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What the critics liked

Malta’s 300,000 starving inhabitants were close to surrender in the summer of 1942, says Giles Milton in The Sunday Times, and the naval convoy sent to their aid was a desperately needed lifeline for the “beleaguered” island fortress. “The extraordinary events that followed… form the white-knuckle ride” of Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942 (William Collins £25). Max Hastings has written “a high-octane adventure served up with torpedoes, Stuka dive bombers and catastrophic U-boat attacks”.

For Churchill, saving Malta was “a matter of national and personal prestige” – Singapore and Tobruk had recently surrendered, and he was in need of “a morale-boosting victory”. But it was “tantamount to suicide”, requiring a 14-ship convoy to sail more than 1,000 miles from British-held Gibraltar, “through seas infested with U-boats and high-speed torpedo craft”, and skies buzzing with 600 aircraft from the Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica. Churchill’s response was to provide the convoy with “the largest Royal Navy escort ever assembled”: two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, 32 destroyers, 100 aircraft, eight submarines and two minesweepers.

On paper it seemed impressive, says Saul David in The Sunday Telegraph. But, as Hastings makes clear, “the fleet had many weaknesses: the planes on the aircraft carriers were of low quality… the cruisers were vulnerable to submarine and air attack”. The book “comes into its own” as the convoy gets under way and “the sheer unlikelihood of it ever reaching Malta becomes apparent”.

With superb dramatic instinct, Hastings has given us a gripping tale, says Gerard DeGroot in The Times. “We feel in our bones torpedoes hitting home.” The “delight” lies in the detail, “the percussive power of tiny facts”: the temperature of the submarine could rise to 50C; frightened soldiers would take off their shoes to avoid being overheard by passing destroyers; tinned tongue was a special treat.

Hastings’s “sensitivity to the human side of war” allows him to understand what Operation Pedestal was really about. It is easy to question the logic, but “humans aren’t logical and neither is war”. Malta was an “essential display of British fortitude” at a crucial moment in time. “‘Warships existed to fight, and if necessary to sink, in pursuit of national purpose.’ Bravo.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

Since 1999, opioid-related deaths have risen five-fold in the US, claiming more than 450,000 lives, says Lloyd Green in The Observer. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Pan Macmillan £20) “methodically and meticulously chronicles this tale of woe and crisis, indifference and corruption”. Patrick Radden Keefe “lays bare the price exacted” by Purdue Pharma’s highly addictive painkiller, OxyContin. The Sackler family made billions from the company and were renowned for their philanthropy, but in their “drive for wealth and social mountaineering”, others paid dearly. It is a “chilling” read.

The Sacklers emerge as a shameless bunch, says John Gapper in The FT, but Empire of Pain “also poses troubling questions about the US healthcare system that permitted them to flourish”. Keefe’s “coolly prosecutorial prose style” is backed by extensive research. By talking to more than 200 people who knew “generations of Sacklers”, he “brings to life the obsessive personalities and ferocious energy of some members”.

The trove of documents that has come to light, says Jon Carreyrou in The New York Times, “shatters any illusion that the Sacklers were in the dark about what was going on at the company”. Thanks to this “damning book”, there’s one thing they’ll never recover, “despite their penchant for putting their name on museums: their reputation”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

Vintage fiction: Heartburn

My mother taught me many things growing up, said Nora Ephron in The Guardian in 2004, “but the main thing I learned is that everything is copy”. As a result, “I knew the moment my marriage ended that some day it might make a book – if I could just stop crying”. Ephron’s debut novel, Heartburn, was published in 1983. Everyone knew it was really about her adulterous husband, Carl “Watergate” Bernstein, said Andrew Billen in The Times in 2020, and his affair with the “unbelievably tall” Margaret Jay (the former British PM Jim Callaghan’s daughter, also married). The novel, “and it is aware of this”, could do with more plot, but you read it for the prose: it’s “an exemplar of comic writing”.

Rachel, who is seven months pregnant when she discovers the affair, is trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband of eight years would “have sex with a Venetian blind”. As a food writer, she seeks solace in cookery – the book is peppered with recipes. It’s not literature and it’s not high-class gastronomy, said Prue Leith in The Guardian in 1984, “but it’s a great read, with marvellously unhealthy recipes for ultra-American dishes like Peach Pie and Hash Browns”. Having supressed any tendency “to sneer at packet mixes and canned soups”, Leith tried the recipes, which, although “they would make Julia Child shudder, work”.

The casting of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the 1986 film adaptation of Heartburn was starry enough to make everyone forget it was originally about Ephron and Bernstein. “One of the things I’m proudest of,” said Ephron, who died in 2012, “is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic… to comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by Meryl Streep.