Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
The Greedy Queen
Annie Gray (Profile Books: £16.99; e-book £8.54)
If you are interested in food, there is a fair chance you will have encountered Annie Gray in some medium or other. She is resident food historian on the estimable Jay Rayner’s Kitchen Cabinet on Radio 4. She also pops up quite regularly with James Martin, the Hairy Bikers, et al. Enthusiastic, informed and always a source of interest, she writes with the same passion she brings to her media work.
This is a biography of Victoria, told from the perspective of what and where she ate and with whom. The product of massive research, such a book could easily have been a little dull – how interesting is a list of 63 years of your breakfasts, lunches and dinner? In fact, it is anything but, punctuated as it is with so many gems of Victorian social history and her family story.
Who knew that Prince Albert was an agricultural pioneer, more than a century before Prince Charles? I loved the architectural asides concerning the royal residences. One really does not envisage Buckingham Palace being plagued with sewage smells. Discover how the Victorian Christmas developed, and learn about the traditional Twelfth Night celebrations which it deposed. And am I the only person who ever pondered why the London Underground has a station named Swiss Cottage?
And, of course, the food. Oh, my goodness, the food. I knew that there would be sideboards with large roasts, but I had no idea that one might find available a whole baron of beef (about 300lbs/140 kgs). The menus are in fact enough to make even a trencherman such as myself feel queasy. That is why one reads books by food historians: The Greedy Queen, on the other hand, is to be recommended for much, much more.
Want You Gone
Chris Brookmyre (Little Brown: £18.99; e-book £9.99)
Chris Brookmyre’s journalist antihero Jack Parlabane has had, after the events of Brookmyre’s last novel Black Widow, a bit of a career renaissance. As a result he’s being offered work by online news platform Broadwave, described – apparently without irony – as a “burgeoning cross-media entity that has evolved from a completely new perspective upon news and technology”. Which makes Broadwave sound like the sort of operation that, a few years ago, Parlabane, not to mention Brookmyre himself, would have used as a punchbag.
Times have changed, though, as has the crime thriller. And in Want You Gone, Brookmyre successfully welds a resolutely state-of-the-digital-art plot to his old-fashioned ability to keep the reader turning the pages. Parlabane joins forces with teenage hacker Sam Morpeth, a teenage girl who has a dead father, a mother in prison, and caring responsibilities for a young sister with Down’s syndrome. Sam is being blackmailed by a gang of hackers to obtain a secret, possibly life-changing, and definitely lucrative invention from tech firm Synergis. Parlabane has old-school skills when it comes to climbing up walls and going through windows, but these aren’t up to the task of penetrating the levels of security at Synergis, still less to getting access to their computer systems. But Sam can do that sort of thing in her sleep; and Brookmyre narrates, in meticulous detail, the various hacks, online frauds, and cyber-heists which litter the book. Whether or not it’s all accurate I have no idea, but it undoubtedly has the ring of authenticity; put it this way, I certainly wouldn’t be volunteering my mother’s maiden name or my wifi password to the author.
This is Parlabane’s eighth outing (Brookmyre’s 21st novel overall), and the underlying theme has remained the same throughout: the world is set up for the benefit of the untouchably rich, powerful, and greedy, and if the rest of us are going to survive it we need someone on our side. This includes a pungent, vigorous and free press which will, by virtue of that freedom, occasionally do or say things we don’t necessarily like. It’s at least as true today as it was in 1996, when the first Parlabane novel was published.
Philip Kerr (Penguin: £7.99; e-book £1.99)
When one has become familiar with a character over many books, it can be quite interesting and intuitive to go back and read the first outing by the author, if nothing else to assess style and character development. Bernie Günther, the Berlin private detective, erstwhile Kripo police officer in pre-war Nazi Germany, is just such a character. A reread of this book, Kerr’s first outing, demonstrates the solid foundations upon which Günther has appeared in now 11 novels.
Günther is retained by Herr Six, one of two or three powerful and successful steel magnates who unlike others, is less enamoured with the then new governing party of 1936 Germany. He believes his daughter and son in law murdered and jewels stolen. Alongside this Goering seeks to enrich his already developing hoard of stolen art and incriminating papers to gain control and influence. Murder, safebreaking, hitmen, Heydrich, Himmler and Goering combine to provide a rich tapestry upon which Kerr delves into a broad and well researched descriptive narrative of pre-war Berlin. A solid beginning which has spawned many an intriguing story as Günther moves back and forth through the years. A review of the latest offering appears next month.