Saturday, January 19, 2013

2013 books, #1-5

On the map: why the world looks the way it does, by Simon Garfield. London: Profile, 2012.

A history of mapmaking and the makers, but done in characteristically Garfield fashion.  You get the historical information, but also the curiosities around the facts which might make some of that information stick.  We find out about buccaneering contemporary map collectors, historical fakes, insanely brave figures and mapmakers who mostly stayed at home and made it all up.  Where maps enter popular culture, Garfield goes there as well - when talking about the Peters projection, he remembers the somewhat self-righteous attitude of those espousing the map in the 1980s alongside the wonderful Mapmakers for Social Justice segment of an episode of The West Wing.  There's also an interesting discussion at the end of geographical mash-ups and GPS monitoring which suggests that although me-centric mapping is now the global trend, it's not always an unalloyed benefit.

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett [audiobook]. Read by Stephen Briggs.  Oxford: Isis, 2012.

A fun piece of historical fantasy; Dodger is a fine character in the CMOT Dibbler line, and really, while there's some difference between 19th century London and Ankh-Morpork, there's so little that it's scary on occasion.  Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Henry Mayhew make appearances; and the powerful sense of justice and social inequity which enrages Pratchett in all circumstances makes this a book which Dickens and Mayhew would recognise in its raging against the characters' situations.

The worst date ever: war crimes, Hollywood heart-throbs and other abominations, by Jane Bussmann.  London: Macmillan, 2009.

I can't remember where I saw the recommendation for this - I suspect it might have been in a Caitlin Moran article - but this was excellent.  I remembered Jane Bussmann from the Bussmann and Quantick comedy show on Radio 4, but hadn't realised she'd then ended up in celebrity journalism in Hollywood, failing to interview Britney Spears (twice) and being threatened with legal action by Ashton Kutcher's lawyer.  A combination of powerful self-loathing and an enormous crush on an international peacemaker lead Jane to Uganda and the war between the government and Joseph Kony, kidnapper of up to 30,000 children.  When she gets there, she realises nothing in the international relations arena is as simple as the press coverage.  By turns hilarious, heartbreaking and totally crass, this is a fantastic read.  Definitely not one for the easily offended though.

The guilty plea, by Robert Rotenberg [audiobook].  Read by Paul Hecht. Rearsby, Leics.: W F Howes, 2011.

One of the directors of a major greengrocery business is found stabbed in his kitchen the night before his divorce proceedings are due to start; several hours later, his estranged wife delivers the murder weapon to her lawyers, wrapped in a tea-towel from the kitchen.  It seems straightforward, but as Ari Green investigates, there are many puzzling elements.  I really enjoyed the setting for this one - Toronto - and will look out for Rotenberg's other books.  It's also an excellent reading with a Canadian, rather than US, reader.

The bones of Avignon, by Jefferson Bass. London: Quercus, 2012.

I really don't understand the appeal of books on the Turin Shroud/bones of Christ/Ark of the Covenant/Holy Grail etc., but they do seem to sell, so I suppose it's always worth a try for an author.  What I really, really, don't understand is why an established writing team like Jefferson Bass would dip its toe in that particular swamp.  I can only attribute it to the sort of curiosity which fuels so many episodes of Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo - the old planks haphazardly nailed to the entrance of the mine and the faded KEEP OUT signs are an obvious invitation to explore.

It's Jefferson Bass, so it's not horrible, although the closing scene is hilarious rather than suspense-inducing.  There's a terrible romantic premise at the beginning (hero races across the Atlantic to side of damsel in distress) which was done a lot better in The West Wing, and a lot of very nice Proven├žal scenery.  The plot is pretty uninteresting until the last 50 pages or so when it suddenly turns into the last few minutes of a Die Hard movie.  There is only one real teeth-gnashing moment in the author's knowledge of France, which isn't bad going - no wonder the only dish left in a Proven├žal restaurant in August is "reblochon" (actually, as described, tartiflette); it's a winter dish containing unpasteurised cheese from near the Swiss border 300 miles away, and not a local summer speciality...  Oh, and there's a lot of switching between the 14th and the 21st centuries.

As ever with this series, it's redeemed by the main characters and the rather strange relationship between them; if you've read the others in the series, it's worth persevering with this; please don't make this your first book by Jefferson Bass, though - any of the others is a better introduction to their usually sparkling style.

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