Time has run away from me again this month, so I am only just getting round to reviewing the books I read in February starting with No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson. His part bibliomemoir part cultural history details how he became a voracious reader in Rochdale in the mid-1970s in a working-class household with very few books, eventually succumbing to what Americans call BABLE (Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy – I know I can certainly identify with this, and I’m sure many readers of this blog can too). The book also interweaves the story of his grandfather who suffered from mental illness. Hodkinson is very good at dissecting the mindset of a collector and I particularly enjoyed the latter half of the book which outlines his career as a journalist on a local newspaper, publisher and writer. Local journalism in particular has changed beyond recognition from what it was when Hodkinson was starting out. Overall ‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy’ is rather odd structurally and not as straightforward a bibliomemoir as I was expecting, but it is nevertheless very enjoyable and nostalgic to read.
Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy by Julian Hayes is a biography of the Labour MP and former cabinet minister John Stonehouse who faked his own death in 1974, supposedly drowning off the coast of Miami before he was eventually tracked down to Australia some months later. Hayes writes from the unique position of being Stonehouse’s great-nephew, aged nine at the time of Stonehouse’s disappearance and now a criminal lawyer. Drawing on the Czech State Security agency archives in Prague, Hayes uncovers evidence of Stonehouse’s links to Czech spies at the height of the Cold War, and his knowledge of criminal courts adds colour to his detailed account of his great-uncle’s sensational trial at the Old Bailey following a lengthy extradition process from Australia. Hayes makes it clear that he considers his father Michael to have been betrayed by Stonehouse in the handling of his business dealings. This is a compelling account of a complicated man at the centre of one of the most bizarre episodes of 20th century British political history.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley tells the story of forty-something academic Bridget Grant and her fraught relationship with her twice-divorced mother, Helen, also known as Hen. Bridget’s dad, Lee, died several years ago and a scathing pen portrait in the first part of the novel reveals his controlling behaviour is not missed. For many years, Bridget and Hen have only seen each other occasionally, until Hen’s health problems start to draw them closer together. The dynamic between them is excruciating and certainly lingers in the mind, with questions raised about how Bridget treats her vulnerable mother and how much of her own dysfunctional behaviour has been inherited from or affected by her parents. This is a short but powerfully written novel with a gut-punch ending.
Top marks for the eye-catching cover of The Ministry of Bodies by Seamus O’Mahony, a medical memoir which details life in a large teaching hospital in Ireland where O’Mahony worked as a consultant gastroenterologist until his retirement in February 2020 just as the pandemic was emerging. This is a very fragmented collection of anecdotes based on O’Mahony’s notes in his final year rather than a formal diary. The sketches of his patients on the general medicine wards are generally very brief, while the impact of bureaucratic management and budget cuts feature heavily in the background. O’Mahony’s dry and cynical candour as he reflects on the state of the hospital is sometimes reminiscent of Henry Marsh’s books which were also written towards the end of his career. Having read a fair number of medical memoirs over the last few years, I don’t think ‘The Ministry of Bodies’ adds anything particularly new or original to the genre, but it is still an interesting read if you enjoy those sorts of books.
Reputation by Sarah Vaughan is a thriller which tells the story of Labour MP Emma Webster, a divorced former teacher whose life starts to unravel when a body is discovered at the bottom of her stairs and her teenage daughter is involved in a bullying scandal at school. The novel is an up-to-the minute examination of a whole host of topical issues including social media trolling, revenge porn and how female politicians have to navigate their portrayal in the media and work-life balance in ways that their male colleagues are less likely to consider. The courtroom scenes in the second half are tense if a little repetitive, but overall, ‘Reputation’ is stylishly written and offers a realistic portrayal of life in the Westminster bubble thanks to Vaughan’s background in journalism. Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.