This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor

The Rocks Below

Nigel Bird (Sea Minor: e-book £1.53)

Nigel Bird is a renowned author of mainly crime fiction, focused from the perspective of the individual. Bird merits a wider reading audience. This novella is a move away from that and is an absorbing read. It centres around the coastal town of Dunbar, and Bird captures it well: spectacular windsurfing, landscape, characters, history. I imagine his inspiration may have come from the horrendous sea swells of last summer which battered the east coast.

Set against that backdrop, strange spherical objects are deposited on the beach, followed by the disappearance of a number of children, dogs and old Doc Brown. The townsfolk are concerned, and there's talk of a "Bermuda triangle" effect. The coast around East Lothian is dotted with volcanic plugs, of which the Bass Rock is perhaps best known. A geologist examines the objects and sees herself winning the Nobel Prize, only to be disappointed. However what lies beneath and drives this story is the power of nature and, for me, how we take it for granted and abuse it for our own purposes. This is a beautifully crafted novella which, once read, causes one to reflect on its true meaning, a meaning perhaps different for each reader. Such is the power of storytelling.

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace

Kofi Annan (Allen Lane: £25; e-book £14.99)

Kofi Annan was the first career UN civil servant to be appointed Secretary General, leading an organisation of 44,000 staff, a $10bn budget, and at the time of writing engaged in 16 interventions involving 100,000 troops. One would ordinarily have prefaced the word "troops" with "peacekeeping", but Annan reinvigorated the UN by moving it from a somewhat reactive role to placing it "squarely on the side of intervention and in support of the people in whose name the Charter was written", to place the UN on the side of those "whose human rights were under threat".

However, he makes clear the limited scope of the UN, even with this redefinition of its function, bound as it is by the individual and collective politics of its members and a recognition that under international law, sovereignty provides that states may act at will within their own borders.

It is clear that with his drive and clear vision of purpose for the organisation, Annan tried tirelessly to engage those diverse forces to address the greater good and place aside their own divisions, views, concerns and fears. However, the impotency of the UN is symbolised by the inability to provide support in Darfur, where the debate within the Security Council focused on whether the military action of the government there was an act of genocide (as it was described by the US Senate). This led to a commission being established to determine whether the violence in Darfur met the legal description of genocide, rather than the intervention Annan sought. The human suffering and abuse of power went unchecked.

While head of the office of peacekeeping under the leadership of Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan (initially unsuccessfully) argued for aerial intervention in the Bosnian conflict, and also witnessed the consequences of failure by the UN to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda which saw 800,000 people die in 100 days, all of which was foretold by an informant to the UN on the ground, as was the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers.

Annan initiated reform at the UN starting in late 2001. He reflects on the military action in Iraq, maintaining it was without UN Security Council consent. As we witness the current atrocities in Syria, even armed with Annan's principle of "responsibility to protect" enshrined, the question Annan posed himself remains: "What is the United Nations for?"

Addison County Justice: Tales from a Vermont Courthouse

Peter Langrock (Paul S Eriksson: £11.25)

Peter Langrock is the founding partner of Vermont law firm Langrock, Sperry & Wool, and has served on the board of governors of the American Bar Association, and as chair of the Section of Individual Rights & Responsibilities, as well as living life to the full through his other interests as painter, and farmer raising beef cattle and Standardbred horses on a farm six miles south of Middlebury, Vermont. As the citation of the United States senate recorded on celebrating his 50 years of service, Langrock has also commented on his good fortune “in being able to maintain my independence” and never having “had a client I couldn’t afford to fire".

In this book, Peter Langrock reflects on his time as state prosecutor and then defence attorney, observing on those fellow lawyers he met along the way, the advice they offered (including a comment initially taken as a slight while prosecuting, which he later saw as one of the best pieces of advice he received, namely as prosecutor to maintain his independence), and the cases he handled. Not surprisingly, given the territory, there are stories related to prosecution of unlawful hunting, with purported defences testing even his shrewdness and one suspects credulity.

There is the amusing case of "Nuffer", whose Alice B Toklas brownies (the main ingredient of which was not chocolate) led to a criminal conviction, but in a more litigious culture than our own, also a civil case which led to a finding in favour of the plaintiff but no award. That must have been fun to participate in, given that part of the evidence was of a police officer who had innocently ingested a brownie and continued on duty until they ended up driving their patrol car onto the police chief's front lawn.

The Blanket Act provided since 1778 that adultery was a criminal offence carrying up to three years' imprisonment: there was a presumption that being found under the blanket in such circumstances could mean only one thing, with many prosecutions and lengthy prison sentences imposed.

As an amusing light shed on another legal system, this book is fun and full of witty anecdotes. However, it also provides an insight into a legal system often misunderstood by those outside looking in. Readers may recall the review of Sheriff Irvine Smith's book, and here Langrock has equally turned his experience, knowledge and professional practice into a gem of a book.

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