THE JUNIOR OFFICERS’ READING CLUB: KILLING TIME AND FIGHTING WARS
By Patrick Hennessey
PATRICK HENNESSEY is a 27-year-old trainee barrister, who happens to have spent the past five years as an officer in the Grenadier Guards, fighting his way through the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan and – as the title of his book suggests – reading a few novels along the way. Having become the youngest captain in the British army, he returned to civvy street and knocked out this interesting memoir.
With his public school, Oxford and Sandhurst background, Hennessey is as traditional a British army stereotype as a booming cockney sergeant major. His insights on army life are rarely surprising, or even especially shocking, inasmuch as there’s probably little that could shock us now about the horrors of modern warfare. But it’s a highly detailed and involving look inside the modern military experience, from the bizarre otherworld of Sandhurst to the desert killing fields.
You get the sense Hennessey doesn’t think much of Sandhurst’s methods, where Hollywood war films are the predominant training tool (the famous opening scene of Gladiator demonstrates an exemplary use of fire support, in the shape of catapults). Out in the field of war, Hennessy and his fellow young officers founded the reading club of the title as a way of stifling the boredom that accounts for much of the soldiering life. The bouts of action in between are described with dispassionate vividness, and are situations you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy – even when your worst enemy is Terrence, or “Terry Taliban” as the army apparently calls its Afghan foes.
This is an exhaustively detailed account of modern warfare, and though the amount of military jargon, acronyms and weapons description may turn off those who aren’t the most ardent military nuts, there’s much else in it to keep the attention.
CITY OF THIEVES
By Cyrus Moore
CYRUS MOORE is the writing name of Cyrus Mewawalla, who was rated the number one telecoms analyst in the UK by Bloomberg in 2006, so if anybody should know the City, it’s him. He has put his experience to good use in this pot-boiling thriller about machinations and the possibility of honour in an environment where nobody else has any.
His knowledge is evident as he tells us the story of Niccolo (as in Machiavelli, presumably), a journalist who takes a job as an analyst. The tale is written with evident enthusiasm and lots of place, but there is too little distance – the details will baffle all but City insiders – and too little irony: I was unsure if character names like Dudley Rabinowitz were meant to be humorous. I fear they are intended as seriously as a company called Kloomberg.
The author is also manfully unafraid of cliche: one page gives us a man who “carried the weight of the world on his shoulders,” a building where “every room tells a story” and a trading floor that is “alive and kicking”. Later, a woman has “more curves than the Monte Carlo rally”. What is she? A snake? A doodle? Maybe she should get together with the man later who “looked like a train-wreck”.
Characters say such clunking things as: “We’re going to see some action, people” and: “My lawyer believes that I have a strong case for constructive dismissal”. Maybe I’m being unfair. If you want to get some sand between the pages of a plot-driven sub-Grisham thriller this summer, then this will do the job.
By Denis Johnson
JOHNSON’S previous novel Tree of Smoke was an epic, 600-plus pager about American involvement in Vietnam that hit all the buttons that signal Serious Literature, so it is something of surprise – and a relief – to see him follow it up with a slim little comedy in the style of a wittier Cormac McCarthy. Other influences are evident in the swaggering prose, namely the likes of Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, which will be just fine by many readers.
For all the noir-ish influences, we are in the bright sunlight of modern California here, following a gambler called Jimmy Luntz who has a run-in with a debtor who wants his money, but soon gets involved in a far bigger scam. The adventures come thick and fast, as do the wisecracking baddies and sexy, dangerous, kooky women.
This is a novel that fits snugly inside a genre and makes no claims to world-changing profundity (it was serialised in Playboy last year) but it is none the worse for that. If you want a quirky protagonist – Luntz sings in a barbershop quartet – smartypants dialogue and flashy descriptions, then this will do the job efficiently, and afford you plenty of smirks and sniggers along the way.