Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
A Treachery of Spies
Manda Scott (Bantam Press: £16.99; e-book £9.99)
Manda Scott trained as a vet before finding writing – a pity for the animals but what a bonus for us!
This thriller is set between wartime France and modern day Orléans. The book opens with a 90 year old, Sophie Destiville found dead in a car with her tongue cut out. She is subsequently identified as a member of the French resistance. What motive would anyone have to kill her and, in doing so, desecrate her body as she did those she killed in the cause of wartime resistance?
From such explosive beginnings, Scott steadily and intriguingly draws us into wartime France and how its long legacy and shadow resonates in modern day France. Laurence Vaughan-Thomas trains those who will work with the Maquis. He has a close bond with Patrick Henderson which sees them in Arisaig, Cambridge and France; also with Laurence's cousin, Theadora. A network of agents develops in France and, across the void of 70 years, are found to have regrouped. Why? What is so significant about a programme in development about the work of the Maquis that causes them to regroup? Wartime bonds and deals resurface. Scott has taken the genesis of reality of post-war Europe, with its fears of communism, the rise and reach of Russia and the response of the West, and written an involved and tense thriller of the first order.
Blowing the Bloody Doors Off
Michael Caine (Hodder & Stoughton: £20; e-book £9.99)
Michael Caine delivers an irresistible combination of diffidence and confidence with this book. He has already written an autobiography, but refuses to repeat any anecdotes. This simple, engaging book embraces a number of different themes, but is filled with tips for actors. The evocative title comes from one of the most memorable scenes in The Italian Job: as a little white van explodes, Caine delivers the perfectly timed, mesmerising line: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
The octogenarian Caine reminds the reader that more than enough is too much. His mantra is (for both life and art) use your own gifts to get the job done. The Cockney Caine has been acting for 65 years and often refers to the importance of his family life – which provides a lot of material on which to draw.
The twist in the narrative is the actor’s handbook of various techniques and methods for doing Michael Caine’s job as he sees it, accompanied by many anecdotal encounters involving shameless (okay, well earned) namedropping which will attract the interest of at least those of us born in the 50s and 60s (and won’t be ignored by the youngsters who came after us).
When starting out, Caine asked older actors for advice; they all told him to give up. But Caine’s influential mentor was the anarchic Jack Nicholson, who said he should not retire; instead he should turn himself from a movie star to a character actor. A star changes the script to suit himself; an actor changes himself to suit the script. In the course of this absorbing narrative, Caine acknowledges not just his undeniable success, but also confesses to frailties and his perception of disastrous failures. From both success and failure, he reassuringly draws lessons for life.
This is not a self-help book. Caine’s engaging style provides a thoughtful insight on a life for which the author feels (gratefully) blessed. He delivers an unapologetic (undemanding) account of the impact of his success and his unabashed love for his family. He recommends thinking of ordinary daily life as an audition – you reap what you sow. There are rewards in civility to the receptionist, the cashier, the barista, the crew, whoever you come in contact with.
This is a pleasant, easy read. Michael Caine knows how to entertain, but his message is serious, candid and unpretentious. He is hilarious about the upsides of stardom (he passed his driving test in Los Angeles because the inspector was a fan). About the downsides, too (he didn’t buy a yacht: advice from David Bowie). He entertains all the way, and delivers a simple message that to succeed you have to work – so just get on with it (but enjoy yourself).
The Music Shop
Rachel Joyce (Doubleday: £8.99; e-book £4.99)
It’s 1988, and Frank, a great, shambling, “gentle bear of a man” owns a record shop in a rundown backstreet of an unspecified English city. As much a therapist as a retailer, he can always find the right piece of music for his customers; and, for that matter, for his neighbours and fellow shopkeepers: a motley group of low-key eccentrics, nursing themselves, each other, and their ailing businesses through trying times. “They just had to look after one another”, the author reflects. “They would be OK, so long as they stuck together.” Into Frank’s world, and therefore into this complex network of affection, solidarity, and loneliness, comes a mysterious interloper: Ilse Brauchmann, a German woman in a pea-green coat. Who is she? What does she want from Frank? And what’s her secret?
With extraordinary economy and tenderness, the author performs a miraculous balancing act: although The Music Shop deals in part with the silent and invisible agony of unrequited love and shattered dreams, set in what looks like a dying world of small, specialist shops and declining post-industrial towns, it also portrays a community full of kindness and solidarity; of decent people, helping each other out. And it’s this which, ultimately, gives the characters something to live for, and the reader something to hope for. The book’s first words are “There was once a music shop”, giving the whole thing the air of a fairy tale. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the cumulative effect of this remarkable, life-affirming novel is something close to magical.
John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century
James Buchan (Maclehose Press: £30; e-book £12.99)
This is an extraordinary story. It is the biography of a Scotsman who rose to one of the highest offices in 18th century France, whose economic theories predated Adam Smith by half a century, and of whom most have never heard. John Law of Lauriston (Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh still exists) was born in 1671 to William Law, goldsmith and banker. Much of the detail of his life seems to be sketchy, but it is clear that he had to flee England after killing a man in a duel. Thus begins a most remarkable tale. Law was clearly a successful gambler, with the professional’s head for odds and figures. He developed various lottery schemes; his bets then took him into the realms of what we would now know as options trading, and his development of a system based on paper money was years head of its time. He rose to become Controller General of France, making fortunes for the King and other investors over just a few years. This was a turbulent time in the world of finance. Major banks were being established (Bank of England, 1694; Bank of Scotland, 1695; Royal Bank of Scotland, 1727). It was also a time of wild and often disastrous speculation (the Darien Scheme; the South Sea Bubble). Law’s downfall coincided with the French acquisition of Louisiana and the bursting of the so called Mississippi Bubble.
James Buchan’s book is a remarkable piece of work, sadly not all in a good way. The research is breathtaking – there are 71 pages of footnotes. His expertise is unquestionable. Beginning professional life as a financial journalist, his works include Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money. Sadly, for me, despite the awards he has won as a novelist, his writing talents fall far short of those of his illustrious grandfather John. There is far, far too much detail, much of it irrelevant. Why, for example does he need to tell us that a set of ledgers which he examined are “swaddled in calf skin and deer sinew against the sea air”? Sometimes his style is slapdash. Early on he refers to a Scottish lawyer who was called to the bar as someone who “passed Advocate” in 1661. I assume he means some of his throwaway phrases to be witty, whereas they come over as snobbish or ill informed. Referring to the erection of Milne’s Court in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, he sneers that it is “now fit only for college students”, ignoring the fact that it was saved from demolition by Patrick Geddes and extensively refurbished expressly for that purpose. Referring to an investment scheme in 1713, Buchan tells us that most of the investors were Jewish. He then continues, “of the Scots or thirteenth tribe of Israel, there is just one representative”. Later, referring to a loan which Law made to the Earl of Stair, Buchan comments, “but a proud Scot who needed money and another who had it in profusion, were bound to come to blows”. Hilarious, James.
While at times there is too much detail, at other times he comes out with things which will be incomprehensible to many. Out of the blue and without any context, there is the sentence, “The following day, Sunday, Crean’s bill on him for 40,000 piastres was protested.” Now, as lawyers, we can understand this, but what would a layman make of it? French currency is at different times referred to as livres, pistoles, ecus, sols and louis. At times the chronology is baffling, as is the extraneous detail. I have seldom been so glad to reach the end of a book. This is a fascinating tale, thoroughly badly told.