Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Even Dogs in the Wild
Ian Rankin (Orion: £19.99; e-book £10.99)
John Rebus is back and although retired, has lost none of his enthusiasm for nailing the "bad guys". However, this time, there is a shift. A former Lord Advocate is found murdered with a note found. Rebus' adversity Big Ger Cafferty is shot at, a note also being found. A former lottery winner is murdered. Siobhan Clarke investigates and decides that given Rebus's relationship with Cafferty, the gangster might speak to Rebus. So the scene is set and the door opened to a narrative woven around current and past events, the latter forming the background to the deaths. A second storyline is intriguingly cross-linked but with an unexpected outcome, involving a missing drug courier, the efforts to trace him and the rivalry between father and son who head separate organised crime groups.
Police surveillance, rivalry, humour and purpose are all here in bucketloads. Rankin has also recognised an increased role for the procurator fiscal in criminal enquiries. Rebus appears from his dialogue to have eased off and relaxed, his tone a little less tense and serious. Rankin never fails with Rebus and this is a triumph.
To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane: £30; e-book £12.99)
When you finish this book, as with any well written and engrossing text, you cannot wait for the sequel. However, this is a history book, it's all in the past, we know what happened. However, in the hands of the eminent historian, Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, we learn a lot more and see the broad spectrum, underpinned with fine detail, within which events unfolded.
Essentially the question we all ask of this period is, "Was it inevitable that a second period of futile war and destruction would occur?" One only has to reflect on the intensity of the systematic bombing of Germany, led by "Bomber" Harris, an attempt not only to bring the war to an end but apparently to wipe Germany's culture from the face of the earth, and leave Germany, as Churchill described on bringing the policy to an end, "an utterly ruined land".
Kershaw is the author of the two volume seminal work on Hitler, Hubris and Nemesis, and more recently, The End, chronicling the last year of the war from the German perspective, particularly focusing on why, to the end, the military was so unrelenting in the face of what must have appeared an inevitable conclusion. He takes a broader approach to the period from the First World War, ending as he does, somewhat intriguingly, at 1949. As he explains in his preface, while the war ended in 1945, "the contours of a new, post-war Europe were scarcely visible in 1945". Despite the continuing violence after 1945, the mass exodus of refugees westward from western Russia and Poland, the Europe that was emerging in 1949 was one of hope and anticipation.
As the author writes, "this was an era in which Europe carried out two world wars, threatened the very foundations of civilisation, and seemed hell-bent on self-destruction", yet by 1949 the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, NATO and the Council of Europe had all been established, demonstrating not only the emergence of the foundations upon which European security and integration were, and currently remain, rooted, but a recognition that the countries of Europe needed to be wedded and bound together.
The author draws on the everyday experience of people during the period, such as Jan Słomka, who at 73 in 1915, being the mayor of the poor village community of Dzików outside Tarnobrzeg in south eastern Poland, witnessed the community transform from jubilation at the war commencing to within a year, three major battles in the area, 35,000 acres of woodland burned or destroyed, 3,000 homes and farms destroyed, the population reduced to penury and the Jews rounded up and forced to labour in the absence of young men. Written with flair, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding the reasons behind the events of the period, but also, inevitably, why Europe developed as it has and why we are where we are today.
Kershaw has not begun writing the next book. We can only encourage him to do so. In his hands, the Cold War and the ultimate dénouement with the reunification of Germany within 12 months of the opening of the Berlin Wall, will be an effervescent read.
The Road to Little Dribbling
Bill Bryson (Doubleday: £20; e-book £9.99)
This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island, a book which was voted Britain's favourite book on modern Britain, and which boasts its very own Wikipedia page. Bill (we all feel we know him, national treasure that he is) blames his editor for the appearance of flashing £ signs in his, the latter's, eyes. Whatever the reason or justification he set off again, travelling in as straight a line as possible from south to north, from Bognor to Cape Wrath.
Last time the journey was almost exclusively by public transport: less so this. It is impossible to repeat the freshness of such a seminal work, helping us to see oorsels as ithers see us, and reviewers have not been universally kind.
Could this because he observes and highlights those things which have changed for the worse in the past two decades? (We all know how, as a nation, we hate to be criticised unless we are the ones being disapproving.) Or is it because we like to think we must disagree with the generation designed as Grumpy Old Men (even though they are neither grumpy nor old, just talkers of good sense)?
For my own part I enjoyed it a lot, but as a feast of many courses it did have a bit of cold porridge thrown in. As he was about to complete the final, Scottish, section of his odyssey he was called away on business and had to return to complete it. Clearly by then there was a deadline in sight. Both the final stages of the journey and the book seem to have been completed in haste. Some of the writing is a little repetitive, and the humour from a muddled ferry booking is remilked – fans of Neither Here Nor There may recognise it.
Bryson was a master of the editor's art. Had he had a little more time to come back and polish this writing it would have been up there with his best. As it stands we have a book which is both likeable and entertaining. As a nation we should give thanks for a chronicler such as Bill Bryson. Not only has he had the energy, intellect and wit to give us not one but two great works on the subject of ourselves: he also loves this country more than many native born sons and daughters.
Sean Michaels (Bloomsbury: £16.99; e-book £9.49)
US Conductors is based on the tragic story of the life of Léon Theremin, who invented the first, mass produced electronic musical instrument. The instrument was a product of scientific research using high frequency oscillators when Theremin noticed that the frequency changed as his hand moved. The story relates how he travelled across Europe, principally Germany, in the early 1920s before moving to the United States where the device was patented. The author narrates an account of Theremin's reception in the States, performances at Carnegie Hall, the fear of orchestras that they were witnessing the future of music and their demise, and his relationships outwith marriage, allied to financial irregularity through overpatenting of the device. However Theremin is envisioned as being used by the Russian security services. He is compromised and, while it was factually reported he was kidnapped, the author narrates that he was forced back to the Soviet Union where he was imprisoned within the gulag system of harsh and unimaginable punishment. Written from Theremin's perspective and often reflective, this is an elegantly written novel which captures the period beautifully. A very refreshing book.