Part memoir and part travelogue, Peter Pomerantsev’s captivating look at modern Russia is based on 10 years he spent in the country from the turn of the millennium working in the TV industry.
He populates his book with a cabaret-like cast of real-life characters, from mobsters-turned-moviemakers to gold-diggers on the hunt for sugar daddies (“the guys are known as ‘Forbeses’, as in Forbes rich list; the girls as ‘tiolki’, cattle”).
What emerges is a vibrant, violent country enthralled with strong, abusive father figures (see Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin), that is most definitely on the rise.
Joanna Blythman lifts the lid on the convenience food industry’s dirty practices, as it chases efficiencies and concocts substitute ingredients like “goat-flavoured cheese powder” for real food.
It is an enthralling investigative work. Want to know why cut apple pieces in fruit salads don’t turn brown after 21 days exposure? Or how drinks companies make fruit juices with that cloudy effect?
It’s all in here, including the shocking use of collagen extracts from slaughterhouse carcasses to bulk out cheap meats. Avoid processed food and cook is the lesson from this salutary read.
Antony Beevor is back raking over the coals of the Second World War with a study of Adolf Hitler’s last throw of the dice in December 1944 — a surprise attack on the Western Front.
The detail is compelling. The forest fighting comes vividly to life with snipers nestled in trees, causing havoc. The winds were so high on the morning of the launch that German paratroopers were blown into the propellers of following aircraft.
What lingers is a sense of how hard the German soldiers fought.
Adam Sisman’s biography of John Le Carré is a masterpiece.
He had rich source material to work with: Le Carré’s adulterous affairs; his years working as a spy during the Cold War; glamorous friends and acquaintances; and, most notoriously, a monstrous father, who embezzled his way through life and gave Le Carré’s mother syphilis while she was pregnant with Le Carré; a mother, too, who was not without sin, deserting Le Carré and his brother when Le Carré was five years of age, never to be seen again until the novelist tracked her down during his university years.
No one does it better on the Irish satirical landscape at calling out our foibles than the scabrous Waterford Whispers News, which published the second collection of highlights from its website in book form in the autumn.
Whether it’s taking a pop at our politicians (#OnThisDay in 1979 Gerry Adams denied everything) or our pretentiousness (Man on 8th craft beer no longer concerned with full-bodied hoppy flavour) there’ll be dozens of stories to make you smile.
It comes as a welcome surprise to those familiar only with his smart-alecky public persona to discover Elvis Costello is a self-effacing man.
His tales about his roguish father, life growing up in London and Liverpool and 40 years in showbiz, including encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Joe Strummer, makes for an engaging read and some memorable pen portraits: “Bob Geldof and his pal Phil Lynott were the loudmouth Dubs that you always found in your dressing room when you came off stage at the Roundhouse. They’d tell you how shite you were and drink all your beer.”
Kevin Barry brings John Lennon to life in his freewheeling novel about a fictional visit the old Beatle makes to Clew Bay, Co Mayo in 1978. Lennon bought Dorinish, an island in the bay, in 1967.
Eleven years later, Barry has him flee to the island, on the run from the tabloid press and creative block in New York, and intent on a bit of “scream therapy”.
A local driver, Cornelius O’Grady, playing Sancho Panza to Lennon’s Don Quixote, holds his hand on the madcap journey.
There are 218 years that separate the youngest (Eimear Ryan) and the oldest (Maria Edgeworth) writers in this collection from 30 of the finest Irish, female practitioners of the short story genre.
The tales deal with longing, laughter and love evaporating. Anne Enright includes Three Stories About Love. Evelyn Conlon’s The Meaning of Missing is an interesting tack on the theme of emigration. It examines what it’s like for someone left behind while a sister goes gallivanting to Australia and Mary Costello’s memorable My Little Pyromaniac is the deftest of ticking bombs.
Personal choice: What I enjoyed reading
PETER SHERIDAN Author
Anne Tyler writes brilliantly about the internal dynamics of families, particularly the dysfunctional elements. The eldest child is a problematic kid who has mental health issues. There is a row in the house, he leaves and the next time she brings him back is three years later. Your heart sinks when you think of somebody in their early 20s, when they’ve fucked off and not contacted the family for three years.
How painful that must have been. It’s so upsetting you have to close the book for a minute, and just reflect on it. When somebody can do that to me I know I’m having a good time with a book.
NEIL DELAMERE Comedian
Shane O’Mara’s book is a rebuttal to the torture memos that came out a few years ago that justified ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods used in Guantanamo Bay and Northern Ireland.
He takes an empirical approach to torture. From a scientific point of view, even before getting into the morality, it is just ineffective. The FBI said the best technique is to get clever interrogators who are good at forming bonds.
The analogy he uses is that if you had a computer that had information you wanted you wouldn’t hit it with a hammer because that would affect its recall. Humans work the same way.
CLAUDIA CARROLL Author/ Actress
Joanna Cannon’s book is set during the Irish heatwave in 1976. A woman goes missing.
It’s about a community and how they all respond to this disappearance, how it touches each family in a totally different way. It’s really moving.
The characterisations are bang-on — you’re in that community.
It’s beautifully written, very insightful and hysterically funny in places. It’s not often you get that balance.
I adored it. It’s by a first-time author who is going to be the biggest thing.