Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)
Following the success of Restless, this wonderful writer stays in the thriller genre. Climatologist Adam Kindred’s marriage is on the rocks when he comes to London for a job interview but, apart from that, he has everything to look forward to when an impromptu conversation in an Italian restaurant changes his life for ever. There, he falls in with fellow lone diner Philip Wang, a scientist, but when he calls round to his flat merely to deliver a left-behind file, Adam finds the man has been horribly murdered.
Adam is instantly framed and, to complicate matters, the real killer is clearly still in the vicinity and has extreme violence in mind. Considering he is supposedly intelligent, for some inexplicable – and improbable – reason, Adam decides to go on the run. He lives rough beside the Thames, falls in with the eccentric church of John Christ and a kindly prostitute, adopts other people’s identities, loses his own moral compass, finds romance and fears he will never be able to tell the truth again.
Meanwhile, the murder and its aftermath have aroused vague suspicions in Ingram Frazer, boss of the drug company that employed Wang, and in a cynical policewoman who lives on a houseboat with her irritatingly louche father. Frazer, an innately decent man with a complicated private life, is one of the more amusingly fleshed out characters, as is Jonjo, the thick, mindlessly violent mercenary who gets soppy about his pedigree basset hound.
Although the tale has its wildly implausible moments, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining read because the writer does not feel the need to slow his fast-paced prose with dull slabs of research – unlike fellow writer Sebastian Faulkes who released his similarly contemporary London-based book, A Week in December, at the same time – and he provides a fascinating and plausible insight into how easy it is to simply disappear in London. An excellent Christmas present – it will keep someone blissfully distracted through the festivities.
A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve (Little Brown)
Margaret and Patrick marry impetuously so that the latter can take up a job as a doctor in Kenya. Soon, as the saying goes, they are repenting at leisure. Patrick has the confidence of being needed, but Margaret is diffident, her insidious unhappiness increasing with a series of incidents: a stolen car, being forced to strip in front of friends to rid herself of a red ant invasion, and the rape of a maid.
They ill-advisedly accept an invitation to climb Mount Kenya in a group, and in the tough and frightening conditions, Margaret’s unhappiness attracts the kindly but lecherous attention of another man. One small, thoughtless gesture triggers an appalling tragedy – a trademark technique of Shreve’s dark stories – from which it seems unlikely Patrick and Margaret’s marriage can recover.
Eventually, Patrick decides that only a return to Mount Kenya can break the deadlock, but this time the roles are reversed, with Margaret, strengthened by her work as a photographer for a local paper, the stronger of the two.
As always, Shreve has created a compelling, readable scenario, but she has strayed outside her usual home territory – the US – and her writing seems to lack its usual melodic cadences and confidence. This may be because the period is somehow undefined – we know it must be fairly contemporary, because of one or two isolated clues in references to clothing and music -and the central character, Margaret, is, for some reason, impossible to visualise. We know she is a modern American woman yet she drips around vapidly like a maiden from a bygone age, and instead of feeling sympathetic, you want to shake her.An enjoyable and undemanding read for a winter afternoon.
An Education by Lynn Barber (Penguin £8.99)
Known in Fleet Street as ‘Demon Barber’ for her famously brilliant but scary interview technique, Lynn Barber recounts the true story of how the course of her life was changed by a schoolgirl affair. In 1960s Twickenham, she accepted a lift in a sports car from Simon, who was not only several years older than her 16, but a predatory, seedy conman.
They began a thrilling affair, in which Simon introduced her to a wildly sophisticated, amoral lifestyle – remarkably, she was rooted enough to be more in love with his friends than with him – and, thanks to his dishonest charming of her suburban parents, they willingly let it all happen under their noses.
Lynn’s father, wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Molina in the current film, had been hell-bent on seeing his daughter get to Oxford and he sneered at callow boyfriends with no career direction. Yet he and his wife, so stuffy and bigoted in one respect, thought Simon was a great bloke, ideal marriage material – until they found out he was already married.
Miss Barber retrieved her academic and journalistic career, to great effect, but she never recovered her innocence. The episode served to balance her curiosity with pragmatism – while at Oxford she slept with, by anyone’s standards, an awful lot of men, saving up the research to write How to Improve Your Man in Bed – and her subsequent cynicism even stretched to questioning her adored husband’s faithfulness after his death, a coruscating episode retold with truly painful honesty.
This slim book can be read in one rapturous sitting. It is the tale of a proper old-fashioned career in journalism, which includes a hilarious and revealing stint at Penthouse, told wittily and with impressive lack of fanfare or pretension. A great stocking filler for a teenage girl, although anyone should love it.