Books you have to read this August

James Walton

Whether you’re after chills and thrills, a profound musing on life or love, lust and scandal we’ve got you covered with this month’s books

Knife Edge by Simon Mayo (Doubleday, £12.99)

Knife Edge begins with a poignant reminder of the old normal, as London commuters make their way through the morning rush hour. Half an hour later, seven of them have been murdered across the city—but not randomly, because all seven worked on the investigations team at the International Press Service (IPS). This fast-paced start is then followed by a fast-paced middle and a fast-paced climax.

The plot, in fact, rattles along at such a thrilling lick that it takes a while to notice how skilfully Mayo is doing the less flashy stuff too. Main character Famie—an IPS journalist herself—is a richly drawn as well as highly appealing heroine. There’s a strong supporting cast of assorted friends, allies and enemies. Above all—and perhaps not surprisingly for someone who talks for a living—Mayo proves unfailingly good at dialogue.

Once the book’s over, admittedly, you might find some spoilsport part of yourself wondering if everything was quite as plausible as it seemed when you were excitedly turning the pages. Yet, in a way, that only confirms what an overwhelmingly powerful spell Knife Edge casts while you’re reading it.

 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Canongate, £16.99)

Matt Haig has previously written several novels with strange and intriguing central concepts. He’s also produced two books about coping with depression. In The Midnight Library, he brilliantly combines both things.

Aged 35, Nora has come to believe that every decision she’s ever made has been a disaster. Having once been a promising swimmer, musician and philosophy student, she’s now completely adrift: jobless, friendless and without hope. And so, after writing a suicide note addressed to “whoever”, she takes an overdose and waits to die.

Instead, though, she wakes in a vast, mysterious library containing an infinite number of books, each of which depicts—and allows her to enter—a version of her life as it would have been if she’d chosen differently at any given moment. And she can try out as many as she likes until she finds one that suits her.

The lessons Nora learns are perhaps not startling in themselves: the importance of love, say, and of counting your blessings. Nonetheless, Haig’s combination of ingenious story-telling and all-round decency doesn’t just provide a highly satisfying read. It really does make you think about what makes for a life well lived.

 

Recommended read

The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication by Alexander Larman 

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20

“I have found it impossible to… discharge my duties as King… without the help and support of the woman I love.” These words, spoken by Edward VIII in a radio broadcast announcing his abdication on December 11, 1936, are among the most famous in British royal history. How he came to speak them has remained a subject of fascination ever since.

Edward met Wallis Simpson in 1931, when he was Prince of Wales and she was married to her second husband, Ernest. The two were introduced by Edward’s then-mistress Thelma Burgess, who three years later made the mistake of asking her old friend Wallis to look after the prince while she was away in the US. When Thelma returned, she realised Wallis “had looked after him exceedingly well”.

Although the British press stayed unusually silent, the affair was soon well-known within London society. Even so, Edward flatly denied it to his father, George V. George’s death in January 1936 then precipitated a full-blown constitutional crisis.

In this absorbing new book, Alexander Larman takes us through the whole, tangled story with great clarity. Opposing the king’s choice of a twice-divorced American wife was most of the British establishment. His supporters included the backbencher Winston Churchill, who helped him write that abdication broadcast.

Oddly, one of the people who didn’t think the king should marry Wallis Simpson was, it seems, Wallis Simpson. Once the choice comes down to abdication or marriage, Larman makes it strikingly clear how badly she wanted out—on one occasion only going back to Edward when he threatened suicide.

As late as December 9, she made one last escape attempt—when her divorce lawyer Theodore Goddard flew to Cannes where she was holed up with Perry Brownlow, the king’s lord-in-waiting…

"“Goddard later described her as being ‘in a most terrified state of nerves’, and desiring ‘complete capitulation [and] willingness to do anything’. He attempted to persuade her to withdraw the divorce action, which would immediately resolve the crisis, as it would mean that Edward could no longer marry her. Wallis was surprisingly keen to help. She told him that ‘I will do anything within my power to keep the King on the throne’, to which a relieved Goddard replied, ‘That is what I was sure you would say.’ Wallis later considered that ‘His expression was that of a man conscious of playing a crucial and successful role in a historical situation.’ It helped his case that he tactfully pointed out the weight of public opinion against her, and ‘a number of other disadvantages attendant upon pursuing the other courses open to her if she rejected his advice’.

One salient fact that may have assisted her desire to stop Edward from abdicating was that, as a leading civil servant silkily described it, ‘Perhaps it had not been made sufficiently plain to the King and to Mrs Simpson that, if the King were to affront public opinion by abdicating, it was very doubtful whether Parliament would be prepared to grant money to the King after he had gone. It was thought that a hint of this position ought to be conveyed to the King and Mrs Simpson.’ The last thing the financially conscious Wallis wanted was to be in thrall to a penniless, bitter former monarch.

Brownlow was summoned for his advice, and played devil’s advocate. He doubted whether there was time to stop the king from abdicating, or if he would accept Wallis’s decision. As he argued, ‘For you to scrap your divorce will produce a hopeless anti-climax and an all-round tragedy.’ Yet Wallis felt it incumbent on her to attempt to avert disaster. Brownlow thus composed a short, tragic note saying, ‘With the deepest personal sorrow, Mrs Simpson wishes to announce that she has abandoned any intention of marrying His Majesty’, which she then signed.

It was time to call Edward, and tell him of her intentions. The line, as usual, was dreadful. With Goddard by her side, Wallis informed her lover that she was about to begin proceedings to withdraw her divorce petition, and that this was her heartfelt wish. Edward replied, calmly, ‘It’s too late. The abdication documents are already being drawn up. The Cabinet is meeting this very moment to act upon them. I have given them my final word. I will be gone from England within 48 hours.’ His next words told Wallis, if she did not already know, the manner of man she was dealing with, and would find herself associated with for the rest of her life. ‘Of course, you can do whatever you wish. You can go wherever you want—to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.’ "

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