Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer Reading Round-up 2

This is the second of these round-ups - no.1 is here. I have invited some bloggers to nominate a couple of books they have enjoyed recently and write a few sentences about each. You are welcome to send me your own choices. I suggest you nominate one political and one non-political book, but I don’t insist on that.

Iain Dale

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

If you are a fan of counterfactual history and you wonder what might have happened in May 1940 had Lord Halifax become prime minister rather than Winston Churchill, you will love this book. The author, C J Sansom, is a strange cove. He rose to prominence with a highly successful series of novels set in the reign of Henry VIII, all about the life of a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. He then wrote a spy novel, 'Winter in Madrid', and hit the headlines recently when he donated £160,000 to the Better Together campaign. He literally hates the SNP, which is evident at various points in the plot of 'Dominion'. This is his first counterfactual novel, but I suspect it won’t be his last. It's long at 592 pages, which include a long explanatory note at the end justifying the approach he took to the book. It's all quite convincing, because had Halifax put up a fight, there's little doubt that he would indeed have become prime minister and I suspect sued for peace with Germany within a very short time.

The plot of 'Dominion' involves a slightly quixotic scientist who learns that America has developed the atom bomb. The year is 1952. Queen Elizabeth is on the throne (still unmarried) and Lord Beaverbrook is the Nazi sympathising prime minister. Somewhat bizarrely Enoch Powell is in the Quisling-esque Cabinet as Secretary of State for India. Powell’s wife Pam was understandably furious with Sansom for portraying her late husband in this manner, and I suspect Jonathan Aitken is none too pleased at the portrayal of Beaverbrook. Churchill is the renegade leader of the resistance, but doesn't feature much in the book until the end, when Hitler’s death is announced. I really enjoyed the book as a whole and wanted more. It's a good holiday read and I can’t imagine anyone would get to the end and wish they hadn't bothered.

Gaffer by Neil Warnock

I am a great devourer of football biographies and autobiographies. When I saw Neil Warnock had written his autobiography I thought it would be a sure fire winner. And it is. Sort of. It’s not a conventional autobiography in that it doesn't tell Warnock’s story chronologically. The book is themed around different aspects of football management and although at first I wasn't very sure that this approach worked, by the end I thought it had been a thoroughly good idea. The book concentrates quite heavily on Warnock's time at QPR and Leeds and very entertaining it is too. But I found it very odd that the whole Carlos Tevez saga was dismissed in little more than a page. Being a West Ham fan I am supposed to dislike Warnock, but I have always had a sneaking admiration for him. He is a mould breaker. He fights the establishment, and that’s what has led to him never really being given a chance with one of the top teams. Warnock knows how to put together a proper team. He’s got a reputation as a long ball merchant, but that is unfair. Given the right players he is capable of producing a very entertaining team. He says he has now retired. I am not convinced. I suspect he will be back on the managerial merry-go-round before too long.

Iain Dale writes a blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Pack

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

For much of the book the picture it paints of Steve Jobs is of such a flawed, rude, wasteful, divisive figure that it's easy to forget this is the biography of an amazing success, not a dreadful failure. That makes the story it tells all the more interesting, and emphasises the value of having a simple, clear idea (in Jobs's case, high quality design for mass market products). Jobs's obsessive focus on that idea led him to all sorts of absurdities - and also to his greatness.

The Alamut Ambush by Anthony Price

Winner of many awards for his espionage novels, Anthony Price never quite made it as a really famous author thanks to the TV adaptation of several of his books in the early 1980s having only modest success. However, the books are still in print and have recently started appearing in audio book too. I love the way Price deals with the artificial conventions of novels in plausible ways. This book is particularly fine at using the sort of plot coincidences that are so useful to generating tension and intrigue - yet giving them a plausible explanation within a carefully crafted plot. [You can find a longer review by Mark online.]

Mark Pack writes a blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Iain Sharpe

When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland by Marianne Elliott

This is the best political book I have read recently. It is based on Professor Marianne Elliott's 2005 Ford lectures, and while the title may sound dry and academic it is a wise, humane and highly readable book. Often drawing on personal experience and anecdotes, Professor Elliott dissects the reasons behind historic enmities between Protestant and Catholic communities in Ireland. These include such things as Protestant stereotypes of Catholics being dictated to by priests rather than thinking for themselves and Catholics doubting whether Protestants could be properly Irish. As Liberals we can often find it difficult to deal with the dynamics of religious/national conflict and anyone reading this book will emerge with a much greater understanding. An honourable mention should go to Alvin Jackson's 'The Two Unions' a comparative study of Scottish and Irish experience of Union within the United Kingdom.

The Laidlaw Trilogy by William McIlvanney

I welcome Alex Salmond's recent praise of this trilogy: Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties. For me these knock spots off the better-known Ian Rankin, whose novels always seem to me formulaic and unconvincing. By contrast McIlvanney's Laidlaw books genuinely read like novels about a detective rather than detective fiction. There are no far-fetched solutions, or bizarre conspiracies, but there is genuine suspense and a real warm humanity suffusing the narrative. McIlvanney deserves to be better known
than he is. I disagree with the Scottish first minister's politics but I'm happy to endorse his taste in fiction.

Iain Sharpe used to blog at Eaten by Missionaries

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