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.

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