Paperback reviews: Ammonites and Leaping Fish, Police, Life At The Speed of Light, The Fateful Year: England 1914, Love, Love Me Do


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The Independent Culture

Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively (Penguin £9.99)

In this beautifully-written view from old age, Penelope Lively looks back over her 80-year life, from her childhood in wartime Cairo to her present life in a house in an Islington square. It’s not a full-blown autobiography – indeed it is a million miles away from the narcissism of most autobiographies – but a selection of memories and reflections, divided into five sections. The first, “Old Age”, provides dispatches from the frontline – what it’s like to be old, with its limitations and consolations, and the way fascination with the changing world continues even as engagement with it lessens. “Life and Times” is the section most similar to a conventional memoir, as she records highlights from an eventful and well-lived life – but even here, Lively is as interested in other people as in herself, and always wants to generalise outwards from her own experience. “Memory” is a meditation on the capriciousness of memories – why do some memories stick and others don’t, and how is a child’s memory different from an adult’s? “Reading and Writing” is, with typical self-effacement, more about the books she has loved than her own illustrious writing career. She’s particularly interesting on the way one’s tastes change as a reader: she once enjoyed Barbara Pym, but can’t abide her now, and used to be unable to read Lawrence Durrell but now finds him alluring. The final section, “Six Things”, focuses on six treasured possessions, including fossilised ammonites, and a 12th-century Egyptian potsherd with a design of leaping fish, which evoke a sense of deep time, and human history, respectively. A wise book about how wonderful it is to be alive in the world – and a valuable handbook to take along with one into old age.


Police by Jo Nesbo (Vintage £7)

Police is a complicated, fast-moving thriller, deploying multiple viewpoints, numerous interwoven plotlines, and a surfeit of sadistic killings. The story begins with the brutal murder of a cop, at the scene of an unsolved crime that he investigated years before. Thus the pattern is set: every 50 pages or so, another police officer is killed on the site of an unsolved case. The Oslo police are baffled – the only person who could help them is the legendary Harry Hole, but Hole has retired from police work and promised his wife and stepson he’ll never return to it. Of course, he has to be coaxed out of retirement, and by around page 200 is on the case. It’s a skilfully put-together thriller, and although it’s more than 600 pages long I read it in two days. The ending contains a nasty twist which seems to have been put in solely to distress the reader. I sometimes wonder what future generations will make of the fact that so many of us enjoyed reading abut psychopathic murderers and their disgusting crimes.


Life at the Speed of Light by J Craig Venter (Abacus £9.99)

J Craig Venter is one of the most talented and influential scientists at work today, whose laboratory sequenced the human genome, and who recently synthesised a bacterial genome and inserted it into an empty cell, which then came to life and reproduced. This book is part history of science, partly a proud account of his own achievements, and partly visionary speculation about what the field of synthetic biology can achieve – the rapid development of new vaccines, for example. The sense of being on the verge of world-changing breakthroughs is inspiring – yet there is a great deal of technical terminology which is not easy for the lay reader to digest. J Craig Venter may be a great scientists, but he is not a great writer.


The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge (Penguin £9.99)

Mark Bostridge has chosen his period astutely. The decision to focus on the year 1914 in England lends the earlier events of that year a poignant sense of dramatic irony. A notorious murder, Asquith’s clandestine relationship with Venetia Stanley, the Home Rule Bill’s tempestuous passage through Parliament, and violent protests by Suffragettes are all eclipsed by the world-changing declaration of war in August. The final part of the book is the familiar history of war fever, jingoism, white feathers, atrocity stories and tragic loss of life – yet now it feels less like familiar history, but the events of a real place and time. Bostridge also busts a few myths along the way: nobody thought it would all be over by Christmas.


Love, Love me do by Mark Haysom (Piatkus £7.99)

A young boy, living in a caravan with his mother and sister. An amnesiac hermit who appoints himself their guardian angel. The mother at her wits’ end from being semi-abandoned by her husband. The husband, charming, philandering, bad-tempered, selfish. A hard-man enforcer on the streets of Brighton, with his own code of ethics. These are the dramatis personae of Haysom’s skilful debut novel, and the reader becomes caught up in the story of each one by turns. A convincing evocation of 1960s Britain, and a highly readable novel with a warm heart, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Norman Collins or J B Priestley. Haysom has left the way open for a sequel, too, and anyone who has read this will want to read that.