At the start of 2013, I began a section on the blog called ‘books by journalists.’ The plan was to read a book a week by a journalist and write about it here. Like the best new year plans, it fell apart as real life began. However, I have compiled a list of the best books by journalists I’ve discovered in the last few years … hopefully ideal if you’ve got some spare time to yourself this Christmas (or, in the case of two, if you want some spare time over Christmas)…
The Poet - Michael Connelly: Well, this is a predictable way to start with arguably one of the best known journalists-turned-authors (I would have said THE best known, but then I remembered about Charles Dickens). Connelly regularly tops book charts with his Harry Bosch detective novels, and his first book-turned-film was The Lincoln Lawyer, based around another of his characters, lawyer Mickey Haller. For me, however, his best books centre around Jack McEvoy, a reporter on the Rocky Mountain News who refuses to let the death of his policeman brother rest as suicide. He soon discovers a series of police suicides all of which involved notes which left references to the work of poet Edgar Poe. A brilliant read, the sequel is called The Narrows with my favourite being The Scarecrow, which followed after that.
Gathering String – Mimi Johnson: This was the book which led to me starting 2013 with bags under my eyes. I discovered it after reading Steve Buttry’s blog, in which he mentioned his wife’s book. We all know journalism and politics is a heady mix, and his book makes the best of that. Set in America, the plot revolves around three journalists: Battle-hardened cynic Sam Waterman who has quit working on a top Washington newspaper to pursue a career, reluctantly, at a politics website; a photographer he once had an affair with which he’s never got over called Tess Benedict who escaped Washington and found a new life in a sleepy Iowa town with a basketball star turned newspaper publisher Jack Westphal. Westphal is, in short, everything Waterman isn’t. Their worlds collide when Waterman is dispatched to Iowa to cover the decision by the state’s governor Swede Erikson decides to run for president. With the Republicans struggling for a good name to lead their fight, it seems a safe bet Erikson will win the Republican nomination. Waterman believes Erikson – popular yet radical – is a little too good to be true, and starts digging.
Locked In – Kerry Wilkinson: Where to start with Kerry? His story is well-known, after writing the book on the left and becoming the UK’s most successful self-published Kindle book author, which led to a book deal which in turn seems to have sent Kerry on a one-man mission to prove it’s possible to publish books at regular intervals without producing a duff one in the process. Little less than two years after book one was self-published, book seven in the DS Jessica Daniel series is due for release in January. I’ve not read them all – I’ve not had time to keep up, but the ones I have all maintain the same attention-for-detail, impossible-to-guess-the-culprit standards Kerry produced in the first one. DS Daniel is a detective working in and around Manchester, who invariably finds her life on the line while trying to solve crimes, and often on the wrong side of the rule book to boot. If I’m writing as though I know Kerry, it’s because I do. We worked together for a few years and the dry, sometimes dark, sense of humour which is integral to his main character is not only what makes Jessica Daniel stand out among other stars of crime novels, but is also very Kerry. Kerry also branched out into other character this year, with Watched published last month.
Unsinkable – Dan James: Real name Dan Waddell (son of Sid), Dan James is an author who writes under various names. Dan James is the name he has chosen to use for his first novel which set against the backdrop of real events. When I blogged about the book at the time, I mentioned the fact that Waddell describes himself as a ‘recovering journalist’ who signed up to the belief that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I don’t like it when people do down what we do, especially when they’re inside the industry, so this book had a mountain to climb to make me like it, especially given I don’t like fiction so closely linked to real events – in this case, the sinking of the Titanic. But this climbed the mountain and then some. The book begins with Arthur Beck, a former special branch officer who is keen to make a new life for himself away from London following a series of bad results at work, not least his part in the Siege of Sidney Street (which I now know to be an actual event) which left him traumatised. Aboard Titanic he meets Martha Heaton, a New York journalist who has been sent to cover the first crossing of Titanic.
Under strict instructions to do gossip and tittle tattle when she’d much rather do ‘real journalism’ – how much has changed in 100 years? – as well as spotting the man he believes to be the master criminal who got away from Sidney Street. Is his nemesis really on board the world’s most luxurious liner? With his past never far behind him, Beck has a job to convince those around him that they should allow him to follow his instincts and help him solve the one that got away.
Cub Reporter – Irvine Hunt: I never worked in the world of hot metal, and didn’t work in the same building as a printing press until almost eight years into my career. But I was lucky enough to work with many people who did. Irvine Hunt, a local historian in Cumbria, began his career as a reporter on the Accrington Observer. It’s not one of those ‘I was a reporter so here is my autobiography with stories you really had to be there to find amusing’ books. It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane, documenting just how magical life at a local newspaper could be. Having worked for the Lancashire (Evening) Telegraph in the Accrington office next door to the by-then vacant office/press hall of the Accy Ob, it’s easy to conjure up in my mind the place Irvine is talking about, but it’s the colour he adds in describing the characters and situations which makes this book so great.
People living locally will spot one glaring literal in the book – the spelling of one town – but that by no means detracts from a nostalgic sweep down memory lane – and one which needs documenting given the way our industry is changing.
War Reporting for Cowards- Chris Ayres: Biographies from war reporters are ten a penny. Many are good, some are great, but few are a unique as War Reporting for Cowards. I first found out about this book when reading about it in the Newcastle Journal, where he was once a reporter. Having enjoyed a number of interesting, and safe, overseas beats working for a national newspaper, Ayres finds himself sent to cover the Iraq war for The Times embedded with the US Marines. The platitudes for this book have come from far and wide – my favourite is from Toby Young who describes it as a ‘tale of adventure and derring-don’t’ while perhaps the most famous war reporter of his generation, John Simpson, praises the real honesty in the book. This is a book for any reporter who has dreamed of covering a conflict from the frontline but then has always worried about the practicalities which follow.
Sandstealers – Ben Brown: Another war book, but not biographical. Ben Brown is well known to anyone familiar with BBC’s output over the years, and he puts his experience of conflict into use in this fiction. Reading Sandstealers was a peculiar experience. Used to seeing Brown in the war-torn locations where this book is set – including Sarajevo, Iraq and parts of Africa – it’s obvious the vivid descriptions he provides of locations are based on seeing them first hand, but how far from the truth are the antics of the journalists who are at the heart of the story?
The books centres around award-winning war journalist Danny Lowenstein, who is the de-facto figurehead of a small band of journalists who seemingly live for the thrill of covering a war. Their small band grows by one when a young reporter called Rachel, bored of life on a provincial newspaper in America, arrives in Sarajevo and is taken under the wing of experienced photographer Becky. The book begins, though, in Iraq as Lowenstein – not one to share a story – heads into a dangerous part of Iraq to interview a warlord. After dodging bullets, bombs and snipers in wars across the globe, it appears his time has come when he is kidnapped. How his friends react to what’s happened is determined by what has gone on over the previous decade, across several warzones.
Live from Downing Street – Nick Robinson: Sticking with the BBC theme, here’s a book I – if I could afford it – would send to each and every vocal supporter of Hacked Off and ask them to digest it and then see if they really still believe that politicians will hold true to their word not to meddle in the Press once they’re given the chance to via a Royal Charter regulating the new Press regulator. There are loads of political reporter memoirs out there, and this isn’t really one of them. Robinson draws on his own experience of the relationship between media and politicians as the entry point for this book, but it’s not a memoir. I need to be honest here – I’ve had this book for nearly a year and have only started reading it properly this week. I’m on page 39 now, and already the overview of how politicians meddled in the Press is enough to make you realise we have to fight to protect it from those who will put their self-interests over the good of others. For that alone, this book deserves every journalist’s attention.
Power Trip – Damian McBride: Strictly speaking probably not a journalist, but his impact on journalism – or political journalism at least – in recent years is such that he’s on this list for a reason. So many books from the Labour government era have been published by the key players, but unlike many of those – John Prescott’s and Peter Mandelson’s being prime examples – McBride’s book doesn’t set out to change the opinion people have of him. It doesn’t try to blame the media for what happened to him and he doesn’t dodge his own failings. And that’s what makes this book so dangerous for the modern-day political elite. His starting point is that he is appalled by his own actions – making stuff up and smearing Gordon Brown’s rivals – and then he seeks to set out what he saw during his time in Government as Gordon Brown’s spin doctor. He paints a picture of politicians desperate to control and manipulate the media, of people in charge whose first reaction isn’t ‘Is this the right thing to do’ but ‘What will the media reaction be to this?’ That’s a very poisonous environment in which to run the country, and there’s little to suggest anything has changed.
Albert the Pug – Garry Cook: Garry is a friend of mine but that’s not why he’s on the list. He’s on the list a) because he is a journalist, b) his children’s books are good and c) he’s proof that you don’t need to feel guilty about sitting a child in front of an ipad. Garry has written and illustrated two Albert the Pug books, both of which have been adored by my now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The Haunted Castle is a longish read but holds the attention and is a great example of how the sight of a child with an ipad isn’t something to feel guilty about … if your child is working their way through this book, it’s fun and educational. It does sometimes make it harder to get the ipad back, but that makes me a victim of Garry’s talent.
The Jenny Johnson Mysteries – Paul Plunkett: I used to work with Paul at the Lancashire (Evening Telegraph) and learnt about his plunge into publishing for children via Facebook. Now at the BBC, Paul wrote the two Jenny Johnson mysteries in his spare time, inspired by the books he grew up with as a child, all of which were published in series. Aimed at teenagers, I’ve included them on this list because of how well the two books he published did in the Amazon charts, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Lead character is Jenny, the daughter of a well-known newspaper investigator who solves celebrity crimes. When you read some of the reviews Paul picked up, you know that if you’ve a young reader in the house this Christmas, downloading these two books is a good way to get a quiet few hours.
Things can only get Feta – Marjory McGinn: Almost as common as books by journalists sharing stories of their career are books by journalists who have moved abroad and want to write about the experiences. Few have chosen to go and try life in Greece as the country teeters on the brink of financial oblivion. And even then not settling on somewhere most people would have heard of, but a remote, mountain village in which to try a new life. I’ll be honest, I found this book hard to read and had several attempts before realising it wasn’t the book I was struggling with, but the locations I was reading it in. This is a book set in a country I’ve never been to, and in a community I’ve never experienced. It requires your full attention and once it gets it, it’s a fascinating, terrifying, funny and above all, caring travel memoir.
Two Minds To Die – Neil Bonnar: Two Minds To Die centres around journalist Marcus Fieldman, whose somewhat mundane life subbing on a London daily newspaper is shattered when he makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to follow someone who walks like him, moves like him and even has exactly the same mannerisms. That split-second decision brings Marcus together with Jack Porter, who is his doppelganger – only not in looks, but in mind, thanks to the fact the pair – unknown to them – underwent an operation which had the result of saving one of their young lives, but which also transferred Marcus’s personality to Jack. Written down like this, it sounds too fanciful to follow, but once you’re into it, it’s riveting. It’s the way this story was told which stands out. It starts in the most brutal fashion, maybe 80% of the way through the narrative, with Jack facing a very sticky end. Jack then recounts his story, which in turn leads to another character taking over the narrative to add further context – and more than a little drama. This approach means there are more twists and turns packed in, more characters introduced and more remarkable developments than would be believable in a book told as an observer. In many ways, it’s more like listening in to a conversation about a remarkable story, and is all the more enjoyable as a result.
The Almost Lizard – James Higgerson:
He’s not a journalist, he’s my brother, but this year he also became a published author. The Almost Lizard is the product of several year’s writing and is unique in many ways. The book is written in the first person by the character Danny Lizar, who has a dysfunctional upbringing which leads him to imagine his life as though it were a soap opera. When the real life things going on around him aren’t exciting enough, he starts creating real-life tensions which send his life into a spiral, pushing the people around him away in the process. The book begins with Danny deciding whether or not to end his life after reaching a new low triggered by his desire for high tension, and ends with him deciding what to do. It’s a book of the sort I’ve never read before … and not just because it’s the first book I’ve read written by a relative!