Friday, 04 November 2016

Book Reviews: 4 November

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


Elizabeth-Jane-HowardELIZABETH JANE HOWARD: A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, £25)
As novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote a frank memoir, Slipstream, before her death in 2014, one can be forgiven for asking what else could be added to a factual study of her life. At first glance, and from the opening chapters alone, it seems the answer is very little, for Artemis Cooper borrows heavily from her subject’s memoir.

However, as the book picks up its pace and we see Howard grow up, or rather, make a series of foolish decisions, it is clear that this is no ordinary biography. With access to Howard herself, as well as her letters and diaries, Cooper examines a woman who tried to make sense of her life by putting it into her fiction – most famously The Cazalet Chronicles. She looks at those who were in Howard’s life and who, perhaps, have been unfairly portrayed in past works – this makes Howard a far more complex and indeed sympathetic character. During her lifetime and in her writing, she did not pretend to be a good or even a nice person, but her honesty often disarmed even her harshest critics, and Cooper’s biography has the same effect.

Devoted fans of Howard’s might not learn anything new from this book, but they will certainly develop a deeper understanding for their heroine. It is a fitting tribute to one of our greatest writers.
Lyndsy Spence

LyrebirdWLYREBIRD by Cecelia Ahern (Harpercollins, £16.99)
The bestselling queen of romance strikes a darker, edgier but equally compelling note in her latest novel. Solomon and his enthusiastic documentary-making team head back to the wild south-west of Ireland to revisit the subject of their highly acclaimed show. In this hostile and desolate landscape, they stumble across a girl called Laura, who has a unique gift for perfectly imitating any sound: the team think they have found the ideal subject for their next programme.

As they get to know Laura, they put increasing pressure on her to share her talent with the world. But Laura’s past is just as mysterious as her ability to mimic the world’s noises, and her new-found fame threatens to destroy any chance she has of being truly free.

This is a highly entertaining and unusual read, but one is not too sure, at first, whether Ahern is writing a love story or an adventure-fantasy novel. The two main characters, Laura and Solomon, do take a while to warm to, and at times can seem a bit two-dimensional. However, despite the slower moments in the plot, this is a good read and worth sticking with for the dramatic end.
Helena Gumley-Mason


French-RhapsodyLost in the post

FRENCH RHAPSODY by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books, £8.99)
Found objects that set off unexpected events are a signature device in the work of French novelist Antoine Laurain – most famously Mitterrand’s headgear in his 2013 bestseller The President’s Hat. His latest also hinges upon a chance find, a letter that arrives 33 years too late. But with a different set of concerns and a shrewd look at contemporary France, there is no sense of déjà vu.

Alain, a disillusioned middle-aged doctor, receives the tardy missive from a record label, inviting his erstwhile band for a meeting after listening to their demo. The ensuing reminiscences on his youth and perturbing ‘what if’ crisis send him in search of his former band-mates – and that lost tape from the 1980s.

What we get is an interesting cast of characters and the curiously intersecting arcs of their lives: the beautiful, enigmatic singer Bérengère, now a respectable hotelier in Burgundy; the shy working-class boy from the suburbs turned thuggish extreme-right politico; a visionary tech billionaire.

Laurain’s eye for the absurd is priceless: in a memorable scene, a hitherto unnoticed inflatable sculpture becomes a global phenomenon when rats gnaw its tethers and it takes off into space. But where his previous novels inhabit a gentler, self-contained world, here he takes in terrorist threats, nationalism, the immigration crisis, his country’s collapsing political system. A tale of dashed dreams, lost love and rediscovered hope that is also an incisive state-of-the-nation snapshot.
Juanita Coulson


I WAS SLYVETTE: The Story of Lydia Corbett by Isabel Coulton (Endeavour London LTD, £25)
At 19, the coquettish Lydia Corbett (then called Sylvette, she changed her name to Lydia later) caught the eye of the ageing Picasso in Vallauris, in 1954. At the time Picasso was struggling with turbulent relationships, and he became enchanted with Sylvette’s fresh beauty and innocence. This intriguing though unevenly written book tells her story.

Having grown up in a bohemian household, for three months Sylvette became Picasso’s muse and the subject of over 60 portraits (‘the girl with the ponytail’ series). Soon Sylvette lookalikes were everywhere in France, sporting high ponytails and long skirts. Even Brigitte Bardot copied her look. A beautifully illustrated book, with unseen photos and artwork by both Picasso and Sylvette.  
Rebecca Wallersteiner 


ORANGES by John McPhee (Daunt Books, £9.99)
Seasonally changing colour of the orange juice bought on his daily commute, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning American writer set out to explore the history of the fruit and all aspects of its production. The result was a series of articles for the New Yorker – and this book, an intriguing blend of horticultural study and closely observed social commentary. First published in 1967, this new edition comes with a brilliant foreword by nature writer Richard Mabey. McPhee’s inquisitive eye takes in the technicalities of different cultivars, industrial-scale growing and juice production, obscure academic research, the shifting symbolism of the fruit and its blossom in literature and art. But his sustained focus on the human element – the planters, pickers and breeders, to name a few – turns what could otherwise have been a dry treatise into a surprisingly zesty read. JC

BETWEEN SISTERS by Cathy Kelly (Orion Books, £7.99)
After being abandoned by their mother, sisters Coco and Cassie have always been there for one another. Now both adults, Cassie struggles to balance her professional and family life while Coco still cannot get over the man who should have married her four years earlier. Just when both sisters think life could not get any more complex, something dramatic happens to their best friend, throwing up yet more questions about their past. Despite the siblings theme and cute names, this is not a frothy read, but an engaging and realistic exploration of female friendships, and relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters. The cast of characters is rather large – the list seems to get longer with every chapter – but don’t let that put you off. A warm and life- affirming novel. H G-M


Two iconic restaurants share their secrets in these show-stopping new books. by Juanita Coulson


LE MANOIR AUX QUAT’SAISONS by Raymond Blanc (Bloomsbury, £50)
The Oxfordshire country house hotel has been a haute cuisine destination for decades – it has held on to its two Michelin stars since 1984. In this lavish book, chef patron Raymond Blanc shares recipes and tips from its legendary kitchen: feather-light gulls’ eggs with asparagus, the perfect steak frites, its signature rhubarb soufflé. Fittingly structured around the seasons, the dishes inevitably include some that’ll be beyond the average home cook. But that’s beside the point: this is a celebration of luxury and the highest culinary skill, with stunning photography of the hotel’s interiors and gardens. Perfect for enjoying vicariously – or leave it lying around to drop a hint.

RIVER COTTAGE A TO Z by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall et al (Bloomsbury, £40)
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV shows inspired millions of viewers to make and enjoy delicious food from ethically sourced ingredients. Along with his axminster restaurant, they have done a lot for the sustainability and animal-welfare agenda. So quite aptly his new cookbook takes ingredients as its starting point: over 300 of River Cottage’s favourite and most frequently used, served up with useful commentary and preparation tips, each followed by one or two brilliant recipes. The humble cauliflower gets a makeover in a clafoutis with ham and parsley; foraging enthusiasts will love the very seasonal pigeon breasts with sloe-gin gravy. An essential reference book for the ethical cook.

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