Saturday, July 04, 2015

2015 books, #41-45

Never go back, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2013.

Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet a woman whose voice he liked over the phone. When he arrives, not only is she absent, but he finds himself arrested by the military police for a 16-year-old assault, and is also under disciplinary proceedings for having fathered a child at about the same time.  Reacher finds himself being summoned back under military discipline, and confronted with all the exasperation that being under a bad commander can bring.  Absolutely up to the usual standard; and the Reacher/Susan Turner combination is a wonderful thing.

Dreaming spies,  by Laurie R. King. London: Allison and Busby, 2015.

Mary Russell heads back to Oxford to study, and partly to give herself and husband Sherlock Holmes some space after a long voyage.  What she finds on her doorstep when she comes back home one evening plunges her back into events on that voyage between Mumbai and Edo, and into the Japanese culture she and Holmes encountered there.  The Russell books have sometimes been a little variable in quality, but this is one of the good ones, and highly recommended.

The Zig-zag girl, by Elly Griffiths [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Philpott. London: Quercus, 2014.

Not a Ruth Galloway book, this one - and set around Griffiths's home town of Brighton.  Three veterans of a secret army unit are brought together by the murder of a magician's assistant, found chopped neatly into three in three trunks.  Edgar Stephens, now a policeman, tracks down old comrade Max Mephisto, only to find that the victim is known to him.  Stephens's theory that the murder has something to do with his, and Mephisto's, army experience is borne out by another murder, and it then becomes a fight against an unknown enemy, with a twist in the tail I'd guessed, but only just guessed...  This appears to be the beginning of another series - I'd happily read about Stephens again.

Eddy Merckx: the cannibal, by Daniel Friebe. London: Ebury, 2012.

I learned a lot from this book - the climate of cycling in the 1970s, why Merckx was feared so much by his fellow riders because of his ferocious need to win in all circumstances, where he fits in with cycling history, and so on.  But sadly I didn't learn to like the man.  I wanted to - Friebe obviously does - but somehow I just couldn't take to him...  An interesting, well-written read though!

Recipe for life: the autobiography, by Mary Berry [audiobook]. Read by Patricia Hodge. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes/Lamplight, 2013.

Another biography, but this time a bit more of a known quantity.  Mary Berry doesn't confound expectations here - she has the blend of the highly conventional (she has strong opinions on nose-piercing, tight maternity wear and inappropriate dress) and the groundbreaking (working constantly from the early 1960s when finding a husband would have been perfectly acceptable to her family), and her wicked sense of humour shines through.  She doesn't flinch from describing either her parents' bewilderment at her lack of academic achievement at school, or the death of her son William as a teenager in his first car.  It's a story of constant reinvention.  One of the things which stood out for me was also her generous praise for other cookery presenters and writers, particularly those like Jamie Oliver who have a completely different style.  The reading by Patricia Hodge is predictably wonderful.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

2015 books, #36-40

Exposed, by Liza Marklund [audiobook]. Read by India Fisher. Bath: AudioGo, [n.d.]

Annika Bengtzon is on a summer internship from her provincial newspaper, working at Sweden's largest tabloid newspaper.  She's not initially impressed at being assigned to the tip-off line, but then has a call to say that a young woman's body has been found at a cemetery. Fiercely ambitious, Annika is not always an attractive character - she's prepared to use people for her own purposes - but the plot is gripping, involving senior politicians, nightclub strippers and rival newspapers.  I did feel that the ending let it down somewhat, but I'd read another in this series.  The main plot, it's explained, is an incident which happened to Marklund herself when she was a journalist; and India Fisher's reading is very good (I was somewhat worried when I realised she is the breathy voice of Masterchef, but she was considerably less mannered here!).

Put me back on my bike: in search of Tom Simpson, by William Fotheringham. London: Yellow Jersey, 2002.

A biography of Tom Simpson by someone who admires him, but is also concerned with drug-taking in sport; Simpson comes over as a tremendously attractive, flawed character and I really hadn't realised quite how famous he was in his time, as the first British cycling superstar. Fotheringham tells the story of Simpson's life and tragically early death, and also talks to medical experts and those who were around at the time about the use of amphetamines, alcohol and other substances in Simpson's time. It's an unvarnished account, but the respect for the man's achievement shines through both in the main narrative and in the interviews with those who were close to Simpson.

A slip of the keyboard: collected non-fiction, by Terry Pratchett [audiobook].  Read by Michael Fenton Stevens. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

Oh, Pterry; we miss you.  And never as much while listening to the acerbic wit of the man talking about how to look after authors on tour; how not to piss off authors by sending them unsolicited manuscripts; how to become an author; what it's like writing for local newspapers and as a nuclear power station press officer... Tour diaries, articles for newspapers, introductions for SF Con programmes... it's all here. And then, towards the end, the fury and exploration after the Alzheimer's diagnosis, and the passionate belief in the right to decide on the manner and moment of one's death.  I'm not sure you even need to have enjoyed anything by Terry Pratchett to enjoy reading this...

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. London: Andersen Press, 2007.

This was my annual "challenged" book.  The American Library Association puts out a list each year of the 10 books which have been subject to the most attempted bannings at libraries. This year, this was the top book so, as far as I was concerned, a must-read. Apparently unsuitable due to being "anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”
So, obviously, I had high hopes of this one going in, and they weren't disappointed.

Arnold/Junior is an energetic, opinionated, bright narrator, with a huge determination to succeed. After a couple of terrible events, he decides that only enrolment at the local selective, white high school will get him out of his current situation in a Native American reservation.  Unfortunately this alienates many of his previous friends while failing to win him new ones.  This is a brilliant depiction of teenage life, lack of belonging, the beauty of realising how your family and community fit into the wider world... It's told with compassion and a huge amount of humour - it's a hilarious book - and I'm so glad the ALA brought it to my attention...

The library paradox, by Catherine Shaw. London: Allison and Busby, 2006.

Vanessa Weatherburn, married to Maths don Arthur and living peacefully in Cambridge with her children Cecily and Cedric in the late 1890s, has a penchant for private investigation.  When she's asked by dons from London to investigate what is essentially a locked-room mystery, she can't resist. The investigation brings Vanessa into contact with the Hasidic community in North London, and the academic community based around King's College London.  The dénouement is somewhat weak, but the colours and flavours, and the exposition of Victorian attitudes towards Judaism, is rather wonderful.  And there's some Dreyfus Affair, which was about the only thing in late 19th century French history which really intrigued me.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

2015 books, #31-35

Knife edge, by Paul Adam [audiobook]. Read by Seán Barrett. Oxford: Isis, 2009.

In London, a Kurdish immigrant is murdered and found on Hackney Marshes; Joe Verdi, an investigative reporter, makes contact with part of the man's family, but the man's wife Irena has vanished into the world of illegal agricultural workers in Norfolk.  Joe tries to track Irena down, and investigate the trade in illegal workers, by going undercover as a Romanian migrant worker.  Meanwhile his partner Ellie is investigating the death of a neighbour due to typhoid, and making connections between the two cases.  This is an occasionally horrifying exploration of the world of illegal immigration, and of the price we pay for cheap food; the geography of the Downham/Lynn area is spot on here, and Barrett's reading is as excellent as ever.

Blaze: the forensics of fire, by Nicholas Faith. New York: St Martin's, 1999.

This book looks at the history of fire investigation through examples of some of the most infamous fires in the UK, Ireland and the US.  It's extremely well-written, as you might expect from a guy who has been in editorial posts at the Sunday Times and the Economist; and what surprised me was how recently forensic investigation, used in crime detection for so long, was introduced to the area of fire research.  There's also a description of how computer modelling is used to explain the causes of many fires.  I picked this up a a result of the Val McDermid book, where it was cited several times, and will try and track down some of Faith's other books on crime and air accident investigation.  Slightly harrowingly, one of the fires discussed is at the World Trade Centre, but this book was written before September 11, and the assurance Faith has that the fire precautions there worked extremely well seems sadly dated now.

How to build a girl, by Caitlin Moran. London: Ebury Press, 2014.

I am eating this noise like mouthfuls of freezing, glittering fog. I am filling with it. I am using it as energy. Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you're going.

This is brilliant.  Moran emphasises that this book isn't autobiographical - it's just about some other girl who grew up in Wolverhampton with a lot of siblings at exactly the same time as she did...  She does a fabulous job of remembering exactly what it was like being a teenage girl in a dull town; and interweaves it with tales of overly precocious (and hilarious) rock journalism and excess; she takes you along for the ride while also being able to laugh at herself in retrospect.  It's a wonderful, wonderful book.  It is, as you'd expect, very sweary and pretty no-hold-barred; and all the better for it.

Rough ride, by Paul Kimmage. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2007. (E-book version)

(Couldn't have a set of book reviews without a cycling book, obviously!)
Paul Kimmage had four seasons as a professional bike racer in the late 1980s, leaving the sport in 1990. He has immense affection for the sport, and a total hatred of the dopers who brought it down. He's very honest about his own professional career, and gives a good idea of the life of a professional domestique in an era with considerably less money in the sport, where cyclists had to wash their own kit after seven hours on the road and accommodation was occasionally on school floors. And he's also followed all the scandals, and the scientific developments, which are included in a series of epilogues to the different editions (this was originally published shortly after his retirement in 1990). It's an excellent, predictably moving account of what happens to the majority of contenders in professional sport; but with the additional horrible twist that nothing in cycling in that era or the succeeding one was as it seemed.  I started reading this in the immediate aftermath of the rather puzzling CIRC Report, with its unsubstantiated claim from one (unnamed) rider that 80% of the peleton were still doping; it does make quite sad reading.

Teenage revolution, by Alan Davies. London: Penguin, 2009.

Alan Davies was born at the other end of the country from me, but only a year before; so many of the people and events he talks about in this book are recognisable and familiar - I suspect I spent a lot of the time reading this book nodding my head...  Davies canters through his adolescence and student years in full recognition that he was a bit of an idiot a lot of the time; some of it's hilariously funny, and some quite moving, but all of it's entertaining.



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.