Ross Thomas is one of my all-time favourite writers. At the risk of making him sound dull and fusty, I’d say almost old-fashioned in his ability to produce silkily elegant prose – without a wasted word – that just picks you up and carries you effortlessly through the story.* Though there are always plenty of murders, enough for any crime story enthusiast, the emphasis is less on action and more on the characters: on what they say and on what they do. It’s a world of slightly crooked heroes going up against totally amoral villains, all of whom have been around the world more than once and aren’t surprised by a thing.** With Missionary Stew and The Fourth Durango, I’ve now read all Ross Thomas’ books twice. I’m already looking forward to reading them a third time.
* He put the IOU in the safety deposit box, returned the box to its proper slot, agreed with the guard that it was indeed warm for November, went back out to his car, and locked the money away in the trunk.
** “When we [Singapore police] got there, we found a body floating in the water. It was very badly decomposed. The fish had been at it, naturally. But the passport and the Maryland driver’s licence were perfectly preserved in a wallet all neatly wrapped up in an airtight plastic bag that was tucked away in a hip pocket that was buttoned. Now I ask you.”
I wasn’t paying attention in the 80s. I knew about the miner’s strike, and Live Aid, and the Falklands War and Greenham Common et al, but I really wasn’t following the news much beyond listening to headlines. So No Such Thing As Society finally offered me the opportunity to find out what was going on behind those headlines. (In the UK only, I should say. It’s not a world history of the 80s.) And it does it really, really well. All the stories I mentioned above are here, together with a lot I’d forgotten: The Young Ones on TV, ska, the Herald of Free Enterprise, Princess Diana, Loadsamoney, Wapping and Fleet Street and Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. The only complaint I have is that it stops with the end of the decade. There’s no real attempt to analyse the long-term effects of, for example, the miner’s strike. It gets to the end of the decade and it stops. But that’s a minor quibble, and it shouldn’t stop anybody from giving the book a go.
Inside Out is Nick Mason’s version of the life of Pink Floyd – up to the reunion in at Live 8 in 2005. I read it to find out what happened to Syd Barrett and why Roger Waters left. (Or at least, Nick Mason’s version of why Roger Waters left.) Those parts of the book are good, but there’s an awful lot of, ‘Then we toured Italy, and after that Japan, and from there onto a one-off concert at…’ I did a lot of skimming.
I don’t know how much of the writing Felix took over from his father. Nor do I care. This is just a great Dick Francis racing thriller, with a solution to the mystery that clicks beautifully into place and doesn’t leave you thinking, ‘Well, okay, I suppose that works.’ I really enjoyed this one.
Michael Winner made a few good films. And an awful lot of really bad ones. To hear him tell it in this breathless gush of an autobiography, they were all wonderful, and got wonderful reviews, and he had a wonderful time with all the wonderful world-class movies stars – Burt and Marlon and Sophia and Orson – who remained his wonderful friends for the rest of his wonderful life. Actually, there’s a little more to it all than that, and a lot of the stories he tells are genuinely entertaining. It’s a fun read, and if you liked going to the movies in the 70s, I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy this.
One thing I do on holiday is read. Constantly. If I were a spy and the secret police of the country I was snooping on caught me, all they’d have to do to make me confess would be to say, ‘We’re sending you on holiday for two weeks. Without a book!’ I’d be talking before they had time to turn on the tape recorder. Here are the nine I read this time. If the first book hadn’t been 750 pages, it would have been more.
If you think women belong in the kitchen, Donald Trump deserves that mulligan, and the #MeToo movement is deluded, avoid Sleeping Beauties. This tale of what happens when women the world over fall asleep, to be cocooned in a strange material that results in blood and violence when ripped open, is one more excellent book from Stephen King. Writing with his son Owen, the two have come up with a celebration of women, a dig at machismo, and wrapped it all up in a violent, genuinely exciting page-turner.
Jacqueline Wilson published Best Friends in 2004, when email was still a big thing and mobiles weren’t everywhere. So this story of two friends separated when the parents of one move away to a new job relies on one of them borrowing a friend’s email account to stay in touch. Nowadays they’d just be texting and facetiming each other every second. But the story’s still good, and the main dilemma’s the same: what to do you do when your best friend moves away and makes new friends with an unbearable little snob of a princess?
I ripped through The Bone Field in a day. Blistering pace, clever plot, characters a little bland but still interesting enough to keep you reading. It’s the first Simon Kernick I’ve read and it certainly won’t be the last. But I’ve got one gripe: the book ends with a character killed off coming back from the dead. And then it stops. Literally. No explanation. Nothing. Now I can put up with this in a TV series, when I know there’ll be new episodes arriving next year. But in a book which ISN’T identified as part of a series, but is offered as a standalone story, it comes across a pretty cheap ploy to make you buy the follow-up.
A new character for Michael Connelly – female detective Renee Ballard – and one who never really comes to life. She has a dog she likes but hardly ever sees. She goes paddling in the Pacific on a surf board. She was booted onto the night shift because she started a sexual harassment suit against a senior officer. And it just doesn’t seem to matter.
I think it’s the blunt functionality of the prose. It’s more than readable, and the book cracks along at a great pace, but it’s newspaper writing – which is where Connelly started: as a crime reporter in Los Angeles. It’s fine for a newspaper story, which is the recounting of facts, but it works against getting inside a character. I have the same complaint about Connelly’s Harry Bosch. He does things, but you observe rather than feel them. That never concerned me much; it was the mysteries Bosch solved that I liked. But with Renee Ballard, I wanted more of what she was thinking and feeling. And it’s not really there. As with Bosch we observe, from a distance. The binoculars never get turned the right way round.
After Mythos and On Royalty, I was in the mood for something light. So I picked up Far From True, only to stop after a couple of chapters when one of the characters, a detective, started puzzling over some old murders. It was the first mention of these deaths, and it took up just one paragraph, which seemed to me to be compressing the narrative just a little bit too much.
This was when I realized that I’d unwittingly started on the second book of a three-volume trilogy. Since I’m a sucker for mystery stories, I obviously had to read all three to find out what happened to everyone. They’re good reads, with interesting characters and crisp dialogue. And because they all use the same 3-chapter structure – A focuses on this individual, B on these people, and C on a third – you’re always rushing through B and C to find out what happened to A, and then rushing through A and B to find out what happened to C, and so on. Which goes a long way to explaining why I went through the whole trilogy in just under two weeks. Compulsive is the word, I believe.
Just one quibble. While I’m happy for a little ambiguity in the way a story ends – having to wonder what happened next, as we do in life with many of the people we meet – the final volume wraps up so many plot strands so fast that you can’t help thinking the author had one eye on his watch and a plane to catch.
Although there’s a great account of how King Zog of Albania came to the throne, and a few mentions of European royalty in the 20th century, this is really a book about the English monarchy, and in particular, Elizabeth II and her heir-apparent, Charles. It’s beautifully written, easy to read, and packed with fascinating anecdotes. It’s neither a hatchet job on the monarchy, nor a blustering Colonel Blimp defence. Rather, it’s a thoughtful, even-handed look at what the monarchy means: to the royals themselves, to the politicians who form ‘their’ government, and to the ‘loyal subjects’ they hold sway over.
And I loved it.
Stephen Fry never seems to write as mellifluously as he talks. Or is that just me expecting him to sound at all times like Jeeves? Judging by the praise heaped on his books elsewhere, I’m in a minority, but I have to say I find his prose rather choppy and awkward; as though it had missed one final polish to buff it to perfection. (Perhaps it sounds better when read out loud.) Style aside though, this retelling of several Greek myths is fun to read. And illuminating. I never knew, for instance, that Sisyphus – doomed to roll the stone up that hill for eternity – certainly earned his fate.
If I have a real quibble, it’s with the fact that while there’s a family tree for the Second Order of gods – also confusingly called the Titans, a name not shown on the chart but used in the text – and the Olympians who followed them, there’s no chart for the First Order of gods who preceded them both. So unless you know who everyone is before you begin, you’re going to spend the first fifty pages endlessly flicking back and forth trying to determine who’s given birth to whom and where they all stand in relation to each other. And if you ever want to look someone up, the lack of a Table of Contents and an Index means that you’re going to spend a LOT of time leafing through the pages. It’s such a strange decision that I can only think the sub-editor had a hankering for a latte and signed off on the book before nipping out the back door sharpish.