Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
You Came Back
Christopher Coake (Penguin Books: £7.99; e-book £4.99)
The lives of parents who lose a child are changed for ever. Depression, alcohol abuse and marital breakdown are all common. All of these and more befell Mark Fife before he recovered his life and planned a new future with a new partner. But what if he got back more than that? What if he got back his seven-year-old son Brendan, appearing in unquiet, ghostly form in the old matrimonial home?
Do you believe in ghosts? Should Mark be guided by his best friend Lewis, who saw one in his teens, or his atheist father who derides the notion? Or follow his own vision? Will Brendan’s return cause more upset than his original death? And who will be hurt most, and by what?
This is a book which is poignant and moving, yet fast moving and utterly compelling. Astonishingly, it is a debut novel. It is no surprise that in the dedication to his partner, Mr Coake protests that she is nowhere in the book’s pages. His handling of relationships is masterly, and the subtle and sensitive examination of one man’s moral dilemmas is superb. This is a serious candidate for book of the year.
The Collini Case
Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin: £12.99; e-book £7.99)
Fabrizio Collini, a Gastarbeiter (immigrant worker) has worked for 34 years for Mercedes Benz when, without any apparent motive, he murders an aged, renowned industrialist, an apparently innocent man, in the luxurious Adlon Hotel in Berlin. He admits the crime. Caspar Leinen is the duty legal aid lawyer when Collini is taken into custody, from when he is both personally and professionally conflicted, yet subsequently guided by the old master defence lawyer Mattinger, who under the German legal system will become his adversary as associated prosecutor representing the victim's family in the ensuing trial.
This novella bristles with tension, enabling the reader to speculate on the motive for the crime. Von Schirach is a skilled writer, deploying lean prose to narrate a story that reflects an aspect of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the German process of dealing with the past, in this case the post-war reintegration of Nazis into state departments. An important book.
In Loco Parentis
Nigel Bird (A Sea Minor Publication: £8.99; e-book £1.99)
This book cannot be accurately reviewed without disclosing its many twists. A story of a primary teacher and his life and work really, really shouldn't turn out like this. When we see Tony Soprano with his therapist, at least we know quite a bit about the patient: perhaps I should have paid more attention to the early exchanges between Joe Campion, the central character, and Dr India, his therapist.
Suffice it to say that this book is fast-paced, highly charged and shocking. I am very glad my children are well beyond school age. Those in loco parentis will never seem quite the same again.
The Fall of the Stone City
Ismail Kadare (Canongate Books: £14.99; e-book £9.02)
Kadare is Albania's most famous poet and author. In this intriguing, beguiling story he retells the events of 1943 when the advancing German forces occupied Albania, and in particular their feared arrival at the gates of the ancient city of Gjirokaster. There, after an initial defensive foray and the uncertainty of whether the white flag was flown or was it a curtain blowing in the wind, the German commander von Schwabe meets his old friend Big Dr Gurameto. During dinner, the doctor persuades his friend to release those villagers doomed to die in revenge for the failed attack on the German forces, including the only Jew in the village. This brief act of humanity is the golden thread through the remainder of the book, illustrating the changing regimes, attitudes, fears and repercussions that follow as Albania's post-war history. Interweaving the past with the present, this is classic Kadare.
Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor
Jack Straw (Macmillan: £20; e-book £8.96)
In this candid autobiography, Jack Straw describes himself as “an anorak”, a detail person. It must be said that this book is clearly the work of a literary equivalent. Mr Straw takes pride in the fact that he personally wrote every word. To produce something on this scale takes an enormous amount of effort, and the pride is justifiable, especially after a career which has seen him hold two of the great offices of state, as both Home and Foreign Secretary. He is proud too of the Palace of Westminster and 33 years as part of its fabric.
The problem is that those dubbed “anoraks” are seldom the most interesting of writers. This is an honest work. For example, the old Parliamentary Labour Party election process is described as being “corrupt”. But those expecting a warts-and-all exposé will be disappointed. We have the revelations that John Smith drank too much; that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown argued; and that it was said that the latter had a temper. His continued support for the Iraq War may be of interest to those who are keen students of that part of our history, and the book as a whole may be pored over by fellow anoraks.
For my own part, I found it worthy but dull.