New Times,
New Thinking.

From Tom Holland to Deborah Bonello: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Bay by Julia Rampen and Nowhere To Run by Jonathan Sayer.

By Michael Prodger, Jonny Ball, Christiana Bishop and Alona Ferber

Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age by Tom Holland
Abacus, 448pp, £30

At its peak in the early 2nd century AD, Rome ruled between 20 and 40 per cent of the world’s population. It was, said Edward Gibbon in 1776, “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”. Gibbon’s judgement has not aged well but the idea of the Pax Romana – the peace imposed with military heft on a large tranche of the globe – still stands as the exemplum of a “golden age”.

Pax, the third of Tom Holland’s Roman histories, starts in AD 69, the year of the four Caesars and unrest in Rome, and runs through to the ascension of Antoninus Pius in AD 138 following the death of Hadrian. The decades in between were the heyday of empire and also the years of such events as the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the eruption of Vesuvius. Holland is a historian who wears his learning lightly and here he describes stylishly and with illuminating detail both the nature of daily life across the empire – from Judea to northern England – and the shifts and accommodations of politics.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Why Rome had no culture wars]

Nowhere to Run: The Ridiculous Life of a Semi-Professional Football Club Chairman by Jonathan Sayer
Bantam, 256pp, £17.99

Jonathan Sayer is not your usual northern lower-league football club chairman. But inexplicably, the West End playwright, along with his father, has bought Ashton United FC. The team play in the seventh tier of the English football pyramid, about five miles and 140 league positions from Manchester City. The author’s boyhood club is a money pit, and the laughably inexperienced new owners struggle to keep it going.

There’s no shortage of football cliché in this simple comic tale. But it’s self-aware and addictive, leaving the reader so invested that a rainy midweek game against Tadcaster Albion brings on a sense of dread. The book best captures the illogical romance of the sport. Followers of bad teams everywhere will relate to the tribalistic masochism involved in identifying with something so perpetually disappointing. This is a story about people and place, about unspoken words between a father and son, about tireless volunteers, Bovril at half-time, breeze-block terraces, and warm beer drunk under corrugated iron roofs. It’s about the soul of English football – something the Saudi Arabian league can’t emulate for all the money in the world.
By Jonathan Ball

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The Bay by Julia Rampen
Saraband, 288pp, £9.99

In a coastal town in north-west England, Suling, a trafficked teenager from Fujian, China, drags a net full of cockles to the shore. Her gangmaster’s minivan awaits to take her and the other labourers – who are all working to pay off “debts” they owe to people smugglers – back to their lodgings. Yet Suling, realising she is “never going to earn her life back”, has had enough. To regain some agency, she decides to walk home on her own. This seemingly small act of defiance prompts a chain of events that leads her to meet Harold, a widowed English pensioner and former cockler. Their cross-generational friendship is uplifting in its unusualness, as the pair treat one another with the compassion they find lacking elsewhere in their lives. 

The absorbing debut novel by Julia Rampen, a former digital editor at the New Statesman, draws from the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster, when 23 Chinese immigrants drowned while picking cockles. Her story is deeply researched and lays bare the human cost of the UK’s reliance on cheap labour, questioning who we choose to protect and who we choose to ignore.
By Christiana Bishop

Narcas: The Secret Rise of Women in Latin America’s Cartels by Deborah Bonello
Beacon Press, 224pp, £25

This is a book borne both of “a hunch and a grudge”. Its author, the British journalist Deborah Bonello, has reported on Mexico for years and sensed that women in organised crime were being overlooked. A self-described “dedicated narco nerd”, Bonello resented this. Here was evidence of women being stereotyped, minimised, sexualised, and ignored in yet another sphere of popular culture.

Narcas is a history of the inter-American drug trade and a “herstory” of gangsters. It is also a commentary on how the male gaze shapes even our understanding of organised crime, a point Bonello sometimes overstates. Despite that, her narrative shines, with fascinating characters and detail from the towns and villages where her reporting has taken her. Reflections on her process add compelling tensions. While most readers will be familiar with El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, the eight “Narcas” Bonello profiles are virtually unknown. Their stories prove that the mother or whore stereotype of mafia myth is a misnomer. Women can be violent, they can be ruthless – and they can run criminal empires. 
By Alona Ferber

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[See also: What Cormac McCarthy knew]

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future