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Reading for pleasure

19 September 16

This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor, contains a roundup from the Edinburgh Book Festival

by David J Dickson (review editor), Tom Johnston

Breaking Cover

Stella Rimington (Bloomsbury: £12.99; e-book £7.47)

The former head of MI5 has hit the mark of reflecting current reported tensions in her latest novel. Russia is a threat not only to the west but also to the Baltic states. If you are fortunate enough to know or work with anyone from those states, their concern is palpable. The Crimea and Ukrainian tensions feature. The Russian FSB has plans afoot, and with the assistance of the US the threat becomes real. Liz Carlyle, the author's main character from MI5, leads on counter intelligence work to uncover the truth. Who, why and where are prescient themes. Picking up another theme, the author develops through the character of Jasminder Kapoor, a civil libertarian campaigner appointed the first director of communications within MI6, the question of increased openness of the security services as they face pressure post-Wikileaks and so called snoopers' charters. There are also discrete reminders and advice to readers about how vulnerable people unwittingly become when they engage with social media. This is a page turner which explores current and interesting themes.

The Bricks that Built the Houses

Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury: £14.99; e-book £9.35)

“The people’s faces twisting into grimace again, losing all their insides in the gutters, clutching lovers until the breath is faint and love is dead, wet cement and spray paint, the kids are watching porn and drinking Monster. Watch the city fall and rise again through mist and bleeding hands. Keep holding on to power-ballad karaoke hits. Chase your talent. Corner it, lock it in a cage, give the key to someone rich and tell yourself you’re staying brave.”

It is no surprise to learn that Kate Tempest is a poet, variously described as a playwright-rapper-poet (a title she apparently dislikes), spoken word artist and Next Generation poet. Her recent performance at the Edinburgh Book Festival earned her five-star reviews. Not, curiously, for this her first novel, but for readings from her poetry collection, Hold Your Own. One reviewer described a solid narrative that discusses love, passion and the turmoils and joy of finding your own way in life. The same themes find their way into this remarkable novel.

After a dazzling introductory section (if James Joyce had been a rapper, the opening of Ulysses might have been like this), we are hooked immediately. Why are Harry, Becky and Leon heading out of town fast with a suitcase of money? We are then transported back one year in time to learn much, oh so much, about our central characters. Love, emotions, complicated extended families (you may need to draw yourself a family tree or two to keep up), and interesting business dealings set against a gritty backdrop in south London. Reading a little of Tempest’s background, with a large family and a father who went from labourer to criminal defence lawyer, it is likely that, as with most first novels, there is a good chunk of autobiography. So what? To produce a first novel of this calibre with fast pace and believable, empathetic characters for whom we come to care, is no mean feat.

This is no ordinary artist. Before the age of 30 she already had to her name a Mercury Prize nomination and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She is a nominee for the Book Festival’s First Book Award. (You have until 14 October to cast your vote. Go to www.edbookfest.co.uk.) She already has my vote. Whether you exercise your franchise or not, don’t miss this dazzling work by a very exciting new talent.

My Italian Bulldozer

Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon: £14.99; e-book £6.99)

Montalcino is the setting for this delightful summer story from Alexander McCall Smith. One has the impression that the author has in fact lived the scenes so lovingly described in the story, whether it be the Cafe Fiaschettaria on the square of the rural Italian village, sipping a cappuccino and watching life pass by, or the view from the Albergo il Flore where Paul, the author of many a cookbook cum food narrative, is completing the manuscript for Paul Stuart's Tuscan Table.

There is an element of commedia dell'arte about the narrative as Paul, who has recently separated from Becky, his love of four years who in turn has run off with the "neckless" personal trainer, meets Anna, a beguiling fellow author recently arrived in Montalcino, or his editor Gloria, who has a deeply hidden shine for Paul. We also glimpse the wine snobbery that traverses the area where, but for the issue of a small hillock, the vineyard of Antonio Bartolo del Bosco would classify Brunello as opposed to the equally quaffable but deemed less prestigious Rossa di Montalcino. The acquisition of the object of the title will seem not unfamiliar to many readers! Gentle and warming, this book shines as only the Tuscan sun, under which it is set, can.

Present Tense

W H S McIntyre (Sandstone Press: £8.99)

I am not generally a fan of novels written by Scottish criminal lawyers. It is splendid to encounter the first exception to that. Any worries about pompous writing style are blown away in the opening acknowledgments. Mr McIntyre states his thanks to his fellow criminal law practitioners in Falkirk and district “for talking so much rubbish and providing me with so many lines of dialogue, especially for the less sophisticated of my characters”.

The book continues in much the same vein. Robbie Munro’s practice as a criminal defence lawyer could certainly be better. His problems with the Scottish Legal Aid Board are getting worse; the rape trial increasingly looks like a no hoper; and there are fears that his invaluable assistant may be about to leave for pastures new. When Bill Paris, one of Robbie’s many dodgy clients, asks him to store a box for a week or two, it seems but a sideline in a world of turmoil. Well of course it isn’t. Life may be like that, but good novels are not. It sees our Robbie tangled in a world of politics, Special Branch, TV journalists and a dubious businessman whose nasty Russian henchman bears a name remarkably similar to that of a procurator fiscal depute.

Filled with the healthy cynicism and witty asides which one tends to find in the criminal courts, this is great stuff. Unlike most of his predecessors, McIntyre has managed to encapsulate that fun, enliven it with some nonsense of his own, and successfully transfer that onto the page. I understand that there are some more in the pipeline. Treats in store.

Betty Boo

Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99)

Ms Piñeiro has previously been a journalist, playwright and scriptwriter before turning her very talented hand to crime fiction. In a few short years she has acquired a (justified) reputation as one of Argentina’s most successful exponents of the genre.

Nurit Iscar (aka Betty Boo) is a novelist who gave up after a particularly hurtful review. Matters were complicated by the fact that the review appeared in El Tribuno, with whose editor she was, at the time, having an affair. When wealthy businessman Pedro Chazzareta is discovered with his throat slit in a secure gated community, the editor, Rinaldi, hires her to write background features on the case. The crime reporting is in theory headed by a young reporter known as the Crime Boy. In practice he defers to the veteran Jaime Brena, a long time crime journalist moved sideways to a society slot which he hates. Working together, the intrepid trio soon link this killing with a series of others, most of which have been written off as suicides.

Ms Piñeiro says that all of her books, even her fiction, contain part of her. One can certainly see that the journalistic input and the fast moving action could easily have been created with the small screen in mind. Her handling of dialogue is unusual, but effective. The pace is fast: the main characters are likeable, and the supporting cast contains the eccentric, the excitable and the downright evil. Spoiler alerts prevent me from saying much more about the plot. Suffice to say that it ain’t over till it’s over. One thing I can say with certainty is that, unlike Nurit, Claudia Piñeiro runs no risk whatsoever of receiving bad reviews. Four of her novels are now available in English translation. I for one will be seeking them out soon.

 

 

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