Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Saturday Bloody Saturday
Alastair Campbell and Paul Fletcher (Orion Books: £18.99; e-book £7.99)
The name of Alastair Campbell is well known to all, primarily as special adviser to Tony Blair and, it is alleged, as the inspiration behind Armando Ianucci’s The Thick of It. It is perhaps less well known that he is a journalist and writer by profession. Paul Fletcher, on the other hand, is largely unknown. After 16 years as a professional footballer (enter his name in YouTube with the tagline Goal of the Decade), he became a highly successful businessman, latterly as a consultant on stadium design. The connection between the two is Burnley FC. Campbell is a dyed-in-the-wool fan who helped save the club from bankruptcy; Fletcher made 293 appearances for the club and later became its CEO.
At a recent launch in Edinburgh they explained the genesis of the book, which is set in a top flight English football club in the 1970s. Fletcher insisted that the characters and dressing room banter were authentic, based on his own experiences. Campbell’s political insight was essential to get the authentic feel of the politics behind the IRA involvement. The two strands are expertly intertwined. Aside from the players and management team in our unnamed club, and the IRA personnel, virtually all the other characters are real people. Thus we can share their apprehension at the prospect of taking the field against some of the renowned hard cases of 1970s football, such as Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter or Ron “Chopper” Harris. So many of the dramatis personae feel real, whether former Scotland star Charlie Gordon, now the beleaguered manager with an alcohol problem, DD Marland, the self-styled God’s gift to women, or Willie Buchanan, the shy but up-and-coming apprentice. It is no surprise that an old football hand has been involved here.
The storyline is ingenious. It’s no major spoiler to say that an assassination is being planned, and that we know that it cannot happen. What that does is to create even greater curiosity as to how this will end. No more to be said on that, save to say that the conclusion is most satisfying. A terrific read. Congratulations are due to both gentlemen.
Richard Wrenn (Amazon: £6.99; e-book £2.99)
Perhaps one can do little better than begin by repeating the sleeve notes. “A romantic drama set in an English market town in the 1980s, exploring a conflict between duty and love. Set in a solicitors’ firm, it revolves around three main characters: Mitcham, a young ambitious solicitor; Buller, his senior partner; and Susan, Buller’s only daughter, who falls in love with Mitcham. All three suffer anguish as they wrestle with dire choices arising from unforeseeable circumstances, knowing that their decisions will alter the course of their own lives and the futures of each other for ever.”
If that sounds a tad Mills & Boon-esque, the tale, set over a seven year period, is possibly rather darker than one might expect from the average romantic drama. I suspect this is Mr Wrenn’s first novel. It features a senior partner of a legal firm: Mr Wrenn too was a senior partner. Most first novels are to a greater or lesser extent autobiographical. Well, stop right there. I can say with absolute certainty that there is no resemblance between Messrs Buller and Wrenn. How do I know? Well, that would spoil the plot.
Creating three-dimensional characters is something with which many more experienced writers struggle. And writing realistic dialogue is not at all easy. For example, I do find it a little difficult to imagine Buller, describing a holiday destination to his fiancée, using the words “[Chamonix] is set at the foot of magnificent mountain scenery dominated by the towering Mont Blanc.”
The novel is self published. A little professional editing could have polished the work a bit, and, of course, even the best writers improve with practice. I note that this work has attracted five reviews on Amazon, all of them five star. Who am I to say different?
The Greek Wall
Nicolas Verdan (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.70)
Bitter Lemon Press publish translations of foreign crime fiction. This book is an outstanding example of what is already a remarkable collection. Verdan is a Swiss author who is described as sharing his time in Greece. He brings Greece to life ,whether in his descriptions of the city, people or culture. He also uses the book to engage with wider European issues such as the impact of the debt crisis on Greek society and individuals, together with immigration.
The “Greek Wall” is a barbed wire fence, monitored using night vision equipment, policed by Turkish and Greek officials, as well as officers from the European agency Frontex. A head is found near a remote brothel, deep in the forest close to the border, with the body turning up later having been buried by Muslim clerics. There is however a deeper story of corruption, cross-border trade, responsibility of those from outside a state whose role of providing protection is abused, and the life of those who seek only a better way of life for themselves and their families. The division created by barriers is laid bare.
This book was originally published in 2015. On publication the novel may have been closer in time to events. However, the powerful objective and narrative of the book are no less diminished.
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Philip Kerr (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £12.99)
Sadly, Philip Kerr passed away a few days prior to the publication of the latest Bernie Gunter novel. We have lost a great storyteller. Mr Kerr was able to write a further novel which appears as the 14th in the series next year. Fans of Gunter will understandably lament the penultimate outing. It is a terrific story. Unlike previous novels, this one is set in one era but draws on the previous. Gunter finds himself in Athens and Munich in 1957, working as an insurance loss adjuster. He is brought into the job by a former lawyer he knew in pre-war Berlin and who wants Gunter to check out a financial benefactor to his newly formed political party. An apparently unrelated trip to Greece to assess the loss of a vessel turns out to be central to the story, when Gunter uncovers it was owned by a German national but previously a Jewish resident of Thessaloniki. Gunter uses all his wile and grit to uncover the truth of what occurred in Greece, but also what lurks in his homeland.
Being set in 1957, Kerr brilliantly draws on the fledgling German state, the strength and drive of Chancellor Adenauer, the economic miracle following the Marshall Aid and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German word that almost defies interpretation but essentially means responsibility for the recent troubled past in Germany. This is most keenly observed through the fate of Jews in Thessaloniki. Kerr even manages to shine light on the issue of German war reparations to Greece, recently reignited by the debt crisis in Greece. The boundless joy of Greece is laid bare with descriptions of Athens and its various hotels, street life and, as always with Gunter, the darker, largely unseen activities within the city. The next volume is eagerly awaited, particularly as the author tantalises us with the gentlest of hints of what may unfold. A real page turner and memoriam that cannot be more highly recommended.