Books you have to read this October

James Walton

Wider tragedies affect the everyday lives of the heroes of these books in unexpected and nuanced ways…

Trio by William Boyd (Viking, £18.99)

Over his long career, William Boyd has written comic novels, thrillers, thoughtful character studies and fiction that ponders the 20th century’s great turning points. Now, with Trio, he combines all the above into a feast of storytelling crammed with delicious plots and subplots.

The setting is Brighton, 1968, where Talbot Kydd is producing a film starring the beautiful actress Anny Viklund. Completing the central trio is the director’s wife Elfrida Wing, once a successful author but these days boozing full-time. A screenwriter himself, Boyd makes very funny use of his insider knowledge of the many pitfalls involved in film-making. But we also follow the main characters, and several more, as they navigate a rapidly changing wider world. The cataclysmic political upheavals of 1968—Vietnam, the Paris uprising, Martin Luther King’s assassination—take place off-stage. Yet the social transformations they represent affect everybody. For most writers, all this might well be more than they could chew. Like the old pro he is, Boyd handles it with total aplomb, somehow keeping the pace both brisk and unhurried, as he heads towards a conclusion that binds the various threads together in a wholly satisfying way.

 

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Coronet, £20)

Graham Norton has been building a reputation not as celebrity author, but as a proper novelist in his own right. Home Stretch will surely boost it further.

Connor is a teenager in the small-town Ireland of the 1980s when the car he’s driving crashes, killing three passengers, among them a young couple due to be married the next day. Blamed for their deaths, Connor is forced to leave home. As the decades pass, and he moves to London and New York, his exile seems to be becoming permanent—not least because he’s gay, and afraid that his parents would never accept it.

Norton could presumably draw on his own experiences in making Connor’s painfully mixed feelings so convincing. But the novel proves equally assured in tackling plenty more besides, including his sister’s unhappy marriage and the continuing grief of the car-crash victims’ families. Meanwhile, Irish attitudes to homosexuality are changing—so might Connor be able to return? Occasionally perhaps, some of the characters’ behaviour feels a bit too shaped by the needs of the nicely twisting plot. Nonetheless, this is an accomplished novel—as well as an ultimately warm-hearted and touching one.

 

RD's recommended read

Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day by Captain Sir Tom Moore

Published by Michael Joseph at £20

As you’d expect, Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day begins and ends with the astonishing events of earlier this year, that saw its author elevated to official National Treasure status. In early April, recovering from a hip operation, Captain Tom Moore decided to attempt 100 sponsored laps of his family’s driveway before his 100th birthday on April 30. The hope was to raise £1,000 for the NHS. In the event, he raised £38.9 million—and his birthday was celebrated with a billboard in Piccadilly Circus, a fly-past by a Spitfire and a Hurricane and personal messages from the Prime Minister, the Queen and the UN Secretary-General. A couple of months later, he was knighted at Windsor Castle.

The book beautifully captures Captain Tom’s mixture of amazement and pride at what happened in 2020. But it’s just as lively and entertaining about the rest of a life that began when Lloyd George was PM. A product of the post-First World War baby boom, Tom grew up in Keighley, West Yorkshire. The family was comparatively well-off—he keenly remembers the excitement of getting a car in 1925—although the fact that his father was deaf still seems a source of sadness. In 1940, he was called up and sent to India to fight the Japanese: an experience he again describes with great vividness and that clearly remained central to him. (After the war, he organised his battalion’s annual reunion for 64 years, until he was the only one left.)

The book leaves us in no doubt, either, about Tom’s keenness for the ladies, several of whom he recalls fondly. He was also married twice. His first marriage, which he writes about with raw honesty, was increasingly miserable; his second, to Pamela, much happier. When she died in 2006 (see sidebar), he moved in with his daughter Hannah’s family, but continued to travel abroad—including back to India—until his late nineties, before “a silly fall” led first to immobility and then to worldwide fame.

 “With our orders changing frequently, I found myself in a tented camp with 40 or so men deep in the jungle about three miles from Chittagong. It was a spartan place with very few creature comforts but, for a while, it was home. One sticky afternoon, a charming young Englishwoman appeared in our midst out of nowhere, like some sort of vision. All smiles, she pushed her way through the bush on foot, and was quite a sight to see. Everyone snapped to attention immediately and hurried over to say hello to the first British woman we’d seen in months. We also wanted to find out what on earth she was doing there. We quickly learned that she was part of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) whose job it was to raise the spirits of service personnel. Their random concerts and camp sing-alongs were something we were growing accustomed to, and we’d already been visited in previous camps by the comedic singer Stainless Stephen from Sheffield (wearing a waistcoat made of Sheffield steel), as well as the British comedy duo and BBC radio stars Elsie and Doris Waters.

But the appearance of this young lady who was about the same age as me was very different—not least because Lord Louis Mountbatten was accompanying her. Their arrival attracted a great deal of attention, but several of us still didn’t have a clue who she was. ‘It’s Vera Lynn!’ someone said. ‘You know, the one who sings “We’ll Meet Again”’. Although I was familiar with the tune, which came out soon after war was declared, I’d never registered the singer’s name before or knew that the Daily Express had dubbed her the ‘Forces Sweetheart’.

Not that it mattered. We were all just happy to see her, whoever she was. Miss Lynn chatted sweetly to the men and offered to sign anything from shirts to hats. She then sang us a little song or two, completely unaccompanied, including ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which resounded magically through that sorry little excuse for a camp and raised our spirits enormously. This blonde-haired, blue-eyed angel from back home helped us feel that we weren’t so far from those we loved. I will never forget what she did or the fact that she wasn’t at all precious about being there. I had to admire her for that. Mountbatten was pleasant enough and I noted that there were a few other top brass accompanying Miss Lynn—lucky devils. I can remember thinking to myself, You see, Tom—only the top people get 
the top jobs.

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