Cracking reads - classic, unexpected and revealing
£20, Hodder & Stoughton
How do you make a success of marriage? Is it possible to stay interested, attracted to and stimulated by one person for a great swathe of your life? Even asking that makes the premise of a long-term monogamous marriage seem utterly preposterous, like a primitive form of voodoo. How can anyone fulfil all your needs, forever? That’s the central question at the beating heart of Us.
The ‘us’ are Douglas and Connie. They’re the archetypal odd couple: Douglas is a buttoned-up biochemist whose life is orderly and measured, while his wife is a free-spirited artist. Essentially, this is an exploration of the eternal opposites-attract aphorism. While it holds true initially for them, long-lasting wedded bliss eludes them, something spotlighted by Connie when, just after they’ve taken a big trip around Europe with their son, she informs Douglas that she intends to leave him. This novel is much anticipated because Nicholls experienced a serious case of writer’s block after the megasuccess of his last literary-offeringturned- Hollywood-film One Day five years ago. In many ways, he covers similar terrain here, namely the complexities, expectations and difficulties of contemporary relationships. By turns moving, funny and thoughtful it lays bare what it really means to be ‘in love’.
£20, Ebury Press
If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then maybe you should judge it by its title because here it succinctly sums up exactly where rugby legend Gareth Thomas is at in his life at the moment. He didn’t always feel pride about who he is, though, as this autobiography attests.
On the surface, Thomas was leading a charmed life: a glittering career, a devoted wife and a loving family. He was living a lie, though, and was struggling to come to terms with the fact he was actually gay. He was so tormented by his secret sexuality that he attempted suicide several times. All of which sounds like a pretty depressing read, but this is one of the most uplifting, honest and insightful autobiographies ever written. This is partly because Thomas narrates his own life with a complete lack of self-pity, but primarily it’s because it lifts the lid on what it’s truly like to try and conceal who you fundamentally are and conform to the socially-sanctioned constraints that control all of us one way or another. It’s actually a brilliant piece of social commentary that one day will hopefully be consigned to social history. Thomas has every reason to be proud of it and himself.
GO SET A WATCHMAN
It’s been studied by millions and read by even more – chances are, you’ve heard of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was so transformative of American attitudes that the book became bigger than the author and Lee claimed she’d never publish a book again. But this year, with the discovery of the original manuscript that gave birth to Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is once more making headlines, although in a rather different manner. The original novel, published now as Go Set a Watchman, features three huge changes: Scout is an adult, Jem is deceased and Atticus is, well, racist. That’s right! Every literary fan’s sweetheart has changed a lot in the setting of the book, now boasting affiliations with the KKK. While there is a lot of criticism about this change, Atticus still serves as a complex and realistic picture of latter segregation era USA. The novel follows Scout as she visits the Deep South and confronts her past and the prevailing attitudes of Monroeville. As Scout revisits her childhood, you will revisit yours as you meet familiar characters a few years after the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. This instant classic is not to be missed if you want a hit of nostalgia and some quality prose.
DEATH IN VERACRUZ
£9.99, Schaffner Press
If you’re looking for a bit of grit and suspense in your next read, prepare to follow around the unnamed protagonist of Héctor Aguilar Camín’s Death in Veracruz. The dark Mexican noir has been a well-regarded novel for thirty years now, but has only recently been translated into English for the first time. The main character, a journalist who still retains some integrity in a backdrop of twisted 1970s Mexican politics, is approached by an old friend with tales of murder and corruption. The friend, Rojano, has information about an oil cartel that is killing those who stand in the way of valuable land, but can only elaborate so much before he is also killed. It rests on the shoulders of the protagonist to dig for answers and uncover more questions that span the next decade of his life. Over the course of the narrative you’ll discover the means to which Rojano climbed to power and question the motives and influence of his widow, who the protagonist quickly becomes embroiled with. The intrigue of the plot is pushed by horrific crime and violence, leading you to question who is truly without blood on their hands.
GOUGHY - A TOUGH LOCK TO CRACK
£9.99, Y Lolfa
Ian Gough has a more interesting story to tell than your average international rugby player. And he does so in an engagingly honest book that’s both a credit to him and a barnstorming read.
His story is one of many ups and downs, some at exactly the same time, such as, making his Wales debut - what should have been the proudest moment of his career - in the now infamous 1998 thrashing by South Africa. Or the Six Nations triumph of 2005, an amazing experience lessened by being on the fringes of Mike Ruddock’s team, something more than made up for by his rehabilitation under Gatland and subsequent Grand Slam in 2008.
There are the usual rugby stories of revelry and the occasional punchup, the best being Maori monster Dale McIntosh’s poleaxing of Ponty team-mate Steele Lewis after a minor disagreement only to see them hugging and singing songs together an hour or two later.
But it also gives a window into the sheer amount of grit and graft required to make it as a professional rugby player. You’ve clearly got to have talent but as Gough’s own experience and that of friends and acquaintances who didn’t quite make the cut shows, mental attitude makes the difference.
It’s a measure of the man that even during the darkest days of his trial for allegedly assaulting former girlfriend and mother of his child, Sophie Cahill, (which is detailed in the book and was eventually dismissed at appeal) he remained upbeat and managed to keep some perspective, realising that many are in a far worse situation than him.
And this approach has served him well as his career comes to a close and he faces the anxieties of what to do with the rest of his life, something about which he’s philosophical: ‘Ian Gough, rugby player, is no more. Whatever the future holds, I’ll tackle it with the same commitment and endeavour I did every minute on the pitch.’
Tasty! Find out where to grab a pizza the action - with Jason
£7.99, Ebury Press
One thing’s for sure, we’re currently living through some anxious times. Conflict, famine, climate change, financial crisis, gun crime, Trump, racism, terrorism, post-Brexit panic; the worst of human life - playing out like a real-life disaster movie. So, what are we going to do about it? Step forward acclaimed Times columnist, Caitlin Moran.
As the title suggests, this is her manifesto for sorting out the monumental mess we’re in. (If you’ve had your fill of politics, there are lighter pop-culture pieces to temper the rallying-cry seriousness.) Admittedly, a journalist – albeit one with 20-plus years’ experience and a mantelpiece crammed with awards – announcing that she has the answer to our problems is more than a tad eye-rollingly arrogant, but that’s not Moran’s style. Her MO is much more 'we’re-all-in-this-together so we might as well try to make the world a better place'. All very Pollyanna-positive, granted, but she does it with such quicksilver wordsmithery, wit and infectious life-enthusiasm you end up buying into it. That’s the beauty and the punch of Moran’s writing: she sucks you into her sunny worldview and makes you think, makes you laugh and makes you glad to be alive.
THE DEAD HOUSE
Sherlock Holmes has his drug habit; Sarah Lund her jumper; Poirot his OCD; Columbo his cigars and mac. Since its inception, crime fiction in all its manifold media has been littered with gumshoes that give good gimmick. Here, Harry Bingham has gifted his anti-heroine, DC Fiona Griffiths, a humdinger in the form of Cotard’s Syndrome. This extremely rare psychological disorder makes the sufferer think they are dead and are walking through life in a zombie-like state. This may sound like an implausible stretch at first, but once you get into the thick of the book you realise it gives Griffiths a uniquely skewed way of relating to the world and everyone in it.
Set in Wales, this fifth Fiona Griffiths story focuses on the discovery of a young woman’s body in an old ‘dead house’, the annex of a church where the deceased were stored before burial in medieval times, and plays with the idea of past and present colliding in a bizarre and brutal way. For Griffiths, the murder victim’s corpse is laid out with such tenderness it represents an irresistibly intriguing puzzle to piece together. Typically well-plotted and pacey, this has TV adaptation written all over it.
LINES IN THE SAND
£20, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
When revered/reviled journalist A.A. Gill died last
year he became one of a long list of creatives lost
during 2016. He was also one of the most controversial.
During his two decades-plus of prolific output at The
Sunday Times, he coruscatingly critiqued restaurants
and television as well as opened a window on the world
with his travel writing. In the process he pricked a few
overblown egos – Gordon Ramsay famously threw
him out of one of his restaurants after a savage review
– and angered a great swathe of his readership with his
defiantly politically-incorrect pieces. Tellingly, after his
death even the people who got the sharp end of his pen
paid tribute, such was his towering talent.
That talent is wrangled into this anthology of his most
recent journalism. The range is impressively diverse.
From binge-drinking to Brexit to a brutal and hilarious
takedown of Morrissey’s pompous autobiography,
his writing, within the space of a few sentences, is
honest, lyrical, awestriking, damning, funny but, most
importantly, not sentimental or condescending. Never
is this more evident than when he casually announces
he has cancer at the beginning of a restaurant review.
Equally unsentimental is Gill’s chronicling of his NHS
treatment disproving the hoary, old dictum that money
can’t buy you health. A fitting parting-shot from a
perma-polariser who will be sorely missed.
TOAST HASH ROAST MASH
£20, Mitchell Beazley
According to a survey, us Brits on average own six
cookbooks a piece but staggeringly nearly half of us admit
to never opening their covers. This is due to our time
poverty so we get ready meal- and Deliveroo-happy. It’s
also because cookbooks have become too aspirational
(code for unattainable). So we don’t even begin to try and
it’s also partly because more and more of us are buying
cookery tomes as coffee table books “to decorate our
homes in order to signpost our lifestyle”. Eh?
Dan Doherty, big-cheese chef at London’s much-lauded
Duck & Waffle restaurant, attempts to take the ‘eh?’
out of what is essentially just cooking food for fuel and
pleasure by opting for a more do-able approach. So, we
get hearty, informal recipes for tacos, toasted sarnies,
leftovers and a load of different ways to make eggs.
(You know, food we actually eat everyday in the real
world rather than the drizzles and reductions of Planet
Restaurant where Doherty usually lives.) The most real
recipes are in the chapter devoted to culinary hangover
cures that use – shock! horror! – shop-bought
ingredients like the fast-food classic the potato waffle.
A rib-sticking riposte to the current foodie fad of socalled
‘clean eating’, A.A. Gill would likely approve.
NO GOOD DEED
£16.99, William Heinemann
The story setup here is intriguing. One day while
walking around Soho, big-noise restaurant critic AlanGrainger is approached by a begging homeless man. Sadly, nothing unusual in that, except the homeless man refers to him by name. Grainger assumes the man has recognised him from his byline photo, but in fact he’s former school friend, Craig Carmichael, whose life is clearly not as charmed as his. Crippled with middleclass
guilt, Grainger decides to help his erstwhile mate
and this is when the abbreviated title taken from that old adage “No good deed goes unpunished” kicks in. Far from being grateful, Carmichael proceeds to detonate a bomb in Grainger’s life.
This concept could come off as ridiculously far-fetched, but Niven is the master of taking an implausible scenario and making it entirely believable. This is partly down to his excellent ear for real-sounding dialogue, but also because he adheres to that basic literary dictum: write about what you know. Like Grainger, Niven grew up working-class in Scotland and ended up living the bling dream in meeja London, so the outsider becomes the insider and that’s what roots
the novel in reality. Essentially, this is a coruscating
meditation on male friendship, which in turn becomes a hilarious misanthropic sideswipe at the grotesque absurdities of modern life.
£20, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
John McEnroe is a well-known motormouth. From
his infamous you-cannot-be-serious refrain during
his playing days to his much sought-after stints in the commentary box, the eternal superbrat of tennis is renowned for his Noo Yawk you-talkin’-to-me? tongue.
Predictably, this sometimes lands him in hot water.
While promoting this memoir, he claimed that Serena Williams, widely rated as the greatest female player of all time, would only be ranked around 700 if she played on the men’s circuit. Cue a firestorm of controversy. Mac wasn’t bothered, though. Dissent is meat and drink to him, which may not win him many friends but makes for one helluva entertaining autobiography. So we get his blistering verbal volleys on the deepseated elitism in tennis, the distraction of grunting, strategic timeouts, how doubles “is on life-support” and equal prize money (he’s all for it).
It’s not all anti-Establishment ranting, though; he
writes with real passion about his love of music and art and poignantly and tenderly about not appreciating his late father enough and his son Kevin’s arrest on drug charges. Could the “Jesus of Anger”, as his wife calls him, be mellowing? Not much, truthfully, because his signature irreverence runs through this book like marrow through a bone as McEnroe serves up a revealing insight into the afterlife of an athlete.
WHERE TO EAT PIZZA
Italians do it better. They have some of the best art, architecture and fashion. Even the people are effortlessly gorgeous. If you like your food, though, the best thing about Italy is its most famous culinary invention: pizza. However, according to this lengthy lowdown on the subject, Italians actually weren’t the originators of marrying flat bread with toppings – for millennia many Mediterranean countries had done it – they just came up with the name. That was in the 16th century so they’re entitled to bragging rights.
The book is full of interesting nuggets that elevate it from being just another workaday where-to guide. Covering 48 countries, including Wales, and nearly two thousand pizzerias it’s certainly comprehensive, but what marks it out is the passion and knowledge of the experts/obsessives who compiled it. My first thought when I flicked through was: who would want to read a book solely dedicated to pizza? Fast-forward a couple of hours and I’m sofa-slumped still reading it. That’s because no book about food is ever simply about food. It’s about social, political and religious history. In other words, food is part of the evolution of our cultures, of our lives, which is fascinating even if you’re not a foodie.
SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS
£18.99, New American Library
Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll isn’t a cliché for nothing as Dave Stewart attests in this no-holds-barred memoir. During his time at pop’s coalface as the yin to Annie Lennox’s yang in Eurythmics, he led a big-noise life that would put even a hardened hedonist to shame. There’s enough name-dropping anecdotage to keep Stewart in dinner party invites for a lifetime. So, we get tales of partying with Mick Jagger and a group of models (standard), sharing a hot tub with Jack Nicholson conducting Beethoven or the drunken night with Lou Reed persuading Damien Hirst not to amputate his own hands for an art project.
What’s so refreshing about this memoir is that it’s so disarmingly open. Whereas most of the elder statesmen of the music biz PR their past to make it appear as vanilla as possible, Stewart is defiantly je ne regrette rien. He enjoyed his drink and drug binges when he did them and stopped when they became a problem. Simple. There’s no hindsight, handwringing introspection, just the presentation of a life lived large.
THE VANITY FAIR DIARIES
£9.99, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson
I’m wary of diaries. The practical ones logging ‘Dentist Thursday’ and ‘Remember anniversary!’ I get it, obviously, otherwise the wheels would come off life.
The emotional, event-logging diarising, though, is less clear-cut. To me, there’s never an objective detachment. There’s always a knowing self-consciousness, an eye on sharing it with other people, even if it’s just someone reading it on the sly. Before you write in, I understand the socio-historical signicance of diary-keeping, but I guess I subscribe to the Oscar Wilde saying: “Memory is the diary that we all carry with us.”
As the former editor of magazine institution Vanity Fair, it was always inevitable Tina Brown’s diaries were going to be published. Predictably from the boss of a glossie, the book is crammed with gossipy snippets about the great, the glamorous and the grotesque of the glitterati. For someone who’s now a firm fixture of that rarefied world, Brown is surprisingly – self-sabotagingly? – snarky. Donald Trump is labelled “a sneaky, petulant infant” long before the toys-out-the-pram Twitter tantrums, Clint Eastwood “hard work”, a young Boris Johnson “an epic sh*t” and Mick Jagger is allegedly given, erm, satisfaction by then-partner Jerry Hall before he goes out without her so he doesn’t stray (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). All good diaries perfectly time-capsule a particular period in time and this captures the 80s and early 90s in all their ‘greed-is-good’ excess, vulgar pun- intended vanity and rampant celebrity absurdity.
£9.99, Y Lolfa
"No identification with actual persons, places, teams or products is intended or should be inferred." You don't expect a biography of all things to carry such a strong disclaimer, after all reality is supposed to be the aim of the game (although some are more ego- stroking hagiography than true portrait). This is no ordinary biography, though. This is a spoof that is a LOLZ Mickey- take of the rugby world.
Based around a player nicknames Huge, the premise is a familiar as rugby itself. Young sportsmen is talent- spotted, gets fast- tracked to the big time, fame goes to his head and before he knows it he's digging himself out of career- derailing PR holes involving a sponsorship deal with a sports drink that turns to alcohol in the stomach causing drunken chaos on the streets
(!) and a penguin kidnapping that sparks an international diplomatic incident (!!). Spoofs are tricky to pull off, especially when you’re dealing with the national sport/religion, because they need to be affectionate leg-pulls rather than ruthless take-downs. Here, the balance is just the right side of send-up.
So you chuckle at the crazy antics of Huge and his teammates, but it also gets you thinking about people in the public eye making mistakes in the age of social media and the general pitfalls of celebrity culture. Just don’t give it to Gavin Henson or Danny Cipriani for Christmas.