Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Book Reviews: 13 January

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


nine love lettersNINE LOVE LETTERS by Gerald Jacobs (Quartet, £20)
This debut novel is a genre-twisting tour de force – a grand dynastic epic in the style of García Márquez, yet at the same time an exquisitely nuanced study of love and loss, and a primer on Jewish tradition and the devastating 20th- century history of two diaspora communities, Baghdad and Budapest.

The letters of the title – missives from lovers, admirers, parents and children – punctuate family narratives that converge in postwar London after the horrors of Auschwitz, Bergen- Belsen and the Farhud, which brought to a violent end two and a half millennia of Jewish life in Mesopotamia.

Six generations and more than a century are encompassed in a mere 260 pages, so not a word is wasted: a sentence can span moments or years, and every exchange carries philosophical weight, whether on the importance of family, the existence of God, the nature of love or the improbable chains of events that bring people together. Although shot through with sadness, its central message is one of redemption: the furnace of persecution and tragedy can forge the strongest emotional bonds.
Richard Tarrant

juliet newJULIET: A LIFE IN MEMORIES edited by Georgiana Campbell (Eland, £10)
Beautiful, bohemian and tough, war correspondent Juliet Crawley Peck was drawn to dangerous, exotic places and dashing, unconventional men. By the age of 35, she was twice widowed, having lost two cameraman husbands to gunfire – Dominique Vergos in Peshawar and Rory Peck in Moscow – leaving her with two small children.

Immediately after Rory’s death, Juliet then lost an eye to cancer. An avid foxhunter, she continued to hunt ferociously in North Yorkshire wearing an eyepatch, quite ironically on a one-eyed horse. To mark the 10th anniversary of her death, this book exploring Juliet’s colourful life, with recollections from her friends Lord Salisbury, Rory Knight Bruce and Charlotte Black, to name a few, has been published by Eland Press. It is a gripping, tear-jerking read, and a fitting memorial. Although some accounts seem to contradict each other, this would no doubt have amused Juliet, who had a wicked sense of humour.
Rebecca Wallersteiner


Evenings-Killing time

THE EVENINGS: A WINTER'S TALE by Gerard Reve (Pushkin, £12.99)
Dutch writer Gerard Reve published this brilliant debut novel in his early 20s in 1947, but it was never translated into English. it is one of the greatest 20th-century european classics you’ve never heard of.

Set in Amsterdam during the last 10 days of 1946, it follows 23-year-old Frits: dead-end job, no girlfriend, living at home with his parents, he is a fascinating mix of childlike mischief, neurotic fears and Nietzschean nihilism. Surprisingly, the Second World War is eerily absent – but perhaps the atmosphere of claustrophobia, despair and anxiety that pervades the story is a legacy of that conflict.

Frits’s obsession is working out how to pass the time, counting the hours like worry beads. He watches his ageing, predictable, bickering parents, alternating between annoyance and pity. His mundane musings are punctuated with appeals to God in a contrasting biblical register. The world Reve has created is one of closely observed domestic detail: singing kettles, warts on a father’s neck and arguments about mislaid keys. But the heightened atmosphere and the protagonist’s peculiarities, conveyed in internal monologues, create a Brechtian sense of alienation. For a novel where nothing much happens, it is utterly captivating – proof that plot isn’t everything. Waiting For Godot Meets Diary Of A Nobody.
Juanita Coulson


ON THE FRINGE: A LIFE IN DECORATING by Imogen Taylor (Pimpernel Press, £50)
When Imogen Taylor started her career at the furnishing, fabric and design company Colefax and Fowler just after the Second World War, only a few grand ladies and John Fowler were professional interior designers.

on the fringe

Specialist courses were years away, and furnishing fabrics were in short supply. Imogen had been to art school and was given ‘a try’. She was a quick learner and rose to the top of the company: for 50 years she decorated large houses worldwide in the English country house style.

This charming illustrated memoir shows a designer’s inventiveness, but is also a social history with delightful aperçus about working with royalty, people of discernment and their beautiful things.
Hugh St Clair


THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes (Vintage, £7.99)
This fictionalised biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich – Barnes’s first novel since his Man Booker-winning The Sense Of An Ending – explores the fraught relationship between artists and a totalitarian state. Living under Stalin’s oppressive regime, a young Shostakovich narrowly avoids arrest when his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk offends Uncle Joe’s philistine ear – an episode that marks the start of Shostakovich’s lifelong, perilous ‘conversation with power’. A changing Soviet Russia is brilliantly evoked through the composer’s eyes, mirroring the arc of his life: from promising young talent to ‘enemy of the people’, into disillusioned old age. A compelling read that combines sharp insights, lyrical passages and dramatic tension. JC

THE VANISHING MAN IN PURSUIT OF VELÁZQUEZ by Laura Cumming (vintage, £9.99)
Grief-stricken at her artist father’s death, art critic Laura Cumming travelled to Madrid: ‘a city chosen because neither he, nor I, had ever been there and I couldn’t speak the language’. Visiting the Prado, she experienced a revelation standing in front of Velázquez’s enigmatic masterpiece Las Meninas (1656), depicting a young Spanish princess, maidservants, the king and queen and the mysterious painter himself. Part detective story, part art history, Cumming’s book explores why people become obsessed with art and what is ‘actually happening in the picture’. Las Meninas also obsessed Picasso, who painted many versions of it. A riveting, multilayered page- turner, it is highly recommended, especially if you share Cumming’s art obsession. RW

SONGS FROM THE VIOLET CAFE by Fiona Kidman (Aardvark Bureau, £8.99)
Set in New Zealand and spanning six decades, this multifaceted novel tells the story of five employees of Violet Trench, owner of the titular cafe. As their stories intertwine, leaping back and forth in time, the plot can sometimes appear muddled and the scenarios laboured. There is also a story within the story: Violet rowing across a lake to leave a Chinese boy with a friend, a mysterious action with consequences, all revealed decades later at the cafe. But readers are in good hands; like all Kidman’s writing, it is engaging and captivating. Lyndsy Spence


It’s dull enough out there: even if you’re dieting, keep your January cooking cheerful. By Juanita Coulson


LEON: FAST AND FREE by Jane Baxter and John Vincent (Conran, £25)
Founded in 2004, Leon was the first food chain to focus on dishes free from dairy, gluten and refined sugar – but there has never been a dull moment on their menus, packed with globetrotting, inspiring flavour combinations. Their new book offers recipes that adhere to this philosophy, but are also quick and easy to make. Skip past the nutritional pseudo-science chapter and go straight to the cracking recipes. Breakfasts include quinoa florentine and truffle-coddled eggs. Vegetable harira is perfect winter fuel – spicy, warming and virtually fat-free moroccan soup: make a batch and that’s your weekday lunches sorted. A tasty alternative to January diets of gloom and deprivation.

SAVOUR: SEASONAL SOUPS TO FULFIL AND FORTIFY by Amber Locke (Mitchell Beazley, £14.99)
Move over, juicing: it’s all about soup now. Easily digested, warming and filling, it’s ideal for recovering from the indulgences of the festive season; healthy but also a great comfort food to beat the January blues, with the ‘power to revive us and soothe the soul too’, according to Locke. The author of the popular salad book nourish brings us over 100 recipes that steer well clear of gruel territory, with exciting flavours and textures. There are great winter warmers to make now (black-eyed bean chilli stew, curried greens and coconut) and chilled soups to start dreaming of summer (sparkling pineapple, watermelon gazpacho). An abundance of tips too, on everything from ingredients to tools and stock making.

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