Best book reviews... Summer 2014
From salty British folk fables to historic ripping yarns and naked adventures, here’s our roundup of this summer’s best new titles.
Eleanor Catton (Granta, £9.99)
The year is 1866 and the harsh, rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is enjoying a gold rush boom. Walter Moody has travelled from Britain to make his fortune but on his first night encounters 12 men in the grip of local intrigue: a much loved madam has tried to take her life, a lonely hermit dies leaving an enormous fortune, and a wealthy gold field owner vanishes. What are the connections, and just how much do these 12 men know? Winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, The Luminaries is Catton’s second award-winning novel: a compelling, confounding tale of mystery set under the skies of the southern hemisphere.
Ed Stafford (Virgin, £20)
The idea of being stranded on a desert island captures our imagination. And so, ex-soldier Ed Stafford packs himself off to a deserted Fijian island, with no clothes, tools or company and just two aims: to survive for 60 days and to film it for the Discovery Channel. In this accompanying book, as life is stripped down to the basics, Stafford’s fears and anxieties become all too believable. No stranger to extreme locations (Stafford was the first man to walk the length of the Amazon), his survival skills are pushed to the limit as he searches for water and lives off snails and geckos – wiggling tails and all. Gritty and riveting stuff.
Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood (Random House, £20)
The British Isles are blessed with wondrous coastlines, enveloping our islands in mystery and superstition. The late Jennifer Westwood spent years delving into British sea lore, and her findings have been collated and developed by another renowned folklorist, Sophia Kingshill. The result is a fascinating anthology of tales dating back centuries, including ballads, fishermen’s prayers, the yarns of smugglers, myths about headless sailors, and lands beneath the sea. My favourite is the Kraken (probably a giant squid) said to lurk off the Shetland Islands, luring in fish with its peculiar scent. This is an excellent book to dip (cautiously) into on the coast this summer.
Jodi Taylor Narrated by Zara Ramm (Audible.co.uk, £14.99)
Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, a different kind of research is taking place; major historical events are being investigated in real time. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics, Madeleine Maxwell and her fellow academics are ricocheting around history. The aim is to observe and document, to research the answers to many of history’s unanswered questions...and to try not to die in the process. From 11thcentury London to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, this irresistible romp is narrated with mischievous enthusiasm by Zara Ramm.
Justin Go (Heinemann, £14.99)
As Tristan Campbell graduates from college in modern-day America, he receives a mysterious letter informing him that he may be heir to an unclaimed English estate. So he travels to London to learn more of this distant relation, a former first world war officer and mountaineer. But the pressure mounts and stakes are raised, as – with just two months to prove his claim – London archives lead Campbell on a dangerous journey through the battlefields of the Somme, the east fjords of Iceland, and the pioneering early efforts to scale Mount Everest. This marvellous novel is saved from being pure Downton by Justin Go’s beautiful prose and cleverly structured plot. Think John Buchnan, and read on.
Vanora Bennett (Century, £16.99)
Vanora Bennett, author of Midnight in St Petersburg, immerses us once again in a Russian community in The White Russian. This time her story plays out in 1930s Paris, among a group of Russian émigrés pining for the lost days of the tsars and plotting to bring down the Bolsheviks. Into this world of conspiracy and intrigue stumbles Evie, a young naive American researching her grandmother’s past and looking for adventure. Evie soon discovers music, art, secrets and heartbreak, as the novel hurtles through the streets of Paris towards a thrilling conclusion.
(Lonely Planet, £19.99)
Our travels are filled with incredible sights, be they a man-made or natural wonder. But we rarely know exactly how they were made and why they are wonders. Lonely Planet’s latest guide answers these questions, with detailed illustrations and explanations. From the geological processes behind the Great Rift Valley to the technology behind Shanghai’s 501 km/h Maglev train, this book has the answers and has other interesting facts thrown in. Did you know that Cappadocia means ‘land of beautiful horses’ in old Persian, or that the service lift in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa can carry the weight of a bull elephant – 5,500kg? Impressive facts to have up your sleeve for dinner party conversations!
Ian M Packham (The Cloister House Press, £7.99)
It’s always been a dream of mine to drive from Cairo to Cape Town. Scientist Ian Packham takes the journey to a whole different level – travelling solo through 31 countries, to circumnavigate the entire African coast by any means possible. His 13-month, 40,000km journey is an epic adventure, but sadly one his book fails to capture. It focuses on the logistics of the trip (travelling from Morocco to Sierra Leone in under 40 pages), at the expense of the people and places along the way. However, Packham does slow down halfway through his journey, allowing us to better understand the enormous achievement of circumnavigating Africa without a timetable. Overall, this is a fascinating journey.
Paul Rosolie (Bantam Press, £18.99)
‘Mother of God’, the name given to Peru’s Amazonian region, is the title and setting for Paul Rosolie’s first book; a coming of age journey from wide-eyed 18 year old to experienced Amazonian naturalist. Early chapters are filled with self-important musings but, as the book unfolds, it exercises a strange enchantment, as we become more engrossed in Rosolie’s naive willingness to hurl himself deeper and deeper into the Amazon and out of his depth. From encounters with baby anteaters, jaguars and a giant anaconda to discovering a floating forest, Rosolie’s overwhelming passion and desire to protect the Amazon is powerful, and his story remarkable.