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POETRY COLLECTION ROBIN ROBERTSON The Wrecking Light (Picador) ●●●●● Like his previous book, the Forward Prize- winning Swithering, Robin Robertson’s new collection is powered by contrasts. Stark, ominous, depictions of nature rub shoulders with a strongly developed sense of the domestic, as in ‘Tinsel’, which moves from an entreaty to listen to the ‘frequency of the wood’ to a meditation on physical frailty.
Robertson’s view of human nature is unremittingly bleak and startling in its honesty. Murder, suicide, dysfunctional relationships and mental illness crop up time and again with the shorter pieces hitting particularly hard. ‘My Girls’ draws the contrast between the innocent children drifting into sleep and the watchful adult stealing away, his ‘hands full of deceit’ while the wryly entitled ‘About Time’ is a brutal appraisal of a life characterised by failure.
It comes as little surprise that Robertson is drawn to classical works, particularly Ovid, whose bloodthirsty episodes he updates with flinty contemporary imagery. It’s this shifting of pace and form throughout that makes this collection so compelling. (Allan Radcliffe)
SOCIAL DRAMA LAILA LALAMI Secret Son (Viking) ●●●●● Nineteen-year-old Youssef El Mekki lives with his mother in a Casablanca slum, having grown up believing that his father died when he was young. In fact he’s the illegitimate son of a rich
and his MI-13 cohorts (most notably Wisdom, Blade and The Black Knight) take on Dracula and his vampire hordes. It’s a gung-ho battle for the fate of Britain itself as the undead bloodsuckers declare war on the United Kingdom. Cornell goes for old
school thrills, but always injects the action with a few unseen twists. Dracula, as always, makes a fantastic villain, a perfect contrast to the derring-do of Captain Britain, but it’s Wisdom who steals the show with his dastardly analytical mind. Cornell wraps everything up nicely in the final issue, but there was clear potential for so much more. (Henry Northmore)
5 MEMOIRS Andrew Greig At the Loch of the Green Corrie The poet and novelist embarks upon a fishing trip to honour the dying wish of his literary pal, Norman MacCaig. Quercus.
Venetia Thompson Gross Misconduct Subtitled ‘My Year of Excess in the City’ details a former broker’s life of long lunch breaks, expensive handbags and casual sex. Simon & Schuster. Gordon Turnbull The Mind Mender This doctor specialises in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has treated the likes of Terry Waite, Andy McNab and Johnson Beharry. Bantam.
Chris Welles Feder In My Father’s Shadow Subtitled ‘A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles’, this features intimate memories right up until the mighty auteur’s death in 1985. Mainstream. Xinran Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother Ten tragic tales of maternal heartbreak concerning mums who have lost or had to give up their daughters. Chatto.
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local businessman, and when he makes the connection his rags become riches – at least for as long as his morally bankrupt father can keep him hidden from view. In her debut novel, Moroccan-American essayist and blogger Laila Lalami conjures out of simple prose a vivid depiction of the unseen modern Casablanca, where the stench of garbage makes the eyes water and young urchins sell single cigarettes on street corners. Neither the liberals on the left nor the extremists on the right have the answers, in a town and a country where every avenue seems to lead to futility for young people. If only Lalami’s characters weren’t so stock. Youssef’s droopy helplessness causes him, and with it the book, to be stalked throughout by a sense of grim inevitability. (Malcolm Jack)
SUPERHERO COMIC PAUL CORNELL & LEONARD KIRK Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State (Marvel UK) ●●●●●
It’s a shame to see Paul Cornell’s rebirth of Captain Britain come to a close so quickly (the final six issues and the 2009 annual are collected here), but such is the fickle world of mainstream comics. At least it goes out with an almighty bang as Cap
CRIME THRILLER HENNING MANKELL The Man from Beijing (Harvill Secker) ●●●●●
As all Wallander fans will testify, Henning Mankell does a good line in legal professionals. His long-running series about the flawed but eminently likeable detective has sold millions worldwide, not to mention spawned TV adaptations in both Britain and Sweden. So when we first meet Swedish judge Birgitta Roslin in The Man from Beijing, our first thought is, ‘Ah, a female Wallander’. Which is true to a degree. Roslin has the same ponderous nature and capacity to think outside the box when it comes to criminal behaviour. Her health and personal life aren’t in great shape either, another Wallander trait.
Whether he’s writing crime novels or general fiction, Mankell’s prose has a very human quality. He takes us deep inside the minds of all his characters, exposing their hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses. Coupled with his ability to grab you by the neck and pull you headlong into a gruesome murder mystery, this goes a long way. When The Man from Beijing sticks to this well-known and well-loved path, the book delivers everything you could hope for from a Mankell.
The novel falls down, however, when he strays outside this territory into political commentary. Page after page is taken up with expositional text about China’s social and economic past; fascinating when approached via the tale of an 18th century peasant, less so during the long reminisces of Roslin’s days as a radical student. Which is a shame, because undiluted, this well-constructed thriller would have had a pincer-like grip. (Kelly Apter)
SOCIAL ANALYSIS NATASHA WALTER Living Dolls (Virago) ●●●●● When Natasha Walter published The New Feminism in 1998, it was with a triumphant air that she declared sexism to be in permanent decline. As New Labour women such as Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam and Clare Short achieved high office, the signs seemed positive in the ongoing battle for gender equality. But more than a decade on and Walter returns to the terrain
with a heavy heart, declaring that progress has halted and the tide has turned in the other direction. The compelling first
half of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism details
the ways in which the growth of lap dancing clubs, mainstreaming of pornography, and sexualisation of girls have resulted in an illusion of empowerment which masks a narrowing of choice for women. The more stodgy second half returns to the all-too familiar debate of nature versus nurture: is the male preference for blue toy guns against the female predilection for pink Barbies simply a case of biology rather than society? (Brian Donaldson)