Here are the results of the 2009 P&O Cruises Book Bag Awards. I only managed to get through six of the shortlisted books during the cruise and that means that two of the eight - Donna Leon's "Girl of His Dreams" and Paul Mason's "Meltdown" - will have to be held over until the 2010 awards which will take place next January. As for the remaining six, here are my conclusions:
Val McDermid "A Darker Domain" : A fairly annoying little book which uses the 1984 Miners' Strike as a backdrop to murder and mystery. As far as the background was concerned, it was not the miners' strike that I remember. As far as the mystery was concerned it was too full of stock characters and silly coincidences.
P. D. James "The Private Patient" : It was like taking a trip down a familiar highway and that is because - other than the institutional setting - all P D James' books seem to be the same. The same daft names, the same unbelievable protagonists, the same multiple motivations for murder. Perhaps the kind of puzzle books that she writes were fresh and interesting forty years ago but now they seem as tired as a well-thumbed Sudoku magazine. It wasn't that I couldn't work out who-done-it, it was just that I didn't care.
Alexander Frater "The Balloon Factory" : It is sub-titled "the story of the men who built Britain's first flying machines" and it does what is says on the tin. It is more a series of related newspaper articles than a book and there isn't a clear, coherent structure to it. Like those early flying machines, it's a bit light and skips about all over the place. But those early Sopwith Camels and De Havilland Flying Boats were quite fun, and so is this book.
Dominic Sandbrook "Never Had It So Good" : This massive 800 page history of the late 1950s starts so well : the early chapters on Suez and Macmillan are beautifully written and endlessly revealing. But a third of the way through it seems that the author has decided to write a thick and chunky book and the pace slackens and the plot is lost. All those hundreds of pages of political history, social history, economic history and cultural history begin to overwhelm you and you finish up with yet another history book you know you will never finish.
Henning Mankell "The Pyramid" : This is a collection of short stories all featuring Kurt Wallander and all set in the period before the first novel in the series. They tell us something about the development of the Wallander character but even with this additional material, the Inspector remains a wonderfully complex and multi-layered creation. The stories - some long, some short - are intelligent and beautifully crafted. Sheer joy.
But the winner of the 2009 P&O Cruises Book Bag Awards is .......
Sara Paretsky "Bleeding Kansas" : Surprising, engrossing, different and delightful. One is tempted to say that with this book, Sara Paretsky grows up, but that is unfair as her VI Warshawski books have always been a cut above the usual crime thrillers. One of the great joys about Bleeding Kansas is the way she plays with time : if it wasn't for the ipods and the mobile phones you might be back in the 1930s or the 1860s. Like all good books it takes you places you had never thought of going. Perfect holiday reading.