Henley Literary Festival 2022 – Looking ahead & looking back

HenleyonThamesThis year’s Henley Literary Festival starts on Saturday 1st October and runs until Sunday 9th October, although there are several pop-up events after that. It’s my local literary festival so I’m looking forward to attending a number of events, either in person or via one of the live streams. (I can’t guarantee it will be as sunny as in this picture taken last year. To be fair, it tipped down with rain shortly after I took it.)

To discover more about all the events taking place or to purchase tickets, visit the Henley Literary Festival website.

One of the authors I’m looking forward to seeing in person is Alan Johnson, politician turned writer of memoirs, and now of crime fiction.  His latest book, One of Our Ministers is Missing, was published on 1st September and I’ll be bagging myself a – hopefully signed – copy next week.  In the meantime, I thought I’d revisit my review of Alan’s previous book, The Late Train to Gipsy Hill.

The Late Train to Gipsy HillAbout the Book

Gary Nelson has a routine for the commute to his rather dull job in the city. Each day, he watches as a woman on the train applies her make up in a ritual he now knows by heart. He’s never dared to strike up a conversation…but maybe one day.

Then one evening, on the late train to Gipsy Hill, the woman invites him to take the empty seat beside her. Fiddling with her mascara, she holds up her mirror and Gary reads the words ‘HELP ME’ scrawled in sticky black letters on the glass.

From that moment, Gary’s life is turned on its head. He finds himself on the run from the Russian mafia, the FSB and even the Metropolitan Police – all because of what this mysterious young woman may have witnessed. In the race to find out the truth, Gary discovers that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye . . .

Format: Hardback (352 pages)               Publisher: Wildfire Books
Publication date: 2nd September 2021 Genre: Thriller

Find The Late Train to Gipsy Hill on Goodreads

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My Review

I’m a great fan of Alan Johnson, both as a former politician and as an author of a fabulous series of memoirs – This Boy, Please, Mr Postman, and The Long and Winding Road. For those who don’t know or haven’t guessed from the titles, he’s a lifelong fan of The Beatles. When I heard him speak at Henley Literary Festival in 2018 about his then recently published book, In My Life: A Music Memoir, he mentioned that his next book was likely to be fiction, probably historical fiction. He obviously decided to switch genre because The Late Train to Gipsy Hill fulfils all the requirements of a crime thriller with its intricate plot, cast of shady characters and frequent action scenes.

The storyline couldn’t be more up-to-date either, set in a London in which football clubs are owned by rich Russians while their fellow countrymen use the buying and selling of property as a way of laundering dirty money. As the author notes, ‘Amongst the Russian criminal fraternity, London had become known as the world’s laundromat, washing billions of pounds of dirty cash every year‘.

Through a chivalrous act of kindness towards a damsel in distress, poor Gary, the book’s hero, finds himself plunged into a world in which Russian secret service agents, with or without the knowledge of the Russian President, may be carrying out killings in a particularly dangerous way (echoes of the real life murder of Alexander Litvinenko). At the same time, rival gangs of criminals engaged in prostitution, drug and people smuggling, fight for precedence.

If, like Gary, you’re in danger of becoming confused by the twists and turns of the plot – of which there are many – as well as the many Russian characters with difficult to pronounce names, the author thoughtfully provides periodic recaps of the events that have taken place. However, also like Gary, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the whole picture.

The book contains convincing detail about the structure and operations of the intelligence services and the Metropolitan Police no doubt gleaned from the author’s time as Home Secretary. I just hope that some of what Gary discovers doesn’t hold true in real life. There’s also an impressive knowledge of the London Underground and bus network on display, and even a fleeting role for a vehicle linked to one of the author’s former occupations.

At the Henley Literary Festival event I mentioned earlier, Alan said one of the reasons he wanted to turn to fiction was because he relished the idea of being able to control plot and characters, something not possible in non-fiction. In The Late Train to Gipsy Hill he has certainly demonstrated the ability to craft an intricate plot. During his talk, Alan also paid tribute to the English teacher who first encouraged him to write so it was lovely to see the dedication to the same teacher at the beginning of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Late Train to Gipsy Hill and thought it was an impressive debut.

In three words: Ingenious, convincing, assured

Try something similar: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly

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alan johnsonAbout the Author

Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir This Boy was published in 2013. It won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political writing award. His second volume of memoirs, Please, Mr Postman (2014) won the National Book Club award for Best Biography. The final book in his memoir trilogy, The Long And Winding Road (2016), won the Parliamentary Book Award for Best Memoir.

Alan was a Labour MP for 20 years before retiring ahead of the 2017 general election. He served in five cabinet positions in the Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown including Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. He and his wife Carolyn live in East Yorkshire. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)

Connect with Alan
Website | Twitter | Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday About A Boy Please Mr Postman The Long and Winding Road

#WWWWednesday – 28th September 2022


Hosted by Taking on a World of Words, this meme is all about the three Ws:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Why not join in too?  Leave a comment with your link at Taking on a World of Words and then go blog hopping!

Currently reading

TheHouseofBirdsThe House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy (Headline)

Oliver has spent years trying to convince himself that he’s suited to a life of money making in the city, and that he doesn’t miss a childhood spent in pursuit of mystery, when he cycled around the cobbled lanes of Oxford, exploring its most intriguing corners.

When his girlfriend Kate inherits a derelict house – and a fierce family feud – she’s determined to strip it, sell it and move on. For Oliver though, the house has an allure, and amongst the shelves of discarded, leather bound and gilded volumes, he discovers one that conceals a hidden diary from the 1920s.

So begins a quest: to discover the identity of the author, Sophia Louis. It is a portrait of war and marriage, isolation and longing and a story that will shape the future of the abandoned house – and of Oliver – forever.

Under A Veiled MoonUnder a Veiled Moon by Karen Odden (eARC, Crooked Lane Books)

September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule.

For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.

Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.

As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth – one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

Best of FriendsBest of Friends by Kamila Shamsie (ARC, Bloomsbury via Readers First)

Fourteen-year-old Maryam and Zahra have always been the best of friends, despite their different backgrounds. Maryam takes for granted that she will stay in Karachi and inherit the family business; while Zahra keeps her desires secret, and dreams of escaping abroad.

This year, 1988, anything seems possible for the girls; and for Pakistan, emerging from the darkness of dictatorship into a bright future under another young woman, Benazir Bhutto. But a snap decision at a party celebrating the return of democracy brings the girls’ childhoods abruptly to an end. Its consequences will shape their futures in ways they cannot imagine.

Three decades later, in London, Zahra and Maryam are still best friends despite living very different lives. But when unwelcome ghosts from their shared past re-enter their world, both women find themselves driven to act in ways that will stretch and twist their bond beyond all recognition.

Recently finished

The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert (Gallic Books)

Sleep When You’re Dead by Jude O’Reilly (Head of Zeus)

Elite assassin and spy-for-hire Michael North is the man you call when there’s nothing left to lose. His tradecraft is unparalleled, he executes every mission with determination, skill and a certain amount of flair. There’s just one problem: the bullet lodged in his brain. If it moves, he will die – and so will the mission.

Now North’s been sent to infiltrate a doomsday cult on a remote Scottish island which is also home to a spaceport about to send thousands of commercial satellites into space. Their leader is planning a terrorist attack on the mainland, and it’s North’s job to stop him. Together with teen hacker Fang – the only person in the world he cares about – North must tackle a situation which is fast spinning out of control. (Review to follow for blog tour)

What Cathy (will) Read Next

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius SanchoThe Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph (eARC, Dialogue Books via NetGalley)

I had little right to live, born on a slave ship where my parents both died. But I survived, and indeed, you might say I did more…

It’s 1746 and Georgian London is not a safe place for a young Black man, especially one who has escaped slavery. After the twinkling lights in the Fleet Street coffee shops are blown out and the great houses have closed their doors for the night, Sancho must dodge slave catchers and worse. The man he hoped would help – a kindly duke who taught him to write – is dying. Sancho is desperate and utterly alone.

So how does Charles Ignatius Sancho meet the King, write and play highly acclaimed music, become the first Black person to vote in Britain and lead the fight to end slavery?

It’s time for him to tell his story, one that begins on a tempestuous Atlantic Ocean, and ends at the very centre of London life. And through it all, he must ask: born amongst death, how much can you achieve in one short life?