Friday, 30 March 2012

Book reviews: 30 March

Books, films, theatre, radio, art, television, music


BY BATTERSEA BRIDGE Janet Davey (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), 304pp

Anita Mostyn is in her 30s but she'll always be a little sister. Were she and her two brothers a still life, the brilliant Barney and the adored Mark would be 'the perfect apples in the bowl', while their sister would be 'more like one of those splashes of paint you peer at, wondering, is it a leaf, a shadow on the tablecloth, a mistake?'

Anita has a job in an art gallery and a flat in Chelsea but no partner, husband or children, though she's just had a brief affair with a (married) man whom she met, inevitably, when her brother Mark brought him to the family home. Life, for Anita, is elsewhere.

Then adventure knocks: Laurence, an entrepreneur with romantic designs on Anita, sends her to Bulgaria to scout for holiday properties. Unfortunately, she suffers panic attacks when she sits behind the wheel of the hire car, which makes her mission impossible. Without telling Laurence, she aborts it and comes home early. What now?

In the spirit of its stuck heroine, who has 'never found out how to make another person do or not do something', By Battersea Bridge is not a story with great forward momentum. Instead, Janet Davey devotes her considerable gifts to depicting Anita's family and the tragedy that has blighted it. If you live in the Mostyn household, it's best to be Viking, the dog: 'Being a good dog was enough. He didn't have to excel.'

The book is studded with gemlike observations of this privileged English family, whose preoccupations are 'schooling, property and the form of things'. Davey brilliantly observes the mix of obstinacy and pride – the fortitude – required to survive such a heritage. By Battersea Bridge is itself a kind of verbal still life, with exquisite and revelatory strokes wherever you look.                                                                           Jon Canter



THE UNINVITED GUESTS Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), 272pp

After two hugely successful but less than sunny novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, Sadie Jones has evidently decided to have some fun. Spanning a single evening in 1912, this 'supernatural drama' is set in the ramshackle manor of Sterne, home to the Torrington family. With the coffers bare, however, the Swifts' future address is in doubt. Meanwhile, there's a 20th birthday party to be had for Emerald and it's threatening to fall fl at: the only guests are bluestocking Patience, her brain-box brother, and a Mr Buchanan, who is far too New Money for the snobby Swifts. (Smudge, the youngest Torrington, has been forgotten – the usual state of affairs.) But then a tragic railway accident brings a crowd of survivors to Sterne. And, as these unlooked-for guests start to multiply, their third-class status begins to seem like the least sinister thing about them.

While its action lasts just 24 hours, I'm afraid I found this slender tale on the tedious side. Jones may have had her suspicions about it, too: there's a slight feeling of desperation to its increasingly unlikely twists. A perplexing read.                                                                                                                       Stephanie Cross



THE BLUE DOOR Lise Kristensen (Macmillan, £14.99), 304pp

Lise's true girlhood story is of her two-year experience as a prisoner in Java. The prose is simple and innocent: experiencing, repressing and attempting to comprehend the heinous nature of what she saw, allows for her writing to embody and defi ne the horror of what should never be a childhood experience.

In some scenes, Lise eats rats and in another scene, scabs. She sees that rape, starvation and beatings are commonplace – by the age of 10 she has become utterly desensitised to the atrocities she witnesses. The lack of embellishment in her writing is highly effective and its uncomplicated nature makes the story more evocative. Instead of an author attempting to create an impression, rather her honesty pours over the page.

The most poignant section is when Lise and her family, after years of deprivation, walk past a Buddhist offering of food and candles to the deity – she resoundingly asserts to her mother that anyone making such offerings is quite mad, and that to waste food is basically a crime. Lise queries, quite rightly, the nature of humanity. A moving and honest story of the sadness of war.                                                         Georgina Hambleton


Audio pick

HOW TO BE A WOMAN Caitlin Moran, read by the author (download as a digital audiobook from and iTunes)

It's a brave author who narrates their own work, and Caitlin Moran admitted to second thoughts: 'I was sitting in a recording studio going, "this is filth",' she told the BBC. Ranging from puberty to pants to abortion, it's clear why this confessional was one of 2011's biggest hits and winner of the Book Of The Year at the Galaxy Book Awards. Here's her take on feminism: 'When statistics say that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminists – and only 42 per cent of British women – I used to think: "What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay?"'                                                                                                                                    Stephanie Cross

One born every minute...

Jane Shilling finds there's still plenty of fascinating mileage in the story of childbirth

TALES OF A MIDWIFE Maria Anderson (Headline, £6.99), 320pp

Maria Anderson was 15 in 1982, when her brother Christopher was born and changed the course of his sister's life. For her O level biology project, Maria observed her baby brother. She became fascinated by the work of the community midwife and, having earned top marks and a commendation, she decided to become a midwife herself.

A year into her training in Gateshead, near her home town of Newcastle, she was thrilled to be given a placement on the maternity ward. But her fi rst encounter with a woman in labour ended ignominiously when she fainted and had to be hauled out of the room. She fainted twice more on her first day, and was mortified when the senior midwife pointed her out to a visitor as 'the student nurse who's been fainting all morning'.

Undaunted, she went on to midwifery training in Surrey, where her Geordie accent provoked relentless teasing from her colleagues. Even in the supposedly wealthy Home Counties, Maria was shocked by the conditions she met as a community midwife: in one house, where the floors were covered in cigarette butts and beer cans, the baby lay in a Moses basket on the floor, under the watchful eye of a huge Alsatian dog.

But her saddest experience was delivering the baby of a 12-year-old girl who arrived in the labour suite clutching a toy rabbit: 'There was something so sad about handing a baby to a child,' Maria writes. Fortunately, most of her experiences were less harrowing, even if there were some tricky moments, such as the occasion when she delivered twins, one of whom was white and the other black. The suspicious father was eventually reassured when a blood test proved that both babies were his.

Then there were the parents who had been to alternative birthing classes and howled like wolves throughout labour, not to mention the chap who hopped into the birthing pool with his partner. Only Maria's suggestion that she didn't want to 'run into danger while cutting the cord' persuaded him to get out.

Anderson, whose book is ghost-written by Charlotte Ward, isn't the most elegant of stylists, but she tells her story with warmth, and there is a delightful happy ending: after delivering so many babies for others, she finally experienced midwifery from a mother's perspective.

The Stranger In The Mirror by Jane Shilling is out now


GRAVEN WITH DIAMONDS Nicola Shulman (Short Books, £7.99), 320pp

A portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), 'courtier, poet, assassin, spy', the lover of Anne Boleyn and wit at the centre of the court of Henry VIII, this book also tells the story of English love poetry. Shulman vividly brings to life the court, the theological disputes, conspiracies and romantic intrigues.

SCISSORS, PAPER, STONE Elizabeth Day (Bloomsbury, £7.99), 256pp

A powerfully written debut novel by journalist Elizabeth Day. Charles Redfern is knocked off his bike and lies in a coma. His wife and daughter have to look at their relationships with each other – and with him. Charles was a goodlooking man who turned out to be an intimidating and controlling influence. His wife and daughter have closely guarded a dark secret, which they can now begin to confront.

THE GALLOWS CURSE Karen Maitland (Penguin, £7.99), 592pp

Set in 1210 in the Norfolk village of Gastmere, where a servant girl is accused of a murder she didn't commit, Karen Maitland's newest book is another ripping medieval tale. Like her other two hugely successful books, Company Of Liars and The Owl Killers, this is a gruesome and labyrinthine mystery, infused with superstition.                                                                                                                      Daisy Leitch

Also published

GIN AND JUICE: THE VICTORIAN GUIDE TO PARENTING Tyers & Beach (Bloomsbury, £10), 164pp

Parenting advice from experts of the Victorian era. Chapters include how to discern which is the good twin and which the evil. The perfect loo book.

A STREET CAT NAMED BOB James Bowen (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), 280pp

A busker and former homeless man nurses an injured ginger tom cat back to health and the two become inseparable. Heartwarming.



ALL I DID WAS SHOOT MY MAN Walter Mosley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), 336pp

This follows in the tradition of Chester Himes. Private investigator Leonid McGill lands a case that offers him redemption. Having graduated from working for the seamier elements of the New York underworld, he now practises a crusading form of investigation for unfortunates and undesirables. The novel is a cruise through a New York society – Sweet Lemon Charles, a street informer turned poet and lover; Hush, the retired assassin. If you like your crime snappy, hardboiled and razoredged, Walter Mosley is for you.

HOLY CITY Guillermo Orsi (MacLehose Press, £18.99), 320pp

Buenos Aires has always looked an attractive holiday destination, but after reading Holy City, I would rather stay at home. A cruise ship has foundered in the shallow waters of the Rio de la Plata, and the richest tourists aboard are being kidnapped one by one. A tortuous connection between Deputy Inspector Walter Carroza, lawyer Veronica Berutti and the exMiss Bolivia Ana Torrente, winds its way through a plot peopled by the corrupt and the depraved. It is difficult to find a character with whom to sympathise, but the darker the scenes the more gripping it becomes.

A POUND OF FLESH Alex Gray (Sphere, £12.99), 352pp

Detective Superintendent Lorimer has been promoted and is in charge of the killings of several of Glasgow's prostitutes. However, when businessmen start being murdered he is redirected. In true NorthoftheBorder fashion he ignores his instructions and continues to investigate the original case on the quiet, becoming increasingly certain that there is a link between all the killings. This is a good read within the English canon of crime and an enjoyable read for the weekend.

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