A light comedy with dark intentions

Jonathan Cape, £18.99
by Zoe Strimpel

THOSE who read 2005’s disappointing Saturday may have felt that Ian McEwan had forfeited his right to tackle major political issues of the day ever again. The protagonist's endless weighing up of the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War came across as irksome, clunky and behind-the-times.

However with Solar, McEwan has not only seized a big topic of the day in a manner both rigorous and gripping, he has also shown himself to be capable of withering parody that makes you cringe and laugh in equal measure.
At the core of Solar, best described as a tragicomedy, is Michael Beard, a balding, fat, philandering, self-obsessed, middle-aged Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist. McEwan’s own distaste for his repellent genius is evident in the way he refers to him as “Beard” throughout, and more than necessary. “Beard” did this, “Beard” decided that, “Beard” thought this. The result is grating, comic, and a scornful reminder of the type of low-life, amoral, crisp-guzzling, triple-chinned creature on hand.

Yet Beard is a brilliant low-life, and women love him. One of the least believable aspects of the book is that Beard marries five women and lives with a sixth – all beautiful, all doting (bar one). McEwan says there is a “class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.” This is the opening of the book – read on for a fuller expose of the vile Beard and discover that either McEwan is touchingly disillusioned about the existence of such a type (Beard isn’t even “rich”) or he’s hiding some attractive quality in the man.

The story kicks off with a mid-life crisis of sorts, in the year 2000. Beard’s most beautiful wife to date, Patrice, is playing him at his own game and conducting an affair (he’s had 13 throughout their short marriage). Beard’s career is stagnant – since the youthful burst of genius that won him the Prize, he’s been coasting through academia. But then, a freak accident brings him a chance for change, a chance not only to reinvigorate his career, but to save the world through inventing a new kind of solar energy, and to get the credit for doing so. Yet while Beard has the glorious future all worked out in his head, the ticking time bomb of the past – not to mention reality – has other ideas.

There’s quite a lot of science in this book – a breakthrough manipulation of photosynthesis is integral to the story. Yet written in McEwan’s masterful prose, even this becomes more than readable (dare I say interesting?). It’s a deeply clever book, and just as enjoyable.

Penguin, £6.99
by Zoe Strimpel

David Yelland edited the Sun from 1998 to 2003, and – as he recently movingly confessed – he was drunk every single day of it. That Yelland functioned well enough to edit Britain’s best-selling daily paper even while drinking up to four bottles of Chardonnay a day is astonishing. That he came a hair’s breadth away from death and having his son taken from him, less so.

And so his book, The Truth About Leo, comes as a stark warning to would-be alcoholics, and a comfort to children bewildered by this scary, incomprehensible addiction of their elders. It isn’t technically an autobiography, it is a children’s book, and one Yelland wished he had read before it was too late. “Millions of people have died because they have been unable to find recovery,” he declared. “I found it when I was 42 but if I had read about it as a child then I might have been able to find it tragically at 32 or even 22.”

The story is told from the perspective of Leo, whose father Tom, a GP, drinks to deal with grief at the death of his wife two years earlier (Yelland’s own wife Tania died of breast cancer in 2006, his last drop was in 2005).

They engage in nightly battles to hide the vodka bottles, but Tom becomes vicious towards his son when he can’t find them. “It had happened again. Dad had shouted and yelled, thrown things and smashed things up. And then he had quietly cleaned everything away.”

Categorised as a children’s book, this has more than enough poignancy to satisfy even the most sophisticated adult. It is, after all, about grief, loss, love and the self-sabotage that unravels lives.

Bantam, £18.99
by Kathleen Brooks

There were rumours abroad that Reacher, Child’s ex-military superman hero, was tiring, and perhaps soon to be retired. But here he is again, in top form, just as sharp, brave, muscle-bound and irresistible to women.

The 14th Reacher book kicks off with the hero asleep on a luxury coach full of senior citizens, somewhere in snowbound South Dakota. He’s woken from his slumbers when the bus crashes. Now he’s stranded in a prairie with nothing – not even a warm coat. But it isn’t long until he is co-opted by the local police to help with security at a new local prison, and to fight a deadly meth dealer operating from Mexico, whose gang is based in the town. A drug dealer is in prison, facing trial, and the key witness is under police protection – Reacher’s task is to keep the witness safe. There are 61 hours to a major event, though it’s not clear what that is for a good while.

Suffice it to say, “Olympic-standard flirt” Reacher dispatches his enemies – often unarmed – with supernatural brilliance and muscles the size of boulders. There are all the tense battle scenes one could hope for, and with all the grit you expect from a good American drug-busting police thriller. One thing we know is this: Reacher is not finished yet, as the “to be continued” at the end implies. Now the only challenge is sitting tight until the next instalment. If 61 Hours is evidence of Child’s current form, we’re in for a treat.