Friday, 23 March 2012

Book reviews: 23 March

Books, Films, Theatre, Radio, Art, Television, Music

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THE TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS OF LES DAWSON Louis Barfe (Atlantic, £19.99), 304pp

A man with a face like a scrunched-up wash-leather and a near-spherical physique was a mainstay of British TV comedy for almost three decades. Les Dawson's appeal stemmed from a surreal inventiveness matched only by Ken Dodd, a humour informed by deep learning (he also wrote novels) and a genuine likeability. It is hard to imagine many of today's hectoring stand-ups adopting Dawson's touching motto: Be Kind.

The tubby Mancunian's sociability was also a rarity among top comics. Louis Barfe's portrait is packed with accounts of longgone TV programmes like Sez Les, The Dawson Watch and Blankety Blank. Barfe's generous quotation of gags endows every page with a smile, or a guffaw. A whole page is given to one of the Cissie and Ada routines performed by Dawson and Roy Barraclough in dowdy drag: 'During the war, she had more soldiers than Eisenhower.'

The off-stage Dawson is only intermittently visible behind the 'phlegmatic, resigned, sarcastic' figure beloved by TV audiences. We learn that he loved cars, drank prodigiously (but was reluctant to stand a round) and supported his first wife in her long battle with cancer. This comic genius attracted top-flight writers, including Alan Plater, Simpson and Galton, and Barry Cryer, though the scripts that best utilised his rare gift of bathos came from Dawson himself.

Barfe's assiduous account reminds us that we have lost a real one-off, though the TV producer Royston Mayoh compares Dawson to Stephen Fry: 'They've both got the fascination with that wonderful turn of phrase.' But, instead of basking in his brilliance, Dawson undercuts his flights of fancy. You can't imagine Fry announcing at the start of a new TV series: 'I can assure our fans that it's still the same cheaply produced bilge.'                                                                                                                    Christopher Hirst

 


 

DAUGHTERS Elizabeth Buchan (Michael Joseph, £6.99), 448pp

'It is a truth universally acknowledged that all mothers want to see their daughters happily settled.' So reads the blurb for Elizabeth Buchan's latest novel. Aligning oneself with one of the most widely read voices in English romantic fiction is a brave move. But the author cites her kinship with the neurotic Mrs Bennet – matriarch of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice – as her inspiration.

The book follows Lara – stepmother to Eve and Jasmine, biological mother to Maudie – in her quest to guide the girls through early adulthood. All three daughters have lived with Lara since childhood, when their father walked out following a tragedy (a closely guarded secret). Relations with Bill and his new wife Sarah are strained, especially when the two inherit a Pride And Prejudice- worthy manor. Also, Lara is taking her tentative steps into a new romance and considering her own needs for the first time.

The tangled story takes as its centrepiece Eve's forthcoming wedding. As she executes militarystyle planning, her sisters and mother begin to question her commitment to fiancé Andrew.

It's a recipe for tension, betrayal, recrimination and confessions. As one of three girls, I expected to recognise refrains from all-female households. Few came. While the characters are believable and the rituals recognisable, this is not ground-breaking, but merits a read – just don't expect characterisation worthy of Austen.                                                                                                                         Claire Cohen

 


 

MIDDLE AGE: A NATURAL HISTORY David Bainbridge (Portobello Books, £14.99), 304pp

Did you know that if you want to avoid wrinkles you should 'sleep on your back and avoid extreme facial expressions'? No? Then read David Bainbridge's book Middle Age, packed full of weird bits of information. Bainbridge, a vet and reproductive biologist, has long been fascinated by the human species. As he himself turned 40, he came to the conclusion that human middle age is unlike that of any other creature. Rather than dying off after our sexual peak, humans plateau and enter prolonged middle age. He explains this as a product of evolution during the prehistoric huntergatherer era, when grandparents organised the hunting.

Bainbridge concludes: 'we are locked into a virtuous circle of intelligence, skill and sociability with middle-aged people as its driving force'. Middle age is in many ways the pinnacle of human existence. Daisy Leitch


MUST READ

Still Precious

THE LIMPOPO ACADEMY OF PRIVATE DETECTION Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown, £16.99), 272pp

McCall Smith's devoted readership will be relieved to know that he hasn't changed his winning formula: the crimes are bloodless, the people charming, and the pace soporific. This is the appeal of McCall Smith's beautifully evoked Botswana, a quaint 'Looking-Glass' land where kindness prevails and everything can be sorted out neatly (perfect for those who don't like modern crime fiction). While the whimsical style, familiar character quirks and action-free plotline may be showing signs of wear and tear, Mma Ramotswe is still a delightful heroine and, for many, McCall Smith remains the quintessential relaxing read, a successor to the 'Golden Age' of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. This will sell at a rate to rival his heroine's consumption of red bush tea – and give equal enjoyment to her many fans.                                             CG


Sweet-Wrapper Rainbows

Stephanie Cross on a novel chosen by Waterstones as one of the best debuts of 2012

THE LAND OF DECORATION Grace McCleen (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), 304pp

The hype surrounding this novel has been hard to ignore. No doubt some of this can be ascribed to the author's own back story: raised in Wales by religious fundamentalists, Grace McCleen escaped to study at Oxford but even there was expected to keep aloof from her peers and the debauchery of student life.

It is, then, perhaps unsurprising that this book's opening pages should recall both Emma Donoghue's Room and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. (Donoghue, incidentally, provides an emphatic endorsement on the accompanying press release.)

McCleen's heroine is Judith McPherson, a 10-year-old with a rather too highly developed sense of Armageddon for one her age. What's more, Judith is au fait with lost sheep, weeds in the wheat ('people who pretend to be Brothers but aren't') and false prophets, too.

Raised by her father, after her mother's death, on Bible study and bitter greens – 'Necessary Things' according to Mr McPherson – she's in no doubt that the end of the world is nigh. There is, however, an even more pressing threat to her existence: school bully Neil Lewis. A classroom reckoning seems certain until God obligingly supplies a miracle, but what Judith takes for a blessing – a direct line to the Almighty, – comes to seem like a curse.

The Land Of Decoration is Judith's name for the model world she has made in her room. A place of tin-foil rivers and sweet-wrapper rainbows, it is paradise in miniature and, for her, a much-needed source of consolation. Widower Mr McPherson's depression is lightly sketched but Judith's observations are, nonetheless, wrenching: 'Sometimes he didn't even light the fi re but sat by the cooker with the grill on till bedtime,' she relates. And things get worse still for the McPhersons when the Lewises subject their house to attack.

This isn't always an easy novel to read, in more senses than one: it's possible to feel intensely sympathetic for the troubled Judith, and also fi nd her repeating cycles of fear and misery a tiny bit trying.

But there is wit and sparkle too, and if the overall sense is of a good idea not quite realised, then the final third of this deeply felt debut is at the same time powerful and compelling.


PAPERBACKS

SALVAGE THE BONES Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, £7.99), 272pp

An unexpected winner of the highprofi le American prize, the National Book Award, this novel is framed around 12 days in the life of a motherless family in Mississippi. The father is tough, often drunk and absent, but 15-year-old Esch has her brothers, and together they face a threatening hurricane building in the Gulf of Mexico. A gripping tale, which takes us into a world of Southern poverty.

THE REGISTRAR'S MANUAL FOR DETECTING FORCED MARRIAGES Sophie Hardach (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), 416pp

This debut novel was a Waterstones 11 pick from 2011. The book opens with the young Selim swimming towards the Italian shore and to his waiting traffickers. He hides away with other Kurdish refugees in a truck of tomatoes from Puglia, and smuggles himself into Germany with three passports and a made-up date of birth. An interesting novel about identity and the dispossessed.

LUCKY BREAK Esther Freud (Bloomsbury, £11.99), 320pp

This novel draws on Freud's own experiences in acting before becoming a novelist, to bring to life the tensions, joys and disappointments of a group of aspiring actors. Charlie is the most beautiful girl in their year at drama school; Dan quiet and ambitious. The book follows their progress over the years, with all the inevitable highs and lows. And does the best actor always get the job...?


Also published

WILD Ben Okri (Rider, £12.99), 96pp

This is the first book of poems for more than 10 years from the Nigerian Booker Prize-winning author – a true literary event.

BRITAIN ETC. Mark Easton (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), 336pp

Mark Easton's Britain Etc. looks at the UK through its relationship to 26 subjects, one for each letter of the alphabet


COCO'S PICK OF HOT DOG READS

THE RASCAL Cecil Aldin (Souvenir Press, £8.99), 64pp

In The Rascal, a bulldog pup with no self-esteem issues – 'You must be firm with women,' he explains – regales us with tales of his 'specialness' as he visits Ascot, the London theatre or Henley and the Belgian coast. 'I have always upheld to the best of my ability the dignity of Doghood,' he reveals.

COPPER: A DOG'S LIFE Lady Annabel Goldsmith (Sphere, £7.99), 160pp

Now sadly in the Happy Hunting Grounds, Copper was one of Lady Annabel's dogs. He was a crossbreed, an adventurer and an uncompromisingly direct lady's man – who once even made the national press after it was discovered that, every day, he hopped on a bus to pay his nightly visit to the local pub.

DIARY OF A DOG WALKER Edward Stourton (Doubleday, £12.99), 192pp

When he was 50-ish, the presenter of the Today programme lost his job but gained a column, writing about his dog Kudu. Unusually, the diary is written not from the point of view of Kudu, but from the literate perspective of Mr Stourton.

MY BOY BUTCH Jenni Murray (HarperCollins, £12.99), 240pp

This is by a woman who puts her pet first and last. She will climb the highest mountain or cross the deepest ocean for him. Butch, her Chihuahua, is her east, west, her sun, her moon, her Sunday best...

CLEVER DOG Sarah Whitehead (Collins, £14.99), 320pp

I like this book and not only because it has a happy Golden Retriever on the cover of the dust jacket. I like the title, too. And I like the author, a very sensiblesounding lady (and pet behaviour specialist who doesn't have children but two rescue crossbreeds, which is much more rewarding, frankly). Whitehead believes that all dogs are clever dogs and her motto is 'Think Dog'.



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