Best of the new books
1415: Henry V's Year of Glory, By Ian Mortimer VINTAGE £8.99
Ian Mortimer's decision to tell this story in diary format, giving us an almost day-by-day account, would not have suited every historical study, but in this instance was a stroke of genius. The danger would have been an excess of extraneous detail, but Mortimer's instinct is superb and what we get instead is the mythical hero-king - immortalised by the Laurence Olivier film - rendered suddenly human and close.
Mortimer shows Henry as a king who will intervene to save the life of a bishop's servant, and a warrior who doesn't spare prisoners; as a man who presided over an almost exclusively male court, and whose real passion was for religion. ('All leaders who go to war in the name of God are either zealous or hypocrites... Henry was both.')
Once his incursion into France begins, after plots against him and the burning of religious martyrs, the diary really comes into its own, giving us a daily roll call of dead knights and increasing expenses. The immediacy of the format makes Henry real and flawed; a disturbed but compelling individual.
Boffinology, By Justin Pollard JOHN MURRAY, £12.99 (324PP) £11.69 FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030
After encountering the weird odds and ends in this book of scientific quirks - the 'Halifax gibbet', invented for the dispatch of Yorkshire miscreants, was a predecessor of the guillotine; heroin, invented by the Bayer company, takes its name from heroisch because it made one user feel heroic; an Indiana mathematician persuaded his state to grant him a patent for pi at the incorrect value of 3.2 - the reader may recall a TV programme that specialises in unlikely revelations.
It comes as no surprise that the author is a researcher for QI, and his book is equally addictive. Typical is the story of how James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, continued his researches while incarcerated in Germany during the First World War by amassing radioactive toothpaste.
The L-Shaped Room, By Lynne Reid Banks, VINTAGE CLASSICS £7.99
First published in 1960, Lynne Reid Banks' tale of a young woman, Jane Graham, who is pregnant and unmarried and has been thrown out of her father's home, seems like a relic from an unrecognisable age, when landlords could hang up signs saying 'No blacks, no Irish', and women could be sacked from their jobs for having a baby.
Jane finds herself in a bug-infested flat in Fulham but soon makes friends with the black jazz player next door, and falls in love with the Jewish writer in the room below. All outsiders for reasons of race, gender or class, and thrown together by a narrow-minded society, they bond and care for one another, until, of course, respectability comes calling, to forgive them and give them another chance.
This is an angry tale in many ways, with an inextinguishable fire of authenticity. Reid Banks' journalistic style, as well as her eye for detail, is perfectly suited to the theme, and a documentary feel rather than a poetic register strengthens the impact of her message.
Walking to Hollywood, By Will Self
BLOOMSBURY, £17.99, 448PP. £16.19 FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030
The overall effect is as if WG Sebald had tried to write Martin Amis's Money - and Sebald has been a touchstone for Self over the last couple of years. The final and most moving of the sections is the walk along the eroding Yorkshire coast that equates the loss of memory with the loss of land, much as Sebald did in The Rings of Saturn. In a final apology, Self describes Walking to Hollywood as 'contorted, wayward and melancholic'. No one would say that it was an easy read; but the flashes of brilliance make being inside his various heads an exciting, if occasionally alarming, experience.
State of Emergency: Britain 1970-1974, By Dominic Sandbrook
ALLEN LANE, £30, 720PP. £27 FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030
Gramsci's famous remark about the old dying, the new not yet being born and a variety of 'morbid symptoms' declaring themselves in the interval is a bit too often quoted these days. All the same, it is uncannily prophetic of the period in British history covered by the rise and fall of Edward Heath's government, a time when the consequences of having won the Second World War but lost the peace that followed had become dramatically apparent to everyone but the losers.
A complacent and badly-run industrial base had failed to exploit the marketing opportunities of the 1950s, when half of Europe lay in ruins; 'affluence' had revolutionised the middle-class lifestyle, while leaving large parts of the population staring enviously from beyond the patio window. 'Liberation' and 'equality' were in the air, to the great distress of millions who wanted neither; and the tensions realised by this collective loss of nerve seemed to have plunged nearly every national institution into a state of near-continuous trauma.
The Great Outsider: David Lloyd George by Roy Hattersley
LITTLE, BROWN, £25, 640PP. £22.50 FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030
Churchill and Lloyd George are readily linked: grandchild of Blenheim Palace and nephew of a radical cobbler on the Lleyn peninsula - and quarrelling friends. Gaudy men, poster-painted, attention seekers, out for themselves and for great causes, everything by turns, nothing long, and always interesting. Of writing biographies of Lloyd George there is no end. However, at good but graceful length, Roy Hattersley may have written the book to wrap up argument. Another very intelligent politician, he stands at a cool distance but inside the arena, making sensible, ultimately melancholy, distinctions.
Book Of A Lifetime: Oxford English Dictionary
'I wonder if I could cheat and go for a genre rather than an individual book? Maybe the literary editor will be too busy to notice. It has to be a dictionary: any dictionary. From as early as I can remember, I've been fascinated by dictionaries. All those senses. All those words. And in alpha order too. Oh, the holy joy of it! [Ed: I've noticed.]
Well, if it has to be one book, it's got to be the 'OED'. The Oxford English Dictionary. In its unabridged form. None of your Concises or Shorters or Littles. The whole works. Also online. Over half a million word-stories, available at the click of a mouse. And the entire history of any word - to the extent that research has brought it to light. The extraordinary number of idioms. The unexpected spellings. The surprising etymologies. Grammar and glamour both have the same origin. How can that be?'
An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village, By Geert Mak
Townies such as myself are not always sympathetic to the changing ways of the countryside. My grandmother's reminiscences of her rural upbringing used to amaze and horrify her molly-coddled grandchildren, and the reality of a five-mile walk in the snow to school or days' old porridge kept in a drawer sits uneasily alongside nostalgia for horse-drawn ploughs and the sound of cowbells. Elizabeth Gaskell argued that poverty in the country was worse than poverty in the city, and Geert Mak's account of the time he spent back in the Dutch village where he grew up does not skimp on detail about the hardship of farming in days gone by, either.
What he regrets is the loss of the connection between people and the land due to the increasing use of technology. He is aware that the situation is complicated: it is older villagers who want change and the 'imports' who want to preserve things as they always were. Mak is goodon the pulse of the village, its ebb and flow as people come and go, but running throughout the book is a genuine anger that this is a meritorious way of life we are too eager to dismiss.
Trick of the Dark, By Val McDermid
LITTLE, BROWN, £18.99 Order for £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Despite once claiming that she was never going to make a living out of lesbian crime fiction, Val McDermid might have to eat her words with Trick of the Dark.
The main characters in this standalone novel are lesbians and, given the corpses that litter the pages, there is plenty of criminal activity too. If it sells as well as her recent titles, she needn't be too worried about the mortgage.
It begins with clinical psychiatrist Charlie Flint suspended from her job, frustrated with life and tempted to embark on an affair despite several happy years of marriage with Maria. So when an envelope arrives addressed to her, full of cuttings about a recent murder but no mention of the identity of the sender, she welcomes investigating it as a distraction from real life.
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