This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

To Be Continued

James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton: £16.99; e-book £9.99)

Douglas Findhorn Elder is on the bus going down Lothian Road on his 50th birthday, en route to the funeral of a friend for which he is late, reflecting on his failing relationship with Sonia and entering a midlife crisis. He has just left his journalist's job on the declining local newspaper. He tries to remain upbeat, but with a father in a home with dementia, life is narrowing.

So opens a truly madcap, pageturning, joyous book. Life improves when Douglas meets Mungo Forth Mungo, a toad in his back garden, with whom Douglas has many a conversation and who joins him on his Highland romp that follows. Is Douglas for real, or just the thoughts bouncing around inside an anxious mind? Whatever Mungo represents, he is a foil and witness to much that happens. The bizarre happenings! An assignment comes Douglas's way to interview the matriarch of the nation as she enters on her 100th year at Glentargar. Romance, illicit whisky and much more ensue.

This book has awakened a wish to explore more of the writing of this awardwinning author. If anything like this book, it'll be an adventure.

Rather Be the Devil

Ian Rankin (Orion Books: £19.99; e-book £9.99)

How fast is the clock ticking for John Rebus? The character has been written in real time, meaning he is now in his 60s. Ian Rankin has vowed that Rebus will not become a private detective, nor will he start running a B&B (as if).

What becomes of a retired detective inspector who has time on his hands and the memories of unsolved cases bouncing around his brain? Is this a reformed Rebus, with a lady in his life, off the fags and cutting down on the booze? And who precisely are the demon or demons of the title? We encounter old devils such as Big Ger Cafferty, old adversaries such as Malcolm Fox, and the arriviste gangster Darryl Christie. Are there threats or temptations to be found there? What is the danger posed by Hank Marvin? (No, I’m not going to explain that one – you’ll have to read the book for yourself.)

Does it matter if I explain any of the plot? Almost certainly not: it is as subtle as ever, with many twists. The characters, old and new, each speak with their own voices: Mr Rankin is a master of dialogue. As an amateur chef, I never know whether to be delighted or frustrated when six hours’ work disappears in five minutes. Ian Rankin must feel exactly the same, since a new Rebus novel never lasts long in the hands of most readers. The pleasure (indeed the great pleasure) is all ours. This is the best Rebus for ages, and that really is saying something.

Chernobyl Strawberries

Vesna Goldsworthy (Bitter Lemon Press £8.99; e-book £6.99)

This biography was re-released 10 years on, to celebrate the fact that the author continues to defy the life threatening cancer which prompted her to write the book in the first place. A native of Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, Goldsworthy, née Bjelogrilc, has much to say about the changes to her homeland over the last century, some from personal experience, some from a fascinating family history.

A communist who became a Thatcherite, then moved on again; a poet who read her work to 30,000 people as a teenager; a broadcaster, granddaughter, traveller and lover, who married a very English old Etonian and adopted our language as her own, one in which she writes considerably better than most native speakers. Her reflections on the art of biography are interesting. To have written a linear narrative of her life, she says, would have forced her story to acquire a shape which it didn’t have. She points out that no one can ever complete the ending to such an autobiography. She describes this work as an imprint of individual memories.

The Chernobyl Strawberries of the title are her madeleines. In strawberry season, the countryside around Belgrade would be warmed by winds from the Ukraine, hence the reference. While the pattern of the book is not original, the writing is remarkable. Forget vignettes: some of the scenes are as clear to me as the sharpest photograph. I see Vesna and her revered literature teacher Andrei wrapped in every layer of clothing they possess in a Belgrade apartment without power, the outside temperature -18˚C; I am with her and her husband eking out sandwiches in Romania immediately after the fall of Ceaucescu; I am at the same table in the Adriatic restaurant where she shares confidences with a total stranger over mussels and beer.

I give thanks for the reprint, not only for Vesna’s life and her new novel Gorsky, but for the fact that I missed this wonderful book first time around. The cancer is there throughout, yet it is but part of her life experience described, like everything else, in vivid but unsentimental terms. I sincerely hope we will see this republished at 10 year intervals for decades to come, to allow future generations the same pleasure as I took from reading this.


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