Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
A Very Special Year
Thomas Montasser (Oneworld: £8.99)
Valerie finds a note left by her Aunt Charlotte asking her to look after her bookshop, in a once upmarket part of town but which is now a little more pedestrian but importantly, multicultural. Valerie is a student of business and begins to turn the financially ailing shop around. However, through the medium of the story the author delights in the power and value of books, their ability to transport us from the mundane or the stressful to, albeit briefly, another world, another thought, another place. In additional, Montasser demonstrates that despite the pressure wrought by electronic media, there is nothing quite like browsing through a bookshop, especially where one can rely on a bookseller to offer assistance on what is available and what might be of interest. Think Hatchards or a good independent bookshop, such as The Watermill at Aberfeldy.
At Hawthorn Time
Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury: £8.99; e-book £6.02)
This second book by Melissa Harrison is an absolute find. It will stay long in the memory for its poetic evocation of the countryside, beautifully described with vivid poignancy. The story also displays an acute and sensitive portrayal of prescient issues facing the countryside and those who regard it as home and workplace, whether the pressures facing farming and farmers seeking to work profitably the land they are conjoined with, the former city dwellers playing out their retirement dreams, or the youths brought up in small towns facing the realities of larger, and harsher, communities. A snapshot in a month of the "rural idyll" is laid bare, the veil temporarily lifted. Howard and Kitty have moved from London, and continue to lead the pretence of marriage for the "sake of the kids" although they've left home; Jamie, a young man, works at the local monolith, faceless, packing warehouse while dipping his toe into adolescence; and Jake, an itinerant land worker, is continually on the run from the police having served periods of imprisonment for what we now see as misguided and misunderstood longing and connection with the rotation of the seasons, and understanding of nature and the countryside, now rapidly diminishing.
This book combines a call to those who race through life, enduring the pressures of getting through the day, to pause and reflect on what nature and the countryside hold and our microscopic role, with a sharp novelist's eye to the realities facing those for whom the countryside is not a weekend playground but their livelihood and the life that courses through them. In these times of strife, ever increasing anxiety and uncertainty, this book beats any other as a panacea. Breathtaking.
The Grantchester Mysteries: Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation
James Runcie (Bloomsbury: £14.99; e-book £0.99)
Being too young to recall Father Brown, and not much of a television watcher, this book came as a delightful surprise. The author is known for his films and previous books. This book sees Archdeacon Sidney Chambers, priest and part time detective, working alongside his police friend, to address a common theme of temptation and where it may lead in both his own world and that of those around him. Whether it involves the attractive parishioner, mother of an adolescent son who has joined a cult, or the young student who, during a university end-of-exam afternoon, loses her mother's most treasured jewel while cavorting with her boyfriend in a field of cows, the author brings a refreshing and joyful take to the detective genre. The greed of a German communist in the former East Germany trying to outmanoeuvre friends to acquire their hotel, leading to death and despair, is sharply observed and well researched. This is the perfect sort of light, at times comic, summer read we crave (and not just on holiday). A chilled glass of your tipple of choice, a bright sunny garden, and this book – heaven.
The Fire Maker
Peter May (Quercus: £7.99; e-book: £0.99)
The career of artists in whatever genre is very different to the career lifespans of most readers of this august Journal. For many, death is the most astute career move ever. An extreme example was Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a picture in his lifetime. Many musicians who have enjoyed rather more lifetime success bring joy to their heirs and artistic executors by hugely enhanced post mortem sales, David Bowie being but the latest example.
With authors it is a little different, success bringing not just more success, but also the opportunity to dust out a back catalogue which may have spent years in an attic, smothered in rejection slips. Having become a Peter May fan following his wonderfully good The Lewis Trilogy, I have been enjoying working my way through his Enzo Macleod series. I was therefore delighted to spy on the shelves a new offering described as book 1 of May’s China thrillers, book 2 being scheduled for publication in September. Er, make that republication, as this first saw the light of day 17 years ago. And as most authors improve with age, adjust your expectations accordingly.
But remember this is still Peter May. He first visited China in 1983. In subsequent visits he seems to have had access, almost without precedent in the case of a westerner, not only to the country, but to its police force. The result is a very well researched and well crafted thriller. Its two principal characters, American pathologist Margaret Campbell and Beijing cop Li Yan, take an early dislike to each other which changes through the course of the book. Well it would, wouldn’t it? But their sparky exchanges expose some cultural assumptions and stereotypes and make us reconsider some of our basic beliefs about the east. The plot, set against the practice and ethics of genetic engineering, is still relevant today. Peter May’s average work is still better than many people’s best.