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Reading for pleasure

14 November 16

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

by David J Dickson (review editor), Tom Johnston

The Rat Stone Serenade

Denzil Meyrick (Polygon: £8.99; e-book £1.89)

Meyrick offers another taut and tense police thriller featuring DCI Jim Daley, accompanied by his stalwart DS Brian Scott and a new character, Chief Superintendent Symington. Set in the fictional village of Blaan in the south west of Scotland, Meyrick continues to bring a significant contribution to the increasing but delightful range of Scottish crime fiction.

Old family history rises to the fore and scores are sought to be settled in a dramatic and fast paced story, reaching a well drawn and tense climax where much is revealed. The Shannon family have made spectacular wealth since the day they moved Nathaniel Stuart from land he believed he had purchased. A young Shannon is missing and the ghost of druids hangs over the whole story. Daley's love life faces a crossroads, as does his police career. Meyrick captures the language and scenery of the west of Scotland. This is a well crafted and engrossing story. Meyrick is well into his rhythm and we look forward to accompanying him and his characters on future investigations.

I’ll Sell You a Dog

Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr Rosalind Harvey) (And Other Stories: £10)

Teodoro, age 78, is a retired taco seller. He lives in a decrepit apartment in Mexico City, all of whose residents are part of a literary salon, presided over by the formidable Francesca. All, that is, bar our Teo who, according to Francesca, is writing a novel. Except he isn’t, and he should know. Or is he?

Confused? Well, that’s just the way Señor Villalobos likes to keep us. That and highly amused. We have the strained dynamic between Francesca and Teo – she criticises the structure of his unwritten novel: he responds with obscure quotations from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. We have kidnappings of sorts, encounters with animal police and handy helpful hints on how to cope with cockroaches. The cast of characters includes Juliette, who sells rotten fruit and veg for mobs to throw, Willem, the tortured Mormon from Utah, and Mao, the communist capitalist. There are flashbacks to Teo’s childhood. Dogs feature often, whether the famous Gringo Dog tacos which made his stall famous, or the first family dog which died after eating a nylon stocking the same size as the shapely legs of Teo’s father’s secretary. In the acknowledgements, however, we are assured by the author that no dogs were killed in the making of this novel.

This is a fast moving, irreverent carousel of a book, of a type which South American writers seem to be able to execute better than anyone else. You will be sorry when the music stops and you have to get off. Delightfully daft.

The Damage Done

James Oswald (Penguin Books: £7.99; e-book £4.99)

I remember some four years ago reading in the Fife press of a local farmer who was starting to make a name for himself as an author. Curiously, it did not make a big impression at the time. It took me six Inspector Tony McLean books in a short period to make the connection to someone who now stands on the podium of Scottish crime writers.

As a storyteller, Oswald cut his teeth in the world of fantasy fiction. His friend Stuart McBride encouraged him to switch to a life of crime. The transition was not an easy one. Publishers made it clear that the two genres were incompatible (though as one who briefly practised in the criminal courts, I’ve definitely seen some crossovers, usually in the form of my clients’ alibis). For all that, Natural Causes, his first published crime novel, had a few leanings to the fantastic, but he is now more mainstream. Quite how anyone thinks up anything new in the field is a mystery to me, but read this for yourself and you will understand his sudden rise to fame. Within five years he has gone from self-publishing on Amazon to sparking a bidding auction for the rights to future works. Indeed, he has gone further. My copy was a special collaboration with Penguin, Sainsbury’s and Dead Good Publications, featuring an early McLean short story plus a useful author’s note.

Two things might give a clue to the McBride connection. Fans of both may see similarities between Tony McLean and McBride’s “Lazarus” McRae, hardworking and much put upon detectives, talented though not geniuses, their private lives non-existent as a result of work. The more obvious connection, however, is the fact that one of Oswald’s detectives is named Stuart McBride, in homage to his mentor.

In this book McLean, having been shunted back to Vice (sorry, Serious Crime Unit), leads an abortive raid on a suspected brothel. From there he becomes embroiled into sundry murders and links to cases from decades ago, cases which, it appears, some would like to stay buried. The narrative chunters along at a rattling pace. Some of the plot would not bear detailed analysis, but who cares? Some loose ends remain, I suspect deliberately. I have a feeling that we shall hear more of the sinister Iain and Alice again.

Many have been labelled the new Ian Rankin – Oswald deserves the soubriquet more than most. I eagerly await his next offering.

Unleashing Demons – The Inside Story of Brexit

Craig Oliver (Hodder & Stoughton: £20; e-book £13.99)

The outcome of the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union has been described as the most significant event since the end of the Second World War. Whatever one’s own view whether on the outcome or the potential consequences of the result, what is significant is that in the parliamentary system within the UK a referendum was held. Books have begun to appear from commentators or, as in this case, those directly involved in the campaign.

Sir Craig Oliver was the former Prime Minister's director of communications and provides a lively and thorough narrative of the campaign from the Prime Minister's side. Considered through the prism of an historical narrative, it will be invaluable, although even for those of us living through history, the absence of the context and background in which the decision was taken to call a referendum is noticeable, particularly as the author draws some comparative analysis in the narrative with the general election campaign the previous year.

The book offers insights beyond the immediacy of the campaign. The author's description of the media and engagement with it is revealing, such as the remarkably short news cycle, the influence over the content of the news, the desire to identify the clip that is sought to be picked up by media, the extensive use made of social media, and the extent to which those contributing to the media rounds rehearse and press the identified message.

On the referendum campaign, three major issues become clear. First, the opinion polls, on which such reliance is placed, significantly fluctuated particularly in the last few weeks of the campaign. Secondly, the difficulties in securing cross party engagement supporting the campaign. Finally, the strategic approach of the campaign was almost entirely economic, based on an analysis of 100 years of election results that the electorate had, thus far, not voted against its economic interests. This well written and readable book offers a fascinating insight at the elbow of major decision makers, laden with intriguing pen portraits of key figures as history was made around them and their contribution to it.

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