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September's book reviews

Simon Evans reviews the latest hardbacks

Duncan_Hamilton_Answered_Prayers_England_and_the_1966_world_cupAnswered Prayers, by Duncan Hamilton

This may well be one of the best books ever written about football, although Hamilton’s book about Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, would be up there too.

Just as that earlier book concerned the great maverick manager, so Hamilton’s latest book, although mainly concerned with the 1966 England World Cup triumph and its aftermath, inevitably ends up focussing on another great boss, Sir Alf Ramsey, the reserved, self-effacing but determined architect of that great victory.

The opening chapter, in which Hamilton visits the sorry, unloved statue erected in Sir Alf’s Ramsey’s memory in his beloved Ipswich – the club he guided from the old Division Three to the League Championship in seven seasons – sets the melancholy tone for what is to follow, a story of lost, discarded, forgotten heroes.

Hamilton examines how, against the odds, Ramsey crafted a world-beating side, revisits the final and his own reaction to watching it as an excited eight-year-old, and then charts the long decline that followed, culminating in Sir Alf’s sacking in 1974 after England failed to qualify for that year’s World Cup Finals. Most heart-breaking of all, the final chapter of the book is framed around an ‘Evening with Geoff Hurst’ event, at which the 1966 hat trick hero reminisces about that golden day to a quarter-full hall in the Black Country.

All but two of that great team have passed on now, and seven of them ended selling their winner’s medals to help keep them going through hard times, an indictment itself in how casually they were cast aside by the predictably callous FA.

Every four years their memory is disinterred before yet another inevitable England disappointment but no, there will never be a team like the boys of ‘66. Watch the final again on YouTube and you will see no diving, no haranguing of the referee, no time-wasting, no garish shirts full of sponsor’s logos, no substitutes, no feigning of injury, just a bunch of men playing the beautiful game as it should be played and winning, gloriously.

Published by riverrun Price £25 Pages 480 ISBN ‎9781529419986


The Short Straw, by Holly Seddon

Three sisters, stranded in the wilds of Cumbria late at night, stumble across a crumbling old house that they remember from childhood. Taking shelter, the girls soon find long-buried memories bubbling to the surface, secrets re-emerging unbidden. Dreadful things happened in the house, childhoods were blighted, and lives torn apart. What’s more, it appears there may be someone else in the house, perhaps with an old grudge to bear. The very definition of a page-turner, Holly Seddon’s latest mystery holds you in its grip right from the very first page.

Published by Orion Price £18.99 Pages 368 ISBN ‎ 9781398715462

Politics_on_the_edge_book_coverPolitics on the Edge, by Rory Stewart

It’s an indictment of the current state of politics that no role can be found for someone like Rory Stewart, an unusual figure who at one point seemed destined for high office. A politician of the old school, he only entered Parliament after a long apprenticeship – a spell in the army; service as a diplomat; a governor in Iraq; running an NGO in Afghanistan. In other words, unlike so many of today’s crop of politicians, parachuted into safe seats after serving as special advisers, Stewart had both a hinterland and actual experience of running things. Both qualities that, rather than boosting his career, appeared to actively hinder it.

Stewart’s revealing, funny and refreshingly self-deprecating memoir covers his election to Parliament in 2010 up to being kicked out of the Conservative Party in 2019 during the Brexit wars. It’s a great read, but also depressing for anyone who cares seriously about the future of our democracy. Infected, ever since Tony Blair’s election in 1997, by short-termism, box-ticking and spin, the governance of our country is revealed, as if we didn’t know it already, as being in the hands of opportunistic, incurious politicians and civil service chiefs who throw their weight around departments like medieval chieftains.

When he is eventually promoted to government, Stewart finds himself occupying five posts in less than three years, with one of his main successes being the 5p plastic bag tax. But just when he finds he is starting to get anything done he is moved on, a pattern that repeats itself over the next couple of years.

Although gossipy, and full of tit-bits (who, I wondered, was the Eighties MP widely suspected by Members at the time as having murdered his wife?) he only names names when talking about the most powerful.

It’s no surprise that he has little time for Liz Truss, David Cameron or Boris Johnson and, although critical of Theresa May, acknowledges that she at least had the best of intentions.

Although well qualified, especially compared to the last three occupants of the post, Stewart was perhaps a little too eccentric and likeable to become Prime Minister, his campaign for the top office in 2019 imploding during a televised leadership debate, described here in admirable but excruciating detail. You can’t help feeling he’s better off out of it all and can achieve more outside Parliament than inside it. And, like large swathes of his book, that’s yet another indictment of our failing democracy.

Published by Jonathan Cape Price £22 Pages 454 ISBN 9781787332713

Taste_Of_blood_book_coverTaste of Blood, by Lynda La Plante

It has been fascinating charting Lynda La Plante’s Tennison series of Prime Suspect prequels, as the character that we came to know and love starts to take shape, from the early Seventies up until what seems like the late Eighties or early Nineties, with this ninth (and penultimate) instalment. It all seems a long away from that first Prime Suspect case, however, as the then DI Jane Tennison finds herself exiled to sleepy Bromley and engaged to her increasingly annoying builder boyfriend. When she is given an apparently run-of-the-mill neighbourhood dispute case Jane’s heart sinks even further, the twist being that one of the parties at war over a fence boundary is in hospital after being hit with a spade. If he dies then Jane will be in charge of a murder enquiry – and there is definitely more to this neighbourhood than meets the eye, as she soon discovers. As always the story fairly rattles along and is full of surprises.

Published by Zaffre Price £22 Pages 398 ISBN ‎9781804181492

 The_Abuse_of_power_book_coverThe Abuse of Power, by Theresa May

Apparently Tory Whips have been sweating for months about what the contents of Theresa May’s wide-ranging examination of contemporary issues might contain. They needn’t have worried; there is nothing much here that is likely to frighten the horses, or even tempt the tabloid serialisers – the former Prime Minister is much too sensible for that.

There is, however, definitely a sense of scores being settled in the chapter on Brexit – let’s just say Mrs May is no fan of the former Speaker John Bercow, who she blames for the failure of her Brexit deal, and subsequent removal from office. There are also chapters on Ukraine, Afghanistan, Grenfell and Hillsborough, and Mrs May, admirably, also does not shy away from discussing the many recent child sexual abuse scandals.

The former Prime Minister laments the current lack of faith in institutions but seems less concerned about the assault on free speech, arguably one of the major issues confronting us in the age of the social media witch-hunt. And only in the opening chapter do we get any real sense of Mrs May’s One Nation Toryism, the belief that no one should be disadvantaged by their background; that and her admirable, and clearly deep-rooted sense of public service, all too rare in our political leaders these days.

Published by Headline Price £25 Pages 332 ISBN ‎9781035409884

The_Raging_Storm_book_coverThe Raging Storm, by Ann Cleeves

When the body of a local celebrity is found out at sea, in the middle of a raging storm, DI Matthew Venn has to return to the Devon village, Greystone, where he grew up as part of a strict religious community, and confront some unpleasant memories. The murdered man – a young Greystone tearaway made good – had only just arrived back in the village telling locals in the pub that he was waiting for a mysterious visitor – but why was he killed? And why was he murdered in a cottage in the village but dumped at sea, naked, at a spot feared by superstitious locals?

There are plenty of secret undercurrents going on in the village but a lack of suspects, with the case being complicated by another murder.

The third in Ann Cleeves’ Two Rivers series is intriguing and compelling, with a surprising denouement.

Published by Macmillan Price £22 Pages 400 ISBN ‎9781529077698

Kings_and_Queens_1200_years_of_English_and_British_MonarchsKings and Queens, by Iain Dale

Following the format of his earlier books on British Prime Ministers and American Presidents, this time Iain Dale has gathered together historians, journalists and politicians to provide informative, enjoyable essays on every English monarch from Alfred the Great up to Elizabeth I, and then all the monarchs from James I, when the English and Scottish thrones were united, right up to Charles III. (As Iain observes, the Scottish kings up until James I deserve a volume of their own). There are also essays on monarchs not usually included in lists of Kings and Queens, such as Lady Jane Grey and Edgar II, with the Protectorate of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, between 1649 and 1661, also included for completeness sake. Among the many and varied contributors are David Starkey, Simon Heffer and Julia Langdon, but it seems wrong to single out essays from such an excellent and varied collection, one that brings more than 1000 years of history thrillingly to life, aided by an excellent wide-ranging introduction by Vernon Bogdanor.

Published by Hodder Price £25 Pages 608 ISBN 9781529379488 


Simon Evans makes his pick of the latest paperbacks

Twenty_First_Century_TolkienTwenty-first Century Tolkien, by Nick Groom

More than 80 years after The Hobbit was first published, and nearly 70 since its big brother, Lord of the Rings, first appeared, the mythology of Middle Earth still seems to hold us in its grip, thanks in no small measure to Peter Jackson’s epic film versions. Nick Groom’s book seeks to explain why Tolkien’s masterwork has proved so enduring, looks at the various editions that have appeared over the years (including the paperback that adorned many a Sixties crash pad) and explores the many attempts to adapt the books for different media, culminating in the blockbuster series of movie adaptations.

Published by Atlantic Price £12.99 Pages 480 ISBN ‎9781838957001


The_Byrds_on_track_every_album_every_songThe Byrds On Track: Every Album Every Song, by Andy McArthur

Sonicbond’s excellent On Track books provide album-by-album, track-by-track examinations of a wide range of artists, from cult figures to mega-selling icons. The Byrds fall somewhere in between; their influence on popular music is up there with Dylan and The Beatles, pioneering folk-rock, space-rock, country-rock, you name it, but, despite early singles success with Mr Tambourine Man, Turn, Turn, Turn and All I Really Want to Do, sales never matched the importance of their contribution to the Sixties pop smorgasbord. With Johnny Rogan’s monumental biography of the band long out of print this is the only book of any real authority currently available on the group, and it provides an excellent overview of such classics as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers as well as a wider historical perspective.

Published by Sonicbond Price £15.99 Pages 160 ISBN ‎ 9781789522808

D_K_Hood_Dark_AngelDark Angel, by DK Hood

This is the first of a new series featuring FBI agent Beth Katz, who is unusual in that she is as much a cold-hearted killer as the serial murderers she sets out to catch and, if given the opportunity, mete out justice to. Seconded from the big city to a small town in central Montana, Beth and her new partner Dax Styles are soon on the trail of a serial killer who preys on young girls. Given her troubled family background, Beth brings her own unique insights to the hunt but has to be careful not to give away the fact that she is, herself, a murderous vigilante. It’s a great start to what promises to be an excellent series.

Published by Bookouture Price £8.99 Pages 278 ISBN ‎9781837903849


It's_a_wonderful_life_Michael_NewtonIt’s a Wonderful Life, by Michael Newton

With its heart-warming message and endearing blend of fantasy and reality Frank Capra’s film It’s A Wonderful Life has become a perennial Christmas favourite. Michael Newton’s excellent study, part of the BFI’s Film Classics series, looks at the movie’s creation, the vital contributions of Capra and the film’s star, James Stewart, a brief summary of the plot and an examination of why it has proved to be so enduring.

Published by BFI Price £12.99 Pages 136 ISBN ‎9781839023484


Agatha_Christie_Lucy_WorsleyAgatha Christie, by Lucy Worsley

Although Agatha Christie’s books are regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned, and an easy target for culture warriors, Lucy Worsley’s lively biography reveals the great crime author as a thoroughly modern woman at a time when a love of fast cars and surfing in Hawaii were very much not was expected of an Edwardian lady of leisure. But then, as Worsley points out, that popular image of Christie as a stuffy housewife was always something of a self-created myth, masking, among other things, mental health struggles that were very much not spoken about at the time.

Christie’s fascination with the emerging science of psychology was not just useful when it came to constructing the ingenious plots for her novels, but also as a way of trying to understand her own internal struggles, and Worsley examines in some detail Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance that sparked a nationwide hunt. She also aims to reclaim her work from the ‘cosy crime’ label it is often stuck with, seeing in her books a dark undertow and very modern concern with psychological illness and internal states of mind.

Published by Hodder Price £10.99 Pages 432 ISBN ‎9781529303919

The_Last_Action_HeroesThe Last Action Heroes, by Nick De Semlyen

In the late Seventies, punch-drunk on Vietnam and Watergate, America needed cheering up and Hollywood, as always, obliged. Along came a slew of producers, directors and actors for whom big was beautiful – big budgets, big action sequences, big hair – and with them a series of unashamedly populist popcorn movies that took the box office by storm. Nick De Semlyen’s excellent book is a nostalgic roller-coaster ride through the lives and careers of the key players of the era – Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme among them – as well as the films that helped to shape Eighties and Nineties cinema.

Published by Picador Price £14.99 Pages 136 ISBN ‎9781529058505


The Way It Was, by Matthew Engel

This first instalment of a projected two-part look at the reign of Queen Elizabeth II covers the years from 1952 to 1979 in a series of sharply observed bite-sized snapshots of the key events and personalities of the era. Rich in anecdote and telling detail it’s a masterly evocation of a time of great social change, when the monarchy sometimes struggled to keep up with the breakdown in deference, the new permissiveness and the emergence of a more classless society. Engel says the second volume will follow “subject to my own health and sanity and the continued existence of the planet”. It can’t come fast enough.

Published by Atlantic Price £12.99 Pages 640 ISBN ‎9781786496690



More great books to look out for, reviewed by Simon Evans

The_Poetry_of_BirdsIn recent years many of us have discovered the healing properties of nature, and the same goes for the literature celebrating its many wonders. The Poetry of Birds, edited by Samuel Carr (Batsford, £14.99), featuring wonderful illustrations by JJ Audubon, is a well-chosen collection of avian-related verse, including works by Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats, Frost and Emily Dickinson,Walking_the_bones_of_Britain and in Walking The Bones of Britain (Doubleday, £25), Christopher Somerville explores the three-billion-year-old story of the land beneath our feet on a thousand-mile journey from the Outer Hebrides to the Thames Estuary…


At one time a high-flying advertising executive, Niall Harbison’s life spiralled out of control when he moved to Thailand and became addicted to alcohol. Salvation came in the form of his campaign to save street dogs in the country, where he now feeds up to 650 dogs through a network of volunteers. Hope – How Street Dogs Taught Me the Meaning of Life (HarperElement, £18.99) is his amazing story.


A_Mothers_CourageIn the remarkable A Mother’s Courage (Macmillan, £20), Ukrainian Holocaust survivor Malka Levine tells how her mother kept three-year-old Malka and her two older brothers alive during 18 months of hell in the ghetto of Volodymyr-Volynskyi during the Second World War, at one point hiding in a pit dug under a farm occupied by the SS…


Steel_Girls_at_warSteel Girls at War (HQ, £8.99), is the latest heart-warming instalment in Michelle Rawlins’ series based on the experiences of the forgotten heroines who became the backbone of Sheffield’s steel industry during the Second World War, as documented in her non-fiction book Women of Steel, and The_World_and_Its_doubleThe World and Its Double, by Chris Fujiwara (Faber, £20), is a thorough, and long overdue, appraisal of the work of the ground-breaking independent producer/director Otto Preminger, responsible for such taboo-busting classics as The Man with the Golden Arm and Advise and Consent


Chatsworth_the_gardens_and_the_people_who_made_themIn Chatsworth (Ebury Spotlight, £35), Alan Titchmarsh explores the visionaries, mavericks and eccentrics who shaped the gardens of this great house over the past 500 years, and The_Almanac_A_Seasonal_Guide_to_2023The Almanac (Octopus, £12.99) is the seventh instalment of Lia Leendertz’s exploration of the seasons in Britain and Ireland, providing a month by month guide to the world around us, including tide tables, sunsets and moon phases, wildlife, folklore and seasonal recipes…



The_TurnglassIf you enjoy mind-bending thrillers then look no further than Gareth Rubin’s The Turnglass (Simon and Schuster, £16.99), a tete-beche novel – two intertwined stories printed back to back. The tale of a young doctor called to a bleak island off the Essex coast in the 1880s to treat his dying cousin dovetails in many and surprising ways with that of a celebrated author, 50 years later, who is found dead in his California writing hut. You can read either story first, or both at the same time. It’s very clever, and totally immersive…


HollyStephen King’s ace private detective Holly Gibner will be familiar to readers of his Mr Mercedes trilogy and The Outsider (both of which were turned into successful TV series). In the engrossing Holly (Hodder, £25) she strikes out on her own, investigating a number of disappearances in a Midwest town. And, in Tony Parsons’ expertly plotted Who She Was (Century, £16.99) you will have to wait until the very last page to solve the mystery surrounding a mysterious new arrival in a Cornish fishing village…


China_IncorporatedIn China Incorporated (Bloomsbury Academic, £20), Professor Kerry Brown, one of the world’s leading authorities on the repressive, secretive regime, asks if the West is really prepared for a new world order in which China holds the kind of influence previously ceded to the United States, The_Subversive_Seventies The Subversive Seventies, by Michael Hardt (OUP, £22), looks at how global revolutionary movements of the Seventies laid the groundwork for modern-day liberation struggles, and in The_End_of_everythingThe End of Everything (PL Press, £18) Adrian Gordaliza Vega draws on centuries of philosophical wisdom to explain the mess we are in, where seemingly everything once held sacred is up for grabs, while also plotting a path to our possible salvation…


The SixThe Six, by Loren Grush (Virago, £25) tells the story of the first six women astronauts, selected after NASA finally opened up its space programme application process to anyone, regardless of race and gender, in 1977. It tells of the various challenges the women faced, including years of training and hostile media attention, and how one of them, Judy Resnik, made the ultimate sacrifice, killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded immediately after launching…


Underneath_the_ArchersGraham Harvey was the one-time agricultural story editor of The Archers, and in Underneath The Archers (Unbound, £18.99), he recalls several of his most memorable moments, including the great flood, the loss of the Grundy family farm and the death of Nigel Pargetter, laments environmentally-damaging changes in British agriculture and how, movingly, how he developed a very personal connection with England’s rural communities, countryside and wildlife…


Hercules_the_a_to_z_of_elton_johnAnd given the author’s previous, no-holds-barred, examinations of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Eagles, you’d be excused for expecting something a little more scabrous from Hercules (Nine Eight, £20), Mick Wall’s A to Z of Elton John’s life and career. Perhaps it’s because Elton did a pretty good act of self-immolation in his autobiography Me that there’s no skeletons left to disinter, but Wall still does an excellent job of exploring lesser-known aspects of Elton’s music and influences, as well as on-the-money examinations of his most important (and disposable) work…




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