A stamp on the cover of the book I read said, "A great insight into Trump and Brexit". Great way to pull in the reader, but slightly misleading, because this is not about politics, but an insider's story of what it is like to live the 'hillbilly' life - the white working class life of those who live within range of the Appalachian mountains, a geographical and cultural regions in the east USA stretching from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in the south to the southern tip of New York state.  The author's family comes from Kentucky, his grandparents moving north to the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, where the main employer at that time was a steel factory. The factory was initially 100% American owned, and over time was taken over by foreign interests, creating the situation that Trump so successfully campaigned against in his election policies. JD Vance, no win his early thirties, is in what appears to be the unusual position of having escaped the poor white working class hillbilly tag of his family by firstly, becoming a US Marine, then a Yale Law School graduate, now successful lawyer - the American Dream complete. This allows him to stand back from his own community and upbringing, giving a perspective to the reader, and more importantly putting him on his own voyage of self discovery.

In this memoir, he closely examines his family's origins in Kentucky, the move north, his own upbringing with his drug addict mother and absent father, his two siblings and of paramount importance his grandparents who ended up fulfilling the parent role in his difficult and compromised childhood. In particular he explores the culture of the hillbilly, the majority of whom are of Scots-Irish stock, their work and life ethic, how they are quite different from many other areas and populations of the USA, what makes them tick, and of most import, the derision, scorn and prejudice constantly targeted at them. In reading this I couldn't help but think that they have been put in the same category as gypsies, or indigenous working class minorities in many countries. In the western world economies of neo-liberalism, where profit is king, often there is little understanding of how these societies tick, and little compulsion to try.

So the situation in the Appalachians is not unique to the USA, but also in my own country, and I imagine in most other Western countries.  I loved this book for so many reasons - Vance's own family and life story, the sadness and hopelessness that is pervading daily life, how he managed to find himself and climb out of the vortex he was being sucked into, opening up his heart and soul to the anonymous reader, and from a sociology or anthropology point of view, the world he is innately part of that has made him the man he is, and will forever be a part of him. 


Little Bee, Incendiary, and Gold - Cleave's three previous novels, all of which I loved. So I was very much looking forward to reading this latest from Mr Cleave. But I should have known it was too good to be true! It is not that this is a terrible novel, or badly written, it is just that it hasn't hit me like the earlier books have, especially Little Bee. Not that these are perfect either: you don't have to google too much on any of these titles to find numerous criticisms and average ratings. But I loved them and loved the emotional response they stirred in me, yes all three. So it has been very disappointing while reading this to not have that emotional connection, page by page waiting for it, sometimes it almost being there, and then not. I felt detached from the characters, from the plot, from the relationships and I don't think it is just me, as numerous other reviewers have also expressed disappointment. I think if you had not read any of the previous three novels, then you may find this a great book, because there are many good points about it. Just not for me this time round.

The storyline is good - beginning of WWII, set in London. Mary North is a young woman from a well off and privileged family. She desperately wants to do something useful now that war has started so she volunteers to be a teacher. The evacuation of children from London renders her useless until she finds out that special needs children, those with significant health issues and black children are to remain in London. So she resolves to stay and continue to teach these unwanted children. This causes major issues with her parents, her father being a senior government politician, in line for a cabinet posting. Tom Shaw is a young man, who has an important role in education administration which is where he meets Mary. He falls madly in love with her, and this forms a central line to the plot. His best friend is Alistair who is an art curator with the Tate Gallery. He volunteers and has what amounts to a truly awful war, involved in Dunkirk and that chaos and then stuck on Malta while it is under siege from the Germans. The story weaves around these three, as well as Mary's young black student Zachary.

So there is plenty of scope here for a great novel - plenty of action with the war both in Europe and the dreadful air raids on London, the intensity of relationships with the never ending and ever present threat of death and loss looming by, the appalling racism demonstrated by Londoners to young Zachary and black people in general, the beauty and starkness of Malta - a place I have always wanted to go to. There is some amazing writing, especially about the bombing raids on London, their effects on the psyche of the residents, and I did like the writing about being holed up in a hopeless situation on Malta. But despite all this, it just does not hold together at all well. Maybe I was expecting too much...I don't know.....3* 

SELECTION DAY by Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is that one day in the year when aspiring young cricketers (and their parents - who are really the aspirational ones) show off their cricketing chops to a bunch of judges who have sole power over who will be Mumbai's next great cricketing stars, with fame, fortune and cricket glory just around the corner.

It is a complete understatement that India is mad for cricket. In recent years the rise of the IPL has opened wide the dreaming skies for parents, agents, coaches as they desperately work their young charges on the cricket treadmill. The world is awash with stories of parents obsessed with turning their children into sports stars, musicians, chess players, A++ geniuses. And what good really does it do them. So this novel is a morality tale really, on what can go wrong when a parent's reason for being is having his child make the big time. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to better oneself, and improve one's standard of living. But at what cost?

In this novel, it is further complicated by the father having not one child, but two, 16 year old Radha and 14 year old Manjunath. The three of them live in  Mumbai slum, this being the extra motivation for the father to have his boys shine. All energies are focused on the hard working and diligent older boy, but it is actually the younger boy who has the real talent, and who has to be made to see that he is really quite exceptional. So the basic plot of child/parent/talent, is stretched more by the addition of sibling rivalry. During the course of the novel, Manju is also tormented by his growing attraction to another young cricketer, a young wealthy and privileged Muslim called Javed. Javed is a bit like Manju's moral compass, seeing the corrupt and exploitative business of cricket for what it really is, trying to appeal to Manju's sensibilities to get him out of it. But will he?

Modern day India is a great setting for this novel, aside from the author's intimate knowledge of the place, we are also fully aware of how corruption is part and parcel of daily life in Indian society, how exploitation keeps the wheels going, how little control millions and millions of people have over their lives.

Great writing, and characters including the two secondary characters of the agent/promotor and the coach, the latter also disillusioned, defeated, but still standing in the vortex. There is a great story here, but for me it just did not hit the spot. The story ended up not really going anywhere. By the end, Manju is still conflicted over his relationship with Javed, Radha has self destructed, and cricket is somewhere far, far away. It is nothing to do with the cricket, it could easily be tennis, or cycling, or piano playing or any of these other parent obsessed activities that make the child simply a commodity to the parent and hangers on. But for me, the original gritty story lost its way. 


What a rollicking great read this has been! The author of Day of the Jackal, The Odessa Files and The Dogs of War, probably his most well known and widely read books, has now written his own story. And it is fabulously entertaining, full of real life stories every bit as good as those he as written about. A New York Times reviewer had this to say: "Reading “The Outsider” is like finding yourself trapped in a pub with an insistent storyteller. You know you have better, worthier things to do, but your host is so genial and so quick to refill your glass that before you know it, you’ve whiled away a very pleasant evening." And I can't actually think of a better way saying it!

From his earliest memories, Forsyth wanted a life of adventure. Born just before the war, his early years growing up in Kent on England's east coast, the area was full of war machinery, air force bases with Sptifires, planes taking off and landing all the time. Terribly exciting. After the war, he was packed off to boarding school for a not-very-enjoyable- time, but his parents, especially his father, had the foresight to send him off in his school holidays to the continent for immersion in French, then German. He also learnt Russian, and in his late teens with a friend debunked to Spain for some months where he also picked up Spanish. And a host of adventures! You will have to read to find out more.

His adventurous path in life was set. Exciting times in the RAF, were followed by becoming a foreign correspondent for Reuters, firstly in Paris, then East Berlin. He then signed up with the BBC which resulted in him being the BBC's man in Nigeria during the civil war of the late 1960s. Completely unexpectedly he found himself in an activist role, bringing to the attention of the British public the terrible plight of the Biafran population, basically starving to death. He has nothing nice to say about the British government in its conduct during this time, this perhaps being a defining experience in Forsyth's life.

The three novels mentioned above were the direct result of his experiences in Paris during the leadership of De Gaulle, in the post-Nazi world of East Germany, and knowing mercenaries in African politics. Forsyth's life itself reads like one of these novels. Fact is stranger than fiction so the saying goes, and this is certainly a life well lived! It is possible that some of these tales have got a little taller in the telling, and with the passing of the years, but who cares! I expect almost all the people mentioned are now dead or nearly there, and I doubt if it would be possible now to have a life quite like this. So you will be entertained, you will definitely learn a thing or two, and I bet you will also slink off to your bookshelves, and hunt out any or all of these three novels.

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

This is a fantastic book, a riveting page turner that had me still awake at 130am. It is fantastic in a literal sense of the word, being barely believable but is in fact fact, and in the grab you by the guts a great reading experience. The author, Bill Browder, has had an extraordinary life, and is hardly the shy retiring type in his telling of his story. Even if his life had taken a different turn from the path it took, I fully expect he would have been an outstanding success at whatever he turned his hand to.

This book covers a lot of ground. The author's early life provides an intriguing background as to how he ended up in Soviet Russia making investors rich, in charge of what was in the 1990s/early 2000s Russia's largest hedge fund. It all comes unstuck when, Bill in trying to expose corruption, gets a bit too big for his boots. In 2005 on a routine fortnightly trip back to Moscow from London, he is denied entry and forced to return to London. Bill and his team expose a tax fraud, which eventually leads to the imprisonment and tortuous death of one of the Moscow based lawyers working on the case, Sergei Magnitsky.

Bill immediately turns from high flying investment whizz kid to human rights campaigner. Although he is continually full of his own bravado and self importance, occasionally unlikeable, he is incredibly tenacious, determined to bring justice to Sergei, to expose corruption at all levels of Russian government, and in the process has most likely placed himself on Putin's hit list. A Red Notice is the extradition request served by Russia on Interpol to arrest Browder on charges of tax evasion. He was actually tried in absentia, both Britain and the US refusing to act on it. He is still a wanted man in Russia. Magnitsky was tried and found guilty even after his death.

The story takes Bill to the top  of the US State department, looking for ways to hurt those Russian bureaucrats who were involved in the corruption that Magnitsky uncovered. Once successful, Putin in turn tightens his own screws by forbidding Americans from adopting Russian babies and children. Anyone who decides to take on Putin has to have big balls, and it is this underlying theme in the book which makes it so compelling. Will Bill be the next to receive a plutonium laced drink or a poke on the leg with a poisoned umbrella? The cover blurb, for once, is 100% accurate. I can't think of a better description than what those few words say. 

THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende

First up, if you are a diehard Isabel Allende fan, who adores who earlier books set in her homeland Chile, her use of magical realism, her unique and lyrical style, it is highly possible that you will not like this latest novel, If on the other hand, you have not read Isabel Allende before, or magical realism leaves you cold, and you are wanting what one reviewer called a 'comfort' read, a good story, easy  characters, then this is for you.

For me, I have only ever read her first novel, The House of Spirits, and not being a magic type person, it didn't wow me. Which is probably why I loved this novel, as I am obviously not a typical Isabel Allende fan! I can see all the shortcomings identified by other reviewers - the lack of character development, the use of many tried and true twentieth century plot devices - Aids, anti semitism, WWII, Japanese internment, child pornography and abuse, the stereotypical characters - cantankerous old lady, submissive docile Japanese, the lost, damaged and frail young woman. Yes all of that is there, but I didn't really see any of this in the story telling or in my enjoyment of the novel.

Above all else, the author is a story teller, a marvellous weaver of tales and people's relationships with each other. Irina Bazili is a young Moldovan woman who has escaped a wretched life, now living in San Francisco. She starts a job at a retirement establishment, the type of retirement establishment I would like to end up in - serving organic food would you believe. Among Irina's elderly residents is Alma Belasco, a feisty, wealthy and very independent but lonely woman. She and Irina become close, and slowly over time Alma's story is told, including her close relationship with Ichimei Fukuka, the son of the gardener of the house she lived in as a child. Irina also slowly learns to trust those around her, and her story is gradually told. It concludes satisfyingly well, unresolved differences are resolved, characters are surprising. I enjoyed it very much.