Year 2 / Book 29: The Ballad of Peckham Rye

29) The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

My experience of Muriel Spark had been limited to the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie before this, so thanks to Gen for sending this little gem through. It’s a slim, sharp novel featuring a mischievous Scotsman, Dougal Douglas (or possibly Douglas Dougal) causing havoc amongst the lives of Peckham residents, most notably those at one of its local firms – the exciting-as-it-sounds textile firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley. Imagine a sort of bleak, lifeless Mad Men office in South London in the 1950s and 60s and you are just about there.

It’s a fascinating read – Spark seems to be at once attempting to critique the drudgery of working class (and middle class) life in Peckham, to comment on the inter-relationship between arts and industry (Douglas is theoretically taken on to bridge the gap between the two), and also to set a devilish, supernatural tale in a simple London setting. It just about manages to hold all three strands together, woven by the caustic nature of the writing and the inexorable manoeuvring of the plot – by the end, there are deaths, injuries and cancelled weddings amongst much else.Crucially, of course, it is also very funny – there are some lovely incisive damning cuts of humour, and some fabulous dialogue amongst the participants (“My life’s so rotten”; “And it’s not even over yet” etc). And underneath the humour is a nagging sense of a dark, comic malevolence from Dougal Douglas who is a tricksy, whimsical but also nasty character who inflicts nothing but misery on everyone he comes across. The fact that he ‘escapes’ Peckham to move on to the next place tells its own story.

There’s not an indulgent word here, and I personally love Spark’s sharpness and wit; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you want a short slice of fantastical-meets-kitchen sink drama, then you could do a lot worse: you’ll laugh a lot too.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW;The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics)

Year 2 / Book 28: Dead at Daybreak

28) Dead At Daybreak by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is a great South African thriller writer: one of those who consistently rises above the ‘genre’ of police procedural and standard crime thriller to create memorable, involving characters, complex plots and insight to the country they are based in. In this instance, Dead At Daybreak doesn’t feature his recurring Johannesburg police inspector, Benny Griessel, but the wonderfully dour and complicated Zed van Heerden in the central role.

It’s a gripping ride, combining the story of van Heerden’s spiral downwards which is where we start the book, with the unravelling and unwinding plot that begins with a will and escalates into a safe, a mystery and danger round every corner. On a purely ‘page-turning’ level, this is top stuff and confirms Meyer as one of my favourite crime writers in terms of plot, pacing and characterisation. 

What makes this book a notch higher still in my estimation is the brilliant intertwining of stories and the consistent and illuminating insight into South Africa that the novel gives – not in a shoe-horned making-a-political-statement kind of way, but just moments of reflection and passing comments that draw attention to both the ongoing effects of apartheid, the changes being wrought on society, and the individual journeys that is requiring people to go on.

In short, this might be more than a decade old, but it’s well worth a few hours of your time – and I’ll be continuing to go back through Meyer’s previous novels to dive into.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT NOW:  Dead at Daybreak

Year 2 / Book 27: Late Fragments

27) Late Fragments by Kate Gross

The subtitle to this book is ‘Everything I Want To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)’, which gives you an indication of what it is about. It’s a memoir written by a high-flying woman who gets diagnosed with terminal colon cancer when she is 34 and who dies two years later: the subtitle is aimed at her young twin boys who she is leaving behind along with her husband. More than that, the book is really an attempt to cram everything she has learned and feels and is going through into words and pages – and to demonstrate there is meaning in the life she has lived.

Which, of course, there is – Kate Gross was a leading civil servant in Tony Blair’s government and went on to be the founding CEO of his Africa Governance Initiative, helping fledgling governments like Rwanda set up the infrastructure they needed. She was clearly ambitious and this shines through in the book, although she grows more aware post-diagnosis of the double-edged sword of that ambition: forgetting to pay attention to friends and occasionally family, but more noticeably to the things she loves doing. The lines that stand out to me from the book are when she says that sometimes our younger version of ourselves knows best; as her time draws to a close, she returns to first loves: swimming, writing, time with friends.

She clearly loves writing and literature and that flows through the book: at times, even, it feels like she is trying to get too much in – an allusion, a literary quote, a reference – but that’s entirely forgivable; would we not all do the same, knowing it’s the only book we will write? It’s a minor quibble in a book that has plenty of poignant moments and learning that resonates. Having been the husband to a wife diagnosed with cancer, I was particularly struck by her concept of the ‘spiral’ – which is about how the close family & a few friends support the individual at the centre, but then they need support from the next circle of friends, and so on. Practical support for the people around the person suffering from the illness can sometimes be the best thing to do.

This isn’t a cancer memoir as such; there’s little medical detail or jargon or information about the treatment she goes through. What there is, and what I was left with after reading it, is a passionate and urgent call to retain our wonder for the world, for the things and the people we love, and to pursue those passions with commitment and eyes open. There are worse things to get from reading a book.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT HERE; Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)

Year 2 / Book 26: Hillbilly Elegy

26) Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by someone from a poor white family in the middle of America, who ‘got out’ and made a success of themselves (going to a prestigious university and ending up at a venture capital firm. It became a bestseller in the US and has been widely viewed as ‘explaining’ why Trump won the election, or at least detailing the conditions and factors behind that political movement. I’m not sure it does that (I’d suggest reading the magnificent The Unwinding for a comprehensive look at what is happening in America and why Trump has risen to power), but it is a well-written, compelling and articulate view into people’s lives that often remain undocumented and little understood.

The content is shocking in places: the levels of violence, domestic conflict, alcoholism and drug use combine into a potent mix which only requires a spark to set light to.  Families are dysfunctional and in a state of constant reinvention and uncertainty: new partners arrive and leave in the book with troubling regularity. And underpinning both is the decline of more traditional industrial jobs and the associated lack of opportunity.

But Vance also talks continually about the hillbilly culture and code – in which fierce loyalty mixes with an equally fierce mistrust of authorities (including politicians) – and which he dates back to much earlier times and generations. He also notes how this is changing between generations: “Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”

There is little clear reasoning given as to why he makes it while others don’t, beyond a few swipes at others’ laziness – views that aren’t surprising given his experience and his political mentors (David Frum, Peter Thiel etc). More clear is that his grandmother Mamaw, along with his sister Lindsey, gave him the consistency and solidity that was hugely lacking elsewhere. And even his mother, plagued by addictions and terrible choices, places a strong emphasis on education and learning.  It is wise, perhaps, for Vance not to draw much wider lessons from his own experience – it is, after all, just one experience amongst many; and, as the saying goes, data beats opinion every time.

For me, the most insightful and affecting part of the book was towards the end in which Vance realised not only the class divide he was having to bridge in these new social networks (there is an interesting sidebar on social capital, networks and careers here) but also that he hadn’t left his past behind. Although he was physically and financially and career-wise in a completely different sphere, he was (and probably is) stil carrying some of the psychological baggage from his upbringing in all its chaos and persistent anxiety. In this it reminded me slightly of Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book Estates in which she details not only the physical walls (of the estate) that have to be scaled to move out and on, but also the psychological walls in people’s minds that last much longer and are arguably more difficult to climb over.

So don’t read it for an explanation of the Trump phenomenon, but do read it for a searing insight into the reality of white working class lives in the middle of America…and to question, as I have been doing, how these problems can possibly be tackled: which feels, as with the changes to hillbilly culture, like it will take generations to transform.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Year 2 / Book 25: Hostage

25) Hostage by Kristina Ohlsson

I’ve read the first three novels by Kristina Ohlsson, and they’ve all been pretty gripping – with a nice central double act of Alex & Fredrika as the grizzled / talented detectives solving a variety of grisly crimes. In this novel, Ohlsson moves beyond the bleak Scandinavian tundra into a plot centred around a terrorist hijacking on a plane and into the interplay between police, security services and national government. This includes a glamorous new head of security with shady links to Mossad and much more besides.

Generally, it’s less successful than Ohlsson’s previous outings: the plot doesn’t ring true from the start, and despite it growing in complexity, it doesn’t grow in believability. Of course there is always an element to thrillers like this (particularly those where a series has been going on for a while) which stretch credibility, but this one really felt a bit made up on the hoof – the interplay between intelligence services was a bit nonsensical, the women in the novel are defined by their affairs or their pregnancy or who they had a relationship to, and the denouement was unsatisfying. Apart from that, it was great….

I’d recommend the previous three, but am now slightly trepidatious about taking on the fifth which is lurking on my Kindle. Hopefully, it will be a turn back to ground on which Ohlsson is more comfortable and in control of her material.

Score: 5/10

BUY THIS NOW: Hostage (Bergman & Recht 4)

Year 2 / Book 24: Rupture

24) Rupture by Ragnar Jonasson

It continues to feel like a time to escape from the reality, to turn the rolling news and speculation off and pick up a book you can lose yourself in. So that’s what I’ve been doing, continuing on the thriller treadmill with some authors I know and trust. In this instance, I’ve gone back to Iceland and the excellent series by Ragnar Jonasson. Jonasson is a master at conveying the darkness, claustrophobia and closeness of rural Iceland, in this case added to by a disease which has left the town quasi-quarantined.

The two plot strands here are very different and unrelated, if bearing some similar elements: one about a fifty-plus years-old mystery of a missing boy and a possible murder; and the other about a recent snatching of a child and hit-and-run killing. Ari Thor, the young, quiet, awkward but impressive policeman at the centre of the novels, is primarily focused on the former (which I personally found less interesting and engaging) while the latter is primarily pursued by the journalist Isrun – and that strand held more interest, drama and tension for me. One can’t help wondering if Jonasson is meeting the limits of what is possible or reasonable in a small rural town in Iceland in terms of crime, so this helps by expanding his scope to Reykjavik (having said that, it never stopped Midsomer).

For me, Jonasson is primarily a master of character, slowly unpeeling new elements of the protagonists and their relationships: illnesses, parental fractures, marriage strains and more. And yet he never seems to slip into the ‘hard-drinking, music-loving, wife-annoying’ cliche of other police procedurals, but just bring more realism. The other thing I like about his novels, which take them a notch above more standard fare, is the atmospheric tone. Whether you’ve been to Iceland or not, you can’t read this book and not feel like you have – peering through the gloom, looking for answers. Top stuff.

Score: 7.5/10

BUY THIS NOW! >> Rupture (Dark Iceland)

Year 2 / Book 23: The Wrong Side of Goodbye

23) The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Another week, another long-running series of crime novels. I’ve lost count of how many Michael Connelly novels I’ve read, featuring either Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller…but Wikipedia says it would be around 23. Connelly’s a hugely reliable writer, with a great ear for dialogue, believable plots and, particularly after 23+ novels, characters with real depth. Opening the pages of a new Harry Bosch novel is, for me, the reading equivalent of sliding into a pair of slippers in front of a fire: you can relax as you are in safe hands.

In this one, Bosch is taken on to find the heir of a billionaire – a story which is woven in with a cold case he’s investigating about a set of serial attacks. It’s great and colourful stuff, with the narrative ranging from Vietnam to art collectives, from private security to metal detectors…and the pace doesn’t drop for a moment. I enjoyed how Bosch is noticeably ageing (there’s a nice bit about him running up a hill and suffering afterwards) and increasingly relies on others to do the heavy lifting (actually and metaphorically).

I’m not sure this quite has the freshness, inevitably, of some of the earlier novels (The Poet and the Lincoln Lawyer spring to mind), but it’s entertaining fare – and Connelly is a master at designing and structuring a story to inform, hold the attention and grip to the very end. If you haven’t started reading his books, start anywhere and you won’t go far wrong.

Score: 7/10

BUY THIS NOW >>The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch Series)

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