on 31 January 2010
William Boyd is a literary craftsman whose skills keep the reader enthralled and informed from the first page to the last. He is the antidote to all the overpraised writers fawned over erroneously on both sides of the Atlantic in the current publishing climate of `name' and `brand' because they lucked into (often underserved) popularity. Boyd is the real thing: a writer.
`Ordinary Thunderstorms' (the metaphor reflects the way in which simple climatic phenomena can grow in complexity to major events) is brilliantly observed and meticulously written. No reader outside the U.K. should stay away simply because it deals significantly with London, the Thames and their centuries-old mysteries. It explains much that curious and intelligent readers anywhere would want to know about any major world city, a stunning insider view that strips modern London to its truths.
Boyd takes us into the times, places and events with unerring skill, drawing out the characters with exquisite detail of appearance, speech, environment, motivation and behaviour. This is a thriller of extraordinary dimensions, and one can only hope it will be filmed, to provide (yet again) counterpoint to the mindless drivel that passes increasingly for movie entertainment these days.
I will not reveal the plot. Other reviewers have done so, mostly from the book jacket. The suspense is excruciating, and who would deny a reader that pleasure? Suffice it to say that Boyd traces the life and transformation into other worlds and identities of a young British college professor, an expert on climate, newly returned to the U.K. from the U.S., dragged unsuspecting into a murder for which he is considered guilty. And he learns survival, down to its core.
As it evolves, the story encompasses a pharmaceutical-corporation deception of global intricacy, an ex-SAS murder-for-hire thug, a young black prostitute and her son, a revivalist mission, and the Metropolitan police. Every character is memorable, every chapter turns the screw tighter, until the reader is caught up in the plot intricacies at ever-heightened levels of tension and anxiety. In this, Boyd shows his skills as a writer of remarkable dimensions: it all fits, like the structure of a complex pharmaceutical molecule, and the necessary suspensions of disbelief are few and forgivable. This is entertainment at rarified levels of execution.
Boyd does one other thing, and it is important. As in all his books, he never overwrites. He uses just enough unaffected words and appropriate levels of detail to tell his story. In this (read some of my other reviews, for example on Amazon/U.S. for amplification) he provides a model for other writers who apparently can't stop themselves from telling us too much, in too lengthy and repetitive forms, and who seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices. Boyd "tells it like it is" as directly as he can. He richly deserves all the praise that is heaped on him.
on 26 August 2010
I've loved William Boyd since way back in distant history, when I was blown away by An Ice Cream War, and have continued to be mesmerised by his storytelling skills down the years. This one, however, was disappointing. It started really well; I had the usual sense of excitement about the world I was about to enter, particularly as London in my home town, and was immediately fully engaged with the various characters. But as the book progressed I became steadily more disenchanted with the plot, and felt my 'suspension of disbelief'was being more and more sorely tested. By the time I reached the end (and even though I had the lack of pages to make it obvious, it was still a shock) I had lost interest entirely. It simply wasn't an end - no resolution, no sense of justice, no feeling of satisfaction or closure.
I also felt that what happened to Vince Turpin (no spoilers here!) just didn't work at all, on any level.
On the plus side, there's plenty of great descriptive prose here, and an interesting insight into London's underbelly. I also loved Ingram.
My last word, however, is on vocabulary. Is it really necessary to use words like borborygmi? (there were numerous others - sooo wish I'd marked them). I found their use irritating and showy-offy.I have never heard a single person describe a rumbling stomach thus - though perhaps i just move in the wrong circles....
on 9 September 2009
If you're wanting a cracking read this Autumn then look no further than this book. It's a perfectly paced and plotted thriller which is guaranteed to have you turning the pages right from the start. It follows young climatologist Adam Kindred whose life is suddenly turned upside down when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up being the only suspect in a murder. This leads to him going on the run and living off-grid and feral with London's homeless whilst not only the police but the psychopathic real killer try to track him down. It's definitely edge of your seat stuff but it also delivers on many other levels thanks to William Boyd's incredible talent. There's the fragility of our day to day security and identity, something which also resonated in another of his books Any Human Heart. Then there's the idea of the paths we tread and do not tread and where each of these lead and inter-connect with those of others. Above all there is the image of the unreal city that is London and at its heart the Thames which carries away some of its filth whilst retaining sufficient amounts to provide a record or memory of the inter-connecting histories which have taken place within this vast metropolis. Think Dickens, Hogarth, Peter Ackroyd and a dose of Martin Amis's Keith Talent and you start to get a flavour. But then add the pace and simple pzazz that is William Boyd's own and you're halfway there. I couldn't recommend it more highly!
Adam Kindred, a climatologist who has been working in the United States, arrives in London for a job interview at Imperial College. Within hours a series of events cause him to go into hiding in fear of his life. He then goes from being a respected academic to a hunted man forced to plumb the depths of urban society. In order to remain hidden he becomes a non-person - no phone, no credit cards, no bank account, no identity.
As one would expect from William Boyd Ordinary Thunderstorms is beautifully written and all the strata of London are laid out before us. We meet tramps, prostitutes, evangelists, illegal immigrants, drug dealers, shady businessmen and contract killers. The story is adeptly presented - Adam Kindred (despite his loss of identity) adapts himself to his new situation and has many ingenious methods of survival - but along the way the reader shares with him his hunger, despair and isolation. As in some Dickens' novels the city of London and the Thames are central - almost additional characters.
The plot is wonderfully constructed and keeps you gripped to the very end. The characterisations were well observed and believable (although I found the John Christ Church set up a bit far-fetched).
Having read all of Boyd's novels I would say that this is his best since Any Human Heart.
A brilliant literary thriller - highly recommended.
on 7 January 2010
I like Boyd.
Much better than what people see as his peers such as Pat Barker or Julian "I am just so smart because I like the real France, not like that Peter Mayle bloke" Barnes. As a result, I was surprised to be really disappointed.
Put simply, it is neither here nor there. I guess that the concept was to combine smart literature and thriller writing. Perhaps it was a move by Boyd to use a pop format (and so access to more readers and money) to promote the rest of his work. Others have done that mix well (Le Carre, Wolfe, Dickens amongst others spring to mind) and I would have put my money on Boyd doing the same, especially after Restless. However for me, it made a mess of both genres.
It is a woefully poor thriller. The plot is thin, feels false (unrealistic is forgivable but outright implausability feels wrong) and poorly executed. Around about 1/4 of the way through the narrative loses way and the "what next?" page-turning feel turns to simple "hmm, is there anything here?" habit. The finish is about as poor as you could get for a thriller.
It is poor literature. The writing is loose, the characters wooden and the rigid use of thriller "story-swap" technique feels leaden and cheap. As a study of what it is like to be out of modern society it adds absolutely nothing.
I had just read the recent Robert Harris thriller and the contrast couldn't have been sharper. Daft as a brush for sure but completely "thrilling" and no pretence at being smart.
on 8 September 2009
I'm not what you'd call a longterm fan of Boyd - in fact, I've only ever read Restless, his last novel, which I thought was great - but I saw him on BBC 4 talking to Mark Lawson over the weekend and was immediately moved to buy this, the new one. And the fact that I've already finished it says it all! It's such a joy to read a thriller (and this really is an out-and-out thriller) that's written by someone who actually knows how to write.
The premise, of an innocent man on the run from an unknown adversary, is hardly new, but is incredibly compelling. And his evocation of London's underbelly is so real you almost smell the stench. It also includes a wonderful cast of characters: policemen and crooks, sinister scientists, lowlifes and and prostituets and a hugely real and believeable hero (a rare thing in a good thriller) in the shape of Adam Kindred.
The story has some extraordinary ingredients - as though Charles Dickens, John Buchan and John Le Carré decided to get together and pool their talents - and is so well constructed and propels the characters along as such a zip, that it arguably betters Restless for sheer fizz and verve alone.
In short: good, high-quality reading pleasure of a sort I've not experienced in a long time!
on 9 March 2016
If I recall right there are half a dozen or so ‘macro’- stories, variations of which writers have used since the first novels appeared. I can’t remember but they probably include the innocent (typically a man) wanted by for the crime he didn’t perpetrate; a story of mega-corruption and its exposé; the self-discovering journey (literal and/or metaphorical); insights into life styles other than the readers’ own (to read about which provides a vicarious thrill); romantic entanglement (preferably across some sort of ‘divide’) and so on.
Boyd juggles all the above successfully enough. He maintains chapter-turning interest by moving from a different character/scenario from one chapter to the next. It’s hardly surprising that his writing doesn’t always convince given the different characters/scenarios. The novel’s initial premise – Adam’s preference to go underground, rather than contact the police – is perplexing; but I’ve not long re-read John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ – same scenario, but much more believably conveyed than Boyd’s.
I enjoyed ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ as a ‘chapter-turner’ but would I want to re-read the novel as I did Buchan’s ‘shocker’? I wouldn’t. Apart from its arresting title, ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ is more cirrus than cumulonimbus. One problem is Boyd’s somewhat bland style. It’s communicative enough but there’s little flair to it. Perhaps it was Boyd’s intention but the London setting is so anodyne that it could be any urban area. The river motif is particularly disappointingly done. The Thames is obviously intended as a metaphor for life (as well as being a receptacle for dead bodies) but surely Boyd could have written up his conceit more powerfully. Spoken speech isn’t Boyd’s métier either. I did wonder about extracting various quotes from across the different socio-economic classes and ages that appear in the book and challenging readers of this review to pair each with list of different characters. I gave up. They come out virtually the same. So no storm there either.
on 29 June 2015
The spoiler here is in fact the author - but you may not want to read this review until you have read the book. However, a lot of reviews on this site make the same point.
One day William Boyd will publish a book called "All My Endings" in which he'll deign to reveal the resolutions of a number of his novels which finish with either the reader being left in mid-air, or being treated to a garbled or enigmatic pseudo-resolution. It's particularly galling here, since the reader has been brought to an almost unbearable seat-of-the-edge situation, so effective has been the majority of the writing but then, with a regrettable high-handedness, the author leaves us wondering what happened next. It was the same in The Blue Afternoon - a whodunnit without a denouement - and even in the risibly commercial The Vanishing Game. Did the villain die at the end of Solo? Who knows? Well, the author does, but he's not telling, and for Ordinary Thunderstorms there are perhaps a dozen such questions he leaves hanging.
It's as if here Boyd suddenly became aware that what he had been writing was a straight-down-the-line London crime thriller - which indeed he was, and making a very good fist indeed out of it - and decided that such an enterprise would damage his literary reputation. Thus he without a by-your-leave for the reader he brings proceedings shuddering to a halt and slaps a message on them, a banal one about degrees of separation. No doubt Boyd would say that this is how real life works: the ends do not tie up, we never know what is round the corner, etc. But this is not real life, it is fiction, and in fiction (as the premise is here) people who would naturally go to the police don't - otherwise there would be no story. And the points he is making - such as hunter and prey changing roles - have been made before by even the meanest crime writers.
So what could have been one of the greatest British crime thrillers ends in a train wreck. And it is such a pity: this is a genuine page-turner, masterfully plotted, with well drawn, sometimes extremely convincing characters and more than a few "how did he do that?" passages. The villain is worryingly believable and (perhaps unlike Armadillo, his first London novel) there is a sympathetic protagonist, one we can identify with.
Besides the ending there are a couple of other, lesser weaknesses. They say only write about what you know, and like Kingsley Amis satirizing pop music, or his son describing council estate life Boyd makes the mistake of creating a religious sect which just doesn't ring true. Otherwise there is the recurring question about his style, which is like that of an American who has mugged up on the Queen's English, but hasn't quite got it down. It's not just calling lifts elevators (which can be heard from plenty of teens brainwashed by cable TV), but the way he calls council blocks "social housing units", charity shops "thrift shops", has mums pushing children in "strollers". It's his grammar too: since when did the past tense of "weave" stop being "wove"? Bloomsbury, presumably, don't tell their authors to make sure that Americans can understand what they produce because they sell so many books there to people who can't be bothered to use a dictionary. All this serves to undermine the otherwise intense London-based realism.
But overall the majority of this novel succeeds as a high class non-literary thriller which, whatever Boyd or his editors might think, is what he's best at, erotic romances notwithstanding. As for the ending - perhaps we could form an online club where members try their best guess at how William Boyd novels should be resolved. This one would take about three more chapters.
on 18 February 2011
I had been slightly disappointed by the last William Boyd novel I read, 'Any Human Heart', largely because of its lack of focus and its sprawling nature. I expected this one, in the thriller genre, to be much tighter, and it was, though Boyd still manages to cram a lot of characters in (rather too many - a few are mere caricatures) and takes us on quite a journey round London, from corporate jungle to sink estates, with the river literally and metaphorically at the heart of the story.
The basic plot and devices borrow heavily from both John Buchan ('The 39 Steps') and Alfred Hitchcock ('North by North West') in that an innocent man finds himself suspected of murder and tries to evade capture from both the police and the real culprits, who have their own reasons for wanting to kill him. The hero, Adam Kindred, manages to make himself anonymous by throwing away all the trappings of modern life and identity - mobile phone, credit cards, an address. His stratagems for evasion, and the adventures and relationships that come along in the pursuit of some kind of freedom are the most interesting parts of the book. The actual 'crime' elements, while engaging, are built on such absurd premises that you have to stop yourself constantly asking, 'but why would they do that?', 'why does he make that choice?' 'why didn't the police just...?' If you don't ask, it's because you are swept along by the action and by the empathy Boyd makes you feel for Adam.
On the basis that the book is a page turner, and on the whole elegantly written, I am giving it a three-star rating, but to be honest I could equally have given it a scathing review, and gone into detail about its inadequacies, its implausibilties, and its occasional lapses into cliche. Maybe I expected more because of Boyd's reputation and because I have enjoyed some of his work in the past - 'Brazzaville Beach' for example. He is a frustrating writer. Somewhere there is a great book in him. This certainly isn't it, but at its best it's 'a good read'.
David Williams, Writer in the North
on 29 July 2010
This review contains some spoilers, so be warned.
There's a lot to enjoy in this book, but first you have to get past the fact that the main protagonist, Adam Kindred (I hesitate to call him a hero) is an ineffectual tit.
Kindred gets himself into a lot of trouble early on by making extraordinarily poor decisions and then...just sits about doing nothing. In the story he sets himself up as the prime suspect in a murder case then does nothing, absolutely nothing to try and tell his side of the story to the police. Kindred has a medical report that he thinks might be important to the case, so what does he do with it? Nothing - he buries it in a box (why, wouldn't you?), then swans about central London for a few weeks getting by as a beggar.
If I was Kindred, I'd have written my version of the story down, photocopied the report and sent copies of both to the police and every newspaper I could think of. The Radio Times too probably. But he doesn't do that...or rather, he does, sort of, but it's only near the end of the book that he finally starts delving into what the paper actually means. Which is what anyone with an ounce of sense would have done in the first place.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the book. I was never bored and I wanted to find out what happened next. But, to be honest, if Kindred had fallen under a bus I wouldn't have cared less. In fact, I found myself warming to Kindred's nemesis the amoral hit-man JohnJo as one of the few characters who shows any intelligence or initiative. The ending is odd too, lots of loose ends - in fact probably enough to weave into a sequel.
And if one were written, I'd probably read it.