This year’s holiday reading

My August holidays are usually the time when I nip off to Waterstone’s, fill up a bag full of books, pay for them (that’s the important bit), spend two weeks reading them on a sun lounger, and then come home and write brief reviews of all of them.

This year, however, I managed to get through an inordinate number of non-fiction books, but a mere two works of fiction. I’m thinking the hot weather knocked my brains out or that I took too many high-brow fictional books with me, so fingers crossed, I’ll be able to get through more when I go to Norfolk in a couple of weeks.

But here, for your delectation are a couple of brief reviews of those books I read:

Secret Servant: The MoneyPenny DiariesSecret Servant: The Moneypenny Diaries
These are kind of like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of James Bond books, with Moneypenny going out and about doing her own thing and then coming back into the office to neatly intersect with bits from the real James Bond books – in this case, You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun. Unlike its predecessor, this one is quite Bond-lite, with the great man making only the occasional appearance, usually only to guffaw a bit and be guffawed at by Moneypenny.

It’s a bit more sophisticated than that – and the book cover – suggest. Moneypenny is no Jane Bond and is mostly involved in the real, unglamorous side of spy work, rather than the commando daring-do of 007. It’s actually very well written and intelligent. The only trouble is that without the James Bond side of things, not much would be happening here, since it mostly concerns Moneypenny making friends with Kim Philby’s wife and going to Moscow to try to persuade her (and Philby) to return after he’s defected. There’s also the ongoing story arc of Moneypenny’s not desperately involving attempts to find out what happened to her father during and after the war. But that’s really not enough for the book as a whole, so it’s for dyed-in-the-wool Bond fans only, I’d say.

Breaking The RulesBreaking The Rules: Confessions of a Bad Girl
This is a sequel to Sleeping Around and is written by journalist Catherine Townsend, who works for The Independent as a sex writer among other things. Basically, ‘Cat’ is trying to work out whether she wants a monogamous relationship with a man that involves settling down, getting a house, having kids, etc, or whether she wants to have lots of casual sex instead. After a break-up with her boyfriend at the beginning of the book, she devises her own set of ‘anti-Rules’ to counter the notorious ‘passive female’ dating advice of The Rules, attends classes in masturbation, buys a pelvic exerciser and generally experiments a lot with men, women, men and women, men and men or just herself, in between working out whether she wants to be with her ex-, take up with the adventurous Jamie, or just stay polygamous.

Surprisingly, it’s not a great read. It feels like so many columns for a newspaper strung together as separate chapters. The sex isn’t as frequent as you’d think/hope it might be and when it comes, it’s more like “and then tab A was inserted in slot B” rather than anything literary or artistic. Cat is smart and likeable (unless you have a misogynistic dislike of ‘bad girls’), yet surprisingly for an American seems clueless about her own emotional make-up, requiring a few in-book visits to a sex therapist to spot what seems obvious to the reader at least. The ending is at least relatively surprising, but it lacks enough self-insight or in-depth analysis to really make it as a diary and a little too prosaic to make it as a piece of titillation.