disguise her bruises.
Not the kind of person to turn a blind eye, Jane seeks to befriend Anna, and also to discover the truth about Anna's missing mother, who may or may not be buried under the boards of the wrecked building Jane now lives opposite.
Welsh has a cinematographer's appreciation of the macabre and the uncanny; she also has a black, mischievous wit that she generously bequeaths to her characters, as well as an enviable turn of phrase: a flapping shutter, for instance, seems as 'knowing as an old roué's wink'. An atmospheric, highly suspenseful tale of the skull beneath the skin of sleek, modern city life.
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING: THE MURDER THAT HAUNTED THE LAST DAYS OF OLD CHINA by Paul French (Viking, £12.99p)
One frozen winter morning, 75 years ago, an elderly man walking his prized song-bird along the walls of Beijing's haunted Fox Tower came upon the horrifically mutilated body of a 19-year-old girl. The victim was Pamela Werner, daughter of a former British Consul and academic, Edward Werner.
Using old Scotland Yard fi les and capturing the atmosphere of China on the brink of Japanese occupation, journalist Paul French runs through a cast of oddball characters – all of whom lead secret double lives and could have been the murderer – and also uncovers the truth.
A respectable American dentist hosts nudist dances, and Pamela's lascivious headmaster is shipped home to England for sadism.
Her father, given to violent outbursts, had been sacked from the diplomatic service for horsewhipping a Peeping Tom neighbour. Grey-eyed, adopted Pamela was probably of émigré White Russian parentage. A plain, quiet loner, she had been expelled from several schools, but had no shortage of obsessed admirers.
Police were steered away from any details that might point the blame to a member of the white community as it was more convenient to believe that there were crazed Triad killers on the loose. Spellbinding and macabre – couldn't put it down.
THE PEDANT IN THE KITCHEN by Julian Barnes (Atlantic Books £12.99)
A reissue of novelist Julian Barnes's much-applauded book about food, writers and trying to follow a recipe. At the outset, he admits to being a fairly furious, or at least, questioning, 'late-onset cook' whose wrath is 'frequently turned against the cookbooks on which I rely so heavily.'
This being Barnes, you don't just get recipe queries (although Heston's suggestion that he fl ips a steak every 15 seconds for eight minutes, comes in for some stick); you also get the correspondence with Jane Grigson on Flaubert's diet ('he ate dromedary in Egypt; his favourite delicacies were mandarins and oysters); reasons to eat squirrel; why cookbooks should be decorated with 'stovesplash, peel-drip... Oil starbursts... beetroot thumb prints'.
You also get a glimpse into the kitchen pedant's drawers: 'a drawer for knives and peelers... a pot for wooden spoons and spatulas, and the other drawer – where everything is tangled up and furtive', containing in Barnes's case, 82 mostly unused, items.
For the cookbook collector there's advice on stopping. 'Never buy a book for its pictures,' Barnes advises. 'I knew a food photographer and the postproduction work that gave us a slimline Kate Winslet is as nothing compared with what they do to food.' You should also never buy 'the chef's recipe book in a restaurant, any with charity recipe collections, or new versions of old cookbooks'. That takes care of just about every modern cookbook out there, leaving you with the classical greats, or those inherited from your mother and – this one.
The end of an era
PARADE'S END Ford Madox Ford (Penguin, £8 .99)
Ford is a neglected fi gure of English Modernism and Parade's End, a tetralogy between 1924 and 1928 – it is one of the fi nest works that explore Britain's apocalyptic experience in World War One, and its social aftermath. The story begins before 1914 and runs into the 1920s. The fulcrum for the narrative is the aristocratic, taciturn civil servant, Christopher Tietjens, 'the last Tory', who symbolises the destruction of Edwardian society. He is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who loathes him, but he has an unconsummated affair with Valentine Wannop, a suffragette.
Parade's End, a BBC miniseries out this week, has a panoramic scope as a history of Britain's great cataclysm and takes on the quality of epic myth due to Ford's story-telling skills.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Made and unmade by the Great War
Jon Canter on Pat Barker's harrowing new novel
TOBY'S ROOM by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)
Elinor Brooke adores her brother Toby – 'Nothing really happened to her until she confided it to him'. Their parents believe that in 1912, the real business of a girl's life is to find a husband. But Toby fights for her to be allowed to study art at the Slade.
Then something happens that Toby and Elinor can never tell a soul. Burdened by this secret, Elinor wants nothing more than to get things back to the way they were. However, as everyone knows, after 1914, nothing can be as it was. Toby, a doctor, becomes Captain Brooke, a brave and resourceful Medical Officer fighting in France. Then the telegram arrives at the family house: Missing, Believed Killed. This is the fate worse than death – haunting, unexplained, unresolved. A week later, among Toby's effects, Elinor finds an unfinished letter addressed to her, in which Toby predicts his own death. If she wants to 'know more', she must ask Kit Neville, a fellow artist, serving under Toby as a stretcher-bearer.
To be closer to Neville, Elinor becomes a medical illustrator at the hospital where Neville has been sent to have his wounded face reconstructed. But Neville won't reveal all he knows – at least, not to Toby's beloved sister.
So Elinor persuades her former lover Paul, to extract the truth from his fellow war artist Neville. Only when she understands how Toby died can Elinor close the door to Toby's room, for ever. Pat Barker, Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy, is a mistress of the ways in which the Great War 'made and unmade' those condemned to fight it, victims and survivors alike. The book is full of extraordinary scenes and details. Neville, wearing a Rupert Brooke mask over his noseless face, rips it off in the Café Royal. A soldier is nicknamed Hen Man 'because he was good at finding chickens that had fallen victim to enemy action'.
But the parts of Toby's Room are somehow greater than the whole. The narrative baton passes from Elinor to Paul to Neville, only coming back to Elinor in the last few pages, marginalising a brilliant heroine. And the beautiful and contradictory Toby, for all that his melodramatic actions are painstakingly explained, is strangely opaque. It's Neville, the infuriating, confrontational artist, with a destroyed face who's at once ridiculous and tragic, who inspires Barker's finest and most vivid writing. Can we now have Neville's Room, please?
THE NIGHTINGALE GIRLS by Donna Douglas (Arrow, £5.99)
There's a Take Three Girls spin on this nursing saga set in 1936, while the nation is still mourning the death of George V. Dora, tough East Ender, Helen, mouselike and in thrall to her mother and Millie, the toff on the run from her upbringing, all sign up as student nurses at a London hospital. Medical ups and downs, men ('Oh God' she wailed, 'why did he stop loving me?) and the encroaching. war What's not to like?
HOMEWORK FOR GROWN-UPS by E Foley and B Coates (Vintage, £8.99)
Stuff you learned at school, and then forgot, including monarchs and their dates, convection, conduction, magnetic attraction, Latin conjugation, the difference between meanders and oxbow lakes, and English test papers. Irresistible. It's compiled by ex-pupils who check people's homework and grammar for a living.
THE HAUNTING by Alan Titchmarsh (Hodder £7.99)
Bloke in search of a new beginning (failed marriage, boring work) buys a falling-down cottage with an overgrown garden. While he's cutting back, he discovers a trunk full of papers and new neighbours move in. Great holiday read, mingling past with present and proving that men can write romance as well as women.
WORKING LIVES: THE FORGOTTEN VOICES OF BRITAIN'S POST-WAR WORKING CLASS by David Hall (Bantam Press, £25)
Remembering shipyards and mills, Working Lives travels through the post-war industrial centres of the 1950s and 1960s. Oral testimonies reveal the hardship that was then prevalent. Illness and injury were an almost daily occurrence and death was commonplace.
Workers lived on the streets amid threats of violence and abuse, but they were proud of their work and remained uncomplaining. Hall's book is a fascinating yet bleak insight into the industrial communities that helped shape Britain.
JOIN THE QUEUE FOR JK ROWLING'S NEW NOVEL
For a country that has celebrated the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, the UK may have had its fill of excitement. But JK Rowling has taken advantage of the lull to launch her highly anticipated new novel, The Casual Vacancy, aimed at an adult readership
Rowling's Harry Potter books were off the scale when it came to the number of copies sold. When Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows hit bookshelves on 21 July 2007, Waterstones reported nationwide queues of 250,000, with 100,000 copies sold in the first two hours. WHSmith claimed 15 books were sold every second when they opened 400 stores overnight before publication day.
So the pressure is on for The Casual Vacancy and its release has been shrouded in secrecy. When The Lady applied for a review copy we were told by the publisher there was 'no news' on review availability. Unheard of.
Teasingly, the front cover was released in July, but it gives little away and neither does the accompanying plot description: 'Pagford: a seemingly English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, is a town in shock when councillor Barry Fairbrother dies in his early 40s and leaves an empty seat on the parish council. What lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.'
It sounds deliciously 'Trollopian', but perhaps not what one would expect from the world's most successful living author whose interest lies mainly in wizards, Death Eaters, Muggles and flying-carpet merchants.
So there you have it, a new JK Rowling aimed at the nation in a post-Olympics slump. What a brilliant marketing strategy – there'll be queues round the block in every city, composed of local government apparatchiks convinced they're doing a great job, and crushed citizens fuming at their every move. Magic!
Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown, £20) will be published on 27 September.
JK ROWLING was born on 31 July 1965. Working as an Amnesty International researcher, the idea for a boy wizard came to her in 1990 when she was stuck on a train from Manchester. By the time she reached London, she had begun writing. After 12 rejections, Barry Cunningham of Bloomsbury decided to publish Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. Rowling received a £1,500 advance, and In 1997 the Scottish Arts Council granted her £8,000. The US rights were sold at auction for $105,000 and The Harry Potter global brand is said to be worth £9bn.
Related tags:The Girl On The Stairs  Midnight In Peking: The Murder That Haunted The Last Days Of Old China  The Pendant In The Kitchen  Parade's End  Toby's Room  The Nightingale Girls  Homework For Grown-Ups  The Haunting  Working Lives: The Forgotten Voices Of Britain's Post-War Working Class  The Casual Vacancy  J.K.Rowling  Books  Book Review  The Lady
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