My books of the year for 2022

Summary: For what it is worth, particularly if you are looking for gift or reading ideas, these are my top 10 reads for 2022, with links to longer reviews, in chronological reading order:

The Devil that Danced on the Water, by Aminitta Forna: Forna’s remarkable memoir of Sierra Leone and her father, a former finance minister for Sierra Leone, judicially assassinated by the country’s corrupt government.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, by Patrick Howse: a powerful collection of poetry by an Irish journalist who has seen the horrific face of war up close.

The Sunken Road, by Ciaran McMenamin: a very fine novel of war, alternating between the Western Front in France, and the Battle of Beleeks and Pettigo in 1922.

Country, by Michael Hughes: a brilliantly original retelling of the Iliad, transposed to the mountains of South Armagh during the Troubles.

Do Not Disturb: the story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michael Wrong: Wrong’s furious expose of the violence and corruption at the heart of the UK government’s favourite dictatorship, modern Rwanda.

Great Hatred; the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy: not only a gripping account of the assassination, but a insightful history of the Irish diaspora in London and the London IRA’s involvement in the struggle for Irish Freedom.

Fake Law, by the Secret Barrister: a justly angry account of how the very concept of rule of law is under assault in the contemporary UK by its corrupt and venal government.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann – a desperately sad perspective on the illegal occupation of Palestine viewed through the eyes of two bereaved friends, one Palestinian, the other Israeli.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris – a fine historical thriller set in the aftermath of the English Civil war, that shows how the maxim of an eye for an eye tends to leave everyone blind.

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan – an intense, exquisite meditation on the heroism of an ordinary man in the Ireland of 1985.

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

Summary: already a modern classic

In the middle 1980s, Bill Furlong is a fuel merchant in the town of New Ross in the South-East of Ireland. He is doing alright in difficult financial times. But on the verge of middle age, this father of five daughters is beset with the usual worries, about money, about the future of this daughters, about getting them into the good school in town. Perhaps, he feels these worries more keenly than others because, this is the only family he has, his mother having died when he was a child and never knowing his father.

In the run up to Christmas, Furlong’s work brings him all sorts of places, including to the laundry that the nuns run, where they take care of girls who have become pregnant out of wedlock. This was a fate Bill’s mother avoided because of the kindness of her employer, a Protestant woman farmer who made sure this didn’t happen.

Small Things Like These is a very small book about an enormous thing. It is a beautifully written and intensely moving story of an ordinary man in an ordinary place, finding the courage to do something properly heroic. There are books fifty times the length of this one that have less to say, less memorably.

This book is sure to achieve the status of a modern classic and justly so. It is an outstanding piece of work, utterly exquisite.

The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman

Summary: Highly entertaining soft-core Brexity fantasy

The second book in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice returns to the genteel environs of its predecessor.

Like many second books in series, from Denis Lehane to JK Rowling, one can feel Osman getting into his stride, having established his universe and now able to concentrate more on the evolving story rather than scene-setting.

The Man Who Died Twice is a more overtly right-wing work than its predecessor. In it roughish-diamond coppers think nothing of fitting up suspects they just know are guilty, and the book’s pensioner heroes take the law into their own hands with the casual disdain for due process of the most knuckle headed of authoritarians.

Doubtless this will play well with the Daily Mail readers who are a core demographic in this book’s audience. But even so, it would have been nice if Osman showed the slightest knowledge of the brutal realities of child slavery in “county lines” and the operation of the British drugs economy if he is going to include such things in his books.

But that would probably upset the soft-core fantasy for Brexity readers. Instead this is a world with few complexities and no bad language, in which foreigns know their place, and plucky have-a-go British heroes with bulldog spirit always triumph over the baddies and are home in time for cocoa.

In spite of its politics, The Man Who Died Twice is a highly entertaining affair, with plenty of good jokes and a twisty plot. Even without the unicorns, it’s a vision of sunlit uplands that is as close as the English are ever going to get to the Brexit they thought they voted for. So it’s hard to grudge them their fairytales, particularly when they are as elegantly written as this.

Summer Loving; and A Recipe for Love, by Nicola Yaeger

Summary: rom-coms that show us how the world can be a better place

Once, many years ago, when he was still “The Joan Collins’ Fan Club”, I went to see a performance by Julian Clary. Large chunks of his material were old jokes, deliberately chosen, and with charm and elegance he would imbue every other line with salacious double entendres. I don’t think I laughed as much that whole year… but it was Belfast in the middle of the Troubles when it rained all the time. So there was that.

I was reminded of that Julian Clary show reading Nicola Yaeger’s books: they are unashamed romantic comedies, so you know pretty much what the plot is going to be from the first page. That is the nature of romantic comedies – apart from The Love Letter: man that is the bleakest romantic comedy I have ever sat through. Don’t watch it if you are feeling fragile. Try something more light-hearted like Calvary instead.

Because sometimes the joyful assurance of the romantic comedy is exactly what you need: when I worked in Angola during the civil war there I used to hire a pile of romantic comedy movies every weekend just to have something to remind me that there were kinder places and people than the warlords who plagued one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

But I digress. Much as Ms Yaeger occasionally does in her wonderfully entertaining books. Read these and you’ll learn about art, Eastern European tall tales, surfing, and cooking in such a way as to make you want to book a surfing lesson or buy a new book about French cuisine.

Nicola Yaeger is a charming and extremely funny writer, the sort who rarely bothers with the double bit of the entendre. Like Julian Clary at his best, like all of literature if we are being honest, she retells old stories in elegant, new ways, reminding us there are kinder places and people out there, people who will make you laugh and care about your well-being.

In a world full of complete feckers who are busy brexiting up our fragile planet for all they are worth, it is good to be reminded of this sometimes. And Nicola Yeager does that in glorious fashion.

Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, by Maggie Haberman

Summary: portrait of a fascist as a fat man

The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is based on Donald Trump: bullying, lazy, greedy, misogynistic. Confidence Man traces the original Biff’s career from the corrupt world of New York real estate to the American presidency.

It is a depressing story, but, in hindsight, seems almost inevitable now. Because, enabled by his overweening sense of entitlement and his daddy’s money, Trump has one talent that Biff lacked. As the title of Haberman’s absorbing book suggests, Trump has the instincts of a grifter. Like Giovanni Ribisi’s character in the short lived, but highly entertaining, series, Sneaky Pete, it is Trump’s instinct every time he is caught in one lie to double down with another, to meet every attack with a counter attack, and, where possible, to get his retaliation in first. 

According to Haberman Trump was once told, “You’re really very shallow.” “Yes” he agreed, “that is my strength.”

Everything is a transaction to Trump in a zero sum game. For him to win there must be a loser. Love, selflessness, compassion, empathy are meaningless to him. Haberman reports Former White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, describing Trump as “the most flawed person” he had ever known. 

Yet enough Americans confuse Trump’s brand of sociopathic narcissism with strength to vote to award this revolting human being with the Presidency.

Not that Trump ever understood the role he had won in a constitutional system. Again and again in this book he is described as unable to comprehend why he is not permitted to do the unlawful. How he yearns for the unconstrained power of a Putin or a Hitler. Nevertheless even corralled by the law and the constitution, Trump and his acolytes still managed to do more damage to the concept of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, than the entire Confederate army.

Haberman’s fine book is not just an explanation of Trump but also a warning: given the chance again this bloated fascist will reek further chaos.

Northern Heist, by Richard O’Rawe

Summary: nasty men doing nasty things, nastily

At Christmas 2004 the IRA robbed the Northern Bank, putting the Peace Process, not for the first time, in jeopardy.

Taking that incident as his inspiration, with Northern Heist Richard O’Rawe has imaginatively reconstructed how a bunch of professional criminals would go about robbing the “National Bank”. This fictional institution occupies much of the same physical space as the Northern Bank that was actually robbed in Belfast. And, this being Belfast, of course, their shenanigans do not go unnoticed by the Provisionals who want a cut of any action the criminals manage to obtain.

With its focus on deeply unsympathetic criminals, particularly its anti-hero James “Ructions” O’Hare, Northern Heist reminded me of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Its depictions of the Belfast underworld also echo with Maurice Leitch’s classic novel, Silver’s City. 

Overall, Northern Heist is very fine work from O’Rawe.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine historical thriller based on the manhunt for the regicides of Charles I

The Act of Oblivion was a key law in British history. It paved the way for restoration of the monarchy by promising to forget the offences of most, but not all, of those who had waged war on Charles I.

Exempted from the act were the regicides, those who signed the death warrant of Charles. For them the fate of hanging, drawing and quartering awaited.

Many foolishly surendered to the crown and were tortured to death in this way in spite of their pleas for mercy. Others had to be hunted down.

Robert Harris’ book focuses on the manhunt for two of the regicides: William Goffe and his father-in-law Edward Whalley. Goffe and Whalley have had the good sense to make for North America as Charles II approached English shores. But, they wonder, as the search for them reaches across the Atlantic, is this far enough?

Act of Oblivion is a fine thriller. It is also a fine historical novel. It would be a superb introduction to the English Civil War for anyone ignorant of the subject. It is, appropriately enough, a warts and all portrayal of the period, charting the descent of the parliamentary cause into a horrendously bigoted, brutal military dictatorship. It also details the bloody revenge of the royalists following the collapse of the Commonwealth

Other reviewers have described Goffe and Whalley’s principle pursuer, a fictional character called Richard Naylor, as a “monster.” But I think this misses the point of the book.

While the principle sympathy of the book is with Whalley and Goffe, Nayler has become what Goffe and Whalley once were and would have continued to be had they not fallen from power: a merciless zealot.

Early in the book Harris quotes the biblical verse “an eye for an eye.” Because Martin King was not born until the 20th Century he cannot go further. But this book is an illustration of King’s point that, if pursued, this maxim of vengeance leaves the whole world blind.

Some stocktaking, part 2

Summary: not dead yet

Last year, about 12 months into the lockdown, I thought it would be a good idea to make a note of what I had done to see what it amounted to. Thought it would be a good idea to do the same again as 2022 turns to autumn. So:

1. Finished reading Don Quixote.

2. Wrote another bundle of expert reports on trafficking cases. One (at least) helped force a reverse in the UK’s unjust decision to deport a survivor of slavery.

3. Conducted virtual evaluations of three projects in Myanmar and left in awe of the extraordinary courage of local civil society’s efforts to mitigate the consequences of the military’s brutal onslaught on the country’s ordinary people.

4. Edited a special edition on the Journal of Modern Slavery on slavery in humanitarian crises, with an introductory essay entitled, Older than Troy

5. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mighty novel of the war in Biafra, Half of a Yellow Sun. Think it might actually be better than War and Peace.

6. Finished writing and published my book, Ethical Leadership: moral decision making under pressure

7. Wrote an article for Open Democracy identifying the UK’s plan to deport migrants to Rwanda as a crime against humanity.

8. In aid of Children in Crossfire, I did my first 10k in years, around Kew Gardens, very badly.

9. Delivered a couple of public lectures in the great city of Belfast, including one at the legendary First Church in Rosemary Street.

10. Managed to go for a swim in Margate. Don’t think I will try that again until the British government decides that dumping raw sewage into the sea is not really much of a Brexit benefit.

11. Read Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, a desperately sad but inspiring perspective on the struggle against apartheid in Israel.

12. Completed a first draft of my second novel, Some Service to the State, about the repercussions from an enquiry into the fate of a missing girl in a newly partitioned Ireland. Started looking for a publisher.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on Israeli Apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of (asymmetrically) marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken; and Fake Law, by The Secret Barrister

Summary: the UK’s process of becoming a rogue state explained

The Secret Barrister’s first book, Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, described the contemporary criminal justice system in England and Wales and how years of underfunding have left it dangerously unfit for purpose. Fake Law looks at the law more widely and examines how populist politics, dishonest journalism, and increasing authoritarianism in government have led to a wholesale assault on ordinary people’s most basic rights.

Taken together these two books are an elegantly written primer of key elements of UK law and how it is practiced. However they also represent a searing indictment of the ongoing assault on the fundamental tenets of rule of law in the United Kingdom.

Take, for instance, that perennial bug bear of the English Far Right, the Human Rights Act. The Secret Barrister describes in some detail how, to take just one example, the victims of the serial rapist, John Worboys, were only able to obtain any remedy for the appalling police failings in the case that left Worboys free to assault other women, due to the Human Rights Act. This piece of British law allows citizens to hold the government to account for its failings. Hence it draws particular ire from those who believe that ministers and other public servants, such as the police, should not be accountable before the law.

As the Secret Barrister points out, it is untrue that the UK has no constitution. This, they note, is scattered through diverse pieces of legislation stretching back centuries. Fundamental to the UK constitution is the supremacy of parliament. This does not mean the “supremacy of government”. Government is also meant to be accountable under the laws set by parliament, and it is the role of the courts to publicly administer these laws, including whether the government is acting in accordance with them.

This is pretty fundamental to how the UK is meant to work. But findings of government unlawfulness, such as with the Tory government’s plans to withdraw from the EU without primary legislation, or Boris Johnson’s unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament, have drawn particular venom. For example the vile Daily Mail infamously declared judges “enemies of the people” for just doing their jobs. And parliamentarians and government ministers from both Labour and the Tories, some of them, like Harriet Harman and Dominic Raab, qualified lawyers, have wilfully misrepresented due process and demanded removal of citizens’ human rights protections because, they think, it plays well with sections of the electorate: “There go the people. I must follow them because I am their leader.”

The resulting political climate has allowed the government to advance their programme of reducing the human rights protections, and access to justice, of some of the most vulnerable in society, and limiting the power of the courts to scrutinise government incompetence and abuse.

The Secret Barrister’s books should be required reading for every individual who has the temerity to put themselves forward for elected office. While some of them struggle with the big words, the rest of us should read them to get informed and stay angry about the sustained assault on rule of law that is being perpetrated before our very eyes by the authoritarians who currently dominate the UK’s parliament and government.