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Reading for pleasure

17 October 16

This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

by David J Dickson (review editor), David A Dickson, Aileen Gordon

Conclave

Robert Harris (Hutchison: £20; e-book £9.99)

Robert Harris is known for his series of novels following the life of Cicero and, most recently, the brilliant retelling of the Dreyfus affair in An Officer and A Spy. In his latest offering, the author takes us back to Rome, but the Rome of tomorrow where the cardinals meet for the conclave to elect, through the guidance of God, with divine inspiration, the next Pope.

There is a dizzying array of cardinals, but the novel focuses on the main contenders as successor to St Peter. Harris acknowledges that he was given access to areas utilised during the conclave and ordinarily off limits. In doing so, he captures the atmosphere of an event we will never witness, in a setting we will never see, other than the captivating and inspirational Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo adoration depicting the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. Through the characters Harris carefully – in its proper sense – captures the issues which the present Pope, Francis, sought to address on taking up office and which the faithful hoped could be addressed, principally the perception of the disparate position of wealth within the Church in Rome and the worldwide church.

As the conclave proceeds, human frailty is exposed. Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, must oversee the process of the conclave, yet he is a man who harbours spiritual doubt and whose faith is challenged. In a particularly moving passage, the author writes of the foretelling of supreme crisis, “and there will be signs upon the earth... distress of nations in great perplexity... men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world”. Through supreme storytelling the author distils significant issues, ensuring a reflective, relevant and engrossing narrative.

Black Widow

Chris Brookmyre (Little Brown: £18.99; e-book £9.99)

As we saw in Dead Girl Walking, times are tough for Chris Brookmyre’s hard-nosed investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. His marriage has failed and, post-Leveson, his ends-justify-means methods are out of favour, leaving him reduced to rewriting PR puffs for whatever tabloid will hire him. So he’s open to a distraction, and it arrives when a woman turns up on his doorstep and asks him to investigate the death of her brother Peter, who she thinks was murdered by his surgeon wife Diana.

On one level, Black Widow is a deliberately modern thriller, dealing with hot-button issues such as domestic abuse, and the online shaming and harassment of women. But Brookmyre never loses sight of the obligation to keep the reader turning the page, and he handles multiple timelines, shifting perspectives, an unpredictable plot, and a large cast of characters with confidence and skill, allied to his usual caustic wit. I was kept guessing until the end, but lavishly entertained along the way. The readers of this magazine might like to know, incidentally, that Parlabane describes lawyers as “sneaky bastards”, although perhaps we get off lightly compared to surgeons (“clever psychopaths”). Black Widow, though, is a triumph: I’ve been reading Brookmyre’s novels for 20 years, more or less, and he just keeps getting better.

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff (Bloomsbury: £14.99; e-book £7.60)

Describing himself as a “fumbling fool of a mortal who lived in a world of relentless self-doubt”, the eponymous hero of Meg Rosoff's latest offering is teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

A frustrated and disillusioned copywriter in New York, Jonathan Trefoil has, as the book opens, just been further burdened with the care of his brother's two energetic dogs, Dante and Sissy. Quickly assigning them humanoid status, he imagines his new charges variously going through his mail, plotting against him and generally being in need of psychiatric help. What our hero fails to realise, but is so obvious to the reader, is that it is he himself who needs help.

While Jonathan's narration starts as an amusing confection of witty observation, ridiculous paranoia and flights of largely – but not exclusively – dog-related fantasy, darker themes start to emerge as he begins to suspect he is losing his mind. With a demanding girlfriend on his back and a wedding approaching, it is only a matter of time before things come to a head, and the dogs, to whom by this time Jonathan is most attached, come to his aid in ways that seem to justify his early assessment.

At first blush this presents as a lighthearted tale of Jonathan's developing relationship – bordering on obsession – with his new furry friends. But this really isn't a book about dogs, delightful as they are here. This is a book about mental illness. Meg Rosoff deals with this delicate topic in her customary gently amusing style. Her books are generally pitched at the young adult market, but this one will resonate with anyone who has ever doubted their own sanity, or indeed that of the world around them.

A funny, poignant, thought-provoking book that rewards on every page.

The Allegations

Mark Lawson (Picador: £16.99; e-book £9.49)

The core of this book is the impact and effect on those under investigation for both criminal and non-criminal conduct in modern society, and how society perceives such individuals. Dr Tom Pimm and Professor Edmund Marriott are both within the Directorate of History of the University of Middle England when a new Vice Chancellor, Sir Richard Agate, is appointed and determines, despite their being in the top 2% in the most recent research assessment exercise, that academic staff will be provided with a tariff of expectations for customers, and new contracts drawn.

Efficiency savings need be made. Tom is a pedant, beloved by students, but finds himself in the Kafkaesque position of being subject of an inquiry into B&H (bullying and harassment) and insubordination without knowing either the identity of his accusers or the acceptance by the inquiry that the allegations are proved. This is because “a presumption of truth would be applied to complaints”, reflecting “a policy of sympathy towards the victim”, and entailing, in an amusing exchange between lawyer and head of Workplace Harmony, that “no evidence entered into [Tom's] defence would be relevant”.

Professor Marriott has a career as a television presenter of programmes devoted to history. He faces historical allegations of a sexual nature. The impact on him, as well as his family, including young child, who semi-boards, and daughter, who faces abuse on social media, is deftly observed. There is, however, little said of the women who accuse Marriott of the offences, nor the impact on the individuals who felt Tom had stepped over a line in the workplace.

Marriott's character is used by Lawson as a foil for the media engagement in well known investigations of celebrities for similar allegations. The issues are sharply observed, as are the social and public reaction, particularly to the allegations facing Marriott. Tom is a wag and his character is not without humour. Not so Marriott. The characters are two ends of the same telescope. Lawson himself faced allegations of bullying, and a quick internet search of his name demonstrates his point. As the protagonist in Miller's The Crucible observed on being asked to sign a letter of apology for something he did not do, on the promise that his life would return to normal, explaining why he cannot do so, he says: “Because it is my name! How may I live without my name!” This book offers an interesting, thoughtful and insightful reflection on modern media and attitudes.

Nutshell

Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape: £16.99; e-book £9.99)

Ian McEwan's last book, The Children's Act, looked at the inner workings of decision making by a judge who was required to consider whether lifesaving medical treatment should be ordered on a 17 year old youth who has refused treatment on religious grounds. This time McEwan considers matters from the other end of the spectrum, and brings us his interpretation of a modern day Hamlet, a Hamlet in utero.

The unborn child overhears plans by his mother and father's brother to murder poet John. In doing so, McEwan addresses and observes the state of the world, whether it be global warming envisaging “Baltic beachside taverns”, terrorism (“On hope – I've been hearing about the latest slaughters in pursuit of dreams of the life beyond... teaching toddlers to slit the throats of teddy bears”), or the recent referendum: “Europa's secular dreams of Union may dissolve before the old hatreds, small scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord.” His descriptions imaging the child as it faces overconsumption of alcohol, whether “a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon”; intercourse (“by this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf”); or the ability to grow (“I see that my fingernails need clipping”) are, as one would anticipate, masterly. The tensions between the conspirators and the anxiety felt by the mother are equally beautifully imagined. McEwan plays with language as a cat a ball of wool. For the reader, likewise endless joy and utterly engrossing. Another beguiling and playful book from a brilliant author.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt: A Memoir

Ross Harper (Black & White Publishing: £20; e-book £5.03)

Ross Harper remains one of Scotland's best known lawyers. With a lightness of touch, he recounts a life fully lived and one which continues to be fulfilled in Australia, where he now Iives at the age of 81. The firm carrying his name ceased trading in May 2012. The book is divided into chapters dealing with the author's role in politics, academia, judges and sheriffs, as well as his time as a consultant to businesses. On judges, such was the breadth of his practice he was able, through instruction, to rectify what he regarded as a deficit amongst the judiciary “that many judges had not taken part in criminal cases”. He wittily recounts his own time as a part time sheriff and how, despite determining a proof, he still has “no idea as to what in law a dominant tenement is”. He recounts his role in securing the private prosecution brought by the victim in the Glasgow rape case (X v Sweeney 1982 SCCR 161).

Practising the law is all good fun nowadays, but one is left with an impression that the times in which Harper built up his practice and reputation were more so, and devoid of the pressure the practitioner faces today. The author's life in politics makes an interesting read, but more so his vignettes of his political friends across the spectrum: Thatcher, Dewar, John Smith, Michael Forsyth and Gordon Brown. Away from the law, Harper was both President of the Law Society of Scotland and ultimately the International Bar Association. As one of the best known and instructed criminal defence lawyers, he was able to enjoy a comfortable and happy life, whether fishing on the Tay or mixing in political circles in London with the future Lord Chancellor unearthing and quaffing substantial quantities of his finest wine. So good, in fact, that he was unaware his erstwhile trusted secretary, to whom he had delegated care of his finances, had diverted £150,000 without his knowledge.

His message is delegate by all means, but supervise. There are many names and light sketches of an array of characters, with many a witty observation. Sadly, no mention of the paper on rhetoric I wrote for Professor Harper, 30 years ago, as a diploma student at the legal practice centre he established at Strathclyde University. On reading his memoir, he clearly had much more interesting diversions!

 

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