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 £4.21)
This third instalment opens with Professor Tom Wilde, an American scholar at the University of Cambridge on holiday with his next door neighbour and lover, in France on the eve of the outbreak of World War 2 – a holiday originally planned as their honeymoon.
A mysterious woman appears outside the house in which they are staying, which ultimately leads them to bring back to the UK with them a gifted music student from Cambridge University who had been interred in France after having fought in the Spanish Civil War. As the story deliciously unfolds, we come to realise what a grave error of judgment Wilde has made in bringing him back to Cambridge.
Tom again hitches up with his sidekick who is from MI5. Together they investigate a series of deaths and a planned attempt on the life of Joe Kennedy, the US ambassador to the UK.
Alongside we have a number of characters who appear in previous novels, in particular the radical old communist who on his deathbed revokes his belief in communism given the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which sees Germany and Russia become allies.
We also witness the first assault by the German war machine on civilian targets, namely the sinking of the ship which is carrying American passengers to the US.
At the core of the book is the question of whether the US will enter the war in Europe as it did in the 1914-18 war, especially with an isolationist US foreign policy and the conspiracy that the UK was responsible for the attack on the ship in an attempt to encourage the US to intervene.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, as are the others in the series. The author writes with authority on his subject. However, he sculpts and crafts the times, the settings and characters beautifully, immersing the reader. Cambridge tearooms, college rooms, college life are all skilfully and believably described. These books deserve a wider audience.
The End of the Line
Gillian Galbraith (Polygon: £8.99; e-book £4.68)
Gillian Galbraith has written her first book in five years. Some of us wondered if the muse had left her.
This book is a departure for Galbraith and a welcome one at that. It is written with interventions from the perspective of Anthony Sparrow, an antiquarian book dealer engaged to clear the house of Professor Armstrong, a leading haematologist, following his murder. Through the prism of Sparrow going through the professor's library, access to autopsy reports and letters, the author takes us by the hand and guides us as we observe the final days of the 91 year old professor, who is frail of body and perhaps, slowly, of mind, as he witnesses his past challenge him when he is called to give evidence at a judicial inquiry into infected haemophilic blood transfusion. Everything he thought he did with the interests of his patients, whom he was clearly committed to assisting, is at the forefront of his mind. He believes he did everything to the best of his clinical expertise. All of this is laid bare under the glare of subsequently gained information and scrutinised before the inquiry. This has a devastating effect on him. He is not concerned for his own welfare but that of his former patients, and for the impact any adverse finding will have on his illustrious familial line. Death threats, hate mail and the rest, with nobody showing any thought for the impact this has on him. Salutary.
However, the professor employs an assistant to help him collate his notes for the enquiry and contribute to his family history. Slowly, surefootedly, her own story is unwrapped until the denouement when their lives intertwine.
A gripping and absorbing novel, we witness the vulnerability of those aged and infirm; the dimming of the senses; the disregard and questionable disbelief by anyone involved in the inquiry that the professor was doing anything other than acting in the best interests of those under his care; the devils which such inquiries unleash; the terribly short memories. Perhaps not written as a polemic, the core of the book is a call for humanity and understanding.
David Barbaree (Zaffre: £8.99; e-book £3.99)
“You look pleased”, said my wife. “Indeed”, I replied. A packet of books has just arrived from Distinguished Literary Editor.
“You look less pleased”, said my wife an hour later. “Grrumph”, I muttered. “Historical fiction.”
In his foreword, author and lawyer David Barbaree explains the background to this, the second book in a trilogy set in and around Ancient Rome. Emperor Nero was ousted from power in AD68, and was replaced by Vespasian who founded the Flavian dynasty. Thereafter at least three men claimed to be the deposed Nero. While little is known about them, the series is inspired by the false Neros.
Most of the action takes place around what is now the Bay of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The year is AD 79. The pace is fast, but well stage managed. As was the case for the best part of two centuries, there is tension between the empires of Rome and Parthia. A great cast of characters includes Parthians (kings, emissaries and hostages), senators and patricians, gladiators, freedmen and slaves. The calm philosophical approach of Admiral Plinius Secundus, aka Pliny the Elder, is a counterpoint to the headstrong senior Flavians, Emperor Titus and his brother Domitian. Gaius, Pliny’s diffident nephew, seems out of place among the high spirited sons of the rich and their huntsmen friends. There is inscrutability in the characters of blind senator Lucius Ulpius Traianus, and Domitilla, sister of Titus.
We have plots and subplots; we have the maelstrom of earthquakes and eruptions; and we even have room for a few love scenes (but, thankfully, no chariot races). Each chapter, some as short as a single page, is as seen by one individual character. As a device, the multi-narrator approach works well both in terms of pace and perspective.
In addition to his legal qualifications, Mr Barbaree is a graduate of the influential Curtis Brown Creative Writing School. He has learned well. Another of my prejudices may be on the way out.
The Fragility of Bodies
Sergio Olguín, translated by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.01)
This novel starts prosaically enough. A train driver in Buenos Aires, traumatised by the deaths of people who have committed suicide by jumping in front of his locomotive, decides to take his own life. When this comes to the attention of journalist Veronica Rosenthal, it really doesn’t seem much of a story; however, she makes contact with the railway company and experienced driver Lucio. From there the pace picks up as steadily and relentlessly as the train which Lucio drives, he secretly dreading the night shift on one particular day each month.
The action moves from the editorial offices of Nuestro Tiempo, Veronica’s magazine, through the impoverished, football mad areas of the city, to the highest realms of government. Ambitious journalists, exploited youngsters, small time criminals, civic corruption – we see it all. To tell more would be to give away too much. There are sections throughout this novel which are genuinely shocking. There are also parts which are moving, some which are edgy and many which are tense in the extreme. It is never dull and it never slows down. One comment on the dust jacket (which I would counsel you to avoid) describes this as an excellent addition to the Argentine noir tradition. I don’t know enough about that tradition to comment: however, forget noir, forget black – this novel is downright Stygian.
Sergio Olguín is an experienced Buenos Aires author, journalist and literary critic. With The Fragility of Bodies he has produced one of the best books I have read this year.
Laline Paul (4th Estate: £8.99; e-book £3.99)
This cleverly written book is engrossing, the pace picking up rapidly in the second half. Set in the Arctic the author describes the challenges with clarity. The book opens with the body of environmentalist Tom Hardy being disgorged as a glacier “calves”, namely when a large piece of the glacier breaks away: sadly all too frequently. Sean Cawson was the last person to see Tom alive when they entered an ice cave within the glacier before its collapse. Sean and a number of backers have purchased a lodge from an old Norwegian family. It is Tom's commitment to the environment which secures the deal. The British Government's defence secretary and his Norwegian counterpart make brief appearances. The idea of the lodge is to provide a secure retreat for global business. Security is provided by a small troop of armed guards. The backstory and the circumstances of Tom's death are tantalisingly revealed through the author's medium of the coroner's inquest when the others involved in the ill fated cave visit tell their stories, as Sean describes his role and relationship to his backers and, crucially, Tom. Terrific characterisation.