My brilliant friend, by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2012.
Elena and Lila are growing up in a suburb of 1950s Naples, in a neighbourhood where violence is commonplace and the Camorra are always hovering in the background. Lila is a wild, fierce child, forever in scrapes, but brilliantly intelligent. Elena, although also extremely academically talented, is in her shadow. Elena is able to pursue her education past middle school; Lila leaves at 14 and joins her father's shoemaking business. This is the first book of 4; and while it was enjoyable enough, and the atmosphere is conveyed well, my book group all agreed that we had a great deal of difficulty liking any of the characters all that much. The book is roughly chopped off without resolving the cliffhanger the author gives us at the beginning, leading to a slightly cheated feeling on the part of the reader...
The racer: life on the road as a pro cyclist, by David Millar. London: Yellow Jersey, 2015.
This is a wonderful book. Millar takes us through the last year of his career as a member of the pro péloton, with all its ups and downs. Mainly downs, to be honest, but he's never self-pitying. On the way, he talks about early-in-the-year training (in a chapter called Welcome to the Suck which starts I fucking hate January), the Flanders classics, the Ardennes classics, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Dauphiné, the gutting experience of being dropped by his team four days before the start of what would have been his last Tour de France, the Commonwealth Games, the Vuelta and the World Championships, the last two of which he raced with two broken fingers. It's a brilliantly entertaining, often scatological, corruscatingly honest account you can almost hear Millar reading to you. On the front and back cover he explains that I want to write something else, a book that years from now my children will read and see what it was like, that their dad actually did all those years ago, the racer he was. But not only that, I want my friends from this generation to have something that will remind us of who we were. There was more to it than doping. We lived on the road because we loved to race. He succeeds on all counts. Chapeau.
Test of wills, by Charles Todd. Read by Samuel Gillies. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 1999.
Ian Rutledge has returned to Scotland Yard after the First World War; accompanied by the constant voice in his head of Hamish, a man he had executed by firing squad for refusing to fight. A malicious colleague sends Rutledge out into the shires to investigate the murder of a former officer who was found with his head blown off. One of the main suspects is a shellshocked man, and Rutledge wonders who at the Yard has it in for him. Nevertheless, he investigates, and discovers a web of secrets, and some thoroughly unreliable witnesses. First in a series I'll be following up on.
My dining hell: twenty ways to have a lousy night out, by Jay Rayner. London: Penguin, 2012 (ebook), 2015 (print).
I think if I'd realised what a slim little volume this was (72 pp), I'd have bought the e-book, or forgone it altogether. It's a compendium of 20 of Rayner's more disaffected reviews of bad restaurants, with a bit of an introduction. While I love Rayner's turn of phrase: The twist in 'Julian's Vegetable Lasagne' was that it didn't contain pasta. Instead, it was a dense block of finely mandolined root vegetables that tasted mostly of salt and pepper and effortless regret - I also respect him as an accomplished novelist and a very entertaining writer about food beyond the reviews. I picked this up as an accompaniment to the Food commandments book he's just released, probably didn't read the blurb carefully enough, and so my disenchantment with this book might be my own fault. I still don't quite understand why Penguin thought it important enough to publish in print edition though. If anyone would like to read it, do drop me a line with some way to contact you, and I'll stick it in the post.
The soul of discretion, by Susan Hill. London: Vintage, 2015.
This is an excellent book. Don't get me wrong, it's back to form after a couple of slightly luke-warm books in this series. Simon Serrailler is sent under cover to try to trap the leaders of a paedophile ring; while continuing to be a complete git to his girlfriend who's just moved in. Meanwhile, his father's being accused of rape in the loos during a Rotary Club function. The plot is tight; the relationships are as sharply observed as ever and the finale is absolutely gripping. And then you go to the author's website, and find that although she's left at least three cliffhangers, she has no plan to write another Serrailler novel... and it all feels a bit futile.