Sunday, October 26, 2014

2014 books, #81-85

Shots fired: tales from Joe Pickett country, by CJ Box. London: Head of Zeus, 2014.

Short stories from Box, written for different publications and collected here. Some fit into the gaps between Joe Pickett stories, like One-car bridge, a reaction to a bully; others explore Box's fascination with what "normal", everyday people will do when pushed to the limit by unbearable pressure.  One I particularly liked was Pirates of Yellowstone, written for an anthology called Meeting across the river which asked for stories written around Bruce Springsteen's song of the same name; the characterisation struck me as just right for that song. I'm not the world's greatest short story fan, but if you like Box's longer-form fiction, you'll enjoy these and find something a bit different here.

A dark and twisted tide, by Sharon Bolton. London: Corgi, 2014.

A Lacey Flint novel. Lacey has left CID and become a Pc with the River Police; but trouble follows her wherever she goes. While free-swimming, dangerously, in the Thames near her houseboat in Deptford, she finds a body, shrouded and apparently recently freed from the depths of the river; and then strange things begin happening to her boat.  Meanwhile Mark Joesbury also appears to be in difficulties with his latest undercover assignment, and Dana Tulloch has started on a life-changing path.  Bolton looks at contemporary issues of immigration without judgment, while producing a tightly-written, gripping thriller. It'd be better to go back to the beginning of the Lacey series before reading this if you're averse to spoilers, but this book works very well on its own; and if you like books where London, and particularly the Thames, is a character, this is a great one.

Testament of youth: an autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925, by Vera Brittain. London: Virago, 2004. First published in 1933.

I first read this as a teenager, and was struck hard by the account of Brittain's time in the trenches and the physical horror of the injuries suffered by the troops.  Reading it again for book group, and with a lot more information about those times, what upset me most about this account was the coming to terms after the War; both the enforced inability to speak about what had happened to her during that time, in an environment where everyone wanted to forget about it, and the awareness of those studying international relations that it wasn't over, and that a second war seemed all-but-inevitable even in the early 1920s.  I don't think I'd registered the humour, either; or the distance Vera puts between her first love for Roland and having to come to terms with the rest of her life.  I'm so glad I read this again, even if I cried most of the way through it; it's an astounding book and this was the right time to re-read it.

Worth dying for, by Lee Child [audiobook].  Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2010.

After the events of 61 hours (last set of reviews) I ordered this one from the library quite quickly.  Reacher is left at a crossroads miles away from anywhere, and finds his way to an isolated motel. The very drunk doctor next to him at the bar is called out by a patient; while he's reluctant to go, Reacher reminds him of his oath, and offers to drive.  The patient turns out to be the wife of the young scion of the local ruling family, and she's obviously been beaten up... Inevitably, Reacher's walked into trouble again.  Another really excellent Lee Child book; although the violence/compassion ratio in this one is slightly difficult to take.

Through a glass, darkly, by Donna Leon. London: Heinemann, 2006.

I think this is the first of the Brunetti novels I've read - it was given to me by a friend several years ago now, but I often end up reading library books rather than ones I own...  Brunetti is called out by a colleague after the colleague's friend Marco is arrested during an environmental protest against the local large chemical plant; on the way out of the police station, Brunetti meets Marco's very angry father in law.  When the man's wife gets in touch weeks later suggesting her father is threatening to kill Marco, Brunetti feels obliged to investigate; but it's not Marco's body which is later found.  This investigation is set around the fornace (glass foundries) of Murano; it's interestingly plotted, and the Venetian setting is lovely.  I'll have to read more of these.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

2014 books, #76-80

61 hours, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2010.

Jack Reacher is involved in a bus crash in a snowstorm in South Dakota.  When the police finally arrive, Reacher's lack of luggage, and presence on a bus otherwise entirely occupied by pensioners on an out-of-season sightseeing holiday, attract their suspicion.  They have two problems - they're guarding a witness in a drugs case round-the-clock but are also committed to leaving the town entirely unstaffed if there's an emergency at the local prison complex; and they have a strange abandoned military facility on the outskirts of town occupied by the biker gang which seems to be behind the drug supply.  Once they find Reacher is ex-military, he's given the job of tracking down the original purpose of the facility.  Of course, puting Reacher behind a desk and telling him to stay there never bodes well...  Another excellent book, and the usual bang-up reading from Jeff Harding.

The table of less valued knights, by Marie Phillips. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Marie Phillips is half of the writing team behind the wonderful Warhorses of letters, so this was bound to be a funny book.  The Table of Less Valued Knights is definitely below the salt in Camelot - the table itself needs a dinner napkin wedged under one leg to keep it steady - but when a damsel in distress turns up late at the Pentecost Quest Dinner, Sir Humphrey du Val springs to the rescue; as does his half-giant squire Conrad, and Conrad's elephant Jemima.  The lady Elaine turns out to be considerably less wet than "damsel in distress" would suggest; and is harbouring a secret.  Meanwhile, the "official" quest is also not what it seems - and the two quests get horribly mixed up when Martha, Queen of Puddock, the goal of the original quest, ends up with Sir Humphrey's party. Someone who enjoys Terry Pratchett would love this book, but it's harder-edged at times, and with more sexual politics... Highly recommended.

The ocean at the end of the lane, by Neil Gaiman. London; Headline, 2013.

No idea why this has taken me This has taken me a year to read because it's an Actual Hardback I Paid For Myself, and those are rare things.  I went to Mr G's wonderful reading/signing of this book at Ely Cathedral almost a year ago, and I've been saving it as a pleasure; and on the afternoon of 22 September I finally got round to reading it; in its entirety.  It is wonderful. There's a frame, which is semi-autobiographical, I think (Gaiman's father died quite unexpectedly 18 months or so before this book appeared) and then a central story about a seven year old boy who is caught up in events of extraordinary evil and beauty.  There's no point in telling you about the plot, because while that's the point, it's also not the point.  Going to Neil Gaiman for his take on it. "[A] novel of childhood and memory. It's a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside of each of us. It's about feat, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it's a novel about survival".  I'm incapable of being objective about Neil Gaiman's novels; but I suspect that's because they're just so bloody good.

Poppet, by Mo Hayder [audiobook]. Read by Jot Davies. Bath: AudioGO, 2013.

This is (thankfully) less grisly than some of Hayder's books, but no less suspenseful for that. Something, called The Maude, is causing mass terror in the Beechway Secure Unit; although psychiatric nurse AJ isn't superstitious, he still needs to know what's going on. After two unexplained deaths, he makes contact with Jack Caffery. Meanwhile Caffery is still looking for a body; and has an increasing suspicion as to where that body might be found.  I guessed the twist in the tail of this book a little bit early, but the conclusion's no less chilling for that.

The resistance man, by Peter Walker [audiobook]. Read by Peter Noble. [S.l.]: Jammer, 2012.

Bruno is dealing with a spate of burglaries from cottages owned by summer visitors, which turn out to include a recently retired head of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee; the high-profile robbery brings down the Brigadier and Bruno's old flame Isabelle. The next burglary results in murder, and brings back unpleasant memories of an unresolved gay-bashing case from Bruno's very early years in St Denis... As ever, a fabulous mix of whimsy, a real grip on the tensions in the contemporary France profonde, and some excellent cooking. Highly recommended. Peter Noble's reading is pretty workmanlike, with the very occasional wince at the French pronunciation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mr S.

... and many happy returns.  65 today, and just getting better and better.

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.