Book news

  • Picture books for children – reviews
    Imogen Carter

    Brilliantly illustrated tales by Sophie Dahl and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o will charm young readers

    When she was younger, Sophie Dahl’s stepgrandmother used to tease her: “Who do you think you are, Madame Badobedah?” The name (which “rhymes with ooh la la”) stuck, and has now inspired the model turned author’s first foray into children’s writing. Opening this longer-form picture book, it’s hard to resist the urge to sniff out traces of a certain other grandparent. But with Madame Badobedah (Walker), Dahl junior proves she has a playful and beguiling voice all of her own.

    Mabel is an only child whose parents run a seaside B&B. In one exquisite picture, illustrator Lauren O’Hara depicts the Mermaid hotel as a sort of hive buzzing with boxers, band members and other intriguing characters. Mabel is not impressed when a rude old lady moves in with 23 bags, hundreds of trinkets and a strange tortoise called Boris. She turns detective, concluding that the new guest, whom she names Madame Badobedah, is a villain. But in time they strike up a friendship and find themselves venturing through a Narnia-esque cupboard.

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  • Crucible by Charles Emmerson review – seven years that shaped our world
    Peter Conrad

    This buoyant study of life after the great war illuminates the part that chance plays in history

    Historians, fixing their eyes on a rear-view mirror, sort the past into a procession of immutable events with inevitable outcomes. That suits the grandiose individuals they write about, who fancy that their activities are somehow predestined. “History will not forgive us,” said Lenin in 1917, “if we do not assume power now.”

    But did history forgive the would-be assassin whose bullet, fired at Lenin a year later, missed his carotid artery by three millimetres? And did it notice why no peace treaty with the Ottoman empire was concluded in 1922? Diplomacy failed on that occasion because Lord Curzon’s train left the Lausanne station five minutes before American go-betweens rushed along to announce that Ismet Pasha was willing to negotiate.

    The monsters who were to maraud through the next decade make inauspicious debuts here

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  • Stray Dogs review – Russian poet's struggle against Stalin
    Arifa Akbar

    Park theatre, London
    Anna Akhmatova is forced to choose between artistic integrity and saving her son in Olivia Olsen’s play

    In 1935, Anna Akhmatova began writing Requiem in Soviet Russia. Her son, Lev, had just been arrested by the authorities and the poem, published decades later, became a seminal work on Stalin’s Great Terror. It was as much a mother’s lament as a testimony of a nation’s suffering: “Seventeen months I’ve pleaded / for you to come home. / Flung myself at the hangman’s feet”, she wrote plaintively of queuing outside the prison gates every day to receive news of Lev.

    Her divided loyalties as a poet and a mother form the central tension in Olivia Olsen’s play. Just as Julian Barnes dramatised Shostakovich’s inner torments over the musical compromises he made to survive Stalin’s regime in The Noise of Time, so Akhmatova is shown going through similar moral and emotional tussles. Shostakovich’s compliance is repeatedly referenced here, although Olsen’s script ruminates on the bravery of Akhmatova’s choice – to sacrifice some poetic principles in order to save her son – alongside its ethical burden.

    At Park theatre, London, until 7 December.

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