What I’ve been reading lately, part 32

Popcorn — Ben Elton

More Elton, this one the story of a film director, clearly based on Quentin Tarantino, who makes very violent but very stylish films; and about two copycat killers who break into his Hollywood mansion and hold him hostage.

Again, fast-moving and compelling. Ironically, though, it falls into exactly the trap that it’s accusing Tarantino of falling into: making the mindless violence seem exciting and sexy. I would like to think that Elton did this deliberately, as a sort of meta-comment, but I’m not sure he’s that clever.

Destination Unknown — Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is much better known for her mysteries than her adventure novels, and this adventure novel is a fine explanation of that fact. Christie successfully sets up an interesting premise — a near-suicidal young woman persuaded by a security agency to take the place of a woman killed in a plane-crash, to try to discover how and why her husband defected to the Soviet bloc. But having set it up, she doesn’t really seem to know what to do it, so that the “adventure” lacks excitement, and eventually unwinds in an unsatisfying deus ex machina.

Gridlock — Ben Elton

Very early Elton — I think his second published novel after Stark — and one of the most unapologetically eco-conscious. In a blow struck for political correctness, our heroes are an inventor with cerebral palsy, a young American woman confined to a wheelchair by a reckless driver, and a black traffic warden. The bad guys are unscrupulous car manufacturers, cowardly Government minsters and machiavellian civil servants. All of this might sound terribly worthy and straight-faced; in fact, it’s very funny, and pretty exciting. Also brutal: not all of our heroes make it to the end alive, and the ending is legitimately tragic. This is good stuff.

Hickory Dickory Death — Agatha Christie

Poirot again, this time in a relatively workaday plot set in a students’ boarding house in London. Mysterious thefts and vandalism have left the housekeeper worried that something more serious might happen, so she calls in Poirot, who is her sister’s employer. As is so often the case, once Poirot arrives, people start dying — you start to wonder if it would be better just not to call him at all. Eventually, it resolves into rather a complex set of conspiracies that doesn’t ring particularly true.

At her best, Christie gives us mysteries where the solution, when finally unveiled, makes us think (at least) two things. First, something that we thought we understood turns out to have had a different meaning. And second, something that had been puzzling us since we first saw it finally clicks into place. More important, both of those things leave us thinking “Oh, yes, of course!” — feeling that we would have spotted the resolution if we’d been just a little bit cleverer. Sadly, Hickory Dickory Death didn’t leave me feeling this at all — just that I’d made my way through a linear narrative and reached the end in one piece.

Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You — Jonathan Wilson

By any measure, Clough was one of the all-time great football managers. To take over an unfancied second-division team and take them not just to promotion but to the top-division championship is a great achievement. To do it twice with two different teams (Derby and Nottingham Forest) is astonishing. And to then take the latter to two consecutive European cups — as many as Juventus, more than Chelsea — beggars belief. (And I write this as a Liverpool fan with no great love for Clough.)

Clough as an unorthodox but brilliant young manager.

Clough’s story is well trodden, but Wilson’s account is unusually detailed and poignant. He skips lightly over Clough’s childhood in Middlesbrough, with just enough detail to set the scene for his footballing career. From there to the end of the book is essentially a single chronological account of Clough’s career, season by season, first as a player, then as a manager.

There’s a lot to complain about in this book. At times it seems overly obsessed with the details of sequences of matches from (say) the 1960s — matches long forgotten and of no special significance even then. It never takes an extended detour to consider Clough’s unique psychology (though of course it’s touched on repeatedly). It seems not to take a breath at the key moments, rushing straight past Derby’s league championship and Forest’s first European Cup to get straight into the account of the next season. And Wilson has a bad habit of spoilering the unfolding story by casually referring ahead to key incidents before they happen.

But for all that, I found the book absolutely compelling and very difficult to put d0wn. Partly it’s because Clough’s story is just inherently fascinating: a classic tragedy in which a man of unique talents is brought down by his own arrogance. Partly I think it’s because of the very weaknesses I outlined above. By eschewing a history-eye perspective on Clough’s story, by simply relating it season by season, we get to live it much as people did as it was unfolding. There’s an integrity to that, and a gripping quality that no overview can ever offer.

Brian Clough as an older, less successful manager, after decades of arrogance and alcohol has had their effect.

Highly recommended for football fans, despite all the caveats.

How Not to Be a Boy — Rob Webb

I’d not heard of Rob Webb, and only realised part way through the book that he is the other half of Mitchell and Webb. In fact, I have no memory at all of how this ended up on my Kindle. Still, I enjoyed it. It’s a light-hearted autobiography with digressions into how performative masculinity — both his father’s and his own — has constrained and sometimes defined his life. Funny in places, sad in other, and well worth reading.

What Did You Think Of The New Doctor Who, Andrew? — Andrew Rilstone

Rilstone turns his gaze on Series 11 of Doctor Who. If you thought I was unenthusiastic, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This short book is not Rilstone’s best, because he dislikes the new series so much he doesn’t have much to say about it. (Several of the essays barely mention the episode they are nominally about.) Worth a read as always, but start with The Complete Viewer’s Tale.

How to be Right … in a World Gone Wrong — James O’Brien

O’Brien can be brilliant on the radio, where he is a talk-show host for LBC — a rare example of left-leaning presenter in an area very much dominated by clickbaity deniens of the right. He can sometimes wander over the line from rigorous questioning into actual bullying, which is always disappointing. But he’s at his best when he lets callers talk at length, then asks the forensic questions: why do you think that? What might change your mind? Where did you hear that factoid? Often, callers — particularly Brexit supporters, who O’Brien seems to specialise in — find themselves at a loss when asked such simple questions. Every now and then, one of them really does start to rethink.

So I was pleased to get O’Brien’s new book for Christmas, and to see how his style translates from radio to the written word. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I was going to. In the end, the best of O’Brien is the back-and-forth with callers, which means the best bits of the book are the transcripts from his radio show. When he’s writing in expository mode, he’s good, but not great.

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