Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Rory Clements (Zaffre: £12.99; e-book £3.99)
In his previous book, Clements introduced us to Tom Wilde, a professor of history at Cambridge University who, working with Philip Eaton of MI5, uncovered and prevented a group of local Nazi sympathisers ensuring Edward VIII remained King to ensure their wider objectives were achieved. In his latest novel, Mr Clements draws on the Kindertransport (which saw 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children travel to Britain), the race to develop nuclear fission and the buildup to war. An eminent German physicist escapes Dachau, travelling with his niece, Dr Eva Haas, over the Swiss Alps to the UK. Dr Haas anticipates her young son, Albert, arriving on the Kindertransport organised by the Quakers and to be staying with her friend Lydia Morris, who, as well as being Wilde's next door neighbour, is also his lover. The child does not arrive, amid stories of his removal from the train by the Gestapo. A shady group of American Nazi sympathisers are holidaying at their country house in Cambridge. Wilde is tasked to spy on them by MI5 and the US Government. A narrative of the IRA bombing campaign is skilfully interwoven.
This is a fast paced, clever narrative with strong characterisation. There is a real sense of the buildup to war, the arms race, the fear of nuclear war and chemical weapons (the latter of course had been deployed in the First World War. The author also skilfully and believably describes and evokes college life at university and the city of Cambridge, in a period lost to time. There is glamour (in the form of an actress who is also a pilot), treachery, brutality, compassion and intrigue. Thrilling. We are tantalisingly offered a slight glimpse to the next outing, which will be heartily anticipated.
Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books: £12.99; e-book £4.68)
As with the bread of the title, this delicious book is nourishing, deeply flavoursome and takes time to energise the soul. On one level the book is a fantasy; however, on another, an invocation to readers to take a leap of faith and seek to make a career, indeed a new life, out of one's interests. It also latterly touches on a current debate about the future alternative approach to food development (Future Proofing on Animals on Radio Four style, or the review of Jay Rayner's book in January 2018). Lois Clary moves to San Fransisco (itself the Holy Grail of sourdough, having been introduced there by French bakers in the 1849 Gold Rush and home to the unique Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis). In a highly paid job in computing, she finds her life so constricted that she eats only takeaways from the local “Clement Street Soup and Sourdough”, run by two brothers who, due to visa issues, up sticks and move abroad, leave Lois with the sourdough mother. Thereafter a delightful, uplifting, warm and prescient narrative sees Lois open up her life, meet likeminded people (the coffee barista is a hoot) and take her life in new and varied directions. This book is utterly absorbing, as well as achieving what is perhaps its objective of turning our minds away from the stress and speed of everyday life to the more ethereal and uplifting joy of food.
Helen Forbes (Thunderpoint Publishing: £9.99; e-book £2.99)
For many years I’ve been complaining about the quality of crime fiction produced by the legal profession, Horace Rumpole being the glorious exception. Then, to shatter that generalisation, we had William McIntyre; now we have Helen Forbes.
Her central character is Detective Sergeant Joe Galbraith. He has no exotic parentage, no dark past, nor, astonishingly, does he have a problem with authority, or an insufferable, overbearing superior. We have a group of believable police officers. Characterisation is pretty good for a second novel, as is a strong sense of place, switching between Inverness and the Hebrides. The plot is revealed slowly and steadily. Interest is maintained throughout, with questions outstanding right to the end. We enter the world of the one time addict Sharon MacRae, and Christopher Brent, her new love interest. Who is the mysterious T, who emails Brent at 10.30pm every night? What is their connection with the murder of Gordon Sutherland, local councillor and pillar of the community? Is Brent’s respectable London upbringing as it seems?
The reader’s attention is not allowed to waver for a moment. One reviewer of Ms Forbes’s debut novel, In the Shadow of the Hill, described it as our first real home grown sample of modern Highland noir. Whichever words you may choose, take it from me that this is a very fine book.
The Accident on the A35
Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband: £8.99; e-book £5.69)
The Accident on the A35 explores several levels, all unleashed by one (apparently) simple question. Is there anything remarkable about the fatal car crash on the A35? The question which troubles Inspector Georges Gorski is only where has the victim, an outwardly austere lawyer, been on the night of his death?
Inspector Gorski (a decent man burdened by his own troubles) finds himself drawn into a mystery that takes him behind the safe veneer of his own sleepy small French town, Saint-Louis. The parallel between Inspector Gorski’s troubles and the double life of the deceased is played out with a sensitive empathy for each of Burnet’s vulnerable characters.
Darkly humorous, gloriously subtle and sophisticated, The Accident on the A35 explores the frailty of its characters, whilst balancing their demons against the habitual ennui of small-town life. The narrative has the simple momentum of classic crime writing. Clearly a homage to Simenon, this novel offers a denouement worthy of classic Greek tragedy which delivers as 21st century police procedure – betraying the author’s wit, and joyously adding levels of meaning. The author’s characters’ aspirations, their very dreams, are lovingly exposed in frill-free prose.
Is this Graeme Macrae Burnet's best book yet? Read it. This is a compelling novel which works perfectly as page-turning crime fiction, but is atmospherically moody, Gallic, empathic and witty.