Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Appetite by Ed Balls, Robert Peston’s The Whistleblower and Mary Trump on America’s trauma and healing.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

Appetite: A Memoir in Recipes of Family and Food by Ed Balls (Simon & Schuster), £16.99.

Saffron Swire

Ed Balls has an insatiable appetite for a lot of things. When he is not dancing the salsa to “Gangnam Style” on Strictly, scaling Mount Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief or inadvertently tweeting his name, the former Labour MP takes to cooking like a hot knife through butter. His latest book, Appetite, is his “memoir with a twist”, reflecting on his life through recipes he has cooked over the years.

Balls’ memoir-menu has bites of nostalgia interlaced throughout. He recalls growing up in Norwich and salivating over his mother’s Sunday roast, his post-Harvard road trip around the US trying gumbo shrimp and sugary doughnuts, discussing his future in politics over tomato soup with Peter Mandelson, catering to his wife’s – the MP Yvette Cooper – pregnancy cravings for dark chocolate mousse and watching on amusedly as Gordon Brown recoils over a plate of oysters.

Yet, the anecdotes are both sweet and sour. The former Shadow Chancellor recalls these fonder memories but also speaks candidly about parenthood and the juggling act of being both a parent and a politician. He is particularly earnest when talking about ageing and watching his mother lose her sense of self with dementia as his teenage children begin to discover their own.

The memoir celebrates this bittersweet cyclicity of life, with recipes that will taste like home; from slow-cooked pulled pork to a traditional roast to a strawberry pavlova. Whatever ingredients the former MP has scattered into Appetite, it reads like a recipe for success. 

The Whistleblower by Robert Peston (Zaffre), £14.99.

Bill Bowkett

ITV’s Political Editor Robert Peston was once described as having “a face for radio and a voice for writing”. He seems to have taken this advice on board and has written a gripping thriller set in Westminster. It makes sense; British politics is known for its conflict, suspense, high stakes and unexpected twists.

The story is set in 1997 during an election campaign that sees Labour on the brink of victory. Gil Peck – our flawed protagonist – is an OCD, powder-snorting hack who cannot stop working otherwise he would “drink… into oblivion at the Groucho”. It all sounds rather cliché (at least for the first several pages), but as the plot unfolds, the book becomes more and more gripping.

Peck’s estranged sister Clare, who works as a policy adviser, dies in a hit-and-run. Peck, suspicious of her death, uses his journalistic know-how to find out what happened, becoming the Sherlock Holmes of SW1. After discovering one of Clare’s policies on pensions reform was scrapped by the Treasury, Peck uncovers a web of murky secrets linking finance, politics and media.

For a writer prone to reporting about white papers, Peston is a talented storyteller. He brilliantly draws his reader into Peck’s troubled mind: from the use of interior monologue to describe his ADHD (“everything is fine”) to his uncertainty whether to pursue the story for closure (“an invented conspiracy to distract me from feelings of unbearable pain”). Peston shines when getting into the cut and throat of the establishment. The characters are caricatures (and ostentatious at that). And yet, they are mealy reflections of those we see in real life.

As fiction debuts go, this is a stellar effort from Peston – one that sets the scene for a sequel. Maybe being branded as a “voice for writing” isn’t such a bad insult after all.

The Reckoning: America’s Trauma and Finding A Way To Heal by Mary Trump (Atlantic Books), £20.

David Waywell

Everybody who hates Donald Trump appears to love Mary. During her uncle’s presidency, his niece achieved low-level notoriety for revealing family secrets, largely in her first book, Too Much And Never Enough, but also through copious appearances on American network news.

In the light of Donald Trump’s defeat, it’s hard not to read her new book, The Reckoning: America’s Trauma and Finding A Way To Heal, and not feel like it’s an attempt to retain relevance in a political cycle that’s moved on. Trump is herself a trained psychotherapist, with a PhD in Advanced Psychological Studies. Draw a line through what we know about her – therapy, a feuding family, guilt about her uncle’s involvement in an America wracked by a culture war – and you pretty much get this potted history of American dysfunction.

The fact the book works as well as it does is a testament to Trump’s craft as a writer. She’s also no intellectual slouch and presents an authentic attempt to read American history and understand how the nation got to this point. The result is a fascinating tour around the backroads of history, which she describes as “paved for future abuses and backsliding” around Black emancipation. On this, she’s particularly good, even if it makes for a depressing read as the current battle for voting rights echoes the many battles of the past.

“If we want to heal, it’s important to resist calls to look to the future, not the past,” she advises, perhaps about her own situation as much as that in which America now finds itself. She goes on to hit some big themes – the war on drugs, Covid-19, the Supreme Court – but it’s hard to escape the shadow of “Donald”, who Mary refuses to respect with any greater title.

As much this book proves that Mary is much more than merely a Trump, being a Trump is still why this book now finds itself before an audience. Its preoccupations are also the preoccupations of an author aware of her own place in a history of privilege through oppression. If, at times, it feels too much like an attempt to assuage that guilt, that rarely detracts from what is a readable introduction to the bits of American history too often ignored in the prevailing narrative about a shining city on a hill.