Play All

Poetry aside*, Clive James is one of my favourite writers. Lately, in his self-acknowledged twilight years, he’s taken to producing volumes of essays on all kinds of topics. Play All collects his thoughts on box sets of TV series ranging from The West Wing to Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones.

Since I can never get enough of a fellow fan’s thoughts on films/TV series, this book’s a double pleasure. It offers Clive James’ graceful, fluid writing. And it’s about practically every TV series I’ve watched and enjoyed over the past 10 years. I went through it in a day – binge-reading, if you like. Just terrific.

Play

*   I liked the lyrics he wrote for Pete Atkin back in the 70s. I still do. But I just can’t get into his poetry. Never could.

 

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Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes

This story about a 12-year-old boy who can’t stop trying to be funny – even when he’s being mercilessly teased and humiliated by other kids at school – is sweet and touching. And very, very funny. The combination of laughs and sadness is beautifully balanced and the story just cracks along at a terrific pace. I read it in a day and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s currently AT school, or who can remember what it was like to be there and NOT be one of the cool kids.

Dogs

When The Music’s Over

Several years back I bought 12 Peter Robinson books in a 2nd-hand shop and read them all one after the other. I’ve been reading the rest as they appear – roughly one a year. With a couple of exceptions, they all feature Inspector Banks and they all take place in the north of England. Straightforward detective stories, they’re distinguished by believable characters investigating believable crimes. No Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library. No Agatha Christie shenanigans.

In this book, the criminals are sexual predators and one thing that distinguishes the story – as it always does in the best of the Banks series – is the considerable sympathy and attention paid to the victims. In fact that’s one reason I love about these books: the characters. Good or bad, you always want to find out what they’re going to do next.

Music

Kensuke’s Kingdom

This isn’t my favourite Michael Morpurgo book, but I do marvel at the way he sets everything up so quickly – parents setting off on a round-the-world sailing voyage; the first months of that voyage; and then the storm that strands our young hero alone on a Pacific island. You’re pulled instantly into the story, as easily as the waves pulls the narrator away from the yacht and safety. Terrific writing.

Kensuke

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Years ago back in school, I knew a boy who started every book he read by skipping the first ten pages. ‘They’re always boring,’ he explained. ‘The story doesn’t get going until at least page 10.’ I felt a little bit like that when I began this, with its opening that consists of a group of teens hanging out in the park discussing homework. There’s little excitement, or impetus to keep reading.

But the more you do, the more you realize what’s Patrick Ness is doing. Each chapter begins with a summary of a ‘Buffy-style-super-teens’ adventure, the adventure that’s taking place while the teens you meet in the opening go about their ‘normal’ lives. And you realize that the events these ‘normal’ teens are experiencing are just as dramatic as anything the super-teens have to contend with.

And just as compulsively readable.

Rest

Finders Keepers & End of Watch

Everything I said about Mr Mercedes applies to its two follow-ups: the characters are likeable, the story-lines are interesting. But, as with Mr Mercedes, there doesn’t seem to be much urgency. I finished them both because I was curious as to the outcome, not because I had to find out what happened next.

I kept feeling, reading them, that Stephen King was having fun writing and knocked all three out fairly quickly. All three could certainly do with tightening up. Often he spends time describing his characters discovering something the reader already knows. This is really apparent with the climax of Finders Keepers, where one person doesn’t stay where he said he would stay – and then we read as his friends find out that… he hasn’t stayed where he said he would. In a film, you could convey that information in a few quick shots. In the book, it takes pages and pages and I’m sorry to say I began skimming them because I knew what had already happened

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think these are bad books. (For me, the low points in his work are The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher.) They’re just not Stephen King at his best.

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Small Great Things

A page-turner about racism. It’s told from three perspectives: a Black nurse, the White supremacist who accuses her of murdering his baby son, and the White lawyer who defends her. (I’m copying Jodi Picoult’s use of capitalisation.) And it’s absolutely riveting.  I read it even when my eyes were aching because I had to find out how it all ended. It’s that well-written.

It also got me thinking, hard, about the world I live in and how it might look through other eyes. I mean that as a compliment. A big one.

Small