Monthly Archives: January 2022

Art, colour and incredible detail of feathers

Review: Lyn Mair

Birds,  by  Tim Flach (Abrams, New York /Jonathan Ball )

Birds is a magnificent coffee-table book as much about art and colour as it is about birds.

The photographic medium is the perfect way to show, up close, the incredible diversity and complexity of the fantastic creatures we see every day.

They flit about so quickly that it is impossible to appreciate the variety and tiny details of their feathers, but as author Tim Flach tells us in the prologue, the images were taken of captive birds. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for January

These are among the book that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later.

The Women of Rothschild – The untold story of the world’s most famous dynasty, by Natalie Livingstone (John Murray)

In the Frankfurt ghetto in the late 1700s Gutle and Mayer Amschel Rothschild had five sons, who between them set up banking empires in Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, Naples and London, generating vast wealth. But they also produced a handful of daughters, about whom little has been written.

Natalie Livingstone, a historian and author of the best-selling Mistresses of Cliveden, about the women of the house where the Profumo Affair played out in the 1960s, was intrigued by the lack of information about the Rothschild women, and began researching this tome. The women featured – some of whom were born Rothschilds and some who married into the family (and the many who married their cousins and were Rothschilds on both sides) – tended not to have money or power of their own. But they knew how to use their “soft” power as women, and hobnobbed with the elite of European society.

Livingstone has focused on the British thread of the family, women who counted prime ministers, queens, lords and ladies among their friends. But she says they always felt excluded, to a certain extent, from society, being both female and Jewish. This was at a time when Jewish men could not be elected as MPs because they were not Anglican. (Of course no women of any description could have been elected.)

Yet the female Rothschilds achieved a vast amount, being instrumental in the founding of the state of Israel among other things. In her introduction Livingstone writes: “They had choreographed electoral campaigns, witnessed revolutions, and traded on the Stock Exchange. They had advised prime ministers, played a pivotal role in the civil rights campaign that led to the election of Britain’s first Jewish MP, and written landmark works of feminist art criticism. One scandalised the world of women’s tennis by introducing the over-arm serve; one shocked her own family by becoming rather too deeply involved in the mid-century demi-monde of Manhattan jazz cafes and nightclubs; one reared foxes”, worked at Bletchley Park during World War II and became one of became Britain’s leading zoologists.

I occasionally lost the plot somewhat – in the traditions of the time women were often named after their mothers so that if you weren’t paying attention you could lose track of who was whom. But I let that wash over me and found the book to be an absorbing glimpse into a different world.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

What Does Rain Smell Like? –100 fascinating  questions on the wild ways of the weather, by Simon King & Clare Nasir (535)

The weather is always a potent topic of conversation, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it, even if we all consider ourselves fine amateur forecasters. Simon King and Clare Nasir are both professionals with extensive training in the UK Met Office.

This book is full of interesting stuff like, for instance, the fact rainbows don’t actually exist – they are optical phenomena based on the interaction between sunshine, water droplets and your eye. Many interesting questions are answered – Is every snowflake special? How can water be below freezing but still liquid? Does hot water really freeze faster than cold water?

Just a word of warning: this is not a jokey book suitable for the average inquiring 10-year-old; the authors take their topics seriously and go into a lot of detail.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (Oneworld)

In 1917 Korea, still a single country, is occupied by Japan. As famine looms, a family sells their daughter Jade to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in Pyongyang. After her training Jade flees to Seoul where she meets an orphan boy called JungHo, a beggar. They fall in love, but then their life paths start to diverge: Jade becomes a sought-after performer while JungHo is caught up in the battle for independence.

Publishers Weekly said of this novel: “Kim’s dreamy, intense debut is both a sure-footed historical account of the Korean struggle for independence from Japan and the emotionally fraught story of several people whose lives are inextricably tied together… The prose is ravishing.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

The Dark Remains, by William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin (Canongate)

William McIlvanney was a Glasgow writer whose work includes the three crime novels featuring Inspector Jack Laidlaw. The first in the series, Laidlaw (1977), is considered to be the first of the Tartan Noir genre. However, when McIlvanney died in 2015 he had an unfinished manuscript featuring Laidlaw’s first case, a book that was intended to be a prequel to the Laidlaw trilogy.

Ian Rankin, who considered McIlvanney his mentor when he began writing his John Rebus detective series, has now completed the manuscript, and according to The Washington Post, “the result is a standout, lyrically bleak novel”. Or as another reviewer wrote: “Two legends of Scottish crime fiction blended like a deluxe whisky.”

I haven’t read any of the Laidlaw novels yet, but I’m looking forward to this one.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

Shooting Martha, by David Thewlis (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Someone once asked me why my book reviews tend to be admiring rather than critical. Was I trying to keep the publishers happy, she wanted to know.

The answer is no, not at all. It’s just that I tend not to read books I don’t like the look of, and occasionally when I start one and find I’m not enjoying it, I put it aside.

Shooting Martha was one of these. I got as far as p122 before thinking it was too weird for words and discarding it.

Jack Drake is a famous director who is devastated at the suicide of his wife, Martha.

Then he goes to see a play in London and is struck by how similar the actress, Betty Dean, is to Martha. Betty herself lives a complicated life of booze, drugs and a hopeless boyfriend, and her husband has removed their young son from her.

So when Jack proposes that Betty, for a fee, move to his mansion in the south of France and act as Martha, wearing her clothes, adopting her mannerisms and being available for Jack to talk to on video, she accepts.

Author Thewlis goes into great detail as to how Martha would light a cigarette, walk, drink a glass of wine. At this point I thought the whole book got so strange and spooky I gave up.

The cover blurb says: “As Martha comes back to life, she carries with her the truth about her suicide – and the secret she guarded to the end.”

Creepy – but you might find it great.

Glimpse of forgotten history

Review:  Vivien Horler

Of Vagabonds, Missionaries and Thieves, by Douglas Hawkins (Europe Books)

For years I thought the issue of slavery in the territories that became South Africa was confined to the Cape. It was only a couple of years back I heard of the practice in what became the Transvaal of stealing black children to work on Boer farms.

This was partly documented in Dr Botlhale Tema’s excellent book about her family, Land of My Ancestors. She discovered that her family, who settled in what is now the Pilanesberg, came to the area as children snatched by Boer farmers in 1852.

The kidnapping of children is the kernel around which Douglas Hawkins’s novel is set, but the action involves ramifications involving Boer farmers, Transvaal government officials, missionaries, the actual gangs of hunters as well as Swazis under King Mswati II and the Pedi under King Sekhukhune. Continue reading

Murder as the temperatures rise

Review: Vivien Horler

The Heron’s Cry, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I am a fan of Ann Cleeves’s detective thrillers, and have been ever since I came across the Shetland series – the books. Then there was the TV series, which I loved – I have a bit of a thing for remote islands – and eventually there was the Vera TV series, a great favourite.

So I was delighted to come across The Heron’s Cry, second in a new series set in North Devon and featuring Detective Matthew Venn. I haven’t read the first one, The Long Call, but it’s received high praise and I have downloaded it on my Kindle.

It’s a hot summer, and tourists are pouring into the pretty seaside towns in the area. Pubs, restaurants and roads are full. But an old working farm up on the hill with views over the fields down to the sea is an oasis of peace. It is where glassblower Eve Yeo  lives and works. Sharing the space is her landlord, and Wes, a musician and creator of quirky pieces of furniture from driftwood.

One hot morning Eve goes into her workshop to find her father, medical doctor Nigel Yeo, dead in a pool of blood. He has been stabbed with a shard of glass.

Continue reading

Brilliant biography of ‘a pain the the arse’


Reviewer: Archie Henderson

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, by Julian Jackson (Penguin)

World War 2 made Charles de Gaulle. At the time of France’s squalid surrender to Germany in 1940, De Gaulle was an obscure brigadier-general in the French army with some eccentric ideas about tank warfare – ideas that would be used by the invaders during the successful Blitzkrieg campaign and then finally, and perhaps grudgingly, accepted by the victors. Instead of using tanks in dashing, but futile cavalry charges, De Gaulle believed in tanks co-operating with infantry and anti-tank guns.

His theories were dismissed by the French high command, but employed effectively by German generals such as Rommel and Guderian. 

De Gaulle took those ideas with him when he fled France rather than surrender. There is a lot about fighting in Julian Jackson’s brilliant book, but it is the politics that makes it fascinating. I received this book a year ago, soon after it had won a literary prize, and it has taken me that long to finish it. At 959 pages, it is heavy going but seldom boring. There are also passages you revisit because they are so well written you want to relish each word and sentence.

Jackson tries hard to be fair to De Gaulle, and there is a sense of admiration for a man who divided not only his own country, but also those of his allies. No wonder Winston Churchill said (or was alleged to have said of him): “The greatest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.”

The two men were not friends and it would be hard to attach blame. Both could be difficult. Franklin Roosevelt positively loathed De Gaulle and Stalin dismissed him. Only Dwight Eisenhower, as Allied commander, seems to have tried to befriend him. But De Gaulle brought a vital element to the Allied side in World War 2.

With France capitulating and becoming a virtual vassal state of Nazi Germany (the Vichy part that was not occupied until the end of the war), De Gaulle sustained, and personified, French resistance to Germany.

It didn’t start well, however. De Gaulle arrived in Britain with virtually nothing except a few patriotic Frenchmen who has fled their homeland to carry on the fight. De Gaulle believed that Vichy forces in France’s colonies would rally to his side, but few did. In Syria, for example, Britain had to fight a vicious campaign against the French to protect the vital Iraqi oilfields next door.

In Dakar, a small Vichy garrison defied a French invasion by De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and in the Far East, the Vichy government threw in their lot with the Japanese. The few colonies that rallied to De Gaulle’s side were in the New Hebrides, east of Australia in the Pacific and too far away to make a difference. 

Nevertheless, De Gaulle rallied Frenchmen and some of the colonised to fight on, in North Africa, Italy and finally on home soil where he arrived, triumphantly, in Paris in 1944 to march down the Champs Elysees, all on his own, with rivals and supporters following well behind. It was the single moment when De Gaulle projected himself as the “man who saved France”. 

That’s only halfway through the book. The rest of it is made up political intrigue, dealing with potential mutiny in the army over Algerian independence, surviving assassination attempts (Day of the Jackal being the most famous, if fictious) and not a little compassion. He was devoted to his wife and his Down syndrome daughter. The passages that describe those relationships give a human touch to a man who was considered the biggest pain in the arse by even his friends and allies.