Saturday, June 25, 2016

2016 books, #41-45

Gone to ground, by John Harvey [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2007.

Stephen Bryan, a Cambridge academic, is found murdered in his bathroom. Initially suspicions fall on his partner, Mark, or on a random sexual encounter; but the loss of Bryan's laptop also makes the detectives wonder whether something in his research on 50s screen actress Stella Leonard might have something to do with it.  It may be that I listened to this in too many bouts, or it might be that Wincott's delivery was even more mannered than usual, but I couldn't find myself warming to this one, and the plot seemed strangely disjointed given the quality of Harvey's usual writing.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. London: Virago, 2014.

A companion piece to Home and Gilead, both of which my book group had read; but does also stand on its own, according to others who didn't belong to the group then.  I found this less satisfying than the previous two books, but still a tour de force of writing.  Lila is a compelling character, constantly poised for flight, and her strained relationship with her kind, elderly clergyman husband is at turns incredibly sad and rather wonderful.  The book roams freely across Lila's life in a sort of kaleidoscope, Highly recommended.

Waiting for Alaska, by John Green. London: HarperCollins, 2006.

2015's most challenged book, according to the American Library Association.  And as good as you'd expect, given that.  Miles is sent to high school at his dad's old boarding school, Culver Creek in Alabama, and meets his roommate Chip (The Colonel), friends Takumi and Lara, and the amazing, unpredictable Alaska Young.  There's smoking, and drinking, and teenage pranks; and a lot about religion and meaning; and something utterly dreadful happens in the middle I won't spoiler.  It's the kind of wonderful, lively, life-affirming book that some people can't resist trying to ban.

Death at Victoria Dock, by Kerry Greenwood. London: Constable, 2014 [originally published in 2002].

Phryne Fisher is blamelessly (for a change) driving through Victoria Dock when she's shot at, and a beautiful young man dies in her arms.  He turns out to be a Latvian, and a member of an anarchist group.  Phryne pitches in to investigate the murder, Meanwhile she's also hired by a man called Waddington-Forsythe to look for his daughter Alicia; Waddington-Forsythe père and fille are both deeply unpleasant individuals, so Phryne's thoughts often tend towards the anarchists.  This is another very pleasant romp.

The woman in blue, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2016.

Ruth Galloway is invited to meet an old friend at Walsingham, where the friend is at a conference. Surprisingly, Ruth's fellow archaeology student is now a vicar, and she's been getting threatening letters. Meanwhile Nelson is also in Walsingham investigating the death of a young woman who had left a nearby drug treatment centre in the middle of the night and been strangled.  Relationships, always complicated in this series, become even more tangled in this one, and the very strange atmosphere of Walsingham contributes to this.  Well up to the usual standard of these books, and another unputdownable read.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

2016 books, #36-40

Coffin road, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2016.

A man wakes up, soaking wet, on a beach.  He has absolutely no memory of how he got there - or, indeed, of who he is.  When he gets back to where he seems to have been living, he finds he's told people he's a writer, but there's no draft of a book on his laptop, and no personal identification in the cottage.  Trying to retrace his own movements, without revealing he has no clue who he is, he stumbles across a body. But did he kill the dead man?  Another brilliant book from Peter May; genuinely gripping.

London rain, by Nicola Upson [audiobook]. Read by Sandra Duncan. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2015.

Another of Upson's Josephine Tey novels.  It's the Coronation of 1937; the implications of the Abdication rumble on, but London has put on its glad-rags and is ready to celebrate.  All but Vivien Beresford, anyway; her husband has been unfaithful one too many times, and she's set on avenging her humiliation.  Vivien is the temporary editor of the Radio Times, and her husband Antony is one of the BBC's most respected commentators, so there's a lot of backstage-at-the-BBC in this one.  Josephine is there to watch the Beeb bring Richard of Bordeaux to the airwaves, and gets involved,  Meanwhile Josephine's uncertainty about her on-off relationship with Marta is coming to a head...  If you've enjoyed other books in this series, definitely keeps the standard up.

A trick of the light, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

Three Pines stakes its claim in the murder stakes alongside St Mary Mead and Midsomer, as yet another body is found in its peaceful surroundings, this time after Clara Morrow's triumphant vernissage in Montreal.  Initially, the woman's identity is a mystery; once it's discovered who she is, all sorts of secrets, mainly based around the Québec art-world twenty years earlier, start creeping out. Gamache, Beauvoir and co. investigate; but Beauvoir has problems of his own...  Another excellent book in this series.

The steel kiss, by Jeffery Deaver. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.

A Lincoln Rhyme novel (this is obviously the post in which I catch up with series...)  Lincoln has resigned from consultancy with the NYPD after a disastrous case; and Amelia hasn't forgiven him for it. However, a dreadful event in which Amelia fails to save a man from being eaten alive by an escalator motor brings Rhyme back from lecturing to investigation on the civil damages case. And he has a new sidekick...  This is good - it's Deaver - but there are one or two "reveals" which don't quite ring true; still entirely worth reading though.

Smoke and mirrors, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2015.

A Stephens and Mephisto mystery, set in Brighton in the aftermath of World War II.  Two children go missing, and Stephens is investigating when he hears of an eerie connection with an earlier murder in the theatre in which Max Mephisto is in rehearsals for Aladdin in panto.  I like the period details here, but somehow this one fails to catch fire...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

2016 books. #31-35

To rise again at a decent hour, by Joshua Ferris. London: Penguin, 2014.

A book group book. Again, one I'd not have read otherwise; unusually, one I wouldn't have minded not reading.  A New York dentist is told by a patient that he's a member of a persecuted religious group.  He has a history of girlfriends (Catholic, Jewish) who are part of religious groups, and has mainly been in love with their entire families... But all of a sudden, someone's stealing his identity.... I really didn't enjoy reading this - but did enjoy the discussion.

You are dead, by Peter James [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Weyman. [Rearsby, Leics.]: WF Howes [n.d.]

A Roy Grace book.  A woman is abducted from an underground car park while on the phone with her fiancé; another woman's body is discovered near Hove Lagoon.  Meanwhile, Grace, Cleo and baby Noah are attempting to move house... It has a plot, and a good cast of characters; and a very gripping ending; but it really did lose me in the middle. This may have been because of a somewhat lacklustre reading; or a not-very-good middling plot; not sure..

Reacher said nothing: Lee Child and the making of  Make me, by Andy Martin. London: Transworld, 2015.

I loved this.  Andy Martin thought that writing a book about watching Lee Child (Jim Grant) write his 20th Reacher novel would be a good thing to do. He then found that if he didn't get onto the project within a week, he'd have missed the boat. If you're a Child/Reacher fan, this is a fascinating look at how the books get made.  I love the writing of the first chapter.  You bury a body, and have no idea who the bloke was, or how he'd pissed off the bad guys; you have no more idea than the reader, at time of writing, what's going to happen. And you don't go back...

Already dead, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rogers. Oxford: ISIS, 2013.

Ben Cooper's still out recovering from the horrible death of his fiancée.  Diane Fry has been seconded in as a temporary sergeant. And a man's body has been found in a shallow runnel.  I'm really not sure about how the plot works out for this one, but I was also much more interested in the relationships; and in all cases, I was disappointed.  This book really didn't hang together for me. And it seems that Fry is much more akin to The Bridge's Saga Noren here than to anything we've seen in the past from her.  I'll read the next one, because the series has been pretty terrific so far; but this one really didn't work as far as I'm concerned...

The Burry Man's day, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable and Robinson, 2006.

Dandy and her friend Daisy go to visit a schoolfriend, Frederica, (school nickname Buttercup) and her rather lovely American husband at his strange ancestral castle in Perthshire.  They're around for the Burry Man's fair - a weekend of fun, with a somewhat sinister figure at the middle of it; the Burry Man himself wears a suit made of plant burrs, and tours the local pubs drinking whisky.  This year, though, the Burry Man is behaving strangely, and then, once out of the suit, the man who has taken the part collapses and dies.  Dandy and friend Alec investigate, and discover all manner of local secrets.  Very entertaining.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

2016 books, #26-30

Bury your dead, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Armand Gamache is in Québec City, recovering from the effects of his previous case. Jean-Guy Beauvoir is in Three Pines, doing the same.  Neither of them can resist an investigation, though, when it's presented to them; in Beauvoir's case, the conviction of Olivier in the previous book; in Gamache's, a centuries' old mystery culminating in a new murder.  But throughout both stories, there's an extra voice; the voice of young Agent Paul Morin, speaking from the grave.  All three mysteries come to a climax at the same time; it's a fascinating bit of storytelling and quite haunting, literally and figuratively. Brilliant.

The world of cycling according to G, by Geraint Thomas, written with Tom Fordyce. London: Quercus, 2015.

This is such a good book. Once I've reviewed it, I'll be returning it to the pile by the bed so I can dip into it again.  It's funny, all the way through.  It's informative - there are even diagrams to explain things like echelons. It has some brilliant anecdotes - the terrible things Geraint and Ed Clancy did to Mark Cavendish's strict diet, roasting lamb chops in front of Cav, etc.  And it shows both the pain of endurance cycling, and the reasons someone like G will get up in the morning with a cracked pelvis and go out there again.  Oh, and it really is so funny.  Read this book.

The disappeared, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bristol: Chivers/BBC Audiobooks, [n.d.]

Jenny Cooper is getting used to her job as Severn Valley's coroner; but then she has to deal with the distraught mother of a Muslim boy who has just had him declared dead. The police have written him off as a Jihadi; but Jenny feels the mother deserves an inquest into the disappearance given some of the suspicious circumstances.  Meanwhile Jenny's own teenage boy isn't wildly happy to be living with her, and she's torn between two potential relationships. Sian Thomas gives a good reading, and this is another excellent book by Hall.

Jacquard's web: how a hand-loom led to the birth of the information age, by James Essinger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Serendipitous find while idly looking for weaving in the University Library's catalogue.  This is a fascinating book which takes you through the influence of Jacquard's punch-card weaving invention on Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, through the business calculators of the 19th century and through to the birth of companies like IBM and into the computer age.  At all stages, the author has dug out details of the explicit mentions of the Jacquard weaving process and its influence in information science.  For anyone interested in either subject, this book is fascinating and extremely readable.  Having spent a couple of days tracing Jacquard around Croix-Rousse last year (still haven't blogged the photos!), even more fascinating.

Extraordinary people, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2006.

A new-to-me Peter May series - delighted to find I like this one too.  Enzo MacLeod lives in Cahors with daughter Sophie, and works as a professor of biology.  But his past history as a forensic scientist comes back to him with a wager made with a journalist that he'll solve the disappearance and suspected murder of a prominent politician ten years before.  The first clues to what happened to Jacques Gaillard come quickly, but they just reveal more puzzles, and as Enzo and Roger continue to investigate, they run into trouble from the authorities.  There's an interesting plot here which just fails to fall into Da Vince Code style occult conspiracy theory; and Enzo operating both as a scientist and an exasperated Dad is fun.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016 books, #21-25

The moth catcher, by Ann Cleeves [audiobook]. Read by Janine Birkett. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

Valley Farm is a tiny community, a big house and three luxury homes built on the land, lived in by wealthy people enjoying their early retirement and describing themselves as "retired hedonists".  The peace of the place is shattered when the young house-sitter at the big house, Patrick, is found dead by the side of the road.  Vera and her team investigate, and immediately find another body in the granny flat at the back of the house.  The only connection they can find between the two men is a fascination with moths.  As they dig into the history of the people in the new development, they find a great deal of boredom and dissatisfaction, and some very nasty secrets.  Janine Birkett does an excellent job with the different Durham/Newcastle/Northumbrian accents here.

Oh, and if you've already watched this in the TV series, still worth watching - unrecognisable.  I waited to finish listening to this to avoid plot spoilers - really needn't have bothered...

And the mountains echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Abdullah and his younger sister Pari live with their father and new stepmother in 1950s Afghanistan; until Pari is taken to live with a wealthy couple at the age of three and a half.  The book follows their lives, and that of their little brother Iqbal and their uncle Nabi; as well as the history of a Greek facial surgeon who comes to work in Afghanistan to repair the physical destruction caused by the war.  There are dark secrets here, too - and the savagery of poverty and war in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora over sixty years.  This is an intensely moving book, but has many loose ends - characters appear and then disappear just as suddenly - and somehow doesn't quite satisfy.  (Quick disclaimer that I haven't read any others of Hosseini's novels and I suspect a few of the characters may appear elsewhere, so this may make a lot more sense to people who've read the other two.)  It does give a fascinating look into a country we mainly know for its destruction, though.

The yellow jersey club: inside the minds of the Tour de France winners, by Edward Pickering. London: Bantam, 2015.

The idea for this book is the collection of living Tour winners which were assembled by ASO for the centenary tour in 2002. Pickering then decided to look at the post-Mercx-era winners, and the result is a series of short profiles of 21 Tour winners since 1975.  Some, like Bernard Thévenet, are less known to people like me who've only come to the sport recently.  Some stories are mostly recounted by the rider's peers. Some, like Greg LeMond, can talk the hind leg off a donkey.  And there's the odd chapter, like the one on Chris Froome, which seems to have been assembled from clippings.  And Lance Armstrong gets a chapter, because there'd be a huge gap in the record if not; Pickering doesn't pull any punches about the sport's drug-soaked history, though.  Definitely worth a read, if only to confirm the impression that these guys are all ever so slightly mad.

After the Armistice ball, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable, 2005.

The first book in a series featuring Dandy Gilver, a society woman somewhat buried in early 1920s Perthshire with her staid husband, and her two sons away at boarding school.  A friend in trouble makes appeal to Dandy to investigate a supposed diamond theft, and she seizes the opportunity.  The investigation soon takes a tragic turn, but Dandy and friend-of-the-family Alec become rapidly convinced that everyone has something to hide.  An excellent beginning to a series - have already reserved the next one...

The rider, by Tim Krabbé. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. London: Bloomsbury International, 2003. Originally published in 1978.

This is the weirdest, simultaneously documentary and hallucinatory book, the story of a 150km race told in 150 or so pages.  Krabbé is an author and former chess champion who also took up cycle racing in his late 20s, and rode many races in Holland, Belgium and France.  In this case, the race is the fictional Tour du Mont Aigoual (reconstructed since by various publications). Every move in the race is relived, and then there are special appearances by heroes of the sport, cycling alongside Krabbé in fantasy moments.  This was nominated by The Guardian as the best cycling book ever; the only way I can describe it is as an existentialist novel on wheels... Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2016 books, #16-20

The climb, by Chris Froome, with David Walsh. London: Penguin, 2015.

I enjoyed Cav's first autobiography (see last reviews post); but this one really is fascinating, mainly because Froome is always a bit of an enigma when you hear him in interview (other than Ned Boulting's great Sports stories documentary last year set mainly in South Africa and Kenya, which was lovely).  Froome takes us through his childhood in Kenya and South Africa - first in Kenya with his mother, and then later at boarding school in Johannesburg.  You realise quite how... different... his upbringing, and cycling experiences, are from the norm of UK and European riders. There's the story of his having sent an e-mail purporting to be from the Kenyan minister for sport to get himself into the 2007 World Championships as manager, team-leader and sole rider (and then felling a race official on the first corner of the time-trial); a heart-stopping story about his having nearly killed an old man who was coming out of an Italian off-licence; and the odd funny, never insulting, stories about team-mates.  (This, about the Sky Tenerife training camp: The rooms have small prison-cell TV sets that only trade in Spanish. There is nothing interesting to do and no distraction. We rely on each other for entertainment and, knowing just how entertaining we all are, we take the precaution of bringing box sets of television series.)  Over and over, there are the twin pillars of fairness, and hard work; Froome's passionate anti-doping stance comes through, as does his complete dedication to a goal.  There's a fair amount about the Wiggins/Froome rivalry here, but really, that's not what this book's about.  I like the fact that David Walsh (the man who worked so hard to expose Lance Armstrong over so many years) has a proper place on the title page - but he's let Froome speak here, and it's a funny, engaging, book about a very nice chap.

Career of evil, by Robert Galbraith. London: Sphere, 2015.

The third Cormoran Strike, and utterly true to form.  Robin receives a severed leg in a box; and discovers to her horror that there are potentially four people who might want to send such a thing to Strike. One motive is entirely personal; the other three accumulated in Strike's career of making himself unpopular with very nasty people. Strike and Robin investigate, while Robin's relationship and impending marriage to (the rather awful) Matthew also cause problems.  There are a couple of really horrific characters here, notably the dreadful Tempest, bullying and self-obsessed webmistress of a 'transabled' forum for apotemnophiliacs and those who wish to become disabled (this doesn't, as you'd imagine, go down well with Strike). Brilliant, occasionally scary, sometimes extremely funny, often moving; I think this series may be getting better as it goes on; but I'm a sucker for series where the characters' relationships and personalities are as strong as the plots.

Lifetime, by Liza Marklund [audiobook]. Read by India Fisher. Bath: AudioGO, [n.d.]

Journalist Annika Bengtson has separated from her husband; then she and her two kids only just escape a house fire.  Meanwhile, one of the most famous police officers in Sweden is found murdered in his bed, his 4-year-old son missing, his wife suspected of the crime which was committed with her police weapon.  Desperate to take her mind off her own troubles, Annika starts to investigate the police officer's killing - if the wife is innocent, as she claims, who could have abducted the child and murdered her husband?  As ever, Annika is unable to stay away from trouble... and the fact that the police think she might have torched her own flat isn't helping.  I do enjoy these - but I wonder if I'd sit down and read the books, rather than listening to the audiobooks - Annika annoys the hell out of me...

Rogue lawyer, by John Grisham. London: Hodder, 2015.

After Gray mountain, I was expecting something equally epic from this book; but this is effectively a set of short stories tied together by one character.  Sebastian Rudd is someone famous for defending the indefensible client, and is hated by the police, prosecutors and his ex-wife.  We see his custody battles for his small son interspersed by cases where defendants of various stripes appear. Rudd has ethics, but those ethics don't necessarily correspond with the law; and he is prepared to bend rules in what he regards as a rightful cause.  It's Grisham, so it's tremendously entertaining; but not one of his greats.

The black sun, by James Twining [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics: Clipper/WF Howes, 2006.

In London, an Auschwitz survivor is murdered in hospital and the arm with his camp tattoo is removed; in Maryland, an Enigma machine is stolen; in Prague, mindless vandalism at a synagogue fails to conceal the theft of a Czech painting.  Tom Kirk becomes involved, and soon realises nothing's quite what it seems.  This started off fascinatingly, but it degenerates into the normal Nazi-gold type of conspiracy thriller, and is less interesting for that.  I'll carry on with this series, and hope the theme's different next time, as I do like Kirk and his sidekick.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

2016 books, #11-15

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill [audiobook]. Read by David Thorpe.  Bath: Oakhill, 2010.

I wanted to read this because it was about cricket in America, and murder.  And it sort of is, and sort of isn't.  I really don't know what to say about this book other than that I'd hoped to enjoy it and eventually just sort of left, confused.  The fact I had to listen to the final disc twice, and still didn't work out what the author was intending to say maybe expresses either my lack of attention, or the lack of focus of this book...

This dark road to mercy, by Wiley Cash. London: Transworld, 2014.

I really wanted to love this book.  Cash's previous book, A land more kind than home, was a tour de force.  This sets itself up magnificently; a 12-year old and a 6-year old are put into a children's home in North Carolina; their loser dad abducts them; people are chasing the dad... But somehow it fails to deliver.  Having said that; this was a book-group book and we had so many things to talk about having read it...  And when I say I was disappointed - that's in comparison with the previous book which is quite astonishing.  This is still pretty good.

Boy racer: my journey to Tour de France record-breaker, by Mark Cavendish. Epub format. [Originally London: Ebury, 2010.]

Cav's first autobiography, written in 2009; and as opinionated and passionate (and occasionally chippy) as you might imagine if you've listened to any of his famously unpredictable post-race interviews. What I didn't necessarily expect was his ruthlessly realistic view of his own talents and how they match up to those of other sprinters; but he's someone who is always the first to praise his team's performance... This takes us through Cavendish's childhood, early racing, the Academy, and his first couple of really successful series with 9 Tour de France stage wins and the massive disappointment of being the only member of the UK Cycling team not to win a medal at Beijing. Cav's notorious photographic memory for every race is shown at its full advantage here - and his collaboration with Daniel Friebe (whose contribution is somewhat hidden in the credits at the very end) has made for a wonderfully readable book.

Sex, lies and handlebar tape: the remarkable life of Jacques Anquetil, the first five-times winner of the Tour de France, by Paul Howard. Edinburgh; London: Mainstream, 2008.

I had to get this out for the name - saw it in the bibliography at the end of another cycling book.  I didnt know much about Anquetil - his glory years were when I was a toddler - but he'd been the hero of my French penfriend's Dad, and one of those names who keeps coming up.  I can't say I particularly warmed to him as a person, which is probably why this has taken me months to read and I've only finished it now because it needs to be back to the University Library in a couple of weeks; but it's a fascinating story. Not least the fact that his daughter is also his step-granddaughter, the child of his stepdaughter - something the French penfriend's Dad didn't ever mention.  Anquetil's constant quest to avoid financial distress, even when he was earning hugely, and his seemingly unequivocal endorsement of doping, are alienating; but the book's a window of a world into the decade before Eddie Merckx's dominance and interesting from that point of view. If you like that sort of thing.

My family and other strangers: adventures in family history, by Jeremy Hardy. Ebpub format. [Originally London: Ebury, 2010.]

This is a lovely warm, funny book.  Hardy goes about investigating his family history in a somewhat haphazard way - perennially not really getting up in time to get a full day's research in, or being sidetracked by lunch; and this is endearing.  While he's toddling around graveyards failing to find stones, or being wildly enthusiastic about the research room at The National Archives, he's also reflecting on his own life, his family's (and thinks about family in general and how we make it, as his own daughter is adopted), and what it means to belong somewhere.  He explores Hitchin, and Arundel, and mentions many times that it would be much more helpful if he had an army of white-gloved helpers from Who do you think you are?  He also talks movingly about the deaths of Linda Smith and Humphrey Lyttleton, both very recent at the time of the book.  Many times, you're laughing with a lump in your throat. Highly recommended.