Friday, 14 May 2010

"In Office Hours", Lucy Kellaway

Through ten odd years of my current working incarnation, when most of the time I'm supposed to be responsible adult doing grown up things, Lucy Kellaway, through her FT column, has done her bit to keep me sane and sensible.

She came into her own when the subversive in me delighted in goading my then training and development manager with her challenge for companies to concede that the sole reason to go open plan was to squeeze more desks in, one of many points in her writing on business nonsense that was all too applicable to modern working life.

It's impossible too to separate Lucy Kellaway from her wonderfully ridiculous yet true-to-life creation, Martin Lukes, who consistently succeeds in removing the cork from the excesses of C-Suite absurdity that most of us are painfully aware of.

For someone used to Kellaway's general no-nonsense and deeply humorous approach, "In Office Hours" will feel arrestingly different. Telling the story of two corporate women who embark on self destructive affairs within the company they work for, this bears scant relation to the levity that otherwise characterises Kellaway's writing.

Make no mistake however, this doesn't mean that this isn't a good book; it is. In fact, it teeters on the brink of brilliance. It's well observed, feels real, and it is impossible not to be moved by the raw tearing emotion felt by the characters. The fact that the relationships that lie at the heart of the book are doomed is clear from the start, just like any dispassionate observer to an illicit liaison can see the folly of the participants, but as in reality, there is a grim compulsion to seeing the car wreck unfold in front of us.

"In Office Hours" is not a happy book. There is a conspicuous absence of joie de vivre, with the initial exuberence Stella and Bella feel when corresponding with their ... what's the right word, men? boyfriends?  counterparts? ... rapidly subsumed by the feeling of being trapped by an illicit relationship, which comes across as being no fun whatsoever. Doomed love does nonetheless make for affecting reading, in this way Kellaway is following in the steps of Faulks' "On Green Dolphin Street" or Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" in writing something that I suspect will stay with you for a while.

An old friend of mine used to say of office romances that one should never piss on one's own doorstep. He's now happily married to a woman he met at work. Indeed Lucy Kellaway herself makes no bones about the fact that she met her husband at work. This however doesn't alter the core message of "In Office Hours", that our colleagues are people that understand us, and that we have a huge amount in common with, but ultimately crossing the line from friendship to intimacy is a step that isn't likely to make us happy in the long term.

"In Office Hours" is a very good, possibly brilliant, book. Having finished it I'm pretty sure I won't read it again; one read through is enough. It will make me read Lucy's column in Monday morning's FT with an awful lot more respect though. I always knew she was good, reading this I now know she's really good.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

"Accused", Mark Gimenez

As mentioned previously on this blog, I picked up Mark Gimenez's latest legal thriller when passing through Heathrow a couple of weeks ago. There's something fitting about this, I first encountered Gimenez at the same location, at Terminal 5, two years ago, when a touch frustrated at not being able to find an airport edition of Stuart MacBride's "Flesh House", I instead made do with "The Perk", so beginning my engagement with his own brand of Texan legal fiction.

Oft derided as being derivative of John Grisham, there are undeniable similarities between the two authors. They both deal with lawyers, they both predominantly write about the Southern United States, and deep down they're telling stories that are courtroom dramas. That said, I've recently found myself lacking some enthusiasm for Grisham, while "Accused", just like "The Perk" two years ago, was started on the short flight out, and finished by the time the BA Airbus pushed back for the flight home the following day.

Somehow Gimenez paints a picture that feels deeper than that we get with Grisham. The characters are more appealing, the locations spark more questions, and critically I find the stories grip me more. That this is more a reflection of a certain jadedness with Grisham and the relative newness of Gimenez is possible, but right now a new Gimenez has me reaching for the shelf much more than a Grisham does.

So, what's "Accused" really like? Set predominantly in Galveston it revisits the career of Gimenez's first protagonist, A. Scott Fenney from 2006's "The Colour of Law", tackling the intriguing prospect of defending his estranged wife for the murder of the professional golfer she left him for. It's a convoluted premise, and results in a convoluted plot, but it's told with aplomb, and really importantly holds its nerve and retains its ability to surprise.

One key historic area of weakness is his writing has been addressed. Children always feature strongly in Gimenez's writing and "Accused" is no different, however this time around he's managed to write them appropriately. They still have opinions, but these now are those that are credible for their age rather than strangely offering advice and opinion a long way beyond their years. This is a small point, but important, in a book like this you need to be carried along by the pace of the story and any moment where a character jars can lose critical momentum; in previous works the questions raised by the preternaturally mature children broke this flow, now they sit much more fittingly within the novel.

Thinking about "Accused" with the benefit of what hindsight a couple of weeks post reading grants me, I'm coming round to the idea that this might be his best book to date. "The Perk" may have had a more complete plotline and somehow more appealing setting, but there are times when "Accused" teeters on the brink of almost being "12 Angry Men". It's absorbing, not ridiculously far fetched, and by the end does leave you nodding sagely in almost grudging admiration at having been played.

It's probably telling that I enjoyMark  Gimenez's books most when I'm on the road. 'Airport novel' has become a pejorative term, but they serve a purpose that I for one am really grateful for, and I think "Accused" transgresses this classification into something a good bit more thought provoking.

Yes, I'd still choose him over Grisham when presented with the two of them on the shelf.