This boy: a memoir of a childhood, by Alan Johnson. London: Bantam, 2013.
This could so very easily be a misery memoir. Alan Johnson describes growing up in a slum with his violent, feckless father, his hardworking but chronically ill mother and his quite remarkable sister, and some of the incidents seem to come from a previous century, not the era of JFK and the Beatles. Because Johnson manages to step back slightly (describing his parents by their first names and supplementing his memory with those of family and friends), he can look slightly more dispassionately at events, but every now and then emotion does break through and it's more powerful for that. It's also a portrait of two strong, tenacious women, particularly his sister Linda who seems to have taken charge of the family from the age of 9 or 10. Compassion also comes over as a strong element in the book - Johnson is clear that he was protected from many of the worst things his family was experiencing by being the younger one, but he was obviously aware of, and outraged by, some of the racism experienced by a schoolfriend, and aware that at the time, however terrible things were at home, his friend had it worse.
This is a read-at-a-sitting sort of book; and you're left wondering how this junior postman (who at the end of the book has just married at 18 and become a father to his wife's small daughter) ended up in some of the top Cabinet posts in the 1990s and 2000s. I went to see Johnson discussing the book (very engagingly) at the Cambridge Literary Festival this morning, and happily there's a second volume in the works covering that period (due out in September, we're told...)
The scent of death, by Andrew Taylor. London: Harper, 2013.
Set during the American War of Independence. I'm currently listening to a podcast series on this, so it was a nice coincidence. Edward Savill, a civil servant, has been sent to New York from London to assess the claims of loyalists whose land has been seized and property destroyed during the war; he lodges with a former judge, his wife and their daughter whose husband has disappeared in the war. Taylor handles a complex plot with his usual skill, and really gives us a flavour of the period; and there are some truly terrifying moments in this.
The President's hat, by Antoine Laurain. London: Gallic Books, 2013.
This is a lovely whimsical little book. Daniel Mercier, treating himself to a meal at a posh Parisian restaurant, finds himself sitting on the next table to François Mitterand; when Mitterand leaves, Daniel finds the President's hat on the banquette next to him. When he puts on the hat, things start to change in his life... This is set in the mid-to-late 1980s, when I knew Paris best, and some of the details of life (Minitel, Jack Lang as Culture minister, les Grands Projets) brought many others flooding back.
Echo burning, by Lee Child. London: Bantam, 2001.
Jack Reacher wakes up to discover that the guy from last night's bar fight is a police officer; escaping from town, he's picked up by a beautiful woman. What seemed to be a lucky break turns out to be the beginning of entrapment in another dangerous web; the woman tells him her husband's in jail, and when he comes out he's going to kill her. I usually enjoy books from this series, but this one was genuinely difficult to put down - to the extent that I missed my Tube stop twice while reading it...
Never tell, by Alafair Burke [audiobook]. Read by Jennifer Woodward. Bath: Oakhill/Harper, [n.d.].
A 17-year-old girl is found in the bathtub of her family's Upper East Side apartment, apparently having slashed her wrists; there's a note, and the police initially write it off as suicide despite the insistence of the girl's parents. Meanwhile, the mother of one of the girl's friends is being harassed about comments she has made on her well-known blog. The plot twists and turns, but somehow never really lights up, and despite the reading being quite decent, it failed to hold my attention; I found myself skipping back a couple of tracks several times because I'd missed some detail of the plot.
And then the extra:
The October list, by Jeffrey Deaver [audiobook]. Read by Todd Boyce. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2013.
I don't normally review books/audiobooks I haven't finished; it seems unfair to the author. In this case though, I think readers who've been with this blog for any length of time know that I bloody love Jeffrey Deaver, but I couldn't deal with this one at all and want to warn people like me not to wait for months for (or pay to download) an audiobook they might not like! The premise is that each chapter is the prequel of the one before. I listened to one of the 6 disks and abandoned, I'm afraid; just not a way of reading I can get my head round. I'm not one of those people who likes to turn to the last page to find out whodunnit, and I like to read series in order; it just messed with my head way too much. I'm sure that if you do get on with that way of reading, this will be as excellent as many of Deaver's books... just warning those who read like I do.