August in Review: a month of books!

I read a murder mystery novel, two non-fiction history books and a biography this month. What did you read?

This is a true story of love and betrayal during The Great War.

A Foreign Field is perhaps even better than Ben Macintyre’s other book I recently read, Agent Zigzag, and at the time I considered that to have been one of the best non-fiction books I’d ever read!

I can’t tell you how great this story is. Macintyre has done a tremendous job researching what happened and retelling it like a thriller, with romance, war, social history and a mystery all thrown in for good measure. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

In August 1914 four young British soldiers find themselves left behind enemy lines during the height of the fighting on the Western Front. Unable to get back to their units, they are sheltered in the tiny French village of Villeret by locals. The leader of the band of fugitives, Private Robert Digby, falls in love with the daughter of one of his protectors; the following year, with war raging just a few miles away, she gives birth to a baby girl. The child is just six months old when someone betrays the men to the Germans. They are captured, tried as spies, and shot by firing squad.

Ben Macintyre reconstructs one of the great untold true stories of the First World War and at last reveals the truth about who betrayed Robert Digby and his men.

At a hefty 550 pages this book covers David Bowie’s story from childhood to teenage years, from pre-stardom struggles to superstar success and eventually, of course, to death, while covering everything else in between including sex and drugs, marriages and family, songwriting and musicianship.

Dylan Jones interviewed 182 people for this book; many of them famous, many of them previously unheard of, but all of them had some connection to David Bowie and stories to share, both positive and negative. He also refers to his own interviews with Bowie which were conducted at various points in his career.

“I wanted to write about the man, the person himself” not “the metaphor we have come to know as ‘Bowie’” Jones states in the preface.

The book is written chronologically, in the style of a collection of talking heads. If you’re looking for detailed analysis of Bowie’s career then this is not the book for you.

However, if you want to hear authentic testimonies and experiences from the people who knew him personally and professionally then this book is full of fantastic stuff. It’s like a social history, really, of the times we were lucky enough to have Bowie among us.

I’m not the biggest Bowie fan but even I was hooked on this book, and it has helped me discover some of his music that I was less familiar with.

Another top-notch non-fiction book by Ben Macintyre, telling the story of a remarkable WWII spy.

This tale takes ‘Sonya’ from Nazi Germany to New York, Shanghai, Moscow, Mukden, Warsaw, London, Geneva, Oxford and back to Berlin, spanning the years before, during and after WWII.

I admit that I have become something of a Ben Macintyre fan of late, having enjoyed both Agent Zigzag and A Foreign Field in recent months.

Agent Sonya continues in the now-familiar Macintyre tradition of writing about extraordinary lives from wartime; lives that seem fantastical and unbelievable yet are totally true.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

Ursula Kuczynski was a mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb-maker, Cold Warrior and secret agent, all at the same time. Her codename was ‘Sonya’. This is her story.

Ursula Kuczynski’s story covers a lot of ground; politically, metaphorically and geographically. The appeal for me is that a large part of her story took place locally, in rural Oxfordshire in villages and towns familiar to me. To know that all this espionage took place so close to where I live is pretty thrilling.

She played a part in sharing secrets with the Russians on how to build the atomic bomb and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. What a remarkable life!

“So smart and funny. Deplorably good” says Ian Rankin.

“Compassionate, warm, moving and so VERY funny” says Marian Keyes.

Do I agree? Read on to find out what I made of The Thursday Murder Club

Before I say anything, I will point out that this was given to me as a gift (for Father’s Day, if you must know) and it is not a book that I would have necessarily chosen for myself.

Richard Osman is well known as a TV presenter and comedian, namely for the show Pointless. The Thursday Murder Club is his first novel and became a bestseller, with a million copies sold in the UK alone.

The follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice will be released next month (September 2021) as the second in the series, and is expected to be just as popular as the first.

So, what did I think of it?

Well, I’ll start by saying that I’m always a bit wary of celebrities who suddenly churn out a novel; surely there are other new authors out there, desperate for the kind of publishing deal, publicity and promotion that Osman’s debut has received? It can seem grossly unfair for all the unpublished authors when people who are famous for something else decide to become writers as well, and seemingly get literary success handed to them on a plate.

It is highly unlikely that The Thursday Murder Club would have become a bestseller so quickly without Richard Osman’s name attached to it, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t any good.

It is indeed smart, funny, compassionate and warm, as described by Marian Keyes and Ian Rankin on the cover. It’s a good story, with believable characters and an engaging plot.

But murder mysteries just aren’t really my cup of tea, so as good as this book is, I don’t feel compelled to read the sequel.

However, a lot of people have enjoyed this book and the rights have already been snapped up to turn it into a movie, so if you like this sort of thing I’m sure you’ll love it.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?

Oh yeah, I tried reading this too, but gave up.

I feel like this book lied to me.

The quotes were so full of praise, the cover design so eye-catching, and having had just finished a book about a communist spy, the title itself drew me in.

I barely managed 80 pages before giving up.

What a crock of shit.

It turns out that Roth allegedly wrote this book as a rebuttal against his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoirs, which had shown him in a (surprise, surprise) negative light. In I Married A Communist there are thinly disguised similarities between Bloom and the main female character; both are Jewish actresses and both have a daughter from a previous marriage, for example.

I just couldn’t get into this at all. Life is too short to finish a book that you’re not enjoying.

Philip Roth is, however, a highly acclaimed author, so I guess someone, somewhere, enjoyed this book.

What have you been reading this month?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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