Holiday reading doesn't have to be crime novels.

On a recent holiday I greatly enjoyed the zest, humour and excitement of some Inspector Montalbano novels, but also profited from a couple of books which were not typical beach fodder: actually they felt totally out of place in such a setting so I read them only on the plane or when sitting in a chair with room to stretch my legs!

Clive Stafford Smith’s ‘Injustice’ is a book that justifies the existence of the word excoriating. It uses the case of Kris Maharaj, who has languished in prison in the USA for decades for a murder which he is hardly likely to have committed, as a hook to examine the faults of that country’s penal system. One which seems to work on the principle that if the police say a man is guilty he is, even if he has alibis, there are much more likely culprits in the exact vicinity at the exact time of the murder,  the defence attorney is incompetent, the judge is crooked, and the jury is high on cocaine!

This account by a man who has spent years working for next to nothing to see that justice is given a chance in a system so cock-eyed is remarkable for its anger, its rationality and its compassion. Smith is rightly passionate, but he never rants.

Tom Holland’s ‘ In the Shadow of the Sword’, is the latest in a his series of historical works re-telling familiar stories with flair and unearthing neglected ones which have had more significance than normally assumed- ‘ Millenium’ was a timely reminder that apocalyptic ideas have always shaped the lives of people. In his latest book, he manages to turn the events of the C5th and C6th into a page -turner. It has been the snobbery of the traditional historical curriculum  which has dismissed this time as marking the end of the glories of the classical world and the beginning of the dismal Middle Ages. Instead Holland reminds us that it was at this point that much of Europe began to take shape, the Byzantine Empire came into being, and Islam became a force in the world. His big idea, which is an important one, is that it was a melting pot in which Roman Law, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Foreign Policy by Superpowers, and the impact of various nomadic peoples all contributed to the development and rise of Islam and the world that followed. It is as riveting as any holiday read, and has far more exciting details than any Dan Brown novel, all of which also happen to be true!


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