Favourite Books of 2012
5 Nov 2012
In the first of two articles, agency authors pick their favourite book of 2012.
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami, (English translation, Random House, first Publication date of Japanese edition 2009)
I fist discovered Murakami when living in Tokyo in 1994, when lent a Wild Sheep Chase by a friend, then given Dance, Dance, Dance for my 22nd birthday. He is one of the very very few authors who has never disappointed, and I am still a little bit in love with his jazz-bar owning, cat-loving hero (never the same person, always the same voice). Although this is on one level one of his sweetest and most ‘normal’ love stories, in the style of Norweigan Wood, Murakami continues to combine surrealism and realism in a breath-takingly powerful way.
Zona by Geoff Dyer, (Canongate, 2012)
The reason I like this book so much is because it’s a meditation on one of my favourite films, Stalker (1979) directed by the great Andrei Tarkovsky, which is based in turn on one of my favourite science fiction novels, Roadside Picnic (1971) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Dyer provides startling insights into the many possible meanings of this complex and magnificent film, into the nature of storytelling, and also into the possibilities inherent in the medium of film itself. At one point, the author notes that he is only writing the book because he can’t think of anything else to write, and this is what I like most about it. The implication is that Dyer is suffering from writer’s block, and is writing Zona in an attempt to defeat it. The result of this exercise is fascinating, amusing and enlightening.
Are We nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch. (Summersdale, 2011)
I was drawn to this book via one of those random gushing reviews you sometimes stumble upon, and I was not disappointed. Ben and his wife have been commissioned to write a guidebook about family travel, so with their two pre-school children, they hit the open road. What follows – several months of hard motoring as they criss-cross the UK in search of child-friendly attractions – is as laugh out loud funny as you’d expect. But the book’s real strength is its depth, because interwoven through the humour, is another, deeper tale, about the final months of Ben’s cancer-stricken dad. Complex, frank and moving, it was un-putdownable.
The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (Bantam,1998)
“War is Work” – so said Dienekes in Steven Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire a novel detailing the battle at Thermopylea in 480 BC. Its pages are rich with historical fact, poetry, philosophy and murderous violence. The lives of the Spartan elite are retold within a vivid disciplined narrative culminating in an extraordinary battle which helped shape democracy as we know it today. The Gates of Fire is as timeless and thought provoking as Homer’s The Iliad but as contemporary as the accounts of fighting in the deserts of modern Afghanistan. It captures the very essence of conflict, but also delves into the very unique relationship between those who fight wars and those who are left behind.
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (Orion, 2011)
I loved this book. The writing is so vivid, so rich in detail and colour that you feel every moment. The cold nips at your fingers as you read of arctic conditions on Gruhuken (the Norwegian island on which this ghost story is set). Your hairs stand on end as a growing feeling of unease creeps into the writing, as an ominous presence begins to stalk every page. The author makes you care about the main character ‘Jack, and whether his backdrop is 1930’s London, from where he embarks upon an expedition of a lifetime or the darkness and isolation of an island, in the grip of perpetual night, the writing has you. This is a ghost story like no other; original, scary and full of twists.
Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Viking, 2011)
Midnight in Peking is an investigation into the brutal murder of 18 year old Pamela Werner in that city in 1937. Much more than a straightforward whodunnit, Paul French deftly weaves the killing into the history and culture of a great city at a time of immense historical turmoil, with its attendant politics and corruption. Impressively and unusually, the personalities that stay with you are those of Pamela and her father who never abandoned his struggle for justice, not those of her tawdry vile murderers. This book could give the True Crime genre a good name.
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown ( Corgi, 2009)
Finding a good book is a double edged sword for me. Once I start reading one, it consumes me to the point where almost everything takes second place. I’d wanted to read the Dan Brown series for a long time, but had always been a little reticent to start after hearing reports of how good they were. When I finally did read Angels and Demons, I found it captivating, with its thundering storyline, the factual detail, the so well defined characters, and the style Dan employs in having short chapters, each detailing another part of the multi-stranded plot. I’ve read them all now and loved every one. Time to get back into the real world I suppose!
Shadow of the Rock by Thomas Mogford (Bloomsbury, 2012)
This is marvellous crime fiction – fast, intelligent, exotic and genuinely exciting. Set in Tangiers and starring the Gibraltarian lawyer Spike Sanguinetti, Mogford’s debut surprises and delights. Its startling evocation of place is just one of its many virtues. The fact that it had nothing at all to do with my research made it all the more fun. A cut above.
Hell at the Breech, by Tom Franklin, (Flamingo, 2004)
Tom Franklin’s Hell at the Breech stood untouched on my shelves for almost five years, the literary equivalent of one of those kitchen gadgets people get at Christmas, stick in a cupboard and promptly forget. Well, there was always something better to do than read a Western, even if that something was nothing. And that would have been that, if I hadn’t picked up Franklin’s mesmerising, minor-key crime thriller Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Hell at the Breech, as it turns out, is every bit as fine. Franklin takes wilted old ingredients – a gang of feral outlaws, a whisky-soaked old sheriff, a backwoods town, riddled with corruption and greed – and fashions them into something fresh and new. The result is an intoxicating tale with an urgent narrative, dotted with sharply-drawn, complex characters, and all wrapped up in Franklin’s elegant prose. (A tuft of cotton in a field, he notes, is as “white as a senator’s eyebrow.”). Someone should make it into a film. Hang on: I’ll just check … They’re going to. Well done them.
Evening’s Empire: a history of the night in early modern Europe by Craig Koslofsky, (CUP, 2011)
With its lively portrayal of London as a city that never sleeps, William Hogarth’s well-known series “The Four Times of Day” (1738) had long been a favourite of mine. Hogarth recognized that the same space – Covent Garden, say – is used by different kinds of people for different activities, at different times of day. Sadly, those of us who write about cities have been rather slow to grasp what should have been self-evident. Koslofsky’s excellent study of how the night was “colonized” does far more than uncover the night-side of seventeenth-century Europe, it will provoke any reader to reflect on how he or she uses this “space,” whether at home or on a “night out”.
Monkey with a Pin by Pete Comley ( 2012).
This is a self-published book written by an ordinary saver who tries to find out why all his investments never seem to give the mouth-watering returns regularly claimed by banks, financial advisers, unit trusts and others who are so keen to manage his money for him. With shocking clarity, the author reveals why repeated studies have shown that a monkey with a pin will achieve better returns than the majority of highly-paid investment professionals, in spite of the enormous fees they take from our savings.
Complete Poems by George Seferis, (Anvil Press Poetry. 1995)
This is my permanent bedside book. For me, the Greek writer George Seferis is the greatest poet of the last century. Drawing on Greece’s evocative landscapes and ancient history – its seas, harbours, mountains, forests and classical myths – he speaks in the simplest language with a human voice that is haunting and tragic, tender and universal: “I whispered: memory hurts wherever you touch it,/there’s only a little sky, there’s no more sea,/what they kill by day they carry away in carts and dump behind the ridge.” It’s both timeless and contemporary – he’d understand his country’s present crisis: “Greece wounds me wherever I travel.”
The History of Marriage by Stephanie Coontz, (Viking, 2005)
I particularly liked this book because it brings a whole new level of understanding to relationships. Once you accept the main thesis of the book – that the ‘love marriage’ is only 200 years old – it brings clarity to the challenges of today’s relationships. Lifelong partnerships have been about functionality, not romance for the most of history. Once you understand that you’ll see how we are not losing touch with ‘traditional values’, but creating new ones. As a writer specialising in modern relationships, these revelations were particularly poignant. It should be required reading for anyone who writes about, comments on or coaches in the field of relationships. Not only that but in explaining the history of marriage from cavemen to modern day, this book also ends up giving a full cultural history of how we lived through all these eras. And it’s thoroughly researched and vibrantly written, and is the only history book I’ve ever actually finished.
Snakes in Suits:When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D Hare, (HarperCollins,2006).
Written by two distinguished academics who have long studied psychopaths, they look here at how they operate, not in the world of violence, but in business corporations. They found that modern capitalism provides exactly the kind of great risk, high profit environment where such personalities thrive and can cause great damage. Psychopathy is not a’ mental illness ’ but a personality disorder which produces unquestioning self-confidence, absence of any internal doubt and where emotions are typically used for purposes of manipulating other people. Usually a psychopath is a charismatic high-flyer who ruthlessly rises in the corporation with the absolute determination to achieve power and personal gain. They are normally invisible to the majority who are unable to understand how they function. This book brings psychopathic personalities into the open with valuable check lists on how to spot them.It should be compulsory reading for all those with a responsibility for assessing people in the workplace, not only in business but throughout the public services and other spheres of employment as well. Reading it convinced me in that I have seen the tell-tale symptoms on several occasions throughout my own university career.
Gold, by Chris Cleave (Sceptre, June 2012)
Already struggling with Olympic overload this summer, I wasn’t sure reading Gold – which follows the lives of two female cyclists in the run up to the Olympics – was going to be a good idea. But this is not a book about sport, it is about the personal aspect – what these two Olympic athletes are willing to sacrifice to get to potentially the greatest moment of their lives, how they are judged morally and socially, and how they cope with their own difficult and competitive friendship. Incredibly well researched and beautifully descriptive and emotional. The Other Hand, Chris’s previous book to this, is one of my favourite of all time, so he had a lot to live up to here – but luckily he didn’t let me down!
Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson, (Allen Lane, 2012)
George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral describes the invention of the computer from the perspective of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study, one of several claimants to the title. In it, the scientists and their work take their proper place in our cultural history. Conceptually, the computer was Turing’s idea but the realisation of the dream was the work of John von Neumann, like Turing a great, polymathic mathematician. The Institute for Advanced study played host to a galaxy of scientists, many of them Jewish refugees, with Einstein at their head, and was also deeply involved in the development of the H Bomb. The book is intellectual history at its best.NADENE GHOURI
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif (Cape,2011)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a funny, dark and sad tale about religious minorities in Pakistan. Set in the city of Karachi – a bustling crazy place beset by crime, kidnappings, drug lords and brutally gripping poverty. The story centres around the Catholic-run Sacred Heart hospital which provides free medical care to poor slum dwellers. Survival here is a daily battle, not only for the patients but for the staff too. Alice Bhatti is a tough-talking and spirited young Catholic nurse fresh out of prison for assault. Her romance with Muslim part-time gangster Teddy is the device through which the author lifts the lift on the violent sectarianism, corruption and fear which stalk Pakistan. Hanif is a thoroughly modern Pakistani writer (rare in a country where literary traditions are much more staid). The book is worth reading for the rarely honest portrait it offers a Western reader of a much misunderstood country.
A Kind Man by Susan Hill, (Vintage, 2011)
Lulled into a false sense of security by the simple description of the everyday lives of Eve and Tommy Carr as they struggle to survive the 1930’s depression, the twist in the plot is awe-inspiring. A complete shock and a testament to the author’s skill that it is also plausible. Tommy is a good man who thinks only of others, even when faced with the untimely death of his beloved daughter, and then his own terrible illness. Hauntingly beautiful with an economy of words that leaves as much unsaid as said. The contrasting images of dark and light, health and illness, abundance and want, generosity and self-centredness, combine to form not only a good read but a parable about the nature of fortune. This book stayed with me long after the closing page.
I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge (Harper Collins, 2011)
An obvious choice, perhaps, but Alan Partridge’s memoir is the funniest book I’ve read in years, and a refreshing antidote to the tendency for comedians’ books to veer into misery memoir territory. Every line has been crafted with enormous care, dripping with irony and self-delusion. So many passages made me laugh out loud, for example: “So, dear reader, our time together is over. All that remains is this short epilogue. And anyone who thinks it’s designed solely to haul me over the minimum word-count specified by my publisher is very, very, very, very, very, very wrong.”
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max (Granta Books, 2012)
For me, the author David Foster Wallace was the real-life version of the character in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy who, sitting in a café, suddenly comes up with the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. She is killed (along with the rest of Earth’s inhabitants) before she can tell anyone, thanks to a reptilian race of intergalactic highway builders led by a fanatical poet-come-jobsworth, who demolish the planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Reading Wallace’s fiction (Infinite Jest) and non-fiction (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is like watching someone writing their way towards the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Tragically, Wallace died in 2008, aged 46, halfway through writing The Pale King, the follow up to his masterwork Infinite Jest. This well-written, neatly constructed biography, which covers, amongst much else, affairs, addictions, teaching, tennis and tobacco, by lively New Yorker writer DT Max, captures like a roach under a glass (a reference for Wallace fans) the too-brief life of this literary supernova.
The Big Short by Michael Lewis, (W.W. Norton,2010)
The trepidation with which I picked up this book for research purposes was immediately dispelled by the compelling authority and the humorous, often racy, always considered manner of the story-telling. On the surface, an analysis of the causes of the financial crash of 2008, an explanation of the role of credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations is scarcely a riveting read for the layman. Yet Michael Lewis succeeds in translating technical jargon into intelligible terms, painting powerful and realistic pen portraits of protagonists and explaining with the suspense of a masterly thriller how insiders were able to turn the forthcoming crash to enormous advantage.
Flashman in the Great Game by George Macdonald Fraser (Knopf, 1975)
Flashman is pure champagne and this volume is the finest vintage. The scenario is the Indian Mutiny into which he is reluctantly thrust and he twists and turns, dies the coward’s death many times and prospers from his chicanery. The history is excellent and, thanks to Flashy’s impersonation of an Indian soldier, the uprising is seen from the perspective of the mutineers. The description of a padre’s sermon to the native troops as translated by a subhadar is hilarious. Flashman is eyewitness to the siege and massacre at Cawnpore and the dramatic overthrow of Jhansi ( whose warrior rani is his lover ) and he cheats death many times and also his commanders, who think him the manly, Christian hero. He remains the cynic, revealing in passing the humbug of his times. Wonderful stuff and, I suspect, close to the truth of how the Empire was won. The tape version, read by Timothy West, is superb, but with some politically incorrect bits seem to have been lamentably cut.
Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective by Richard Schickel (Sterling, 2012)
As with most ‘80s kids, Steven Spielberg’s films were a huge part of my childhood – Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., etc. – and started my lifelong love affair with cinema. You could say I’m a fan. Even so, the fact that this is the first Spielberg book to have The Beard’s participation could quite easily have worked against it. But Schickel, a long-time film critic at Life and Time magazines, is a reliable guide who’s not afraid to criticise his subject’s work. He offers a brisk, insightful and balanced analysis of each of Spielberg’s 27 directorial outings. It’s fascinating stuff, complemented by rare photos from DreamWorks’s archives, and is my favourite book of 2012.
Grand Pursuit : The story of the people who made modern economics by Sylvia Nasar , (Fourth Estate , 2012 )
This is a compelling account of the handful of economists – from Karl Marx and Alfred Marshall to JM Keynes and Amartya Sen – who have most shaped the development of ’ the dismal science ` over the last 150 years. A mix of biography, history and economics there is a plentiful supply of character and conflict and personal anecdote. Nasar brings economics to life and in doing so, tells us a good deal about how we got into the current mess and why we seem incapable of finding a route out.
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel (Allen Lane, 2012
‘Isn’t there something wrong with a world in which everything is up for sale?’ asks Michael Sandel, as he details the dangers of mutating from a ‘market economy’ into a ‘market society’. Ethical slippage is his terrain and, in his sights, ‘market fundamentalists’ and their devotees, blind to human needs and values. Sandel’s lucid, simply-crafted book takes them on. We can refuse them, he suggests. We are citizens, not consumers, with minds – and impassioned arguments which What Money Can’t Buy places in our hands. I’m on his side. I’m ever so glad that the airwaves’ public philosopher is on ours.
Real Britannia: Our Ten Proudest Years – The Glory and the Spin by Colin Brown,( Oneworld, 2012)
Having enjoyed the author’s Whitehall: The Street That Shaped a Nation I was delighted to receive an early copy of his latest, an engaging and well-argued examination of such iconic moments in British history as the Battle of Agincourt, Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Armada’ speech at Tilbury, the abolition of the slave trade, and the Falklands War. Neither fashionably dismissive nor blimpishly triumphant, Brown uncovers the inevitable falsehoods but leaves the magic largely intact. The wealth of detail is so impressive that any writer must surely admire the sheer readability of the finished piece.
Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream by Guy Walters (John Murray 2006)
This being Olympic year, I found myself embroiled in so many conversations about past Olympic scandals that I found myself re-reading this book. Although the story of the Berlin Olympics is often reduced to Jesse Owens vs Hitler, this book tells a much wider story. It was fascinating to learn about the controversy behind the city’s selection and the incredible gender scandals that went on during the games. The story of the athlete who claimed she was the only genuine female in the top four of her race bought a smile to my face and I found myself re-quoting her many times over the summer.
The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston (Harper Collins 2012)
It’s a difficult read – cataloguing in dry prose the 200,000 extrajudicial murders during the Spanish Civil war – but ultimately a rewarding one thanks to the meticulous research and persuasive arguments. Preston does not shy away from the various atrocities committed on the Republican side but argues that the Nationalist bloodletting was on a much larger scale and part of General Franco’s deliberate strategy of ethnic cleansing. Altogether, an important thought-provoking work which perhaps should have been written decades ago by a Spanish historian.
Watergate: The Hidden History by Lamar Waldron (Counterpoint, 2012)
I like books where an author can take a subject that has, seemingly, been exhausted, then through inspired and diligent research, find a whole new story. When Lamar Waldron began examining the Watergate scandal he looked at what so many previous writers had ignored; what was so important that Nixon was willing to risk his career to have stolen? In the process he uncovered Nixon’s long-standing links to the mafia and big corporations. Although a history, Waldron discovers enough threads that still run through politics to make this book a chilling examination of America today.
I, Partridge by Alan Partridge (Harper Collins,2011)
Few books by comedians ever live up to their live shows. Lee Evans’ memoir involved telling his readers several hundred times how poor his upbringing was. Poor, and unremarkable. Peter Kay’s genius onstage wasn’t reflected in his last book, which was a desperate and deeply unfunny tome, as James Corden’s May I Have Your Attention Please. However, I, Partridge, unlike the aforementioned written in character, was one of the wittiest books I’ve ever read, perfectly satirising the celebrity autobiography. Liberally sprinkled with choice anecdotes about Bill Oddie, Sue Cook and Steve Ryder among others, the attention to detail and the exquisite way it so exactly captures Alan’s bitter tone of voice as he reflects on his career with little self awareness, should be a lesson for other entertainers who assume their acts will translate to the written word with minimal effort.
Empire by Jeremy Paxman (Viking,2011 )
Excellently written, humane, engaging and informative.
Bertie A life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley (Chatto & Windus, 2012)
Queen Victoria’s heir was a disappointment and a worry, with his short attention span, wide girth and endless entanglements. She considered him unsatisfactory and even blamed the death of her beloved Albert on Bertie’s ‘fall’. However, as Jane Ridley brilliantly shows, Tum-Tum’s misspent youth, and indeed middle age, made him not only a satisfactory king but one who played a more significant political role than posterity has hitherto given him credit for, particularly with the entente cordiale, for which he had trained In the Parisian fleshpots. She reveals how much the pageantry of modern monarchy that we take for granted today was invented by Bertie. The book is as good as royal biographies get, combining real scholarship and authority with a gripping tale.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell, (Vintage, 2011).
I had always found Montaigne rather difficult to get into. It was partially my own fault. As a student, I had a giant and dusty old 19th century edition with tiny type, turgidly translated and probably bowdlerised. With such packaging, I fell under the impression that his essays were a dry old heaping up of irrelevances. Sarah Bakewell’s book, which was given to me as a birthday present, put me swiftly to rights. Her work is a brilliant interlacing of biography, political and intellectual history, but always coming back to the enduring experience of humanity – in the words of the title, how did Montaigne think we ought to live. Bakewell’s book is not only marvellous in itself, but it has encouraged me to return to Montaigne with new eyes, and when I next visit the bookshop, a new edition as well.
Story of a Secret State, by Jan Karski, (Penguin, 1944 reprinted 2011)
This epic of Polish resistance to Nazi occupation was certainly my most gripping read this year, an eye-opening story of true adventure, heroism and horror beyond imagining. The ruses used by members of the Polish underground to evade detection, Karski’s hazardous journeys as an emissary to his government in exile in Paris, his betrayal, capture, torture and scarcely believable escape outdo fiction. The writing is vivid. Here is a young SS officer: ‘an extraordinarily handsome youth, tall, slender, with long blond hair that fell with premeditated charm over his forehead…This was the genuine article, so authentic a product of Nazi education and Prussian tradition as to be vaguely unreal.’ The blood freezes.
Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings, (Harper Press, 2009)
It is a tribute to Max Hastings that Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 compels us to look at this period in a more sober, less sentimental light than is the norm. Without in any sense diminishing the heroism of Churchill’s personality or the scale of his achievement, Hastings isn’t averse to highlighting his personal foibles or strategic misjudgements. He also doesn’t flinch from exposing the uncomfortable realities of the war from a British perspective; the mediocrity of much of its fighting effort, especially the military, the considerable tensions within the Grand Alliance, Churchill’s deteriorating relationship with Roosevelt and his ambivalent relationship with many of his fellow countrymen. The result is a gripping and stylish account of a tumultuous six years that not only cemented Churchill’s place in the pantheon of British heroes but also saw the nation continue its inexorable decline from great power status.
Since The Layoffs by Iain Levinson, (Soho Press Inc, 2004)
Jake is from a small town in America, and finds himself being made redundant after the factory he works for closes. Desperate for money and rapidly losing his sense of self worth, he accepts to become a hit man for a local bookie, who promises to clear his debt if he murders his wife. Jake is surprised at how easily he finishes the job, and this leads to more work in his new field. Jake begins to take pride in his work, and eventually kills enough people to be able to afford to buy a business. And lives happily ever after. I absolutely loved this book. The story is maybe a little silly but told in a brilliantly witty way, and really makes the reader reflect on the way workers are treated by large businesses. Aside from being a story filled with acid wit and brilliant one-liners, this is a very current reflection on today’s employment situation. It will have you signing up for becoming a mobster in no time.
Hitler. A Short Biography by A. N. Wilson (Harper Press, 2012)
This is indeed a short biography, but it’s considerably more insightful than most works two or three times its length. It’s a book of anecdotes, highlighting some of the more intriguing aspects of Hitler: his laziness, the self-contradictoriness of his beliefs, his social awkwardness, his early obsequiousness towards his social superiors, and his self-belief. This provocative book perfectly illustrates the central enigma of Hitler: ordinary in terms of his petit bourgeois character and worldview, extraordinary in areas such as political instincts, oratory and the mesmeric power he exerted. I was gripped by this short biography and hope Wilson has time to pen a long one.
The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd (Simon and Schuster,2012).
A brilliantly realized first book that is a combination of historical novel and detective fiction. Skilfully combining a story about the origins of the English slave trade with a series of unsolved murders in Wapping it has a superb sense of time and place and leaves the reader guessing even at the end. Highly recommended.
Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)
Greenmantle is John Buchan’s masterpiece. The 39 Steps was a brilliant jeu d’esprit. Greenmantle, its sequel, is a more serious novel contracted, written and published in 1916. Its theme of how the Muslim world might be united by Germany in a holy war against the British Empire, India in particular, is still relevant a century later. Buchan tells the true story of how the Turkish city of Erzerum is captured by the Russians – one of the few victories won by Tsarist forces. The book displays Buchan’s innate humanity. He refuses to condemn the German people for the war – this in 1916 remember – only the Kaiser and Germany’s political and military leaders. A sophisticated thriller, perfect for reading on a cruise on the Danube!
Returning Home: Irish Ex-Servicemen after the Second World War by Bernard Kelly, (Merrion, 2012)
Ireland was neutral during the Second World War but tens of thousands of Irish citizens voluntarily served in the British Armed Forces. While these volunteers are now national heroes – a magnificent Irish contribution to the struggle against Nazism and Fascism – when they returned home to Ireland after the war they were treated with hostility, embarrassment, and indifference. Bernard Kelly tells this moving story from the point of view of the volunteers themselves and makes excellent use of oral history interviews. The book carries a warm endorsement from Alan Shatter, Ireland’s Minister for Justice and shortly after publication Shatter announced a pardon for those soldiers who had deserted the Irish army to fight on the allied side. Not everyone agrees with this decision – desertion is among the most serious of military crimes and Kelly himself has his doubts – but the pardon commands a wide consensus and the volunteers’ place in the Irish pantheon seems assured.
Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh, (Longmans, Green & Co, 1935)
Fundamentalism. Terrorist hysteria. Politics and religion twisting fear into hate. A lone hero, an outlaw—smuggled undercover into his own country. I can’t put the book down. It’s a plot straight from the Special Forces clandestine ops library. A gifted and patriotic Englishman, an Oxford don, chooses a hated and treasonous religion. He spreads it in the shadows, hunted by the authorities. When the inevitable end comes, England feels a smaller and emptier place. Although the style is bulky by today’s standards, Waugh speaks out for the demons conjured in every century, effortlessly waking our sympathy and outrage. It’s a terrible story, magnificently told.
How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish ,(Rawson,1980)
This book is important. For many reasons. The two main ones are this: first, even though I don’t have any kids myself, I starkly understand that one of the keys to success and happiness is how each of us is brought up. Consequently, this means it’s our (mammoth) responsibility to ensure that we treat the young humans we create in a manner that allows them to grow up into confident, decent, fulfilled and happy souls. This book contains clever techniques that build self-esteem and nurture any youngster. Secondly – and excitingly – these techniques are applicable to adults too. After all, adults are only slightly wrinklier kids… The principles in this book that relate to children are directly useful for having positive relationships with anyone you care about – whether it be your partner, family member or someone you work with. The book has real life wisdom, distilled clearly and succinctly, plus it contains fun and powerful illustrations too. Reading ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk inspired to write my own, slightly different manual for life, Success Or Your Money Back, which contains my thirty secrets for getting anything you desire and is out now, published by Hay House…
Swag by Elmore Leonard, (Delacorte, 1976)
Detroit in the 1970s. Low-lifes trying to be badasses. Crackling writing. A clever plot with tension, humour, and a perfect blend of the expected and the unexpected. Characters who are interesting because, like all of us, they are flawed and buffeted by winds they could not control even if they were not flawed. The master demonstrates his famous 10 Rules of Writing. Every time I read Elmore, I get a bad case of dialogue envy.
Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, Chapman & Hall,1890)
In fifty-four chapters, Chuzzlewit’s episodic plot climaxes with a satisfying victory of good over evil. The characterisation is spectacularly inventive, from the silken villainy of Pecksniff to the malapropian grossness of Mrs Gamp. The shifting backdrop includes not only the theatre of Dickensian London but also a biting portrayal of the United States which Dickens would later defend against a charge of caricature. The genius of the prose, the ironic humour, the deep humanity: these leap from every page. My grandfather’s copy of Chuzzlewit has been a brilliant bedtime read.
Conquered City by Victor Serge, (New York Review of Books, 2011)
I’ve been catching up on books about the Russian Revolution, and the one that has gripped me most is this novel about St. Petersburg during 1919-1920 as the Reds seek to cement their control over counter-revolutionaries. In a series of vivid set-pieces the author, a revolutionary participant in the struggle, powerfully evokes the fear and paranoia as Bolshevik idealists seek to cleanse the city of their enemies- and in doing so discover that terror is a power that destroys them, too. Serge published his novel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg became) in 1931, after he had fallen out with Stalin and been expelled from the party. It was re-issued last year by the New York Review of Books at the eminently reasonable price of £8.99.
Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma, by George MacDonald Fraser (Harvill 1993)
The ‘Flashman’ author is in tremendous form recounting his experiences with Nine Section, a group of tough Cumbrian borderers with whom he served as a 19-year-old reinforcement in the last great land campaign of World War II. Fraser is the squaddies’ laureate: ‘Many officers have written about Burma, but not many private soldiers, I think; that is one reason for doing it. Another is to make some kind of memorial to Nixon and Grandarse and Hutton and Long John and Parker and Forster and Tich and Gale, and the Duke and all the rest of those matchless men whose grimy brown faces I can see, and whose Northern voices I can here, as though it was yesterday and not half a century on.’
Untold Story by Monica Ali, (Simon & Schuster ,2012)
In the neatly-titled Untold Story, Monica Ali draws a fragmented sketch of Lydia, an Englishwoman with secrets recently moved to small-town America. As we observe her making friends, working and going on dates, scraps of her old life emerge like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to reveal a picture that comes as both a shock and shockingly familiar. While questioning the flaws and follies of fame and stardom, Ali invites us to question celebrity culture and our own voyeuristic part in its destructive nature. This is a daring book, a slow burn and hugely entertaining.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer, (Bodley Head 2012)
Ian Mortimer’s journey through 16th century England is fascinating, allowing us a virtual ramble through towns and cities, villages and byways with an immediacy underlined by the present tense in which he writes. It’s an easy read with fascinating headings ranging from ‘Bodily Cleanliness’ to ‘Witchcraft’. I bought this as background to my Kit Marlowe series and found myself completely caught up in bodies, foreparts, pantofles and so much more! I now know all about archery, hawking hunting, fowling and fishing and I’ll be doubly sure in future to stay well away from London theatres and indeed anywhere South of the River!
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Viking, 2012),
The book that has made the most impact on me this year is Escape from Camp 14 which is the life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the only ever escapees from a North Korean political labour camp to make it out of the country alive. It’s not the most flowing prose I have ever read, but when the subject matter is this compelling, that hardly matters. It is one of the darkest tales I’ve read, right up there with Holocaust literature in its shocking brutality, and it really rams home the fact that North Korea isn’t simply a poor country with a faintly amusing personality cult, but really is a truly sickening tyranny. A disturbing and important book.
The Curious Incident of the dog in the night time by Mark Haddon (Random House, 2003)
I loved this book, which won various fiction awards. Haddon brilliantly delves into the autistic mind of a young boy living in his own world and trying to make sense of his environment and the people in it. The story is equally unbearably sad and uplifting, and written in the point of view of the main character, which, given that Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome, is quite a remarkable feat. Listed as children’s fiction, I believe this is an important book for readers of any age.
Totally Wired by Andrew Smith (Simon & Schuster,2012)
The best book I’ve read this year is Totally Wired by Andrew Smith. It’s his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Moondust, which was a study of the men who walked on the moon. This book is likewise about a man who reached uncharted heights and who, like the astronauts, was left burned out. His name was Josh Harris, and he was an entrepreneur during the first dot com boom. Smith’s study of his career teaches us more about what the Internet will do to society and about the provenance of current global financial woes than one could possibly expect from a biography of an obscure businessman.
The Princess of Siberia: The story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles by Christine Sutherland,(Quartet, 2001)
In preparation for my trip on the Transsiberian railway and the subsequent book I am writing about the line, I’ve been combing the literature on Siberia and the most compelling tale is told in The Princess of Siberia: The story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles. Through the story of this remarkable woman, who had to persuade the authorities to let her go into exile with her husband, the author manages to provide an insight into life under an absolute monarchy and the struggles of living in the most inhospitable place in the world.
Wish you were Here by Graham Swift, (Knopf Publishing Group, 2012)
Favourite this year? I have to say Wish you were Here: a difficult, troubling sort of book, old-fashioned in its condition-of-England kind of concern, with a terrifying, madly driving, race-to-the-finish conclusion resolved by (of all British things) an umbrella. Ian McEwan so smooth and brilliant, so clever and Chinese-boxy in Sweet Tooth . . . but give me Swift even at his lumpiest and most awkward – and writing unforgettable scene after scene (the repatriation sequence quite wonderful).
The Viper of Kerman by Christian Oliver, (Halban Publishers 2009)
Still highly topical, this racy thriller imagines an Iranian ayatollah conning the British and Americans into supporting him in a coup, in return for the promise to give up the nuclear effort. Oliver was the Reuters correspondent in Tehran and has created a number of highly believable and occasionally surreal characters. The plot, of course, blows up in the West’s face. There is much to laugh at, but underlying the humour is the serious point that Iranians are masters of the art of smoke and mirrors. To be read by any American contemplating engineering a regime change in Tehran with the help of one of the expatriate opposition factions.