Friday, September 19, 2014

2014 books, #71-75

The secret race: inside the hidden world of the Tour de France; doping, cover-ups and winning at all costs, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. London: Corgi, 2013.

This is an engaging account from one of the insiders in the US Postal/Lance Armstrong doping affair; and an interesting counterpoint to David Millar's autobiography, in the previous set of reviews.  Hamilton is contrite and ashamed about taking EPO; but there's still an element of self-justification about it, in that as a new professional he became aware that everyone around him was doping, and that less strong riders on EPO were overtaking him rapidly.  I'm certain proximity to Lance Armstrong over many years made it much more difficult not to dope, but it gives me more of an equivocal feeling about Hamilton, despite his obvious charm and wish to contribute to a clean sport, and sympathy for the absolute hell he went through as the team scapegoat.  Daniel Coyle is silent in the main text, as a good ghostwriter should be; but is able to advance his own opinions (and occasionally, alternative accounts) in the footnotes, which adds an extra dimension.

Under the paw: confessions of a cat man, by Tom Cox [audiobook]. Read by Mark Meadows. Bath, BBC Audiobooks, 2010.

Another funny, light read from Tom Cox which has a huge number of points of instant recognition for anyone who's been owned by a cat. This is the first in the series and explains how The Bear and other cats came into Cox and his wife Dee's life, and their perambulations around various parts of rural Norfolk after leaving London.  The reading by Mark Meadows has a lovely light touch; ended up spending an entire day listening to this while doing housework and weaving.

Want you dead, by Peter James. London: Macmillan, 2014.

Red Westwood's life seems to be looking up - she's ditched the boyfriend who'd been intimidating her, and has found a new man, a new job as an estate agent and a new flat.  That is, until the new man is found burned to death, and a series of strange events lead her to the inescapable confusion that Bryce Laurent is even more dangerous than he seems.  Meanwhile, events from the past also threaten Roy Grace's wedding to Cleo.  Other than the intimate/romantic scenes, which always make me cringe in these books, this is tightly plotted and well-written, and a real page-turner.  It will take me a long time to forgive Peter James for one particular incident in this book though; any fans of the series will know which one once they've read it.

Red tide, by GM Ford [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Chivers, 2007.

This is somewhat more topical than it was when it was written. Something has killed a tunnel-full of people waiting for buses in Seattle just as experts from 50 countries are gathering for a symposium on chemical and biological weapons; and a short investigation shows that the Zaire strain of Ebola has been genetically mutated to kill instantly as an airborne virus.  Frank Corso, a true-crime author, is caught up in the aftermath after being evacuated from a party, and becomes involved in the investigation.  This is the first of Ford's books I've had on audiobook - mainly because of the reader - but will keep an eye out for these in future as it's tightly-plotted and canters along very nicely.

Blood work: a tale of medicine and murder in the scientific revolution, by Holly Tucker. New York: WW Norton, 2011.

A book about the early history of blood transfusion, set in England and France in the 1660s but spreading out to examine the wider issues of science, ethics, morality and scientific politics in general. Jean Denis, the maverick transfusionist at the heart of this story, is charged with murder having transfused calf's blood into a notorious madman who later died; and the book is based around this event. While some of the detail of the experimentation is pretty horrifying - trans-species transfusion with no understanding of blood groups, the use of unwilling prisoners for transfusion etc. - it's also fascinating seeing modern science being shaped and then being influenced by the scientific establishment in both countries.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

2014 books, #66-70

The persuader, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Dick Hill.  [S.l.]: Soundings, [n.d.]

Walking through Boston in search of a bar one night, Jack Reacher spots Francis Xavier Quinn, a man he thought he'd killed a decade before. This is an odd novel, because it's one of the rare Reacher novels narrated in the first person. Reacher becomes close to his female colleague in this case, as he had in the case ten years before, and the narrative slides between decades.  The perspective is unsettling, but definitely works in terms of amalgamating the narratives, and the final sequences wouldn't work without it... I'm not as keen on Dick Hill as a narrator as I am Jeff Harding; but I gather Mr Hill is the reader of choice for Audible, and he's not at all bad...

The silkworm, by Robert Galbraith. London: Sphere, 2014.

Cormoran Strike's detective business is doing a lot better these days, after the Lula Landry case; and he's still able to keep Robin working for him. But Robin's about to be married to a chap who hates her job, and she's still trying to get Matthew and Strike to meet (which, let's face it, goes as well as everyone was thinking it would, when it happens.)  Meanwhile, Strike's engaged by Leonora Quine, wife of novelist Owen Quine, to track him down on the grounds that Leonora's running out of money to support their daughter, who has a learning disability.  There's a hole in the plot of this you could drive a Tube train through; but to be honest I didn't care; it was fascinating, entertaining, horrifying and most of all I really cared about several of the characters, even the unlikeable ones.  I suspect if you hated Strike first time round (as most people in my book group did), you mightn't like this one either; but I think he's a fundamentally decent guy, and I hope we're in for many more of these.  Galbraith has definitely laid down a few enticing threads for both main characters which might be followable...

Talk to the tail: adventures in cat ownership and beyond, by Tom Cox. London: Simon and Schuster, 2011. [Kindle edition.]

Tom Cox is the man behind the "Why my Cat is Sad" Twitter account, and the Little Cat Diaries blog; while a book on a man and his cats should be unbearably twee, it really isn't; largely because these are real cats, and Cox is fully aware about falling into that trap.  I suspect that if you've never lived with cats, this book will have no interest whatever; but if you have experience of the wide range of cat personalities and relationships, it's both a fascinating read and extremely funny, with the odd very moving passage.

Racing through the dark: the fall and rise of David Millar, by David Millar with Jeremy Whittle. London: Orion, 2011.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this - can't remember when I last read a sports autobiography, and I've never really known whether people at the top level of their sport have anything interesting to talk about apart from the sport.  But Millar has been striking in his contrition for, and determination to eliminate, doping; and he's probably racing his last Grand Tour with the current Vuelta a España.  I read this in about a day and a half and was resentful about putting it down; it's a fascinating account of Millar's life before, during and after his EPO period in the early 2000s, with a lot of information and asides about the state of the sport at the time. It's also pretty much warts-and-all; Millar doesn't disguise the fact he knows he's been a complete idiot at times, but can also describe the total highs of winning, and there's huge praise for people like Sir Dave Brailsford who was shocked and disappointing at the news of the doping, but stood by Millar's rehabilitation as a rider.  Really enjoyable if you have any interest at all in the subject.

One of ours, by Willa Cather. Kindle edition.

An absolutely wonderful book, and I need to read more Cather. Claude Wheeler leaves university to take on management of one of the family farms in 1914, but is overcome both by the power his father has over his life and an inexplicable discomfort with just about everything in life.  When the US enters the war, Claude enlists, and travels across to France in a troop ship.  The story is based on the life of Grosvenor, Willa Cather's cousin, who was also very uncomfortable in his own skin and made a similar journey to the First World War. She didn't want to write a war story, but said that "it stood between me and anything else"; the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  What's striking is the compassion (the Wheelers have German neighbours and friends at home, and Claude's encounters with starving French people and orphans change him), and the descriptions of the countryside both in Nebraska and France. I don't give spoilers in these reviews so can't discuss some of the overall themes, but if you're going to read one WWI novel from the US perspective, this might as well be it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 books, #61-65

Spider light, by Sarah Rayne [audiobook]. Read by Diana Bishop. [S.l].: Oakhill, 2005.

Like the previous book by this author, there are layers to this thriller.... It starts with Antonia Weston, who has come to the quiet town of Amberwood after a very public tragedy; Antonia's interest in local history turns out to precipitate a tragedy; and the unveiling of secrets inside a place.  This is another stunning, multidimensional thriller, and is definitely worth a read.

Shut your eyes tight, by John Verdon [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: AudioGO,  [n.d.]

Dave Gurney gets a call from a former colleague; and can't ignore it. A bride's been killed in the middle of her wedding reception - the murderer's identity seems to be straightforward, but nobody can find him. The plot is fascinating. I have to admit that I find Gurney's wife entirely irritating throughout these books...

Blood games, by Faye Kellerman. London: HarperCollins, 2011.

This book was called Gun games in the US; which I found interesting. Peter and Rina Decker's foster son Gabe Whitman finds a girlfriend; sadly, the girlfriend's family would find non-Jewish, non-Persian Gabe unacceptable, so their meetings are clandestine. Meanwhile, Decker is investigating the murder of other teenagers.  Plots intertwine very well, and this is probably the best in this series for a while.

Breaking point, by CJ Box. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.

The title makes explicit the theme of so many of CJ Box's thrillers - how far can you push an ordinary person before violence ensues?  Of course, if you're in Wyoming with infinite access to weapons, it all becomes more deadly.  A couple is threatened with extraordinary sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it all goes horribly wrong.  This is, as ever, tightly plotted and character-heavy; and I was somewhat horrified to learn in the afternote that the most unbelievable elements of the plot actually happened.

Two evils, by PJ Tracy. London: Penguin, 2013.

Four Native American girls are kidnapped, and one is found in a car park with her throat cut. Two young immigrants from Sierra Leone are gunned down. Gino and Magozzi investigate, but as the victims escalate and everything becomes more incomprehensible, Monkeewrench are called in to protect their own. This is well up to the standard of the previous books; plot-wise, it runs alongside so many post-9/11 terrorist thrillers, but then we also have the characters we know... One exception though - there's a repeated reference to putting a jihad on someone; I'm pretty sure that's not correct on either side of the Atlantic and it should be a fatwa.  Irritated me, anyway, and I couldn't find any evidence of usage!






Saturday, August 09, 2014

2014 books, #56-60

Written in blood: the remarkable caseboook of one of Britain's top forensic scientists, by Mike Silverman with Tony Thompson. London: Bantam, 2014.

Mike Silverman worked for the Home Office's forensic science service from the 1970s until the late 1990s, and then in various high-level advisory posts.  This is a fascinating account both of the development of forensic science, particularly blood-pattern and DNA analysis, and of the politics surrounding government departments during the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s.  Silverman goes into individual illustrative cases, and there's a lot of gentle humour at his own expense, but also looks as the factors which led to the closing of the last government forensic laboratories in 2010. An extremely interesting and readable book.

The skin collector, by Jeffery Deaver. London: Hodder, 2014.

A young woman is killed in a New York basement by having been tattooed with an obscure poison - the tattoo "the second" only tells Lincoln Rhyme that there will be more deaths to come.  There are, as ever, a huge range of twists and turns in this story. Possibly too many; this is the first time I've ever felt that Deaver might be becoming almost a parody of himself.  It's still highly enjoyable though, with some new bits and bobs for people like me who've become very fond of these characters...

A room swept white, by Sophie Hannah [audiobook]. Read by Julia Barrie. Oxford: Isis, 2010.

Fliss Benson gets into work one morning to find her boss has resigned and bequeathed her his documentary film about women who have been exonerated of killing their babies.  It's already been a bad day because Fliss has received an anonymous card containing sixteen numbers in a grid pattern, none of which mean anything to her.  Then one of the subjects of the documentary, Helen Yardley, is found dead at her home, with a card with sixteen numbers in a grid pattern in her pocket...  Very well-plotted and with a surprising ending, at least to me; and obviously based on real events.

The devil's cave, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2012.

An Inspector Bruno novel.  A woman is found floating in a boat on the local river, surrounded by black candles and other black magic symbols; later the local cave system is found to have been vandalised in the same way. Bruno is also juggling a domestic abuse case and a local development proposal which seems just too good to be true; and has a ridiculously cute Basset hound puppy to train.  Well up to the standards of this series; Walker loves the quaintness of Périgord but is also aware of the tensions and flaws inherent in modern French life.

Gironimo! riding the very terrible 1914 Tour of Italy, by Tim Moore. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014.

In French revolutions, Tim Moore covered (most of) the route of the 2000 Tour de France a few weeks ahead of the riders.  This time, and 12 years later, he decides to cover the route of the Giro d'Italia, 1914 edition, as a reaction to the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Not content with riding the 3,200km of the route, he decides to do it on a 1914 bicycle and in the traditional merino cycling garb of the pre-WWI cyclist.  This is hilarious and moving by turns, and tells you a lot about both the world of a hundred years ago and life in Italy today. Highly recommended whether you like cycling or not.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

2014 books, #51-55

The death chamber, by Sarah Rayne [audiobook]. Read by Diana Bishop. Bath: Oakhill, 2008.

Georgina Grey has inherited her great-grandfather's cottage, and with it, his papers. He was the doctor to Calvary Gaol, and when Georgina bumps into a pair of documentary-makers in the local pub she is astonished to find that they are doing research into psychic phenomena in the now-abandoned prison buildings.  As it turns out, though, the threat to Georgina and researcher Jude (a former foreign correspondent blinded in a war zone) is not so much psychic as very real; someone is extremely unhappy about the past being dug up and is prepared to act on it.

Wolf, by Mo Hayder. London: Bantam, 2014.

This is a very scary book; there's real violence (and Hayder goes for gory), but there's also implied and threatened violence which is even more frightening.  Oliver, Matilda and Lucia Anchor-Ferrers arrive at their holiday cottage to find a scene which is horribly reminiscent of a crime which happened to the family a decade before. The perpetrator of that crime is still behind bars, though... isn't he?  Then the police arrive to warn the family; and it all gets worse from there...  Meanwhile, Jack Caffery is trying to find the secret of his long-lost brother's death, and the owner of a lost dog.  This twists and turns all over the place towards the end; Hayder has created a hall of distorting mirrors.  Excellent, but gruesome.

Her brilliant career: ten extraordinary women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke. London: Virago, 2013.

This was a book-group book, not one I'd normally have picked up, but I'm glad I did.  Some of the figures in this book are very well-known even today - Patience Gray the cook, for instance, and Rose Heilbron QC who was active well into the 90s; but some like Sheila van Damm, rally-driver and manager of the Windmill Theatre, have vanished from collective memory.  Some of the women were remarkable for their lifestyles (van Damm was in a relationship with both Nancy Spain and magazine editor Joan Werner Laurie), some for their choice of profession; all are remarkable for their unconventionality in the times.  Definitely worth a read.

Without fail, by Lee Child. London: Bantam, 2002.

A Jack Reacher novel.  Reacher is contacted by his brother Joe's former girlfriend Emily Froelich; she's now head of Vice-President-Elect Armstrong's security detail, and wants Reacher to try fnding the holes in her plan to protect Armstrong.  Reacher and former colleague Frances Neagley take the part of would-be assassins and advise Froelich; at which point it becomes clear that the threat to Armstrong is more than theoretical. Even by Lee Child's high standards, this is a good one; and after a couple of the books above (notably The death chamber) I realised again that one of the reasons I like Reacher is that he works totally straightforwardly with women as well as with men; I hadn't even realised that was what had irked me about some of the books I'd read recently!

Do not pass go: from the Old Kent Road to Mayfair, by Tim Moore. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2002.

Tim Moore has always been obsessed with Monopoly, and has always lived in London. One of the things he's always been puzzled by is the arbitrariness of the choice of stopping-points on the board - why Vine Street? Why the Angel Islington? What do the groups of places have in common?  Moore goes to investigate, in the random order of throwing dice to start, and having others throw dice when he gets to his destination.  This is a lovely, funny ramble around parts of London you wouldn't necessarily visit as a tourist, and the chapter on "the greens" (Bond, Regent and Oxford Streets) is made more hilarious by the confession that "the prospect of an extended retail quest for goods you can't plug in or uncork fills my limbs with gravel".  There are a lot of interesting, well-researched facts in here as well, which slip into your head while you're laughing....

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2014 books, #46-50

And now the shipping forecast: a tide of history around our shores, by Peter Jefferson. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge, 2011.

This is a whimsical little book.  Occasionally a little too much so; but those moments are fewish and far between.  Peter Jefferson read the shipping forecast from 1969 until recently, and now reads the quotes on Quote, Unquote (I tried not to hold that particular thing against him when reading this book).  There's a lot of factual stuff on the construction and interpretation of the forecast, such as what the word then means with reference to types of weather, and some reminiscences of the different technologies used over four decades to get the forecast across. There's some general stuff about the BBC, and then a brisk tour around the shipping forecast areas.  If you're a Radio 4 nut, and don't mind the occasional awful pun, it's an entertaining read.

The crowded grave, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2011.

Life's pretty complicated for Bruno Courrèges at the moment. A body's been found by an archaeological dig, which would be fine if it weren't wearing a Swatch; animal rights activists are letting out ducks being raised for fois gras; a new magistrate is proving problematic; and there's a Franco-Spanish ministerial summit happening on Bruno's patch which may be threatened by Basque terrorists. On top of that, he still doesn't know where he is in his relationship with Pamela, and ex-lover Isabelle has arrived to help with the summit.  This is a wonderful series of books - Walker lives in la France profonde for six months of the year and it shows.  International and local politics are skilfully dealt with, and you could definitely cook from some of the descriptions of wonderful meals.

Farewell performance, by Tessa Barclay [audiobook]. Read by James Bryce. Whitley Bay: Isis, 2001.

The first of the Gregory Crowne books. Crowne is promoting an orchestra in the Edinburgh Festival when the instruments of several cellists, including a Stradivarius, are apparently stolen. Shortly afterwards, an outbreak of food poisoning at the hotel seems to be more than a coincidence.  Crowne ends up investigating along with the local police.  This rattles along nicely, but I find Crowne a bit irritating, particularly with regard to what might be thought of as old-fashioned gallantry or might, in my case, be thought of as patronising behaviour to women...  The reading is good enough, apart from the pronunciation of Guarnieri as Garnery - as this particular instrument-maker turns up a few dozen times in the book, it becomes a bit grating.

The funeral owl, by Jim Kelly [audiobook]. Read by Ray Sawyer. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

Philip Dryden's dilemma in this week's Crow isn't how to fill the pages of his Ely newspaper; it's what to leave out.  The body of a Chinese man is found crucified in a churchyard; a "Fen Blow" removes topsoil from a huge area; and Humph's daughter disappears (while this isn't news, it does put a crimp in Dryden's travel plans while his usual chauffeur is engaged on family business). Is a Chinese gang operating in King's Lynn? What's the significance of drowned tramps being found in a ditch? And will Dryden's little boy ever be bothered to start walking?  As ever, this is as much about the characters as it is about the plots, and shows the Fens in all their strange beauty.

Hangman, by Faye Kellerman. London: Harper, 2011.

I was delighted to find that Kellerman had produced not one but two Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus books while I wasn't watching - this is always difficult to track because she's one of those increasingly rare authors producing books with different titles on different sides of the Atlantic, so you can never really work out whether you're likely to have read the book before under another name...   This one features a couple of recurring characters, doctor Terry McLaughlin and her hit-man husband Chris Donatti; but mostly also their 14-year-old son Gabe, a messed-up musical prodigy who is foisted on the Deckers when both his parents disappear.  Gabe's an interesting character; and it's good to see the other kids, including little Hannah, in adulthood or their late teens. Decker's approaching 60 at this point, but not really slowing down on the homicide front; while looking for Terry, he's also trying to solve a series of stranglings.  I enjoyed this one a lot; but you sort of need to go back to the beginning of the series to get the most out of it.



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 books, #41-45

The teleportation accident, by Ned Beauman. London: Sceptre, 2012.

Egon Loeser, an experimental set designer in early 1930s Berlin, is trying to construct a replica of a 17th-century "teleportation device" when he meets Adele Hitler (no relation), falls in love and follows her first to Paris, then to Los Angeles. This is a novel which starts off (as signalled) as Literary Realism, but passes through genres including farce, hardboiled detection, time travel, playscript and science fiction before crashing to a conclusion.  It's a very enjoyable read after the first few pages; but I'm not really sure what I got out of it in the end!  While you'd think that given the time and place there'd a more political awareness, Loeser is completely politically disengaged throughout the period.  I may well go back and read Beauman's first novel, Boxer, beetle, though.

Cross and burn, by Val McDermid [audiobook]. Read by Saul Reichlin. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2013.

The eighth of the Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series from McDermid, and follows on almost a year after the traumatic events of The Retribution. Carol and Tony are still estranged and trying to rebuild their lives in their different, dysfunctional ways, when two women are abducted, tortured and murdered - the characteristic they have in common is that they both look like Carol Jordan. Paula McIntyre asks for advice from Tony, but then DNA evidence is found which draws McIntyre's new boss DI Fielding to an almost impossible conclusion, and leads Paula to hunt down Carol and enlist her help.  This is well up to the usual standard, and Reichlin's reading is excellent as ever.

Think of a number, by John Verdon. London: Penguin, 2010.

Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD homicide detective, is contacted by an old college acquaintance about some very odd letters in verse form he's been receiving. It's a puzzle, and Dave tries to encourage his friend to go to the police; then the friend is killed in circumstances where there's a mass of evidence, none of it pointing anywhere.  Meanwhile, Dave's wife Madeleine is more than a little annoyed at his being sucked back into homicide investigation.  This is extremely tightly plotted and a real page-turner of a first novel; the author is a retired advertising executive who lives in the Catskills near Gurney's fictional home.  If you like early P J Tracy, this is one for you.

French revolutions, by Tim Moore [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2009.

Tim Moore's gradually growing fascination with the Tour de France, fuelled by early daily TV coverage of the event, reached its apotheosis in 2000, when at the age of 35 he decided to cycle the entire course ahead of that year's riders. Just finding out details of the route in advance was a challenge at that stage (how things like satnav and smartphones have changed things), quite apart from the physical challenges of riding over 3,000 kilometres on roads stacked with old men on butchers' bikes and Norbert Dentressangle pantechnicons.  This is an extremely funny account, and Moore is honest about the combination of hubris, chicanery, sheer agonising slog and unpleasant physical side-effects involved in getting round an approximation of the course, while giving some snippets of the history of the Tour.  Wincott reads very well (his French pronunciation of Ventoux and Troyes, and his insistence on pronouncing "derailleur" with a French accent aside) and this is a funny, engaging read.

The autobiography of Jack the Ripper, by James Carnac [audiobook]. Read by Mark Meadows and Christian Rodska. Bath: Random House/AudioGO: 2012.

The weirdest thing about this account of Jack the Ripper's exploits is that it came from the estate of the man who invented Larry the Lamb and Toytown.  Having looked it up, this is a genuine mystery - is this a work of fiction, or could it be the truth?  The jury's still out among Ripper theorists.  Whatever it is, it's immensely interesting and entertaining, and gives all sorts of details of life in the East End as well as new ideas about motivation.  Christian Rodska is the main reader as the voice of Jack/James Carnac, with Mark Meadows as the "framing" narrator talking about the provenance of the narrative.  Rodska is, as usual, utterly compelling as a reader.  This is not one for someone who's blood-phobic; but equally, there are no gratuitous blow-by-blow accounts of the killings.