Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa
Nicholas Drayson (Penguin: £8.99)
This delightful and witty book is set around the activities of Mr Malik, erstwhile cigarette but now manufacturer of Jolly Man Assorted Bonbons, "Tiger" Singh, the best lawyer in Nairobi, Mr Patel and Mr A B Gopez, who all frequent the Asadi Club.
Maliki has a daughter, Petula, who is bent on fighting corruption by joining Clarity International, while Mr Khan has recently returned to the land of his birth, hoping to persuade the newly appointed Minister of the Interior that a mega-mall is just what Nairobi needs, if only he can find the right place to build, with of course, some local help! Mr Maliki however also writes a column in the weekly paper (which the Government sleekitly wants to close), under a pseudonym revealing all the latest news circulating among Government drivers, much to the irritation of the ministers.
Two overriding events engage these characters: Mr Malik's annually organised safari for club members, and the debate between Patel and Gopez over who really killed Lord Erroll, a key member of the then infamous hedonistic "Happy Valley" set, in 1941 – brought to the silver screen in the film White Mischief.
This is a shrewdly written and observed book on the reality of Kenyan life: corruption in politics, the unexplained imprisonment and death of opposition leaders, attempts to thwart freedom of speech. This book, while set in Kenya is, in my view, unfairly compared to MacCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency stories. Mr Drayson is in a separate, distinct and as enjoyable a league.
A French Affair
Katie Fforde (Century: Hardback £16.99; e-book £9.20)
Gina is in PR and has retreated to provincial life, licking her wounds after disaster in her personal life. She inherits a share in a business from her aunt. Matthew is an antiques dealer, struggling with his father’s business in the aftermath of a large inheritance bill. It’s another lighthearted story from Katie Fforde! The characters are likeable, on the whole; after all, who among us wouldn’t like to fall heir to a business venture and have the chance to make it a success?
There are a few loose ends left untied, but there are gems to make up for that, namely Rainey, Gina’s benefactor with an intriguing past, and Nicholas, the elderly owner of a crumbling stately home, who is completely charmed by our heroine.
There are plenty of romantic episodes throughout the book, enough peril to keep the reader’s interest, and of course a happy ending. However I was disappointed by some of the bad language and crude overtones, which were unnecessary and out of character. On balance however, a speedy holiday read.
Brief Loves that Live Forever
Andrei Makine (MacLehose Press: £12)
This collection of reminiscences of love in all its forms is set against the backdrop of late 20th century Soviet Russia. Although the incidents described by the author appear to have no connection, by the end of the book he will have woven them into a circular narrative in which he bears witness to hopeless passion, misplaced affection, love of country and the strong ties that bind families together. He emphasises the importance of living in the moment when pleasures are fleeting and thoughts are controlled, and contrasts the easy intimacies of his youth with the real and lasting feelings of an elderly couple, trapped inside an advertising hoarding during a rainstorm. The author has chosen to write in French rather than his native language. The resulting prose is rich and dense, but ultimately rewarding, especially for lovers of classical Russian literature.
Not For Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher
Robin Harris (Bantam Press: £20; e-book £11.39)
Lady Thatcher in her autobiography described Harris as "My indispensable Sherpa in the enterprise of writing this book", and that "Without his advice and help at every stage, I doubt that we could have reached the summit". Here Harris turns to write his own biography of the Iron Lady. He worked for the Conservative Party from 1978, and from 1985 was director of the Conservative Research Department formulating policy. From such a position, Harris writes a concise narrative of Thatcher's upbringing and her road from Grantham to London via Somerville, Oxford, a chemistry degree, boyfriends (of which we now learn more than ever), marriage, children and a law degree.
On her death much was made that Thatcher was removed by her cabinet. True though that is, followed by her subsequent disengagement from the party (well illuminated here), on Harris's description her own moves against Heath are no less ruthless. From Thatcher's early observance of her father's life, he illustrates these influences on her later politics, renowned work ethic and drive. We learn of Thatcher's life post-Downing Street, how friends provided support, focus and an office with staff to ease the transition. For this reviewer, the dismissal of the events around the failed extradition by Spain of Pinochet is rather lightly done, although we learn Thatcher's support for the old leader was based on important Chilean logistical support during the Falklands conflict. However, there is a niggle. Since her death we have learned more of the decline of Lady T's mental faculties. There is a little too much information here.
This is a brief, well described, occasionally partisan history of Mrs Thatcher and her life, the characters and relationships illuminated. It is unfair to compare with Charles Moore's doorstop authorised biography: the aims of each author are different.
Death on Demand
Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.99)
For those who love crime fiction but have exhausted the delights of their local Waterstones, I commend Bitter Lemon Press, portal to a raft of books in the genre from all the airts.
Paul Thomas is Yorkshire born and New Zealand based. He is a former winner of the prestigious Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel. That book also featured Tito Itaha, central character in the present book. When I read that Sergeant Itaha was tolerated by his superior officer despite being “unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane”, my heart sank. When it became clear that despite such doubtful qualities he would be a magnet for every sexy female character in the book, my will to live dropped several notches.
But despite all that, this is a very readable book, and Itaha is an engaging character. The first 20 pages or so set out an apparently unrelated series of events and character sketches which capture the attention. Do we have a series of coincidences, or a hitherto unsuspected contract killer? Not entirely surprisingly, the strands are all eventually woven together into a well-crafted and satisfying end product.
Not only do I forgive Mr Thomas his character’s stereotype, I would be interested in getting my hands on the earlier volumes of his adventures.