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Reading for pleasure

19 March 18

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

by Tom Johnston, Paul Doyle (review editor: David J Dickson)

Kingdom Cons

Yuri Herrera (And Other Stories: £8.99; e-book £4.74)

Yuri Herrera’s concisely charged novel Kingdom Cons is set against the feudal drug-trafficking culture in an unnamed town in northern Mexico swollen by contact with the United States.

Lobo, a street singer abandoned by his parents to make his own way, survives by performing corridos (a traditional Mexican ballad) in cantinas. Homeless in the hostile streets, he finds contentment in his melodies inspired by his passive observation of his dispossessed neighbours.

Narcocorridos (drug ballads) endorse cartel kingpins and gang allegiance, and incite the poor to join the drug world. Lobo sings an off-the-cuff corrido for the head of a cartel in a cantina. The gangster is flattered by the corrido, and Lobo is allowed to follow him into the cartel’s border kingdom. There, the characters shed their names for titles: the cartel leader becomes the King and Lobo is the Artist, a court jester whose job it is to (literally) sing the King’s praises.

The Artist falls in love, and the dynamic which the Artist thought was cast in stone starts to shift. Cartel rivalry delivers corpses to the Kingdom, and the Artist’s songs become still more sensitive, interpreted as different messages by the King’s retinue as they constantly vie for position. The network of palatial corridors and the repertoire of cartel corridos provide the framework for the Kingdom's neo-medieval hierarchy. The constant knowledge of a fabled land across the border highlights the division between cultures, politics, life and death.

Kingdom Cons is more than either a tale of lost innocence or a drugland eulogy. Herrera uses sparse yet powerful prose and distinguishes himself as one of Mexico’s finest contemporary writers.

I’ll Keep You Safe

Peter May (Riverrun: £18.99; e-book £9.99)

Those who know May’s work only from his Lewis-based books may be forgiven for thinking he has emerged only in the last decade or so. In fact he has been making his living as a writer, whether journalist, screen writer or novelist, for the best part of 50 years. The regular heightened anticipation for the next Peter May is evidence of a writer at the peak of his craft.

Set once again on Lewis, I’ll Keep You Safe is the story of Ruairidh and Niamh MacFarlane who co-own Ranish Tweed, a competitor of the better known Harris Tweed. The tale begins with intrigue in Paris and takes us through childhood flashbacks, the murky world of haute couture, adolescent love and angst, French and Scottish policing methods and, of course, the islands of Harris and Lewis. (I say, islands, but, for the benefit of those who don’t know, they are in fact parts of a single island.)

There are fine writers who can’t tell a great story, and there are even more storytellers who can’t write. Peter May is blessed with both gifts. Even as he is driving us at great speed through his narrative, he delights in dropping unexpected diversions in the road. The pace is so breakneck, and the journey so enjoyable we can forgive the various parts where disbelief must be suspended. These instances occur near the end, by which time you are simultaneously crying out to know what happens, while not wanting the book to end.

This is one of May’s finest to date – and that’s saying something.

Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White House

Michael Wolff (Little, Brown: £20; e-book £11.99)

As Michael Wolff’s sensational book attracted so much publicity when it appeared at the start of this year, does one need to read it, and is there much more to say? To those questions, I would answer yes and yes again. It may come as no surprise to learn that a highly successful businessman – to whom I refer in this review as DJT – whose own ventures are focused around him as an individual, may take time to adapt to the complex of multi-layers of government. Equally, it will come as no great shock to learn of political infighting behind the scenes in the West Wing. What struck me so profoundly was the lack of preparation for office, and the totally dysfunctional nature of the first few months.

Observers of US foreign policy will recall the “fire and fury” phrase from the title as one which appeared in one of DJT's speeches issuing dire threats to North Korea. That’s not where it started, according to Wolff. At the outset of the campaign, DJT told an aide, “I can be the most famous man in the world.” But not, apparently, by winning the election. His friend Roger Ailes used to say that if you wanted a career in television, first run for President. DJT was apparently floating rumours of a Trump network, and was spreading rumours to the effect that he hadn’t lost the election – it had been stolen. In short, “Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury. They were not prepared to win.”

Thus it came to pass that within a few weeks, various camps were jostling for supremacy and the President’s ear. There was the family faction, of DJT’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Javed Kushner; Steve Bannon, the second central character of the book, once a close ally, ultimately dismissed and reviled; and Reice Priebus, short lived Chief of Staff. Attempting to make sense of what was going on were sundry teams of communications people. Wolff reports that “by the second week of the Trump presidency everybody in the White House seemed to be maintaining their own list of likely leakers and doing their best to leak before being leaked about”. One could only sympathise with Sean Spicer, an experienced pro brought in as press secretary, but as likely to get his information from the journalists he was expected to brief, or from DJT’s Twitter account. In Wolff’s words, the pressures on Spicer were such that more often than not the press briefings turned into “can’t-miss train wrecks”.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation is DJT’s refusal to read anything, whether one-page memos or policy notes. He had no time for the modern style of general in the situation room with his PowerPoint presentations and data dumps. Michael Flynn, on the other hand, was listened to because of his style, “quite the conspiracist and drama queen, with a vivid storytelling sense”. Wolff suggests that DJT’s own views would often depend on the person with whom he had spoken most recently.

The fallings out, the tantrums and the regular turnover in key staff are quite well known, but are described in horribly fascinating detail here. Wolff had access to DJT and his people for over a year. The book is apparently based on over 200 interviews. Wolff himself was host of some of the social events which are the source of some extraordinary comments. In the interests of balance, DJT and his supporters cast much doubt on many of the revelations. Suffice it to say that if even 80% of this is accurate, it is a shocking and frightening state of affairs.

The Road to Ithaca

Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.09)

This is the fifth in the Martin Bora series. In a crowded genre where inventing new traits for a criminal investigator is nigh-on impossible, Pastor has pulled it off. Bora is a captain in the German Army during the Second World War. His ethics and singlemindedness set him apart from many, as does his privileged background. He is aware of the horrors going on all around and, while he has a steely determination not to follow the easy, turn-a-blind-eye approach, he has a ruthless edge to him. This book sees him sent from Moscow, where he has been comfortably installed before Germany and Russia swapped sides, to Crete. Initially despatched on an errand, he finds himself in charge of investigating reports of something which, even in the Abwehr of the 1940s, is being considered a war crime. A Swiss national and staff are found murdered; photographs emerge of German paratroopers in the property at the relevant time.

Ben Pastor is the pen name of Maria Verbena Volpi. An archaeologist by training and an academic by profession, she started writing novels in her 50s. Another series of books features Aelius Spartianus, a Roman soldier in the fourth century. Others are set in Prague on the eve of the First World War. That’s a lot of research and a lot of detail to get right. In this book, Bora’s investigation takes him on a short “odyssey” around Crete. Pastor’s knowledge of archaeology and master of descriptive prose shine through. One can see the ruins in blistering sun, and marvel at the artefacts which appear. The impossible topography and unforgiving climate are as much a factor in Bora’s dangerous journey as the varying groups, Cretans, Catalans, British and Italian, he has to encounter, work with, or escape from.

You will note I put the word “odyssey” in quotation marks. It is impossible to see the name Ithaca without thinking of Ulysses and his travels. No coincidence, then, that Bora just happens to be travelling with a copy of the eponymous book. The two novels end with same phrase, “And yes I said yes I will yes.” Yet, for me, the unnecessary and unsuccessful attempts at linkage are an irritation which detracts from a very well written work. Ithaca and Crete are 750 kilometres distant. After the Trojan War Ulysses travelled for 10 years; Bora about three days. Turning down an offer of directions from three pretty peasant girls is not the same as listening to the sirens’ song, and the fact that a shepherd with whom Bora shelters has only one eye does not turn him into a latter day Polyphemus. The answer at the end of Ulysses is Molly Bloom’s breathless submission to sexual entreaty; in The Road to Ithaca it is to Bora’s self posed question, Will I accept what comes with this war?

As a piece of detective fiction, ignoring the links to mythology, this could work very well. Sadly, however, the question left on my lips was, why, Ben, why, Ben, why?

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