Love, Nina; Stuff Matters; How to be a Victorian; Topics About Which I know Nothing and The Sea of Innocence: Paperback reviews


Love, Nina, By Nina Stibbe (Penguin £8.99)

Sometimes you want a book which is friendly, undemanding, enjoyable and slips down easily – the literary equivalent of comfort food. Love, Nina is just that sort of book. It’s a collection of the letters that Nina Stibbe sent home to her sister in Leicester when she was a nanny to the family of the journalist and editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, in the early 1980s. Claire Tomalin lived opposite, Alan Bennett was a close friend and popped in for supper most nights (not that Nina Stibbes knew who he was at first – she thought he was an actor in Coronation Street), and Jonathan Miller lived just up the road (Nina borrows a saw from him, which M-K forgets to return). She records AB’s verdict on her Florida coleslaw (“perhaps not the tinned oranges”), her own views on Chaucer (“grim and annoying”), and a constant stream of funny, inconsequential family conversations: “Will: Look at that cloud in the shape of the World Cup./ Sam: You’re always showing off, Will./ Me: He’s just looking at the sky. / Sam: Anyone can do that. / All the way home, Sam looked for a better cloud than Will’s. When we got home, he’d trodden in dogshit.” Or: “Sam: Once I left some raisins in my pocket./ Will: Did you find a tiny grape-vine? / Sam: I did actually. / Will: Liar!” Or: “Will: I hate February. / Sam: Oi! I was born in February. / MK: February was very nice in 1972. / Will: Well, for one day. / Sam: The 2nd (his birthday)? / Will: No, the 1st.” Then there’s AB’s theory that everyone is either a “mouth-looker or an eye-looker” (but MK says she’s a shoe-looker).

I defy anyone to read a single page and then stop. It’s not a book that makes you burst out laughing – but after reading it for a few minutes, you’ll notice that your face is aching slightly, because you’ve been smiling the whole time.

Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik (Penguin £9.99)

Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist, and this book explores the chemistry and cultural significance of 10 key types of stuff. Based on a photo of him sitting at a table on the roof of his apartment, each of the 10 chapters is a learned, elegant discourse on one of the materials to be seen there: steel, paper, glass, concrete, etc. Miodownik notes that, although the Chinese knew the secret of glass-making, they never pursued it seriously; the Europeans did, from which flowed European architectural achievements, the inventions of the microscope and telescope, and wine-making and brewing as arts. The chapter on chocolate is so good it will make you want to run out and buy a bar. The chapter on plastic is written as a film script, telling the story of the invention of plastic billiard balls. And in the chapter on foam you can discover aerogel, the lightest solid in the world, which, despite being 99.8 per cent air, is heat-resistant, and looks and feels like holding a piece of the sky in your hand. A hugely enjoyable marriage of science and art.

How to be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman (Viking £9.99)

Ruth Goodman spent a year living in the past for the BBC series Victorian Farm, so she knows whereof she speaks. This fascinating insight into 19th-century life tells us what Victorians had for breakfast (bread and beer for the poor; caviar, rib of beef, and pigeon pie in a stately country house), what their clothes were like (far stiffer and thicker than today), and how they managed when menstruating (in a time before close-fitting knickers, not easily). The chapter on Victorian sexuality contains some surprises – such as the story of the gay couple who openly cross-dressed, wore scent, and flirted with men in public, but who, when tried for indecent behaviour, were acquitted by a sympathetic judge.

Topics About Which I know Nothing, by Patrick Ness (Fourth Estate £8.99)

Patrick Ness is best-known as a children’s and YA novelist; this collection of quirky, surreal stories is for adults, but would certainly appeal to teenagers too. The first story, “Implies Violence” is a dark tale about a telesales company and is reminiscent of the sinister stories of Magnus Mills. “Jesus’s Elbows and Other Christian Urban Myths” is a wonderful collection of crazy conspiracy theories. “Now That You’ve Died” is a dramatic monologue about the afterlife. Probably the best story here is “Sydney is a City of Jaywalkers”, which begins when a young American traveller sees his brother, who died five years earlier, drinking tea and reading the paper in a café in Sydney. A collection of tales that speaks to the sixth-former in all of us.

The Sea of Innocence, by Kishwar Desai (Simon and Schuster £7.99)

Private investigator Simran Singh is on holiday in Goa when she receives a video on her phone of a teenage girl being molested by a gang of boys. The girl has disappeared, and it’s up to Simran to find her, in a case involving the beach-folk of Goa, gangsters, ageing hippies, an astrologer, a floating casino and a government minister. The story contrasts the paradise of Goa seen by tourists with the murky world underlying it, a world of violence, toxic misogyny and political corruption. It’s a detective story with a message, about the brutal way women are treated in India. To be honest, the quality of the prose never rises above efficient: but the importance of the theme, and indeed the suspense of the story, make up for that.