Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
A Colder War
Charles Cumming (Harper Collins: £12.99; e-book £4.35)
Readers may recall the review of A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming, a gripping spy thriller. This follow-up is equally enjoyable and a worthy read. The head of MI6 station in Turkey is killed in a plane crash with no obvious motive. Amelia Levene, whose son Thomas Kell, a disgraced spy, was rescued in the previous book, now seeks his services to quietly and efficiently uncover the truth of the crash. Kell uncovers betrayal and deceit, the US up to no good in the region and much at stake – there's a mole inside western intelligence. Kell sets out to uncover the identity, the author tantalising the reader with a varied and changing scenario. The story ranges through Istanbul, Greece, Tehran and London with assassinations and assignations. Well written, with good characterisation and setting, this is a thoroughly enjoyable spy thriller with, as the best should, the threads being slowly, teasingly intertwined. Enjoy!
Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan (Penguin: £9.99)
Forget fast food. The finest cooking takes time and love. Quality ingredients, certainly. And something else? Something elemental, perhaps?
Michael Pollan structures this lovingly researched food book as our ancestors structured the earth – fire, water, air and earth. The fire section examines the wondrous transformation of tough meat and collagens into the delights of pulled pork and barbequed ribs. (American style BBQ, not to be confused with throwing some burgers on a grill.) Water is Pollan’s introduction to the world of stews and braises, described in seven mouth-watering sections. Air sees him learning at the feet of the sour dough masters, worrying along with them how to keep his starter alive. Earth is his examination of the miracles of fermentation, both solid (cheese) and liquid (beer).
If, like me, you feel Pollan is stretching things a bit with some of his classifications, set aside those doubts and immerse yourself (slowly) into this wonderful work. He doesn’t just write about it: he does it. Long hours sweating along with pit masters. Endless weekends on stews and stewing techniques. Hours spent creating the perfect loaf. An added source of delight is the realisation that until he started this work, he obviously couldn’t cook very well. We share with him the pleasure of acquiring new lifelong skills.
The research has been prodigious. The bibliography for each section is substantial. The author’s knowledge is vast. Yet, as with a well crafted dish, the end result is balanced, satisfying and deeply enjoyable.
Philip Kerr (Quercus: £18.99)
Philip Kerr is the well known author of the Bernie Gunter series of books about the renowned detective in wartime Berlin. Last year he wrote Prayer, and this appears to be his most recent book outwith the texts for which his reader base know him best. This is a well plotted, murder thriller, but not the conventional whodunit. We learn the identity of the killer and motivations and all that follows in the act of concealing the hideous crime.
The book centres around two main characters: John Houston, a supremely wealthy author with sales of over 100 million books in 47 languages, and his Don Irvine, Houston's oldest friend and former leader of the atelier of writers, who wrote the books published in Houston's name for which his contribution was the storyline. Through this medium Kerr takes us through the publishing world and the fact that very few writers make a decent living, let alone one as successful as John Houston. There are very many references and quotes from authors and their books, drawing out a philosophy, albeit the books written for Houston are structured and authored as a result of market research and are seen as pulp fiction – but how it pays! Houston's wife, an IRA sympathiser, is murdered in their “five tennis court sized” duplex in Odeon Towers in Monaco, while Houston is several floors below being intimate with the girlfriend of a Russian, who is never seen. Irvine steps in to assist his friend as the police close in.
This is a cleverly plotted narrative which one suspects is either the book Don Irvine wanted to write or is the bones of his research for the book he will write and make his fortune – the title of the book. It's a slow starter, but well written, with Monaco and the south of France being the predominant setting. Kerr observes that one writer offered the view that swearing should appear no more than twice per page. For this reviewer, less would have been more apposite to the storyline unless in his research, Mr Kerr found former advertising executives were users of such colourful language! A worthy read.