Martin Chilton reviews five of July’s biggest releases for our monthly column
Was it William Shakespeare or Wet Wet Wet who told us that “love is all around”? Well, l’amour is certainly the main topic of Natasha Lunn’s Conversations on Love (Viking), which includes interviews about matters of the heart with authors such as Alain de Botton and Diana Evans – and it is central to Olivia Petter’s Millennial Love, a riveting guide to the quirks and anxieties around modern dating.
There are plenty of poignant reflections in From Women to the World: Letters for the Female Century (IB Taurus, edited by Elizabeth Filippouli), including from Elif Shafak to New Zealand’s prime minister. I was particularly moved by the one from podcaster Paola Diana, author of the book Saving the World, which is a beautiful letter of advice about empowerment to her 17-year-old daughter Sofia. As well as capturing something about the fleeting nature of time, Diana also offers shrewd advice to youngsters about rejecting the idea that one should treat life as though it were a race. “We struggle so much running and trying to be the fastest, that sometimes we forget to enjoy the run, to enjoy every single moment of our journey,” she writes.
Christy Lefteri’s 2019 novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, a moving story about the plight of refugees, became a million-selling triumph. Her follow-up, Songbirds, a powerful tale about the disappearance of a domestic worker, is out this month. Among July’s most impressive debut novels are Nathan Harris’s The Sweetness of Water (Tinder Press), which is about two brothers who face violence and tragedy as newly freed slaves in the dying days of the American Civil War, and Lex Croucher’s Reputation (Bonnier Zaffre), a witty historical romcom, full of drunken debauchery, set in Regency times.
Novels set in the world of football are usually dreary and far-fetched, but Duncan Hamilton – a three-time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award – captures the atmosphere of the game in his debut novel Injury Time, whether through dressing room banter (when you can bet that any player with the surname Kelly will be nicknamed Ned) or in the “real-life” situations that Hamilton conjures around the fictional life of Thom Callaghan, an FA Cup-winning player who becomes a manager. In his time in the dug-out, Callaghan takes on Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, including midfielder Roy Keane, whose eyes, writes Hamilton, “glinted like the blade of a hatchet”. Cuddly old Roy? This must be the license of fiction.
Nico, who was only 49 when she died after falling off a bicycle on the Spanish island of Ibiza, has been unfairly diminished in some accounts of The Velvet Underground story. The German-born singer, who worked as a model before landing a minor role in 1960 in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, became famous after joining Andy Warhol’s coterie of “Chelsea Girls”, and singing alongside Lou Reed on their seminal 1967 album, the one with Warhol’s celebrated print of a banana on the cover. In You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico (Faber), biographer Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, does a good job of constructing a redemptive portrait of a troubled woman, in a book that contains more than a hundred new interviews with those involved in Nico’s tragic story.
In an age of selfies, it’s easy to forget that getting an autograph used to be the summit of an encounter with a celebrity. In Adam Andrusier’s Two Hitlers and a Marilyn (Headline), the professional autograph dealer offers a humorous guide to his own obsessive life as a collector. He details his quirky signing-stalking encounters, including with an impatient Richard Gere, a reluctant Ray Charles (“I don’t sign nothin’ for no one,” he yapped), and a strangely obliging Miles Davis. It’s a comic, affecting tale about escaping a chaotic home in Pinner and discovering the truth behind the mask of fame.
Millennial Love, along with Lucy Ellmann’s first collection of essays, Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book and fiction from Samira Sedira and Stephen Bayley, are reviewed in full below.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig ★★★★☆
Early in The Comfort Book, Matt Haig addresses the problem of continually searching for the meaning of life, suggesting that it’s like looking for the meaning of toast. “It is sometimes better just to eat the toast,” he says. This brought to mind Anton Chekhov’s response when asked what is the meaning of life? “That’s like asking what a carrot is,” replied the Russian master. “A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known.”
Haig’s publication – described by the publishers as “a hug in book form” – is full of eloquent, cogent and positive reminders of the beauty of life, the value of resilience and self-forgiveness, and the strength that even the smallest amount of hope will bring in times of despair (Haig repeats the mantra “nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn’t give up” throughout).
Since his bestselling 2015 memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, Haig has been one of the most prolific writers on mental health, inspiring a large and devoted following. The Comfort Book is a kind of non-fiction sibling to his joyful novel The Midnight Library, which was released last August. Here, as ever, Haig writes courageously about his depression and the life-threatening consequences this had for him in his twenties, a time when he says his mind “exploded”. In between funny and painful anecdotes, he dispenses valuable advice such as “allow bad thoughts, because that way they pass through quicker”.
Arguably, more sophisticated conversations around mental health are accessible, but Haig’s book will prove enormously sustaining and valuable to a lot of people who are struggling during these odd, dislocating times.
It’s easy to see how Haig’s book could divide opinion in a “potato-potahto/tomato-tomahto” way – the instruction “aim to be you” is banal or inspirational, depending on your judgement levels – but along with the frequent bitesize nuggets of philosophy come several genuinely uplifting tales, including those about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th-century pioneer in the gay rights movement, campaigning journalist Nellie Bly and plane-crash survivor Juliane Koepcke.
Haig also draws on the wisdom of a range of philosophers, from Aristotle to Alan Watts. Overall, the book works well because Haig is a sensitive, introspective and thoughtful guide to the human dilemmas that affect us all. And it’s hard to argue with Haig’s advice that when people are low they should get genuinely immersed in their passions.
Haig offers some fortifying lists, including those for the books, films and music that have helped him through bad times. His “songs that comfort me” playlist includes gems from The Five Stairsteps, Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell. Her song “California” includes the lyric, “Oh, will you take me as I am”, a sentiment that captures the essence of Haig’s book, which is as much about acceptance as it is connectivity.
My favourite entry, for what it’s worth, was “A thing I discovered recently”. “I love stillness. Slowness. When nothing is happening,” writes Haig. “The blueness of the sky. Inhaling clear air. Birdsong over traffic. Lone footsteps. Spring flowers blooming with defiance. I used to think the quiet patches felt dead. Now they feel more alive. Like leaning over and listening to the earth’s heartbeat.”
‘The Comfort Book’ by Matt Haig is published by Canongate, £16.99
The Art of Living by Stephen Bayley ★★★★☆
Few people are better placed than Stephen Bayley, a noted art critic and the man behind the successful Boilerhouse Project at London’s V&A Museum, to write a fictional satire on the world of art and design in late 20th-century Britain. Eustace Dunne, the protagonist of Bayley’s debut novel The Art of Living, is vain, pompous, deceitful – a true grotesque – and a wonderful central character for a raucous send-up of that world. Bayley, who along with Terence Conran helped popularise design in the UK, delivers the fictional story of Dunne’s life with neat sardonic asides from Eustace’s biographer Rollo Pinkie, who lets us know in no uncertain terms that Eustace was a model of self-invention, a self-mythologising, self-serving fantasist with “a pharaonic ego”. Eustace firmly believes that “social mountains are there to be climbed”, and is a master of “sharp-elbowed advancement”.
There is much to cherish in The Art of Living, where incidents come at you thick and fast. As a celebrated designer and restaurateur, Dunne is invited to a meeting with the fictional Sir Peter Pilsbury, head of M&S, and warns him that the famous store has no “f***ability quality”, adding, “How do you expect anyone to have an appetite for buying Marks and Spencer food if they have to traipse through an ocean of dreary knickers and bras before they find the patisserie?” As well as fictional VIPs, Eustace also has brief interactions with real-life celebrities such as Philip Larkin, Anaïs Nin, Charles Eames, Howard Hodgkin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Humphrey Lyttelton, John Lennon, Elizabeth David, Roy Plomley and Rupert Murdoch. Like Bayley, Dunne’s character mixes in high circles and there is even an appearance from a haughty Mrs Thatcher-like prime minister character (Eustace spikes her Macallan whisky with a methamphetamine tablet).
The novel – which has splendid opening chapter titles, quotes (including from George Orwell and Allen Ginsberg) and photographs (including of the South Bank in 1951 and “sad, semi-detached houses”) – also serves as a social history of Britain in the past eight decades. It captures the grey 1950s London of Bovril, semolina, cabbage and brown moquette – and has telling things to say about dear old English hypocrisy, whether in the attitudes of public schools to sexual abuse, the false memories of the so-called Blitz spirit or the fakery of a posh address. Eustace is the sort of man who gets into scrapes that require lawyers and his solicitors, he admits, are “a partnership of unprincipled feral chancers disguised by a sophisticated Chancery Lane address”. As a native Holbornite, I enjoyed the scenes set in Kingsway, although the pedant in me noticed a mistake about the 168 bus, which did not run until the 1980s.
Like all of England’s most feted upper-class men, Eustace visits the brothels of Shepherd Market. This is a decidedly un-PC novel, full of sly humour and repellent characters – including the “glitter-gob” woman who runs a Fitzrovia club called Nobody’s and bellows “Out, c***” to any visitor to whom she takes a dislike. The wit is droll. When Eustace is reminiscing about his designs for a royal train, he admits that the mischievous part of his character considered putting in a feature he’d seen in Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train, a special hot-water jet propelled lavatory basin with a soothing stream of warm, drying air. Was that appropriate for our Queen? In comes a wonderful euphemism to describe the Queen’s genitals, with Eustace admitting it was a taboo to “think about thinking of Her Majesty the Queen using a lavatory, still less to consider the effect of a hot waterjet on the Royal infrastructure”.
The rollicking rise and fall of Eustace includes his triumph in America and a life of riches and fame, before a disastrous fall that brings financial ruin and mockery from the press for wine fraud. For all the fun of this novel, it’s a grim thought that Eustace, a bald-faced liar with no morals whatsoever, is ideally suited to flourish in modern Britain.
‘The Art of Living’ by Stephen Bayley is published by Doubleday, £16.99
Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann ★★★★☆
It’s hard to imagine Lucy Ellmann’s first collection of essays will have pride of place in the library of the Bullingdon Club, not least because her witty, excoriating polemics target the sort of men, “drunk on self-delusion”, who are at the wheel of the patriarchy. “When we peer up through the glass ceiling what we see are the soles of a lot of big dirty men’s shoes still galumphing around,” she writes.
In “Three Strikes”, one of 14 essays in Things Are Against Us, the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of the excellent novel Ducks, Newburyport, writes her own State of the Union, or State of the Patriarchy to be more accurate, in which she recommends that women should go on a housework strike, a labour strike and a sex strike to effect real change in a world run by complacent sexists. She even demands that “every man must agree to clean the toilet weekly without being asked”. (‘Ha!, once a decade would petrify most men,’ said my wife, when I read out that passage.)
In the copious footnotes that accompany “Three Strikes”, Ellmann notes that “gallantry is dead”, as she delivers a well-aimed kick at John Inverdale (for his sexist remarks towards tennis player Marion Bartoli), although, on the whole, she has bigger fish to fry than a self-satisfied Surrey-based sports presenter: namely Donald Trump. And fry him she does. In “Third-Rate Zeros” (one of three previously unpublished articles), she describes Trump as “that big fat loser of a president, that nasty, sick, terrible, lowly, truly pathetic, reckless, sad, weak, lazy, incompetent, third-rate, clueless, not smart, dumb as a rock, all talk, wacko, fourth-rate goofball and all-round lowlife”. Ellmann also refers to rumours that the former president had a reliance on “diapers”, and farted all the time in public, before she delivers a dismissive final blow: “The emissions from his foul mouth leave a more lingering stink.”
Ellmann is fond of puns, alliteration and long lists of sharp adjectives and her put-downs are like a literary version of watching popcorn kernels sizzle and suddenly pop in the pan. Her fiery, provocative bursts include observations about Brexit, the changing nature of Edinburgh (where she lives), the horrors of air travel, Doris Day, Alfred Hitchcock, bras, the failings of The Terminator and American Beauty (“suburbia puréed”), the dismal nature of the internet (“The web is for lonely, needy, greedy show-offs and the people who love them”) and hairless vaginas (“The trimmed vulva is today’s must-have signal of subservience”).
Ellmann is also unafraid to lob a few literary hand grenades at grandees. She dismisses Anne Tyler’s “timid and meandering novels”, accuses Patricia Highsmith of being “repetitive and tedious and dreary” and calls the “atrocious” Agatha Christie a fake, adding, “her books are only good for people with colds”. Let’s hope she doesn’t soon run into fellow Edinburgh residents JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith, whom she labels “the Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse of the literary world”. She is unsparing about crime fiction in general (“refusing to read crime novels is a feminist act”), adding that crime books are usually full of “such bad writing… so lazy, so hackneyed, so awkward and mechanical – it has to be to convey the stupid story and attendant clues”.
It’s not all barb, however. In the delightfully whimsical opening essay, “Things Are Against Us”, what starts off as a complaint about the “anarchy of THINGS” that cause minor problems – machines that conk out, duvet covers whose “deviltry is legendary” and grapefruits that will spit in your eye “no matter how old you are” – is brought neatly round to the culpability of humans in always wrecking, polluting and shooting “THINGS”. She even blames humans for “lugging poor old boulders all the way to Stonehenge”. One of the beauties of Ellmann’s essays is the unexpectedness of her references.
For all the wit and wordplay, Ellmann has important points to make, not least about the way that our flailing world is upheld. “Kids go to school where they are gradually indoctrinated into a society that cherishes cars, money and misinformation over the measliest little bundle of human rights,” she notes. And it is clear that men (them/we/us/me?) are to blame.
‘Things Are Against Us’ by Lucy Ellmann is published by Galley Beggar Press, £9.99
Millennial Love by Olivia Petter ★★★★☆
Given what author Olivia Petter rightly describes as the UK’s “embarrassingly backwards approach to sex education”, her no-holds-barred guide to the modern dating landscape – entitled Millennial Love and named after the popular podcast she has hosted since 2017 – has real value as an essential handbook for our increasingly labyrinthine sexual age.
Youngsters are growing up in weird, confusing times, although even an old dinosaur like me can appreciate the ingenuity of some of the caustic terminology in modern dating – terms such as ghosting, breadcrumbing, orbiting, F***Boys, Tindstagramming, thirst trap, stashing, cookie-jarring and catfishing – which Petter, a lifestyle writer with The Independent, summarises with clarity and humour.
Although there is a grimly dark side to some of the entertaining anecdotes in the book – the section on dating disasters includes the poor woman who went out on a Tinder date with a man who p****d himself next to her on the night bus home – Millennial Love is a serious, important guide to the secrets and mysteries of relationships. The book features interesting contributions from some of Petter’s past podcast guests (including Lisa Taddeo, Dolly Alderton, Munroe Bergdorf, Victoria Pendleton and Raven Smith), along with her own thoughts on a range of subjects, including Love Island, predatory men, contraception, social media stalking, the realities of an STI and the effect of the #MeToo movement on the lives of young women.
Petter also deals with the thorny question of porn in the 21st century, including the violence that results from the fetishisation of ethnic minorities. Where there are insecurities, alas, there are usually profits to be made, and Petter discusses the lucrative craze for “designer vaginas” (and penis enlargement) which is increasingly prevalent among the young. Her graphic account of what is actually involved in vaginal hair removal is both eye-opening and eye-watering – and takes in the larger picture: women who wax twice a month could end up spending £23,000 on this during their lifetime.
Petter places her discussions within the context of the effects of toxic conditioning on young women. There is much to admire in her reflections on the dangers of a dating culture that encourages people to treat fellow humans as disposable. Petter describes dating apps as the “new sexual marketplace”, adding that “segregating single people according to their class, education, and interests is not only creepy and dystopian, it’s also counterproductive to helping people find love”.
Millennial Love is easy to read and Petter is an engaging guide to sensitive, personal subjects. The author is also remarkably candid about her own insecurities and mistakes, and brave enough to detail some of her own harrowing experiences. Hopefully, this honest, important book will leave a lot of young readers feeling more reassured and better informed about their own lives.
‘Millennial Love’ by Olivia Petter is published by 4th Estate on 8 July, £12.99
People Like Them by Samira Sedira ★★★☆☆
In 2003, the real-life murder of a wealthy property developer, his partner and their three young children in an isolated hamlet in the Haute-Savoie region became one of France’s most sensational murder cases of modern times. That atrocity, committed by a next-door neighbour, is the loose inspiration for Algerian-born Samira Sedira’s fictional tale People Like Them.
The story, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, describes in chilling detail the “carnage behind closed doors”, although the sparse, taut descriptions of the tragedy are secondary to an exploration of the reasons why one ordinary man suddenly decides to end the lives of five people. In Sedira’s novel, financial envy and racism are central to the motives of her fictional killer, Constant Guillot, who is jealous of his black neighbour’s success and possessions.
In this gripping tale, told through courtroom re-enactments and flashbacks, Sedira digs underneath the skin of the casual racism that is key to the crime – many of the villagers use vile, derogatory words to describe the black victim Bakary Langlois and his family – and she pinpoints the culpability of a village and their contribution towards such a deadly outcome. All this is against a backdrop of the media stirring up hatred against foreigners.
In People Like Them, Sedira skilfully dissects Guillot, an “unpredictable volcano”, while making us think about what can make an ordinary man capable of murdering five people and feeling “nothing” afterwards about such horror.
‘People Like Them’ by Samira Sedira is published by Raven Books on 8 July, £8,99