5 Days in May – Andrew Adonis

When the general election in 2010 returned no overall control, Adonis had a pivotal role in trying to negotiate Labour into coalition. This looks at how the pieces fell, and what influence the Lib Dems had in the coalition was shaped.

Adonis writes well, giving a fast-paced book that contains depth and interest in what could otherwise be a very dry and dull set of negotiations. Then as he felt unable to publish at the time due to his political position, he takes the opportunity to include an epilogue as to how the coalition worked in reality.

An interesting read for anyone who wants an insight into contemporary politics.

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The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carré

Although spy novels are not usually my thing, after reading The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, I felt that I should read the straightforward novel which the title was taken from. One library reservation later, and I picked up a book that didn’t look anything like my usual taste.

I was pleasantly surprised by this, a layered, complex plot, Alec’s motivation  at least conflicted between personal pride, nationalism and romantic desires. Control, the guiding mind behind this mission, is also opaque in his objectives, and much of Alec’s focus in the later half of the book is on unpicking why he is on this mission.

Of course his downfall is a woman, one who he doesn’t entrust with his position and therefore is made vulnerable to the maneuverings of the agencies. However this book is in a way a period piece, first published in 1964, so the lack of capable female characters is in a way understandable, even if it is one of the things my expectation was that the book would lack.

However this is a genre-defining book, and I am glad to have read it.

Blue Dog – Louis de Bernières

More of a novelette than a full novel (and therefore far less intimidating than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I have had unread for years), the afterword informed me that Blue Dog had been aimed at the young adult market. However I enjoyed it from an adult perpective.

Mick has been sent to live with his Granpa in the outback, and Blue Dog is about how, with the aid of the puppy, Blue, who he rescues, he adapts to this life. How he makes friends, and develops into a promising young man, despite the shadow of the tragedy that saw him sent from his family.

It includes the typical stage of self-discovery, as he discovers attraction to the only woman who comes into their lives, and the thrill of motorbike riding, along with the gaining of responsibility.

One nice touch is the flip-chart on the corner of the page, with the dog setting off to run away.

Damiano – R. A. MacAvoy

I didn’t enjoy Damiano as much as Tea with the Black Dragon, with the characters being less compelling and the setup being odder.

I think the hero already being on first name terms with the Archangel Raphael actually made him less appealing to me, as from there he could only fall. It would have been better in my view if the first book had been Damiano’s father’s death, and he had come into his powers and artistic ability within the story.

Of course it is not all fall, and ultimately he does choose the course of action of maximum growth towards the end. But that the start of the book is just a long drift downwards without much sympathy-building does not help the plot.

Its a shame, because this is well-written and an interesting idea for a plot.

Confessions from Correspondentland – Nick Bryant

Bryant has had an interesting career, shuttling between war zones and first world politics, filing regular reports with the BBC the whole way. He’s been on the sidelines through lots of key events through the last couple of decades, and spends much of this book discussing American policy: from his position as a Washington correspondent, then a war correspondent during the War on Terror.

Although Bryant is a good writer, his style is (probably unsurprisingly) fairly episodic. He writes a few pages of absorbing text, but then that section is wrapped up neatly without a strong “hook” to the next section. This continues for 400 pages.

This disjointedness is worth enduring through however. We see people’s lives close up as wars progress, and the interplay between correspondents and the rest of their teams.

An enlightening book

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

The librarian is a lonely, frustrated woman, who one day finds a reader who has been locked in her library overnight. She gradually reveals her thoughts on the library system, people and her crush.

Unfortunately, although her insights are sharp, the device that she has an imprisoned audience who she forces to listen to her innermost thoughts without any indication that he finds this anything other than uncomfortable. Divry also delivers the whole book as a single paragraph, which does reflect will the stream of consciousness, but remains deeply irritating to read.

Her ending is also very much unfinished, but this is acceptable on a book of novella weight.

A Woman’s Work – Harriet Harman

I’ve never actually had all that much patience for Harriet Harman, seeing her as yet another New Labour architect. But in A Woman’s Work, she takes the opportunity to set out her case, and highlight the compromises she took that in her belief improved the world around her.

Her memoirs run from the heartbreaking of struggling against the establishment during the Thatcher era, through to the ridiculous of Robin Cook’s assumption that she was having an affair, when in truth she had kept a promise to her son about a day out. Her lessons from this are:

Firstly, while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.

But throughout the strong clear message is that compromises are not ideal, but they are worth it if it means that Labour can get into power and start making changes for the betterment of society. When she unexpectedly finds herself as acting leader after Brown’s resignation, her speech is that

….we should be proud of our legacy and that it would endure.

We also get a ringside seat for the Blair/Brown troubles from a woman who was close friends with both, which provides valuable insight to how the power struggle there started, and how it would end. She is also how Ed Milliband first enters politics, along with providing mentoring support to so many of the women who are now household names.

But above all else she is in politics for feminism. To promote equal rights and be a leader who facilitates other women’s liberation. Her use of her whole career to this arena is impressive, and despite her claims that too little progress has been made, to see how much can be attributed to Harman directly or indirectly is inspiring.

Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a set of short stories by Murakami, about central male characters for which a large part of their identities is the absence of specific women. From this central theme we have an actor in declining health, a bar owner and various degrees of criminal.

Murakami convincingly enters all of these minds, and draws us into the mystery of their current existence. He is a skilled writer, and builds each story elegantly to draw the reader in. However none of the stories end on a satisfying high note. Instead each conclusion is bitter, or in some cases, downright frightening.

Slightly disappointed, as I mostly read for escapism and like there to be some joy in my reading, along with the writing quality.

Acts of Union and Disunion – Linda Colley

This book was written in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, so should be read through a filter of not knowing the outcome of either that, nor the Brexit vote.  But as a historical look at how the constituent parts of the British Isles have combined and been seperated through history, this is fascinating. The perspective of each of the four main nations are considered, and both peaceful and warlike.

As a Northerner (England) I particularly appreciated an acceptance that there are parts of England that do not benefit from Westminster rule, given the London bias and also that having the English and UK representation from the same parliament causes consitutional issues.

This is well-written about a subject matter that could be very dry, and is worth a read for anyone wondering how the UK got into the pickle it is currently in.

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

For the unintiaiated, the “marshmallow test” was an experiment conducted with preschool children to establish what their ability to exercise self-control to wait for a larger reward was. In the original experiment, this was one marshmallow (or similar treat) as soon as they wanted, or double this if they waited until an adult returned to the room.

But crucially, the research underpinning The Marshmallow Test is that self-control at a very early age has a strong impact on outcomes throughout life. Those who can delay gratification for 20 minutes for a greater reward at a young age on average achieve better qualifications, save more for retirement and manage more stable relationships.

Mischel then sets out to understand what factors effect self control, from genes through stress levels in infancy, to factors under the control of adults. He tests public policies, parenting techniques and ways to control your thinking process to allow slower thinking to step into decision making. Thinking Fast and Slow was referenced, along with other research into how we control impulsive decision making and step back.

I found this an interesting read, and am glad I picked it up from the library.