Dr No, By Ian Fleming A History of English Food, By Clarissa Dickson Wright; Damned, By Chuck Palahniuk; None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, By Joshua E S Phillips; Do Me No Harm, By Julie Corbin

Paperback review of the week

David Evans
Saturday 06 October 2012 18:11

Dr No, By Ian Fleming (Vintage £7.99)

Dr No, reissued here as part of Vintage's "Classics" series, was the sixth of Ian Fleming's Bond thrillers, but the first Bond film, released 50 years ago this weekend. The story may be familiar from Terence Young's fairly faithful film adaptation: agent 007, dispatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow MI6 operative, discovers the secret base of a dastardly billionaire who is intent on selling missile technology to the Russians. It won't spoil things to reveal that in the end Bond kills the baddie and gets the girl.

The novel, first published in 1958, is typical of the series: a shaken cocktail of sex and macho violence. Fleming both reflects and accepts the prejudices of his time (women and black men are depicted as naive, childlike creatures), and his plot, which concludes with Bond battling a giant squid, is simply preposterous. Any pleasure to be found here is definitely of the guilty variety.

And yet, there are signs that Fleming had higher ambitions for his novel, and it is not entirely devoid of nuance. He lends Bond some vulnerability, as when the supposedly fearless agent pauses before downing another rum soda – "What was he drinking for? Because he was going into the unknown? Because of Dr No?" – and at times, the workmanlike prose reaches toward lyricism: "Small waves curled lazily across the mirrored water."

At such moments, you can feel the author struggling to escape the constraints of genre fiction, much as Bond might wriggle in a villain's trap. Unlike his dashing hero, however, Fleming never quite manages to break free.

A History of English Food, By Clarissa Dickson Wright (Arrow £9.99)

Clarissa Dickson Wright's deliciously rich and moreish book surveys the development of English eating habits, from medieval bacon dishes to the fish and chips of Victorian London, via the spicy imports of the Elizabethan age. She quotes from contemporary cookbooks and literary sources to give a sense of each era's favourites, and offers versions of historical recipes for readers to reproduce.

Dickson Wright puts herself fully in the book, drawing on a lifetime's experience in food. What might have been a dry academic exercise is enlivened by her eccentric, opinionated interjections (if you can ignore the slightly snobbish tone). She seems to have sampled everything, from badger to lamprey to swan – but not all of it is to her taste: "Seal, I should tell you, is disgusting."

Damned, By Chuck Palahniuk (Vintage £7.99)

After she dies of a "marijuana overdose", 13-year-old Madison finds herself condemned to the underworld. She refuses to moan – "complaining about Hell strikes me as a tad obvious and self-indulgent" – and sets about making the afterlife a bit more bearable.

Damned starts brilliantly, offering a satirical vision of Hell as a realm of mundane horrors, a place where the dead operate call centres and are forced to watch The English Patient on a perpetual loop.

But Palahniuk soon runs out of ideas, and compensates by layering on evermore grotesque imagery ("a roiling river of hot saliva"; "a swamp of partial-birth abortions"). Reading it is like watching a stand-up comedian steadily lose the room, as guffaws dwindle to awkward chuckles. By the end, things have got seriously weird, and no one's laughing.

None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, By Joshua E S Phillips (Verso £9.99)

Drawing on extensive interviews with soldiers, Joshua Phillips examines the use of torture by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its effects upon both the victims and the perpetrators.

Phillips argues persuasively that widespread prisoner abuse, while not always official policy, has been enabled by the wilful blindness of senior military figures, and shows that torture is not just a moral outrage, but also a self-defeating practice that exacts a huge psychological toll on those who inflict it.

One of the more unsettling aspects of all this is the warping of language by those in power. Captives become "detainees", kidnapping is "rendition" and violent torture, "enhanced coercive interrogation". Phillips' razor-sharp book cuts into such euphemisms to reveal the ugly truths they disguise.

Do Me No Harm, By Julie Corbin (Hodder & Stoughton £7.99)

At the centre of Julie Corbin's third novel is Olivia Somers, a middle-aged GP who once took a vow to do no harm to others. When her son has his drink spiked, Olivia puts it down to an accident. However, she soon realises that it is only the first act in a campaign of vengeance waged by a figure from her past. With her children under threat, she is forced to reconsider her doctor's oath.

The book has its flaws: the conceit of voicing the narrator's conscience through italics falls flat, and a romantic sub-plot never takes off. But the relationship between Olivia and her family is sensitively drawn, and the taut plot is full of well-timed twists. A solid psychological thriller.

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