Year 2 / Book 22: Cold Earth

22) Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

I’ve never been to Shetland, so most of my knowledge about it has been gleaned from Ann Cleeves’ series of police procedurals set on the island. They all feature Jimmy Perez, and this is the seventh in the series (apparently there is one more to come) – and I wouldn’t have read the previous six if there wasn’t something fun, readable and enjoyable about them.

This one is no different: the characters are well-drawn, not just the leading characters of Perez and DI Willow Reeves, but particularly local constable Sandy, who is increasingly endearing and believable. Cleeves also does a fantastic job of evoking the landscape and place (obviously, I say that, but have never been there) and the general gloom, rocky crags and mizzle suit a whodunnit. The island, a staple of crime fiction, also lends that sense of enclosure, lack of escape and peril.

The plot of this one struck me as a little more far-fetched than previous, although it was neatly woven and there is a nice set of characters to pick from and try and understand their respective motivations and behaviours. It also built in momentum well, and the pace picked up nicely in the last 50 pages to one of those ‘I have to stay up late to finish this now’ endings.

All in all, not a magnificent 7th, but a solid, readable, enjoyable one: middle of the pack for the series, I’d say (the first is fabulous). Roll on the final episode.

Score: 7/10

BUY THIS NOW: Cold Earth (Shetland Book 7)

Year 2 / Book 21: All Out War

21) All Out War by Tim Shipman

Of late, I’ve largely been trying to avoid in-depth political reading, as politics feels mostly depressing but also inward-looking, divisive and energy-absorbing. But then this book by Sunday Times political correspondent Tim Shipman popped up in my eyeline, and I was suddenly diving headlong into the referendum of last year. The subtitle of the book, by the way, is “The Full Story of how Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class“.

First things first, it’s an amazingly gripping read, Shipman has done a tremendous job at writing everything up so fully, generally so even-handedly, and with few mistakes and typos (with the exception of a comical ‘Whitney’ for David Cameron’s constituency early on…). Despite much of it being concerned with the very in-depth detail and information about the various referendum campaigns (Vote Leave, Stronger In and surrounding ones), it is page-turningly good: a surprise given that the denouement is well, not a surprise.

Secondly, if you are at all interested in politics and how it is fought (and I do mean fought) then this is utterly fascinating: from the alpha male-ness of reading Sun Tzu to the effective use of the media grid, from the behind the scenes signing off of press releases to the targeted use of social media channels….you will go away knowing a lot more, and being possibly slightly terrified by it all: particularly the ever-increasing and sophisticated use of data to target voters in particular ways. And the relentless and constant use of focus groups – one can rest assured that ‘Strong and Stable’ and ‘Bloody Difficult Woman’ and ‘For the Many, not the Few’ have been tested out countless times already.

The next thing that strikes me is the odd mix of ideologies, principles, loyalty and competitiveness that is written through the referendum like a stick of rock. It is in the way that these principles cut across each other that the heart of the story can be found: loyalty to a cause, loyalty to the party, loyalty to a position, loyalty to friends and colleagues…and then, the next day, any one of these being dropped like a stone. So there is much about how Cameron’s loyalty to the Conservative party plays a large part: in calling the referendum in the first place, but also in refusing to engage in so-called ‘blue on blue’ attacks (eg on Gove & Johnson) because the party would have to come together after the referendum. He similarly misjudged the likelihood of Gove and Johnson (and several others) joining the Remain campaign…though in the case of the former, the fact that Sarah Vine (Gove’s wife) told Samantha Cameron that Gove would be campaigning for Remain may have caused it. To be clear, this is the godmother of the other woman’s child lying to her face.

Much has been written, of course, about Boris Johnson’s role – and some of that is borne out here: there are two articles (one pro-Leave, one pro-Remain) but the author believes anyone who read Boris’ writing in the years coming up to it should not have been surprised he was on the Leave side. Either way, he comes across as surprisingly indecisive at times, occasionally incompetent (in preparation for the debates, or in not managing to hold to the terms of a deal with Leadsom in the leadership elections) and more sensitive than might have been thought. But also largely viewing the whole thing through the lens of leadership ambition – which was not the case for Gove, Hannah, Grayling, IDS et al, for whom it was a strongly held ideological position. 

Gove comes across as bright and clever, but swift to believe the hype of the bubble around him. His bid for leadership, which looked doomed from the start, was based on a few of his close advisors caught up by the moment and their belief in their friend; not in a cold calculation of what was sensible and likely. The same cannot be said of Theresa May who kept her head down during the campaign, made some relatively pro-Leave comments in a theoretically pro-Remain speech, and moved quickly and decisively when the opportunity came. Again, Gove makes much of his loyalty to the party and to his political principles, but then turns round (in an evening) to stab Boris in the front and ruin his own career, as well as damaging his relationship with Cameron through a distinct lack of clarity. 

The blood pressure remained pretty high reading the ‘Jexit’ chapter which covered Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour approach to the referendum. It makes for depressing reading: people rightly (I think) describe Corbyn as a decent and principled man, but he was neither with regard to the referendum. He was neither true to his principles (in that he has long been a critic of the EU and believes in leaving) nor did he act decently or properly in supporting the Remain campaign once he had, to whatever mealy-mouthed degree, endorsed it. The defence that ‘he did lots of rallies’ is quickly debunked: the referendum required reaching out beyond the already converted, and making the most of media opportunities: instead Corbyn and those around him passed up media opportunities, delayed releases over minutiae, and blocked joined-up working within the Labour Party, never mind across parties. In essence, it would have been better for Corbyn to have been true to his personal position and let the rest of the party get on with it.

The true stars of the book are those within the campaigns: Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave side and his team, and Will Straw / Craig Oliver on the Stronger In side. Cummings is clearly smart, committed and has a ‘win at all costs’ style – the book largely comes out with him as a key and decisive figure in Leave’s win. The debate between the Leave camps is also documented closely: Farage and Arron Banks maintain that it was their more populist, immigration-led approach which won over people. In fact, it was probably the combination of the two (Johnson & Gove being the acceptable face + clever use of data / messaging (NHS, £350m etc), and Farage’s more controversial populism) that won the day. That, and the Stronger In campaign losing a series of small but important battles – on purdah, on the referendum question and so on. However, they also lost in part because their data was wrong (the polling they used comes in for a kicking here) and the approach that had won them an election and a previous (Scottish) referendum didn’t work here. 

So why did it happen? Well, a wide range of factors in reality – on the Leave side, messages that resonated and clever and targeted use of social media and data, combined with a broad and wide-sweeping ground campaign (the turnout was higher than everyone expected). The In campaign was too focused on its economic (risk) message, and was too tentative in taking on Leave’s key figures and key messages personally…until too late in the campaign. Labour were a bit of a shower, as discussed above, and there was definitely some complacency from within number 10. We forget that it seems part of the ‘wave of populism’ now, but Brexit came before Trump, Le Pen et al, so it was a surprise. The Tories in the In Campaign also found out the reality of a political battle when the press is not on your side. Finally, and more fundamentally, the predominant discourse for the last 20 to 30 years has been Eurosceptic. Above everything, this was simply too difficult to rebut and turn round in the space of a few months – particularly with too few people prepared to make a positive case for Europe.

I feel like I learned a lot reading this book, despite having read countless articles post-Brexit about ‘the reason’ it happened. Social media and data usage has completely changed political campaigning, but there is still no substitute for face-to-face knocking on doors and getting the vote out. There are levels of incompetence and basic mistake-making from bright and intelligent people that probably shouldn’t surprise, but do. There were lots of marginal wins and decisions that had a significant influence but it was part of a much larger trend. 

But the thing that will stay with me the most is the interplay of political and personal principles, of party and familial loyalty, of personal ambition and political ideology – and the hypocrisy and cynicism of politicians and their advisors across the spectrum. Those who know that world better than me will presumably know this already, and be unsurprised: but it’s never been revealed as starkly to me as in these pages. It reminded me of the great Ambrose Bierce’s definition of politics:

Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage

Score: 9/10

BUY THIS NOW: All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class

Year 2 / Book 20: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

20) The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

There are few things that I hate more than the descriptions on Amazon that say ‘the most psychologically twisty and suspenseful thriller you’ll read this year’ as part of the book title. Though they clearly work, as they are becoming more and more commonplace. So you’ll have to ignore the ‘Twisty, psychological thriller with the best heroine you’ll meet this year’ tagline in the description of The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman as it is better than that might suggest. Not a lot better, but a fair bit.

It is a fairly well-trodden path: young, ambitious girl in rural town wants to leave; (various) older men are drawn to her, either as father figures or potential saviours; she is murdered (don’t worry, it happens early); and there are quieter a few candidates. Mix in a bit of amateur dramatics and a grizzled local town sheriff and we are all ready to roll. 

And roll it does – it’s a real page-turner, written in episodes from different perspectives, and I raced through it at quite a pace. And, while the ‘best heroine you’ll meet this year’ is a bit strong, Hattie Hoffman is undoubtedly more interesting than the by-the-numbers plot elements might lead you to think: a sophisticate in a humdrum town; calculating but impulsive; contradictory in the way that teenagers are. All of which means she overcomes the Lolita-type stereotypes that occasionally raise their head here.

Undemanding, pacy thriller with decent twisty denouement? Yep. Above average depiction of main character? Yep. Good way to spend a few escapist hours? Yep. Only 99p on Kindle right now? Bargain.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW – The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman: Twisty, shocking psychological thriller with the best heroine you will meet this year

Year 2 / Book 19: The Descent of Man

19) The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

For too long, I thought of Grayson Perry as ‘that artist that wears a dress who won the Turner Prize’. It was his set of Reith Lectures which alerted me to the fact that this was also someone thinking deeply and clearly and brilliantly about modern life and modern art. This was then followed by his excellent Channel 4 series, All Man, looking at masculinity – which is built upon and expanded in this book, The Descent of Man. It is a concise, funny and insightful exploration of modern masculinity with a strong foundation of honesty and openness about Perry’s own journey as a man.

Perry is excellent on male foibles and motivations and how they manifest themselves: in marathons and Tough Mudders, in film knowledge, in quizzes, in small cycling overtake manoeuvres on the way to work…and so on. He has a strong belief that violence begets violence, that our view of men and manliness needs to evolve, and that we need to cultivate an entirely new form of 21st century masculinity. How do we tackle the fact that 90% of violent crime is committed by men, and that men are increasingly likely to commit suicide? How do we channel male energy that is no longer expended in caveman hunting or heavy industry? How do we parent differently and find role models that might well be hidden at home?

He uses different archetypes – Default Man, Nostalgic Man – to bring out different traits that are identifiable and that are, largely hidden: because white men are, in most areas of life, the default. As he points out at one point, “When talking about identity groups, the word ‘community’ often crops up. The working-class community, the gay community, black people or Muslims are always represented by a (male) ‘community leader’. We rarely if ever hear of the white middle-class community. ‘Communities’ are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is ‘other’.”  One of the points of Perry’s book, in a sense is to look at ‘Default Man’ as if he is other, as a subject to be explored and a ‘problem’ to be addressed.

Of course, I’m part of that white middle-class male community: and there is plenty of self-reflection and points of (embarrassing) recognition here. And plenty of laugh-out loud moments – not least because of his brilliant illustrations which punctuate the book: you can imagine the shape of the ‘Department of Masculinity’ in one of them. My favourite section is when he’s talking about feminism and how some men are even using this (public declarations of how they are feminist, wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt) as a way of doing masculine one-upmanship: I’m a better feminist than you, and therefore a better man. Perry quotes the Guardian journalist Helen Lewis who simply says, “It’s easy for a man to be a feminist. Pick up a mop.” On which note, I’m off to clean the kitchen floor.

Read it – whatever your gender.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT HERE The Descent of Man

Year 2 / Book 18: The Last Mile

18) The Last Mile by David Baldacci

It’s fair to say this won’t be winning any literary prizes anytime soon. For some reason, I was in the mood for some trashy page-turning nonsense that woudn’t tax my brain, and this popped up in the Kindle. Baldacci is one of those machine-like James Patterson creatures who churns out easily-readable fare and sells by the millions. The secret being something of a gift for plot, for readability, for creativity and, occasionally, a decently drawn character. I’ve dipped in and out over the years, with little more than a vague sense of having passed the time as a memory.

This book is no different really – Amos Decker is a character (who must have been in an earlier book) who has a specific gift in that a brain injury has somehow led him to have completely perfect memory recall. He also has synaesthesia on top of this, which means that, occasionally, rooms go blue. He’s been drafted in to the FBI as a citizen and, in the first of a series of completely unbelievable episodes, overrules the established team to say they should take up a case that he heard on the radio on the way there. This happens to be about a man being saved from being executed on death row at the last minute; a man that Decker had played American Football against in college.

Still with me? Well it only gets more ridiculous from here, spiralling into absurdity which takes in a blown-up caravan, a safety deposit box, Spanish slang, racist incidents from the 60s, a double-cross, a kidnap and someone picking the surname Mars because it was their favourite planet. To say that you have to suspend your disbelief when reading Baldacci is a bit like saying you might have to put some milk on Weetabix to make them edible. Of course you do; but this one was particularly preposterous to the point that it genuinely didn’t make any logical or rational sense by the end, and Decker was ending each chapter with a bit of speculation, and then someone asking “could that possibly be true?” as if Baldacci didn’t quite believe what he was writing either.

In short, I won’t be doing that again for a while; there are so many other just as readable, thriller-y page-turners out there with better characters and more interest and depth, that I’m not sure why you’d bother. And writing that, I’m not why I did either.

Score: 4/10

BUY THIS BOOK The Last Mile (Amos Decker series Book 2)

Year 2 / Book 17: Black Night Falling

17) Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds

I like a bit of hard-boiled crime writing as much as the next reader, so I was looking forward to this: I’d read lots of glowing feedback about this and its predecessor by Reynolds. But I left it a bit underwhelmed and wondering quite what the fuss is about.

Reynolds can write – and the novel zips along merrily enough, with journalist Charlie Yates drawn into a murder-mystery via a journalist colleague and some ties to what happened in the first novel, The Dark Inside. Pulling at the initial thread leads Yates to the town of Hot Springs, and a woven web of 1940s ish American small town corruption. And the whole thing has a nice noir-ish feel, and (at least) to a British reader, feels quite well drawn and evoked.

But the style reads like a sort of Raymond Chandler-pastiche at times, with its laconic, short-lines and clipped prose. This starts off OK, but lapses into cliché a fair bit for me, and also lends itself to everything being explained all the time: there’s no room for your own thoughts or interpretation here. And by mid-way through, it was starting to get in the way of enjoying the story. Here’s a bit I highlighted: “he looked like a blue collar Joe, with smarts enough to go toe-to-toe in a courtroom or a bar room without looking out of place in either”. Every man he meets that he doesn’t know looks like the “sort of man you wouldn’t want to know”. And so on.

The other issue was the plot, which primarily involves Yates going to speak to someone in the town (a barman, a prostitute, a policeman, a journalist) who then tells them about someone else who he then goes to speak to. Occasionally the person he’s going to speak to turns out to be in the middle of something bad, so he has to hide or keep his head down. And then he goes back to asking people. I know he’s a journalist, but it makes for a very formulaic unveiling of the different plot strands and key characters. Although the tension and action ratcheted up, it couldn’t overcome these flaws.

Maybe the first book is better (I might give it a go – only a couple of quid on Kindle), but this one overpromised and underdelivered.

Score: 5.5/10

BUY THIS BOOK! Black Night Falling (A Charlie Yates mystery)

Year 2 / Book 16: My Name Is Lucy Barton

16) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I’ll be honest with you: I’d never heard of Elizabeth Strout until this Christmas (or was it the Christmas before?) when I was reading those pre-Xmas ‘authors recommend their books of the year’ articles, and this book got mentioned more than any other. So excuse ignorance, but it turns out that Elizabeth Strout was known by lots of other better-read people (oh yes, and won the Pulitzer Prize)…and having read this, I can see why. It was long listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, and having stalled reading Eileen (which was shortlisted, and I’m really struggling with), I can’t understand why this didn’t make the shortlist instead.

On the surface, it is a simple tale of a successful female author recounting how her mother came to visit her for five days when she was in hospital, and details the conversations they had during that time. These dialogues are interspersed by flashbacks and insights into the author (Lucy Barton, of course) and her wider life. And it is simply and sparely written, with short chapters that don’t outstay their welcome, and the feeling as you read that every single word has been chosen carefully, and every sentence pruned and honed with great care.

Beneath this simplicity, the recollections start to weave into a plot with depth, complexity and a dark edge: in the judgement of others, in barely referenced misdeeds, in the required ruthlessness that powers achievement. For a short, concise novel, there are many layers to peel back, and I felt at the end that I had read far more than the less than 200 pages in the book – a whole life is in these pages and, more specifically, a whole mother-daughter relationship is captured effortlessly in the short exchanges over just a few days.

What do you emerge with? That you are slightly wiser, wisdom rubbing off from Strout; that you have insight into the realities of families, insight gained from Strout’s writing; and, perhaps, a renewed clarity on things in your own life. Can’t ask for more than that, right?

Read it.

Score: 9.5/10

BUY IT: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Year 2 / Book 15: The Dry

 15) The Dry by Jane Harper

 I heartily recommend reading Laura Wilson’s monthly crime/thrillers round up in the Guardian: a great route to finding authors and books you might otherwise not run across. I regularly read through, pick ones that sound interesting, add them to a Wish List for future reference, and then buy one when the price comes down….And that is how I found The Dry by Jane Harper.

It’s set in rural Australia in a drought-hit farmland where opportunity has dried up as well for pretty much everyone there. Aaron Falk, who left the town as a teenager, comes back for the funeral of an old friend, who is suspected of having killed his wife and kid before committing suicide. Falk doesn’t believe it and gets drawn into the investigation, along with a stubborn local constable. In doing so, we find out both more about his past, and how characters from that past have grown up (or not).

It’s very well done: the bleak backdrop of a town with no hope, where ‘pokies’ and booze are the only respite; the interweaving of an old crime with the new one; the emergence and re-emergence of characters and suspects from the past and present; and a neat plot which only veers into slight unbelievability right at the end.

That too rapid and neat denouement aside, this is a great read – hugely evocative and engrossing, and with surprising depth of emotion. Well worth a few hours of your reading time if you’re feeling parched of a good story.

Score: 7.5/10


The Dry

Year 2 / Book 14: The Power

14) The Power by Naomi Alderman

Have you ever wondered what a world in which teenage girls and then women are the ones with the power and the strength? And what might become of society? Or felt a little burst of lightning between your finger tips? Well, wonder no more. Naomi Alderman’s near-future dystopia is a rollicking, fantastical ride into the heart of a society thrown upside down by the power being transferred between genders. It is hugely entertaining, with heavy doses of (not always that subtle) insight into the relationship between men & women, and the effect of that being inverted.

It’s brilliantly done, right from the off, with a well-drawn engaging list of characters whose lives begin to intersect: the girl escaping abusive foster parents; the daughter of a London gangster; the African video-journalist; the wife of an East European dictator; and the American politician (and her daughter). Their different journeys and narrative arcs swoop across the book effortlessly, and Alderman does a cracking job of keeping the pace high and the flow of ideas constant. There is more fizz here, more energy and crackle, than so many muted modern books which seem to retell the same stories with interchangeable romantic leads and landscapes.

At times, it veers close to the absurd, and the coincidences begin to pile up a bit by the end, but I forgave it most of that because I was caught up in the headlong rush and excitement. There is also a neat-ish framing which similarly inverts our authorial expectations and, again, of gender and power. Suffice to say that, if you’re in a book club, there will be *plenty* to talk about. Highly recommended.

Score: 9/10

BUY IT HERE! >> The Power

Year 2 / Book 13: A Thousand Cuts

13) A Thousand Cuts by Thomas Mogford

This is the fourth (or possibly fifth) Spike Sanguinetti mystery by Thomas Mogford, and I think this is one of the best. What raises them above the average or the norm for me is the setting on Gibraltar, which is a place I don’t know at all (apart from backward-looking Tory leaders suggesting that it could be the next Falklands War). It doesn’t come across well generally, as a home of tax avoidance and online gaming, but this thriller mines its history to good effect – with Spanish, German and Gibraltan history being woven into an interesting tale.

Sanguinetti is a lawyer and an engaging character: troubled, flawed, can’t-ignore-a-cause etc but he’s becoming more complex and layered with each episode in the series, and I enjoyed the depth to his characterisation this time. He seemed a bit two dimensional before, but a stable-ish relationship and a child, as well as his quirky father, have brought new facets to light, and I think this is where Mogford is beginning to shine. That, and a fast-paced, multi-layered plot which ratchets up as time goes on.

Recommended for a quick, good read – and do check out the earlier books in the series.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT HERE: A Thousand Cuts (A Spike Sanguinetti Mystery)