Perspective Recommends

Our latest must-reads

Acts of Service
By Lillian Fishman
(224pp, Europa, £12.99, pb)
Reviewed by Belinda Bamber

For those of us raised on Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying and the search for the “zipless fuck”, there’s nothing new about intelligent, provocative, feminist writing about sex. What’s changed in half a century is that Western writers in their twenties, like New Yorker Lillian Fishman, take for granted women’s right to explore, express and act on their desires. Casual sexual encounters, monogamy, polyamory, fluidity are assumed to be personal choices, along with the right to identify as queer, bisexual, non-binary, pansexual – or to claim new territory on the expanding LGBTQ+ map.

In Acts of Service, Eve is in a settled relationship with her female partner, Romi, but decides on a whim to post naked pictures of herself online, an impulse that leads to an intense secret affair with an unconventional couple, Nathan and Olivia.

There’s plenty of explicit sex, but it’s far from zipless. “I grew up talking about sex as this thing women should have however they want it, sexual freedom as this great sort of pinnacle beyond morality,” notes Eve. “So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?” On the contrary, her sexual adventures overturn her life, not least falling in love with Nathan.

Fishman’s story upends the usual trope of a straight person exploring a same-sex relationship. Eve’s “fall” from her lesbian identity is the erotic linchpin of the novel and this overturning of that hard-won, fiercely-defended choice is set to provoke some of her readers. The past fifty years may have opened up women’s physical freedoms, but speaking and writing about them freely is increasingly problematic.

The author’s quest to map love and pleasure in the 2020s feels both sincere and courageous. She doesn’t flinch from her heroine’s narcissism, but shows Eve’s faltering search for “goodness” in a rule-less, atheist world. It’s an intriguing, readable debut that I enjoyed far more than Fear of Flying, though I miss Jong’s dash of levity and wit.

The Colour Storm
By Damian Dibben
(353 pp, Penguin, £9.99, pb)
Reviewed by Catherine McNamara

Recently I stood before Giorgione’s “The Tempest” in Venice. The hoards were taking selfies on the Accademia bridge, looking out from Peggy Guggenheim’s Museum to Santa Maria della Salute, and I had a rare moment alone with Giorgione’s allegorical masterpiece, still inexplicable with its nude woman suckling a child in the foreground, a staff-bearing traveller to the left, the riverside town and rolling landscape beneath a thundery sky. The painting offers no reason other than reason itself, based upon the capture of an atmosphere, shimmering with light and colour.

In The Colour Storm Daniel Dibben transports us to Giorgione’s Renaissance Venice, at the peak of her artistic headiness. We inhabit Bellini’s “strange world caught between sea and sky”, a city “made in colour, not in line”. Zorzo – 33-year-old, Christ’s age at death – is Giorgione Barbarelli of Castelfranco, (Giorgione meaning Big George), whose passion is colour. We first meet him crossing the lagoon by night, lured by a trader’s trove of pigments, where he is enchanted by talk of an unknown colour richer than any seen before. We follow Zorzo’s efforts to pay debt collectors and feed the garzoni (apprentices) of his workshop whom he loves so well, while his quest for this inconceivable colour remains unwavering.

Zorzo and his ageing contemporaries – scruffy Michelangelo whose “nose has been broken, half-flattened to one side”, ambidextrous Leonardo da Vinci, bitter Giovanni Bellini – jostle for a sizeable commission from vastly wealthy Jakob Fugger, recently arrived in Venice with his gorgeously-attired wife, Sybille. Zorzo is enraptured by the colours Sybille wears: “She was moon-white in Mestre harbour, then dark jade at St Mark’s, and tiger’s eye in his workroom.”

The pace of this elegant thriller quickens as truths are bared between controlling Jakob Fugger and abused Sybille with her tortuous past, while lovestruck Zorzo is pulled into a powerful situation that draws richly upon all elements of the 16th century – the nearby Spanish Inquisition and the ruthless mechanisms of the Roman Church, the rise of book printing and the insidious presence of the plague – amidst the luminous endeavours of Venetian Renaissance art.

Red Sauce Brown Sauce
A British Breakfast Odyssey
Felicity Cloake
Mudlark/HarperCollins – HB £16.99
Reviewed by Dan Richards

Of all the tragedies in Oscar Wilde’s life, the fact he never broke croissants with Felicity Cloake is perhaps the most crushing, for none are more “brilliant at breakfast” than she. In her new book, Cloake tours the British isles exploring the history, craft, and regional quirks of morning staples and acquired tastes alike — marmalade to kippers, Weetabix to Omelette Arnold Bennet.

Fans of Felicity’s celebrated “How to Cook the Perfect” columns in the Guardian will be delighted by the regular recipes here. Why not give Staffordshire Oatcakes a whirl? Or a breakfast frittata — included in place of a black pudding blueprint “because I haven’t found a source of high-welfare pig’s blood.” In every sense she goes the extra mile; the book is peppered with cycling mishaps in pursuit of soda farls, pikelets, bubble & squeak, and the almost Arthurian quest for the ultimate bacon butty.

En route, we learn about honeybees, Ulster Fry, Martha de Lacey’s sourdough “Marmite”, and the bitter news that both Heinz Ketchup and HP Sauce are now made abroad. But a few brunch ravens still abide in the UK’s tower and Cloake takes us backstage at baked bean factories (Port Talbot), sausage factories (Newmarket), and Stottie Cake bakeries (Newcastle, of course.)

At a time when the origin of food is upmost in many people’s minds — the thought of “farm to fork” a comforting if knotty notion in the age of Anthropocene — the intent and ethos of Red Sauce Brown Sauce feels timely. Written during the pandemic in post-Brexit uncertainty, when many businesses, farmers and producers were starting to feel a sharp pinch, the book chews over both the history of breakfast and its possible future.

It’s a winning toast to tradition, evolution and fortitude. Far from bleary or jejune, Cloake’s paean to the petit déjeuner is a bright-eyed state of the nation address: cherish and guzzle your breakfast, folks; the most important and, it turns out, interesting meal of the day. Whatever your preferred eggs (scrambled, over easy, boiled or poached) this book should be everybody’s jam.

THRILLER OF THE MONTH

Truly Darkly Deeply
By Victoria Selman
(352pp, Quercus, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by S J Watson

Victoria Selman is the author of a series of books featuring criminal profiler Ziba Mackenzie, and her first novel, Blood for Blood, was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger prize. So it was expected that this new book – her fourth, and a standalone – would be highly accomplished. Even so, I was unprepared for just how compulsively readable it turned out to be. Selman explores big themes here, such as the nature of betrayal and the punishing legacy of doubt, wrapped up in a seductively slick thriller.

In the opening pages we meet Sophie, first in flashback as a child recently moved from Massachusetts to London with her mother, Amelia-Rose, and then in the present-day as an adult receiving a letter from Matty Melgren, a serial killer incarcerated in Battlemouth Prison. He writes that he wants to see her in the few weeks he has left before he dies.

In this skilfully woven dual narrative, cleverly supplemented with transcripts from true-crime bloggers and message boards, we learn why it’s Sophie whom Melgren is so desperate to see. Handsome and charmingly charismatic, Matty is the man Amelia-Rose fell in love with shortly after they arrived in London, becoming the only father figure Sophie had ever known. Inevitably, her life was turned upside-down by Matty’s arrest and conviction when she was just twelve years old, particularly since each victim bore a striking resemblance to her mother. A question mark has always hovered over Matty’s guilt, however. Now, with a potential deathbed confession looming, she has only days to decide whether the truth is something she can handle.

Selman straps us in for a roller coaster ride, peopled with fascinating characters – Sophie and Amelia-Rose in particular – and enough surprises to keep the reader enthralled to the end. It’s expertly paced, one of the big challenges for a successful thriller-writer, and penned with enviable verve and style. The author chillingly and forensically dissects issues of power, responsibility and culpability in a way that moves her work to a new and exciting level. Truly, Darkly, Deeply leaves me hungry to see what Selman will come up with next.

S J Watson is the award winning author of the bestselling psychological thrillers Before I Go To Sleep, Second Life and Final Cut. Follow him on Twitter at @sj_watson

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