Saturday, May 09, 2015

2015 books, #26-30

The burning room, by Michael Connelly. London: Little, Brown, 2014.

Harry Bosch has been teamed up with a new partner, Lucia Soto, and they have a case which is both cold and live at the same time: a mariachi musician who was shot in an apparently gang-related incident ten years before dies from his injuries, and Bosch and Soto can finally take charge of the bullet.  As they begin to investigate, Bosch suspects that Soto is not entirely focused on the case; he challenges her, and suddenly they have two cases on their hands... Another excellent book with the very likeable Bosch; and with a very unexpected ending which leaves the reader in suspense about Bosch's future...

Forensics: the anatomy of crime, by Val McDermid [audiobook]. Read by Sarah Barron. Whitley Bay: Clipper, 2015.

I'd heard the abridged version of this on Radio 4 earlier in the year, and went to the exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, which was fascinating; when it was mentioned again somewhere, I thought I'd get the full version out in hopes that Ms McDermid would be reading it*. She wasn't, but this reader is excellent; sounds enough like McDermid in the main narrative, and is able to produce accents from all over the place to differentiate the various experts.  If you're interested in the history of forensic science it (and the exhibition) won't tell you anything very new, but it's a great shortish introduction, and rattles along, much like a McDermid novel.

*My main criticism of our new library catalogue is that although you can search by reader, it doesn't appear on the record display, so if you're interested in the title, you have to search multiple times to make sure it's not being read by someone you really dislike...

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou. London: Virago, 2014 (originally published 1969).

 The first of Angelou's seven volumes of autobiographies, this one starts with young Marguerite (Maya) Johnson and her brother Bailey Jr growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, having been delivered to her maternal grandparents at the ages of 7 and 6. It's a childhood defined by the walls of church, school and the racism endemic in the South in the 1930s, with some truly shocking illustrations of how respectable black people were subject to humiliation by white people, even the "powhitetrash". Maya and her brother are transferred between Stamps and California to stay with one parent or another; during one of the California stays, something happens to 8-year-old Maya which ends her childhood way too early and she returns to Stamps.  While this could be the worst of misery memoirs, which much justification, little Maya's (and grown-up Maya's) humour and appetite for life shine through, and there is hope and joy in this book.  This was a book group book, one I've meant to re-read for a while, and I have the second volume of the autobiography on hold at the library.

Second term: a story of spin, sabotage and seduction, by Simon Walters. London: House of Stratos, 2001.

As you can probably tell from the date, the second term of the title is that of a fictional PM rather like Tony Blair, had Blair been a hospital doctor before his arrival in politics.  PM Stephen Cane does have a pitbull-like Press Secretary, in this case a Liverpudlian redhead called Charlie Redpath, a fearsome woman with seemingly no scruples.  While it's fascinating in its imaginings of the lengths politicians will go to to retain power, and in the characters crushed in their paths, it ultimately fails because there are no likeable characters in this book at all.  It's interesting as a roman à clef, trying to imagine who's who, though, given that the author had been a political journalist for 20 years at the point of writing this book.

Runaway, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2015.

This, on the other hand, has sympathetic characters galore.  Jack, Maurie and Dave escape their various family and carers to follow their 50-year-old path back to London, as a dying wish to Maurie; the body of a man they'd all assumed long dead has just been discovered, and Maurie knows who the murderer is.  The book switches between the 17-year-olds in 1965 and the 67-year-olds now; with the addition of Jack's grandson Ricky who they've more-or-less kidnapped.  It has elements of early Iain Banks in its humour and slight absurdity (think Espedair Street or The crow road); and is also able to turn instantly from farce to tragedy.  The plot's good, but the plot's largely unimportant compared to this cast of wonderful characters. Different from the other May I've read, and absolutely brilliant.

Monday, April 13, 2015

2015 books, #21-25

Inside Team Sky, by David Walsh. London; Simon and Schuster, 2014.

A much more encouraging book about cycling, this one, and one I was reading the week of the (rather unsatisfactory) CIRC report into doping.  Walsh, as a famous sceptic about the use of drugs in the sport, is invited by Sir Dave Brailsford to spend a year, or chunks of it, with Team Sky; he's asked to live with the team, ask any questions he wants, wander into any room, open all the cupboards and just generally poke around for any evidence that Sky's famous commitment to clean riding isn't as it seems.  Walsh comes at the task as someone who's almost afraid to believe that a team is this squeaky clean - and with the awareness that Sky have been caught out once over Geert Leinders's involvement - because his heart has been broken repeatedly by the sport he loves.  He's gradually won over by the 2013 Tour de France, and living on the inside of the team; Froome's success in that race makes this book a lovely thing to read.

Thinking about it only makes it worse, by David Mitchell. Kindle edition.

I've been reading this book in bits on the Kindle - I think reading it all in one chunk would be Too Much of a Good Thing, and might also make you feel quite depressed about the state of the world, which isn't what Mitchell's intending.  At least, I don't think that's what he's intending. This is a collection of Mitchell's columns collected together in themes.  Some of them I remember from the original, some I don't; in any case, it makes a fascinating picture of the things we've been obsessed with as a country over the last few years, and immensely readable.

The murder stone, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2009.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie have gone to celebrate their 35th anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasses, a luxury hotel they first visited before they were married.  All the other rooms have been booked up for a family reunion of the Finneys, a strange and disfunctional family who are present to honour the memory of Charles Moreau, Mrs Finney's ex-husband.  When a murder happens, the family are most disconcerted to find that they have the chief of the Bureau d'homicide du Sûreté du Québec in their midst. As ever with these books, the plot dances along, and Sims gives his usual excellent reading.

The devil's edge, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rodgers. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 2011.

Ben Cooper starts investigating some aggravated burglaries in the Peak District, one of which has involved the murder of a whole family. Meanwhile Diane Fry is, predictably, hating her secondment to management training in a nearby force. When Ben's brother shoots a man attempting to burgle his farm, Diane returns to investigate the incident; Ben, meanwhile, is partnered with an old school friend and finding connections between the crimes and events in Sheffield.  This is, as ever, extremely well-written; there's not enough Fry-Cooper interaction for my taste but the new dynamic is interesting, and this is a good reading.

One summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson [audiobook]. Read by the author. Bolinda Audio [Audible]: [S. l.], 2013.

It may be that if you look at any year, you can see many things coming together at once, but so many things which shaped 20th century America, and indeed the world, seemed to have their confluence in the summer of 1927.  Bryson looks at Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic; Babe Ruth's unbelievable summer of home runs; the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti; and the birth of the talking picture; and many more topics important at the time but since largely forgotten, like a devastating flood of the Mississippi. The characters weave in and out of each other's stories like foxtrotting couples on a dance floor, and Bryson is at his entertaining best with the incidental details and the interesting factoid.  He's also a chap who reads his own work well, so this is highly recommended as an audiobook.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

2015 books, #16-20

Adventures in stationery: a journey through your pencil case, by James Ward. London: Profile, 2014.

This is a lovely romp through the history of familiar stationery, from the "lead" pencil to the paperclip via the Bic biro, with its historical rivalries and patent wrangles.  A large amount of its charm is the familiarity of the objects discussed. If you've ever enjoyed a book by Simon Garfield, this may be the one for you...

Oranges are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. Library eBook.

Sorry for the lack of publication information - the library seems somewhat coy about which supplier it's using!  Think it might be OneClick Digital though.  This book was much funnier than I was remembering, but also more insubstantial somehow - it may just be that it's not out there on its own as a diary of teenage lesbian experience and religious strangeness - definitely worth a re-read though.

Criminal enterprise, by Owen Laukkanen [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: Oakhill, [n. d.]

Carter Tomlin seems to have a perfect life - big house, lovely wife, pair of charming children and a senior job in accountancy.  When his job goes south in the recession of 2008, and he's waiting to negotiate a loan at a new bank, he makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to rob it instead.  Then he robs another. FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere hones in on Tomlin from one direction, while Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens picks up the trail from another. The two cops haven't talked since their first case together, but that's all going to change very quickly; Carter Tomlin's decided he likes robbing banks for the thrill of the thing, and this makes it all very dangerous.  This is a second book by Laukkanen (although sadly the library doesn't have the first one yet), and an accomplished, well-plotted book.

Seven deadly sins: my pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh. London: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

More David Walsh - this is almost the story of LA Confidentiel, reviewed in the last set; why it came to be written, and what happened next.  There's a lot more Walsh and a lot less Armstrong in this one; Walsh admits that Armstrong took over his life, and his family, and his energies, for thirteen years, since the first Tour de France victory Walsh simply couldn't believe.  This is fascinating from the point of view of the recent history of cycling, but also as the story of an obsesstion; and as well-written as you'd expect from an award-winning journalist.

The crime writer's guide to police practice and procedure, by Michael O'Byrne. London: Robert Hale, 2009.

Michael O'Byrne uses his expertise in the police in Hong Kong, London, Surrey, Thames Valley and Bedfordshire, where he retired as chief constable, to write this guide for crime writers - he also declares an interest as a yet-to-be-published crime writer himself.  This is a wonderfully readable short guide to current police procedure, from the beginning of an investigation (plot tip: PCSOs are much less likely to throw up at the scene of a murder than CID officers, because they see dead bodies more regularly) through to forensics, presenting evidence in court, collaboration with international agencies and so on.  In each chapter there are also the odd hints and tips about how, while staying within believability, tension or plot elements might be introduced; and it's all presented with the idea that if you're going to throw away the rulebook to make a good story, you may as well know what that rulebook is.  Highly recommended for all readers of crime.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

2015 books, #11-15

A wanted man, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2012.

Lee Child and Jeff Harding are pretty much the dream team as far as I'm concerned; but this is also a really gripping book.  Reacher, still with the injuries incurred in The Affair, is hitching a lift to Virginia, hoping to meet the FBI agent he'd connected with during those events.  After a long time, he's picked up by three strangers, ostensibly work colleagues on a marketing trip.  But are they? And why have they picked up Reacher, whose facial injuries make him look even more dodgy than usual?  Something is wrong, and by the time Reacher works out what it is, he's in it up to his neck.  Classic Lee Child; not a word wasted (certainly not by Reacher, who characteristically "says nothing" many, many times) and gripping to the end.

LA confidentiel: les secrets de Lance Armstrong / Pierre Ballester et David Walsh. [Paris]: Editions de la Martinière, 2004.

This one took a while - my French cycling/drugs vocabulary needed a bit of brushing up - but definitely worth a read. Written in 2004, this book was the first journalistic exploration of Lance Armstrong's use of EPO and other banned substances, and interviews a selection of people including Frankie Andreu, Greg LeMond, and several other less famous cyclists whose careers were ended either by the side-effects of banned drugs, or the refusal to take them.  Several interviews with Armstrong himself are included.  Walsh has written since on this subject, but the fact that this book accelerated the investigation into Armstrong and the US Postal team makes it a powerful document.

I'll catch you, by Jesse Kellermann [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

The world's best-selling thriller writer, William de Vallée, disappears from his luxury yacht; his friend and fellow writer Arthur Pfefferkorn decides to pick up where Bill left off, and steals his manuscript (and leading man, Dick Stapp, a Reacher/Mitch Rapp hybrid).  Pfefferkorn has no idea where this theft will lead him, and descends into more and more farcical adventures in East and West Zlavia, including several escapes, a brace of resurrected dictators and a lot of unlikely facial hair.  This is an extremely funny parody of the hard-boiled spy novel, with the knowledge of thrillers picked up both from Kellermann's own previous novels but also those of his parents Faye and Jonathan; Lee Child meets Tom Sharpe in a picaresque adventure.

Village of secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead. London: Chatto and Windus, 2014.

I heard an interview with Moorehead on the BBC History podcast and was intrigued by this book, which tells the story of the people of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon and particularly the town of Chambon, who sheltered hundreds of Jewish children during the Vichy period and helped thousands more Jewish people to escape to Spain, Italy and Switzerland.  Moorehead was intrigued both by the story of these ordinary people who, inspired by their Protestant faith, set out to protect vulnerable Jews, and who subsequently went unacknowledged for many years. It's a fast-paced, moving account of individuals in a terrible time; and while there has been a lot of argument in recent years as to the degree of collaboration and resistance which went on, the basic goodness of people who had very little themselves in quietly defying the authorities shines through.

At death's window, by Jim Kelly. London: Severn House, 2014.

A family out on a sand-bank discover the tethered body of a man; meanwhile burglaries with a political dimension have been happening to second homes all around the area.  Initially, the murder looks like the act of gangs of rival samphire pickers, but Peter Shaw and George Valentine aren't so sure.  Then a second body is discovered, and everything becomes, if anything, less clear.  As ever, this is set on the North Norfolk coast; while this is a well-written, intriguing thriller with a genuinely good twist in the tail, Kelly's ability to describe the villages and skies of the coast is alone worth reading this book for.

Friday, February 13, 2015

2015 books, #6-10

A willing victim, by Laura Wilson [audiobook]. Read by Séan Barrett. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

In 1956, DI Ted Stratton is investigating the death of Jeremy Lloyd in London; his enquiries take him to the countryside, to the Foundation for Spiritual Understanding founded by a Mr Roth.  There, he's bewildered by a cast of rather strange characters, including an immaculately-conceived child, Michael.  When a woman's body is found in nearby woods, Stratton presumes that it's Michael's mother, but events become steadily stranger.  Well written and with a twist in the tail.

A blind eye, by GM Ford [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Chivers/BBC, 2006.

Frank Corso and Meg Dougherty are ostensibly heading out for a photography shoot for Corso's latest true crime book; it isn't until a little later that Corso reveals he's skipping town to avoid a grand jury subpoena.  They're caught in a blizzard driving between airports, and shelter in a semi-derelict house; when they tear up some floorboards to make a fire, they find the bodies of a family. Minus the wife, who turns out to have a string of aliases.  Corso teams up with the local sheriff (an attractive woman) to investigate.  Tightly plotted, a lot of humour, and you can't go wrong with a Jeff Harding reading...

Fathomless riches, or, How I went from pop to pulpit, by the Rev Richard Coles. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2014.

This was a lovely book; despite many of the events depicted in it!  Richard Coles has written this autobiography and confession telling about the absurdities of 1980s pop-stardom (doing Red Wedge gigs between tours of unimaginable excess), the horror of living in the generation decimated by AIDS, the years between where he was lost and drifting, and his religious reawakening and eventual ordination.  He brings wit and extreme honesty to his story, and describes his religious experience with a combination of matter-of-factness, incredulity and joy with which I could really empathise.  And it sounds like him speaking, which isn't the case with all autobiographies.

The cruellest month, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2007.

It's Easter; but the egg-hunt isn't the only thing going on in Three Pines. Someone's attempting a resurrection of another kind, holding a séance at the old Hadley House, scene of previous crimes; and the result is another death, a woman apparently frightened to death. Armand Gamache is called in again with his team, but they have more than one worry. Someone is out to discredit and disgrace Gamache; someone very close to him.  Another wonderfully written book by Louise Penny, with some excellent three-dimensional characters...

Etape: the untold story of the Tour de France's defining stages, by Richard Moore. London: HarperSport, 2014.

Moore has explored the Tour de France by selecting classic, representational or quite frankly bonkers stages over the last 40 years; and, with only one exception (that of Marco Pantani) interviewed the main players.  This book features interviews with Chris Boardman, Mark Cavendish, Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, David Millar and, controversially, Lance Armstrong (who, as we now know, never won anything at all...)  It gives a flavour of the biggest bike race in the world from the point of view of riders, trainers, coaches and administrators, and does it all wonderfully entertainingly.  You get the stage, but you also learn about the background, what made this stage so important, and the repercussions; and you're also constantly reminded about the dark, doping days in cycling's history.

Of which, more in the next set of reviews...

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Poem for St Brigid

I'm not sure this is still a Thing; but I realised today that it was St Brigid's day. And I said a prayer for the Brigids/Bridgets I know, and celebrated that it's Candlemas Eve and we may be able to see our way out of the dark from here.  This was helped by a final Christmas celebration, eating and exchanging presents with a friend.

I was given a complete Robert Frost for Christmas 2013; this poem seems to sum up the fragility so many of us feel at this time of year

Peril of hope, by Robert Frost.

It is right in there
Betwixt and between
The orchard bare
And the orchard green,

When the boughs are right
In a flowery burst
Of pink and white,
That we fear the worst.

For there's not a clime
But at any cost
Will take that time
For a night of frost.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

2015 books, #1-5

Cop town, by Karin Slaughter [audiobook]. Read by Lorelei King. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

Kate Murphy, a Vietnam War widow, decides she can't just sit around waiting for her Country Club parents to pick up her bills, and joins the police in Atlanta in 1974.  She pairs up with Maggie Lawson, who has a brother and an uncle in the police service, and becomes embroiled in a situation which involves Ken Lawson's partner and his family... Good reading, as ever, by Lorelei King; slightly overwrought writing, as ever, by Karin Slaugher; entertaining, and well-plotted.  The sexual and racial politics of 1970s policing in the US South are particularly interesting points...

A restless evil, by Ann Granger [audiobook]. Read by Judith Boyd. [Rearsby, Leics.]: WF Howes, 2002.

A Mitchell and Markby book. While looking for a house as a pre-condition to marriage, Meredith stumbles across a corpse in the local church. And as it turns out, the house was also involved in a disappearance and murder in the past. A nicely judged book with a twist in the tail...

Blessed are those who thirst, by Anne Holt. London: Corvus, 2013.

Hanne Wilhelmsen is sent out, repeatedly, to Saturday night massacres; vast quantities of blood, with a mystery number at the centre. Meanwhile, she's investigating a particularly nasty rape. As Hanne gradually becomes aware that the cases are connected, more random facts threaten to throw her off track; and the victims are also taking action. This is more of a novella at just over 200 pages, but holds the attention...

Foxglove summer, by Ben Aaronovitch. London: Gollancz, 2014.

Fifth in the Peter Grant series. Grant's sent well out of his comfort zone into the Cotswolds to investigate the disappearance of two children. He's brought his wellies.  This is an excellent follow-up to the other books in this series; particularly liked the lack of country stereotyping. Not sure it drives what seems to be the main plot arc all that far, but it's very good reading for all that.

The good, the bad and the furry: life with the world's most melancholy cat and other whiskery friends, by Tom Cox. London: Sphere, 2014.

The next in the series of these entertaining, hilarious books.  If you've ever been under the delusion you've owned a cat, or recognised that a cat owns you, it's a lovely, quick, diverting book, with a cast of characters including Tom's Dad, who speaks entirely in capitals and advises everyone to look out for FOOKWITS AND LOONIES; and, of course, The Bear, a 19-year-old philosopher and mystic disguised as a small black cat.