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

November Road

Lou Berney (Harper Collins: £8.99; e-book £4.49)

It’s November 1963, and mid-ranking New Orleans mobster Frank Guidry has discovered that a mundane task he undertook for his boss, the notorious Carlos Marcello, was a part of the wider plot which resulted in the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Not only that, but Marcello is trying to make sure that no one who was involved will live to tell the tale, and has sent his hitman, the remorseless Barone, after Frank. In the hope of getting to the one man he thinks might be able to save him, the unpredictable Ed Zingel, Frank hits the road.

Meantime, in small town Oklahoma, mother-of-two Charlotte Roy has finally had enough of her dead-end life and drunken husband, so packs her two young daughters into the family car and sets off in search of a better future. By chance the paths of Frank and Charlotte cross at a downmarket motel in New Mexico and Frank realises that, as Barone is looking for a single man, travelling with a woman and her children is as good a disguise as any he could hope for. Pretending to Charlotte that he’s an insurance salesman, they head for California in the hope that they might escape their respective fates.

In November Road, Berney has conjured up an irresistible literary thriller. The main characters could easily have been reduced to caricature, but they live and breathe; and the world they inhabit, a post-JFK 60s America which flips between the underworld and the open road, feels entirely plausible. The plot, which combines two-fisted noir and an unlikely but touching love story, is hugely satisfying, as is the perfectly judged ending. Possibly the best book I’ve read all year.

The Confession

Jo Spain (Quercus: £12.99; e-book £4.99)

The Confession is the first standalone novel by Jo Spain, the author of an excellent series of Dublin-based crime fiction novels featuring murder cop Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds, and it’s every bit as good as the books with which she made her name.

In an almost Harlan Coben-esque opening scene, horror intrudes into a well-heeled suburban home, when an assailant launches a brutal attack on disgraced banker Harry McNamara, in front of McNamara’s wife Julie. Unlike Spain’s previous work, though, this is more of a psychological thriller than a whodunit: the perpetrator is a young man by the name of JP Carney, who almost immediately hands himself in to the police and confesses to the attack, claiming not to know the identity of his victim, or why he did it. Is Carney telling the truth? To solve the mystery we first need to go back to the turn of the century, when the casino wheel of the booming Celtic Tiger economy produced very few winners and multiple losers.

The Confession is superbly plotted: Spain traces the troubled relationship between Harry and Julie, and the complicated history of Carney, expertly juggling multiple points of view and timelines, while deftly scattering narrative breadcrumbs which lead the reader in the wrong direction time after time. The lead detective, Alice Moody, is a memorable character in herself, persistent and wryly humorous, and I hope we meet her again. Meantime, there’s little doubt that Spain is the real deal.

My Last Supper

One Meal, A Lifetime in the Making

Jay Rayner (Guardian Faber: £16.99; ebook £8.96)

It is to be your last meal on earth. What will be on your menu? Some of you may have had the pleasure of going to one of Jay Rayner’s roadshows. While you may dismiss them as mere plugs for his latest book, in the second half of each he goes completely off script, opening up the proceedings to anything and everything. One of the most common questions, apparently, is “What would you have for your last supper?”

If you stop to think about that for just a moment, do you consider that one’s imminent demise would act as an appetite stimulant? At the beginning of this book he studies the final food consumed by those on Death Row. Banal stuff, generally; sometimes poignant, as in the case of Ricky Ray Rector. After murdering a policeman he unsuccessfully tried to kill himself: instead he was left brain damaged in a childlike state. After he finished his last meal, he was asked why he had left the pecan pie. “Because I was saving it for later”, came the reply.

Spurred on by this regular question, Rayner decided to research and stage that perfect meal, at a time when his appetite might be at a normal level. It would, of course, have to include dishes and ingredients of optimum quality. The thrust of the book is his search for those. It culminates in the (mouth watering and surprising) banquet itself. If you have read Jay’s work, you will know that he is not the most orthodox of Jews, pork being one of his favourite foods. It does indeed feature at the end, but I won’t spoil the excellent surprise.

En route, we look for, inter alia, the best of bread and butter, oysters and snails, booze, salad, chips and sparkling water. The man even throws in a few recipes for good measure. Let me declare a bias. For me, Jay Rayner is the best restaurant reviewer currently plying his trade in the country: beyond that, in wider terms, he is one of the most perspicacious and entertaining food writers anywhere. Whether you are a foodie or not, this is well worth a read – but I’m not lending you my copy.


Jeroen Olyslaegers (Pushkin Press: £14.99; e-book £8.03)

Wilfried Wils writes to his great grandson about his life and experience as a novice police officer in occupied Antwerp of 1941. We walk at Wilfried's shoulder as he witnesses the horror of the roundup of the Jewish community, as they are held in a local building before transportation to the camps: homes being forcibly entered at night, the householders being herded into closed off streets, the attempts by the police in their role of assisting the German authorities to coerce and calm the terrified families.

Wilfried is close to a fellow officer, Lode, who in time becomes his brother in law. We observe the relationship between Wilfried and his future wife blossom. However, at the heart of the story is the simple question: what would one do when faced with living in tyranny? Would you look the other way or would you resist: would you go so far as to collaborate? Wils faces these issues and tries to weave a path through the conflicting choices: deep respect for Lode (who helps the resistance by identifying collaborators), his father who is in favour of the Nazi invasion and ideology, Lode's father who is on the take but wants to help. Through his aunt's relationship to the local SS leader, who now lives with him in the house she previously cleaned for the Jewish occupants, Wilfried has to decide whether he will betray his fellow officers.

The book highlights the contradictions in society: the synagogue is destroyed, but the mayor orders a permanent guard on the ruins. Wils is at the end of his life, at home, but cared for. He clearly hates old age and its restrictions. His granddaughter has serious mental health issues, which he attributes to her earlier knowledge of his life in the war. This is a thought provoking, intelligent book, providing as it does a unique view and interpretation of the oft told story of war and its effects. Brilliant.

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