A sorry tale for our times
THE TERRIBLE PRIVACY OF MAXWELL SIM
BY JONATHAN COE
by Zoe Strimpel
JONATHAN COE represents the pinnacle of British picaresque – his iconic novel about 80s Britain, What a Carve Up, hilariously and tragically skewered the stereotypes of the time while developing a narrator who is impossible not to care for even as you pity or despise him.
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is on a par with that book: a barely believable (and often not at all credible) series of coincidences and fantastically odd situations converges on our narrator, Maxwell Sim, of Watford, who is as sad as he is boring.
On his way back from a failed bonding visit with his father in Australia, the recently single Sim meets a lovely girl in Singapore Airport: Poppy. He is delighted to discover a genuine spark with someone, a woman no less, and they stay in touch. Poppy introduces him to the story of Donald Crowhurst, a real-life adventurer who – on realising that he couldn’t complete his 1969 round-the-world sailing challenge alone — meticulously faked his log-books, became overtaken by loneliness and, ultimately, suicidal.
Meanwhile, Sim accepts a bizarre marketing gig selling toothbrushes in the Shetlands. As he reaches the farthest end of the country, he becomes obsessed with Crowhurst’s story, identifying his loneliness and impotence with the other man’s tragic failure.
Coe is a master of running comedic circles around real psychological drama. The shock ending of this book is an electrocuting jolt to close a clever, sad and often deeply funny novel.
HOW MEDIOCRITY RUINED THIS GREAT NATION
BY QUENTIN LETTS
by Alex Deane
THE DAILY Mail has a hard time of it. People are judged for reading it and judged for writing it. Yet I generally find it both powerful and sympathetic. Others, to put it mildly, disagree. If you like the Mail, you’ll like this book; if you don’t, you won’t.
Letts, a longstanding Mail columnist, has written a companion volume to his earlier book, “50 People Who Buggered Up Britain”. As with its predecessor, Bog-Standard Britain delivers on the promise of its title.
This is a tremendously angry book, written with vim and vigour. Parts are best read aloud, so as best to squeeze the wrath from each paragraph’s inevitable rhetorical question. If it doesn’t flow much, sometimes moving clunkily from one chapter to the next without appreciable connection, it’s to be expected from a past master at turning in weekly vituperative columns.
The usual suspects are here – the equality agenda, political correctness, health and safety, the EU, “modern art”, Jonathan Ross and all he stands for. Each is enjoyably drubbed in turn. At his best, when his forensic attention is turned to demolishing a specific aspect of modern British society, there is no-one better than Letts. The three pages he devotes to the irritations of unnecessary railway announcements are gloriously spot-on and can stand as the final word on the subject.
The Mail speaks for a segment of our society who feel left aside in their own country. Letts is the champion of that cause, and this book is the apotheosis of that thinking. It will and deserves to sell well. Alex Deane is a barrister and the director of Big Brother Watch think tank.
BY BOB SHEPHERD
Simon & Schuster, £12.99
by Zoe Strimpel
THE INFIDEL opens in Kabul in 2008 with a British foreign correspondent staring at an empty computer screen.
From this high-tempo, current setting unfolds a compulsive war thriller. Author Bob Shepherd is a security advisor and a former SAS soldier, and he knows his subject inside and out: The Infidel’s gritty details speak volumes and its plot is tight. Just as you’d expect of an elite air force man like Shepherd.
Shepherd casts himself rather transparently in the story. When Islamic militants infiltrate an elite British counter-narcotics programme, disaster is averted thanks to ex-SAS soldier John Patterson (ahem) and Dusty Miller. But when fallout from the affair threatens to topple the West’s fragile Afghan alliance and expose failings inside the UK’s new crime fighting agency, John and Dusty suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and on the run.
One place only holds the key to clearing their names: Nuristan, a remote Afghan province and notorious haven. But their journey to freedom will thrust them deeper into the Afghan conflict than they ever imagined. Battling hostile terrain and Islamic fighters, John and Dusty emerge as the unlikely champions of an ancient community torn apart by Al Qaeda and western forces.
Gripped? You will be.