Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Colin Bateman (Head of Zeus: £18.99; e-book £5.03)
Although I have not previously encountered Colin Bateman, he has been writing novels since 1994, and is perhaps best known as creator and writer of the BBC’s hugely popular Murphy’s Law, featuring James Nesbitt. The dust jacket of this, his latest novel, tells us that we can find out more about him on his website. Sadly we can’t, as the domain name has expired. There are, however plenty of other sources, from which we learn that he spent a number of years from age 16 as a journalist in his native Northern Ireland.
That makes perfect sense, as the general background of this novel, set in and around the Bangor Express, a venerable but apparently doomed weekly newspaper, seemed to me to ring entirely true. Rob Cullen, who left the paper after a spell as a cub reporter, has found fame as a journalist on one of the major nationals. Returning home for the funeral of a former mentor, he is inveigled into a quest to save it from oblivion.
The story follows a few weeks in his life as temporary editor, with such everyday occurrences as child killers, fire heroes, immigration raids and armed sieges. Our hero is never far away from any of these, usually having to marshal his dysfunctional troop of reporters along the way. The story line is fast moving, and the insights into events are perceptive, using the characters to view the same events from a variety of angles. Despite Mr Bateman’s fame and reputation (The Telegraph apparently included him in a list of the top 50 crime writers), I would not pay £18.99 for this, but I would happily have the paperback in my bag or the e-book on my Kindle for my next trip.
At the Edge of the Orchard
Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press: £16.99; e-book £7.99)
This latest offering from the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring is a tale of a family trying to lay down roots – both figuratively and literally, with the planting of an apple orchard in an attempt to validate their claim to their land – in the Black Swamp of Ohio, USA in the 1800s.
The drudgery and perils of the life of the Goodenough family are exposed graphically in a multi-layered narrative, initially told from the perspective of the father, who is obsessed with his trees to the exclusion of all else, and the mother, who has been worn down by the hard life and her husband’s disinterest in her and increasingly seeks solace in the comforts of cider and its stronger brother, applejack. There is no sentimentality here, only hardship, illness, hunger and loss.
The narrative then, apparently inexplicably, changes abruptly, taken over by a series of letters from Robert, one of the sons of the family who, while still a young child, has left the family home to cross America. There has obviously been a life changing event, but it is not until much later in the story that the reader finds out what has happened. Robert’s journey and his struggle to come to terms with his family history and make peace with the world, and with himself, are in fact the real meat of this ultimately uplifting story.
The author clearly finds the subject matter of apple growing, and trees in general, fascinating, evidenced by the works acknowledged by her at the end. Whether one agrees or not, it appears that this author could write about an old barrel rotting in mud and make it beautiful. This is not light reading, but it is a finely crafted tale of hard lives, difficult times and the search for redemption.
Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys
Tom Chesshyre (Summersdale: £9.99; e-book £6.99)
Tom Chesshyre has what should be an enjoyable career, whether reviewing hotels weekly for The Times or, as here, being sent on assignment for various publications to report on train journeys in many and varied parts of the globe. It is clear that China is in a phase of rapid development: cheap, fast train travel: 6p a mile at up to 219 mph. Chesshyre travels extensively on a circular route beginning in Shanghai, taking him through Nanjing and Beijing. He gets ripped off in Beijing following a brief encounter with a fellow train traveller, but is amongst a group feted by the people of Iran, encountered on one of the most interesting trips described in the book, from Istanbul to Tehran.
The fun of train travel, the ability to gorge on changing vistas, the encounters with fellow passengers (sadly seemingly absent in air travel) are the core of this enjoyable book. The journey on the Istanbul-Tehran train sums up train travel, whether the encounters with fellow passengers – from the rich Russians, to disapproving Germans, to superior Brits – or the unexpected reception by the locals as the train forges a route into a little visited land but one which seems expansive and worthy. Chesshyre's style is easy but insightful – only his one brief paragraph on the Terracotta Army at X'ian is disappointing, but perhaps constrained by his funded writing assignment – and thoroughly engaging.
There's also detail for the rail enthusiast from gauge width, to build year of engine and carriage which would satisfy those rail enthusiasts (known as trainspotters to the rest of us) he meets at Crewe. The chapter on the trip from Perth to Sydney, when his fellow "gold class" travelling companions uncover his assignment is a hoot! India, Paris-Bordeaux, America, Sri Lanka and the Kyle of Lochalsh, Kosovo, Finland and Russia are all here. Next time you are on a long journey, or holidays are looming, pick up this book and just drift and relish.