Pullman pulls off Jesus triumph

Canongate, £16.99

by Joanna Elias

A book about Jesus? Risky business. The son of God has inspired libraries of works on the quest for his true historical life. Geza Vermes’ controversial Jesus the Jew, which takes Jesus back to his Jewish roots, proved JC is a tough nut to crack. Norman Mailer’s The Gospel according to the Son shocked readers with its no-frills, psychological portrait of Jesus as a self-hating egomaniac. Then we get the “scoop” on Jesus’s private life – the bestselling DaVinci Code, which can be summarised as: Jesus has descendants who can heal (mainly migraines) and so probably wasn’t the son of God.

Now Pullman throws his Costa Award-winning hat into the ring. His addictive brand of fantasy fiction is adored by millions and is used to ingenious, surprising effect here. Pullman divides his Jesus into twin brothers. Jesus abandons carpentry to become the figurehead we all know. His brother Christ instead decides to plan world dominion.

Pullman’s Jesus is about moral teachings and motivational charisma but the famous miracles are reduced to Derren Brown-style antics. Pullman displays a fidelity to older Jesus tales rather than the colourful ones in John’s Gospel (which bears some resemblance to the fantasy genre itself). We don’t get a whiff of father + son = God stuff from this Jesus.

Christ, our villain, has a shadowy sponsor (a Grand Inquisitor-type and sinister architect of the Church), who persuades him to write a fabricated history of his brother’s career (the Gospels). Christ then betrays his brother and goes on to pose as his Jesus to propagate the Resurrection myth.

Pullman offers the reader a myth about the historical Jesus that is both readable and compelling. The coarse style mimics the New Testament and exudes authenticity; meanwhile Pullman uses the fantasy genre to maximum effect. This clever work retells this oldest of stories with derring-do and panache, exposing organised religion and making the current corruption in the Catholic church all the more poignant.

Hodder, £16.99

by Zoe Strimpel

WHEN super-columnist and compulsively readable restaurant critic Giles Coren wrote an angry email in 2008 to his subeditors at the Times for changing a word in the payoff line of one of his reviews, shocks were felt round the cyber-world. “There is no length issue,” fumed Coren in relation to the deleted “a”. “This is someone thinking ‘I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate c**t and i know best’. Well, you f**ing don’t”.

This isn’t the only supremely, belief-beggaringly indignant email Coren has fired off to colleagues and associates, much to public delight. Other victims include different subeditors and his rival critic at the now-defunct thelondonpaper.

Clearly, Coren is an angry, angry man with lots of pet peeves, far more than can be confined to sloppy copy editing. Enter an anger management book that doesn’t work quite how it sounds. Basically, Coren vents and you, the reader, feel exhausted just reading it. How, after reading his blistering chapter on, say, The Boat Race, or indeed rants on “travel”, “fat people”, “curry”, “ringtones” and “quiz shows”, can you ever get annoyed by any of these again? Guardian writer Polly Toynbee gets a two-page chapter of her own. So do “cheap Britain”, “adverts” the magazines Monocle and GQ, “mates” and “processed ham”.

Of course, the result of this exercise is two-fold: Coren gets to do what he does best – toot the horn of his blazing wit and linguistic skill, best exercised in relation to himself – and we realise there’s scope for irritation about things we’d never even considered before.

Coren fans will devour these short bursts of vitriol – it’s his classic and best prose. Some will roll their eyes at his narcissism but let’s face it, if there’s one writer who can pull off a stunt like this, it’s Mr Coren.

Bantam, £18.99

by Jeremy Hazlehurst

ANDY McNab’s Bravo Two Zero, about his adventures in the first Gulf War rebooted the war memoir. Since then, he has written three more non-fiction books, and this is his thirteenth novel.

But if you are expecting another tale of flying bullets and grace under fire, you will be disappointed by this odd – and oddly affecting – book. While McNab’s previous work has included tomes entitled Exit Wound, Recoil and Crossfire, and were all about heroics and violence, War Torn is as much about the effect of war on soldiers and their families as it is about firefights in Helmand Province.

Parts of the book deal with the lives of the wives back at the soldiers’ digs in Wiltshire, which makes it an unusual war novel, to say the least. It is apparently being adapted for television, so perhaps a need to appeal to a wider audience lies behind the decision to write on two fronts, as it were. Whatever lies behind it, the effect is striking.

The war scenes are also more subtle than you might expect, powerfully evoking the horror of travelling through countryside knowing that you could be killed by a bomb you never saw. Fear is the abiding emotion of the soldiers in action, and their heroism is like a sacrifice, far from the “death-or-glory” mentality so beloved of war films.

War Torn is a poignant read. The last passage has one of the soldiers, “his new baby named after his dead friend in his arms”, looking at his colleagues and imagining the words on everybody’s lips are: “You’ve changed, you’ve changed, you’ve changed.”

Disturbing, and touching.