Thursday, 01 June 2017

Book Reviews: 2 June

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


FULLY CONNECTED: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload by Julia Hobsbawm, (Bloomsbury, £20)fully-connected
Twenty-five years after the arrival of the internet, we are drowning in data and deadlines. Life is accelerating and becoming increasingly complex – and not just for the young. Many of us in our 50s or 60s have to cope with new technology while juggling jobs and relationships. The manual typewriters and telex of our early working lives are now just museum exhibits. Part self-help, part biography and part social psychology, Julia Hobsbawm’s latest book takes us on a fascinating journey – and often a personal one – ‘from telex to Twitter’, to show how the answer to the digital deluge can come from sometimes simply switching off.

Unlike some computers that are programmed never to be turned off, we have the choice, even if it sometimes feels otherwise. Drawing on the latest thinking, this book provides many ideas that can help people suffering from the curse of overwork and the culture of being ‘always on’. Hobsbawm personally recommends we take ‘a weekly techno-shabbat’ for digital detox. An amusing chapter deals with her internet-dating disasters – one man expected her to pay the bill, claiming that he just had foreign currency. Although dense in places, this is an elegant, thought- provoking read with plenty of tips on how to maintain sanity in an age of digital overload.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

at-first-lightAT FIRST LIGHT by Vanessa Lafaye (Orion, £14.99)
Based on a true event, Lafaye’s novel starts with an astonishing bang. A 96-year-old Cuban woman, Alicia Cortez, has just shot a Ku Klux Klan official in broad daylight in Key West, Florida. The only words that she will utter are to admit that she pulled the trigger. Then the narrative delves into the past: back to 1919, where we see a young Alicia arrive as an exile in Florida and fall in love with an emotionally broken American soldier, John Morales.

In a time of change and a climate of rampant racial segregation, their love overcomes many obstacles and is shaped by their dramatic experiences. But the young couple are being watched by people close to them, including a young Dwayne Campbell, whose head is turned when the infamous Ku Klux Klan arrives in Key West. Lafaye manages to intertwine facts, some unsolved mysteries and well-informed fiction.

The events in Key West and the characters are intimately drawn, against the backdrop of a frightening and unpredictable time in American and world. 


Magic and realismthe-white-hare

THE WHITE HARE by Michael Fishwick (Zephyr, £10.99)
Closely observed domestic life meets the otherworldly in this intriguing novel, a heady mix of folk tale, ghost story and social realism. Teenager Robbie goes off the rails after his mother’s death and his father’s hasty acquisition of a new partner – his pain and sense of isolation are brilliantly captured. His father moves the fragile family (troubled son, tetchy partner and stepdaughters) to his childhood village, where Robbie meets Mags – aloof, a few years older, mysterious. On their jaunts away from the adult world, the pair discover the ‘luminous’ white hare of the title. As he follows this ghostly apparition, Robbie is led to unexpected discoveries – not least about himself.

Like the best supernatural tales, the novel’s power comes not so much from its magical elements as from what they reveal about profound human questions: how to survive the seemingly unsurvivable and express the inexpressible. A young misfit; a mythical animal; a tomboy wise beyond her years; a nasty stepmother: all the ingredients for a resonant, timeless fairy tale – and with them the danger of cliché. But Fishwick’s sense of wonder (childlike but never childish), expertly paced plot and relatable characters make it a highly original and deeply moving read.
Juanita Coulson


EVERY OBJECT TELLS A STORY by Oliver Hoare (exhibition catalogue published in association with Pallas-Athene Books, £40)
Islamic art specialist Oliver Hoare is a collector of the exotic and curious: ‘unicorns’ horns’, amulets, ostrich eggs, meteorites, antiquities and erotica from many civilisations. This lavishly illustrated book accompanies his latest exhibition at Sir John Lavery’s former studio in South Kensington, London. ‘The purpose of collecting,’ writes Hoare, ‘…should not be limited to becoming rich through the investment in one’s purchases, but to become enriched through the intelligent possession of what one has acquired.’
Packed with fascinating, personal stories behind the artefacts in his modern ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, such as a miniature agate wolf, a tipsy Roman Bacchus who has emptied the amphora and still bangs his cup for more, and a tiny crystal foot, part of a figure of Emperor Augustus. A superbly quirky treat for art lovers.
Rebecca Wallersteiner



FEN by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, £8.99)
This short story collection, set in East Anglia, is an absorbing read, blending dark magical realism and social critique. The landscape plays a central role: drained land, made inhabitable only through human artifice, with the threat of flood only kept at bay by enterprise and effort, much like other dark forces in the stories. Themes of eating, starving and transformation are deployed to great effect: eels, caught by workmen while draining the fens, starve themselves in protest; a girl stops eating as she then turns into a fish; maenad-like women devour their lovers. The stories are made memorable by their uncanny imagery and the rich originality of the language. But a strongly conjured atmosphere is the driving force, with the damp, liminal qualities of the setting seeping into every aspect of the narratives. A brilliant debut. JC

MR GANDY’S GRAND TOUR by Alan Titchmarsh (Hodder Paperbacks, £7.99)
After years of living in the shadows, Timothy Gandy loses his job and his wife. And, with nothing else to lose, he decides to go on a Grand Tour, retracing the steps of a 1904 guidebook. Writing in an engaging, animated style, much like his on-screen persona, Titchmarsh captures the plight of a henpecked husband who struggles with his newfound freedom. Perhaps a plot more commonly used in chick lit (which this novel most certainly isn’t), this story of self-discovery, told in a humorous way, is an endearing read. Perfect for fans of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (which also has a curmudgeonly protagonist), this is a bittersweet tale with an unlikely hero: the perennial grumpy old man at its finest. Lyndsy Spence

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