Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Viking, £7.99)
Nick Hornby is arguably at his funniest and most perceptive when writing about nerdish obsession, most notably in the superb High Fidelity. Here, in Juliet, Naked, now out in paperback for the summer holidays, he’s back to form with another anorak: Duncan, a pudgy, 40-something college lecturer fixated with a reclusive rock musician, Tucker Crowe, about whom very little of actual truth is known.
Duncan has lived with Annie for 15 years, in the dismal seaside town of Gooleness, somewhere near Hull, where the only thing that’s ever happened is a shark washing up. They are bound together by a joint interest in culture – books, music, gigs – and a mutual cynicism about awful Gooleness. But, after a holiday in America, which involves visiting a public lavatory that may or may not have been used by Tucker Crowe, it dawns on Annie that she has wasted the best years of her life.
Then, something amazing happens. Crowe releases a new album, Juliet Naked. Duncan is first to get out a review but, in his feverish haste to trump rival sad ‘Crowologists, he neglects to realise that it is rubbish. Annie’s subsequent effort is far more critically astute and has the astounding effect of flushing Crowe out of hiding.
Hornby cleverly builds up Crowe’s image in the reader’s mind, let alone the sad Crowologists’, and so the denouements are comical and compelling. He brilliantly exposes the weird way certain men spend their spare time frenetically speculating among themselves about the most tenuous facts, and the dangers this holds for the unfortunate celebrities, whose fans are reluctant to believe that their idols are mundane enough not to be suicidal or insane but merely idle and dull.
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The book weakens near the end, but it should keep the traveller absorbed through many a baggage-handler strike this summer.
The Exmoor Files by Liz Jones (Pheonix, £6.99)
Having shared, in much painful, public detail, the break-up with her younger, faithless husband through a diary in You magazine, journalist Liz Jones makes the seemingly insane decision to swap her exquisite Islington town house for a damp farmhouse on Exmoor.
She admirably eschews twee houses in commuter belt for 46 acres and a lonely, crumbling house and sets about accruing animals – and antagonising the locals.
As Ms Jones is a vegan, a renowned devotee of nice handbags, scented candles and delicatessens and soppily believes in giving holistic treatments to her rescued cats, this experiment in an area where hill-farmers struggle to make a living and hunting is a local industry is unlikely to end happily.
She writes beautifully – ‘peregrine falcons circle on warm currents of air, the tips of their wings tilted upwards like Easyjets’ – and humorously (although, somehow, the book isn’t quite as funny as the magazine columns from which it derives because we are now all sick to death of the ex-husband).
There are moments of pure happiness – when she wins a prize at a dog show, or lambs arrive – but she whinges an awful lot too, about old-fashioned pub food, men with no teeth, and other local people who then recognise themselves in print. Eventually, a nutter shoots at her letterbox, and, unpleasantly, someone wins a fancy dress prize for dressing up as her.
The locals need to lighten up a bit, but then Ms Jones needs to be less tiresome and self-centred. She is an excellent journalist; couldn’t she get the local community some more useful coverage?