Jump! by Jilly Cooper (Bantam, £18.99)
The squeals of delight when Jilly Cooper’s latest blockbuster, set in the world of National Hunt racing, arrived in the Country Life office – and the squabbling about who was going to read it first – are testament to this author’s national treasure status.
Etta Bancroft, a still-beautiful, 60-something widow, is a doormat to her ghastly children, Martin and Carrie, who view her as a slightly dim and cheap babysitter. But she finds her own niche – and a heart-warming romance – as the force behind a village syndicate formed to own the equally downtrodden rescue racehorse, Mrs Wilkinson.
All the old friends are here: spluttering majors, disobedient lurchers, egotistical actresses and sexy ‘rough trade’, plus the saturnine Rupert Campbell-Black and his old showjumping friend Billy Lloyd-Foxe (remember Riders?), whose lovelorn daughter Amber takes central stage as Mrs Wilkinson’s heroine jockey.
There’s plenty of good old-fashioned skulduggery between racehorse trainers, some tear-jerking – and improbable – heroics on the track, the sinister threat of a suicide bombing, and lots and lots of bedroom farce, slapstick humour and dreadful puns.
The story is, as many of Jilly Cooper’s most recent books have been, over long, but it’s funny and moving and she brings the same assiduous research to Jump! as she brought to the worlds of Old Masters, polo and public schools, and the same tender wisdom to her characterisation. Marvellous escapism.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (Viking, £12.99)
James Stieff leaves his stiflingly earnest family to read physics at Oxford, but he appears to be swapping one trap for another, as the subject bores him and anything that’s fun seems to be happening to everyone else.
The real problem, surely, is that he is staggeringly dull, but he does possess one trump card – extreme physical beauty – and soon enough, he finds a far better girlfriend than he deserves.
Jess is kind, talented and sensible, and easily the nicest person in the book; she introduces James to her close circle of friends and he moves in with them in the vast Georgian house in Jericho belonging to Mark, a camp, flamboyant, mega-rich theology student who has a disastrous relationship with his mother and is monitored by a sinister Catholic priest. Other inhabitants are the exotic Emmanuelle, whom James rather fancies, and super-brainy Franny and her upwardly-mobile boyfriend, Simon.
The group enjoy stylish picnics and wild midnight feasts, cushioned from the usual privations of student life, but always in thrall to the erratic behaviour of their landlord, who is particularly cruel to James.
The opening chapter, in which James is acting as foil for a drug-ravaged but still wealthy Mark in Italy, obviously gives away the ultimate course of events, but on the way, Mark has spitefully married Simon’s innocent sister, Nicola, with tragic consequences.
There are obvious – and invidious – comparisons to be made with Brideshead Revisited and The Line of Beauty. It’s familiar ground, story-wise, and Alderman is no Evelyn Waugh, yet the close-knit university group is a theme that rarely fails as a device in novels, and it’s as compelling in this book as any other.
Truth to Tell by Mavis Cheek (Faber & Faber)
Nina Porter has a perfectly comfortable life which, for some inexplicable reason, she decides to mess up by starting to tell nothing but the truth. She begins to eschew the convenience of the kind little white lies that ease social life; first, she upsets her husband when refusing to go on an annual boring business trip with him, and then she offends her best friend by telling her what she really thinks of her lover.
While her husband is away, Nina defiantly accompanies her boss and friend Bruno, a writer, to Venice for research purposes, and is tempted into a flirtation with an enigmatic and overly-smooth Italian. Now, Nina has secrets of her own, and has to wrestle with the difference between truth and honesty.
Mavis Cheek’s books, gentle, wise comedies of manners, command a large fan club, of which I am one, but this one does seem a little slight in content.
Perhaps it’s just that it compares unfavourably with her last, Amenable Women, an original and spirited defence of Anne of Cleves. So, to be perfectly honest, Truth to Tell is perfectly readable, but rather silly.