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5 December 2011

This Week I've Been Mostly Reading...

...books whose titles begin with the definite article. I keep a to-read list in Evernote, which I update every time I hear about a book I think I will like. The list tends to stay the same size, as a lot of these books turn out to be published in the US and I feel bad about constantly making my library order books that aren't published in the UK. Yes, I could also buy the books but a) I read too much to afford to buy all the books I read and b) I have limited shelf space and so only have room for books I think I will read again. Anyway, here are four of my most recent reads:

1. The Litigators
I got into John Grisham when I was about 13 when I saved up tokens from the Daily Torygraph to obtain a free copy of The Pelican Brief and, around the same time, when we watched A Time To Kill on my school bus. Since then, I've enjoyed most of his books, especially the ones whose titles begin with the definite article. Sure, they are quite formulaic and sure, the writing is sometimes sloppy but Grisham spins a good yarn and before there was The Good Wife, his books were the main source of my secret cravings of a career in the law. More recently, the books have been a bit hit and miss and The Litigators harks back to some of the books from Grisham's golden age, like The Street Lawyer and The King of Torts.

The plot is as follows: a cop-turned-lawyer and an ambulance-chaser run a "boutique" law firm. Meanwhile, a young Harvard Law grad can't face another 14-hour day at one of Chicago's biggest law firms and, after a long interlude in a bar, stumbles into the boutique law firms offices. Together they try to win a mass tort case against a drug company that may have a dodgy drug. The case is dodgy and the two older lawyers are dodgy but the young Harvard lad is resourceful and sympathetic, almost to the point of being a Mary Sue. David vs Goliath is hardly unusual for Grisham and there was plenty of silliness and caricature in The Litigators but, as ever, I found myself enjoying it nonetheless.

2. The Deadly Touch of the Tigress
The Guardian's mini-review of Ian Hamilton's book wasn't exactly glowing and was fairly dismissive of the comparisons made on the back cover to Steig Larsson's Lisbeth Salander, but I liked the sound of The Deadly Touch of the Tigress. At the point I ordered it from the library, I'd been ploughing through several non-fiction tomes and wanted a fast, fun read. The eponymous tigress is Ava Lee, a Chinese-Canadian "accountant" or fixer for the forensic accountancy she runs with Uncle, a family friend. Her job is to recover several million dollars, which have been stolen from the nephew of an old friend of Uncle, and which have long since vanished into the Caribbean and beyond.

Ava knows how to find things out and she knows how to persuade people to see things her way--like Lisbeth, she is highly proficient in self-defence, and doesn't do a bad job of beating the crap out of guys a foot taller than her five-foot-three self. She is also very particular about her brands, although she prefers Chanel bags, five-star hotels and, oddly, Starbucks Via instant coffee to 17-inch PowerBook G4s and other Apple kit. Maybe it was just the author's PR who prefers these things. In any case, as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found the name-dropping a little distracting. Ava's hunt is fun at first but loses momentum about halfway through. It was gripping enough for me to power through to the end, although I was pretty sure I knew how it would all end.

3. The Diary of the Lady
I picked up Rachel Johnson's diary of her first year spent as the editor of the relic that is The Lady magazine while cruising my library for something I hadn't read yet. Johnson, is, of course, sister of Boris, and the Johnson genes definitely come across in the writing. Johnson minor was happy in her existence writing regular columns for various newspapers and magazines and writing chick lit, but then loses one of her most profitable columns and is worried she'll have to get a proper job--maybe even...in an office. Instead, she is persuaded to apply for the job of editor at The Lady, Britain's oldest weekly women's mag, whose Covent Garden offices seem not to have been renovated since the magazine's launch in 1885. She hasn't edited since her student days but figures she'll learn on the job, which isn't easy when she has been tasked with boosting the circulation figures while knocking a few decades off the average age of her readers. What follows is a funny, if often predictable, account of her first year, with enough publishing in-jokes and hey-that-is-annoying moments to keep me amused. Because let's face it, wouldn't we all love to be the editor of The Lady, or similar?

4. Mary Boleyn
Technically, there is no definite article in the title of Alison Weir's new biography of Anne Boleyn's less famous, (probably) older sister, but as both the UK and US subtitles run with thes, I thought it counted (the former is 'The Great and Infamous Whore' and the latter went for a coyer alternative, 'The Mistress of Kings'). It is difficult to establish exactly what happened in Mary Boleyn's life (even as to whether she or Anne was the older sister), Weir reminds us, partly because there are so few primary sources and partly because of the long-established hype about Mary's affair with Henry VIII. But if anyone can do it, Alison Weir--biographer of other elusive historical females, such as Katherine Swynford, Isabella of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine--can. And Mary Boleyn is a real piece of historical detective work. Long years of Mary's life go undocumented and only one of her letters survives, which makes for a lot of assumptions and speculation. But Weir provides a compelling and surprisingly detailed account of Mary Boleyn, who proves that slow and steady sometimes wins the race and whose descendants include Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and Kate Middleton.

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