Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
This book came as a delightful surprise, yet proved to be one of the best stories I have read in a long time. Major Pettigrew, quintessentially English, well mannered and charming, faces a number of modern issues, each of which threatens to undermine the predictable stability of his life. His patronising grown-up son, the ruthless property developers and the strong racial undercurrents in his own village all test him in their various ways. But the major draws on inner strengths which even he himself is unaware that he possesses. As the story concludes, order is restored, the feelgood factor soars and honour is definitely preserved.
This is a very impressive first novel. It begins in 1937 when Andras Levi leaves his native Hungary to study architecture in Paris, where he falls in love with a fellow Jewish Hungarian; and takes them through the turbulence of war over its near 600 pages. As a tale of the lunacies of the time completely mucking up one’s dreams, if not one’s life, it is absorbing and very moving. Being a Magyarophile I found the novel challenging: it demonstrates a number of that nation’s contradictions. The novel evokes a fine sense of time and place. The occasional slip-ups quoad Hungarian politics, military matters and Budapest tram routes can be easily overlooked. This is a tremendous story written in a fluid style with convincing characters and dialogue. My only disappointment was the rather rushed end. That notwithstanding, this is highly recommended.
Tom Rob Smith
Simon & Schuster: £12.99
This wide sweep of a book is engrossing. It begins in 1950 with Jesse Austin, a famous singer in the United States who is a black Communist, visiting Moscow and putting his minder, Leo Demidov, through his paces as he tries to view the real Soviet Union. Fifteen years later Demidov's wife leads a delegation of schoolchildren to sing at the United Nations in the early days of attempted rapprochement, after which Jesse Austin is murdered, Demidov's daughter is held responsible, and his wife is killed by Austin's wife. We move to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980, where an opium-addicted Demidov, consumed by anger for his wife's death, is an adviser to the Soviets. Two murders, one conspiracy. There are echoes of McCarthyism, cold war tensions and references that could be from the current occupation of Afghanistan. A fast moving story of betrayal, deceit, but ultimalely truth.
Tales from the Fast Train: Europe at 186 mph
As the nights draw in, our thoughts turn to holidays that were or could have been. This thoroughly enjoyable travelogue might lift the winter mood, or even inspire future short weekends in the footsteps of Chesshyre and his elusive girlfriend E, as they revel in the delights of high speed train travel to explore, and share the delights and nuances of Paris, Lille, Frankfurt and elsewhere, their journeys starting from the spectacularly restored St Pancras. Chesshyre reflects on whether the glory days of rail travel may return. With the newly introduced "Flying Scotsman" on the east coast route, even the Scots might travel as quickly to mainland Europe as by air.