Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 books, #21-25

The racketeer, by John Grisham. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.

This is quite a departure from Grisham.  His main character, Malcolm Bannister, is a lawyer, but one in prison for money-laundering.  When a federal judge is murdered at his holiday cottage, Bannister knows who killed him, and why, and uses the information to negotiate his release.  From then on, though, the story becomes somewhat strange, and for a couple of hundred pages you (well, I) have no clue what's going on, until a final meeting of people involved in a very complicated plot.  I've always found some of Grisham's endings slightly disappointing, and sadly, after a terrific roller-coaster, this one is, too; I'm also pretty sure I don't like the main character by the end, too, which is a new one for a Grisham protagonist.  Definitely worth a read though!

Two for sorrow, by Nicola Upson [audiobook]. Read by Sandra Duncan. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2010.

Josephine Tey is the protagonist in this third period novel by Upson; she comes to London to research a novel she's writing based on the Finchley baby farmers, having become interested in the topic as a student, when the daughter of one of the executed women committed suicide on learning of her mother's crime.  Unfortunately, the crimes of 1902 are still capable of reaching forward into the 1930s, and it's in someone's interest to make sure that Tey never completes her investigations.  Very nicely paced, with a slow realisation of the criminal's identity at the end.

Heaven's prisoners, by James Lee Burke. London: Orion, 2012. Originally published 1990.

The second of the Dave Robicheaux novels, and one I raced through in a couple of sittings.  Robicheaux has left the New Orleans police and settled down with his new wife to run a bait shop and boat hire business on the bayou.  It should be idyllic, but one day a small plane carrying five passengers bursts into flames and comes down into the bayou near Dave and Annie's boat.  They save one passenger, a small girl, but the other four are already dead.  The next day, they are told that there were only three passengers on the boat. Robicheaux can't help investigating, despite pleas from Annie to leave the situation alone, and the results are terrible.  I read this book to a soundtrack of alternating zydeco and Mountain Goats and that definitely worked.

Military blunders, by Saul David. Kindle edition.

I found this this after listening to an interview with Saul David on the BBC History Magazine podcast, and before I watched a couple of episodes of his Bullets, boots and bandages series on iPlayer recently.  I know next to nothing about military history, but David's very commonsense divisions (Bad commanders, Lack of preparation, Meddling politicians, Misplaced confidence and Failure to perform) probably apply to any situation, and it made the examples he gives easier to understand. This is a very clear and cogent explanation of some reasons why military operations go horribly wrong, with some humour and the odd informative anecdote (the US term "hooker" for a prostitute came from a US general of that name who was inordinately keen on encouraging camp-followers, for instance). I wouldn't have read this if it hadn't been free/extremely cheap on Kindle (only way I buy ebooks), although my enjoyment of the book would have been enhanced by the maps of battlefields and formations being at all legible...

The blackhouse, by Peter May [audiobook].  Read by Steve Worsley. Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Excellent thriller set in the Western Isles. Fin Macleod is sent north from Edinburgh to investigate two murders with similar MOs, one in Edinburgh, one on the Isle of Lewis; as well as being the CIO on the case, he's also a Lewis native.  Coming back to Lewis for the first time in 18 years, immediately after the loss of a child, he's forced to face his past and fill in the fractured memories of a rite of passage at An Sgeir, a rock housing nesting gannets the Lewismen are permitted to slaughter.  The reading is lovely here, too - Steve Worsley has a combination of Scottishness and clarity reminiscent of David Tennant.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2013 books, #16-20

The last witness, by Joel Goldman.  Part of the Dead times four anthology, available for the Kindle.

Wilson "Blues" Bluestone, ex-cop, blues-bar-owner and friend of Lou Mason, is arrested for the murder of prominent local politician Jack Cullan.  It's pretty obvious that there's no real will to go looking for another suspect, so Mason realises he'll have to track down the truth himself.   Even Blues's ex-partner Harry is convinced to Blues's guilt.  Lou enters the world of dirty politics, dirty law-enforcement and dirty justice to try to dig down to the truth.

Cold truth, by Joel Goldman.  Part of the Dead times four anthology, available for the Kindle.

A talk-show psychotherapist is thrown out of a 6th-floor window in the Kansas City business district.  The obvious suspect is Jordan Hackett, disturbed daughter of the radio-station's owners; and as ever, Lou Mason is engaged as the lawyer in a seemingly hopeless situation.  Jordan herself isn't the most helpful of clients, particularly when she confesses to the murder and then recants.  This is a wonderfully complex story with lots of action scenes, and a bit of romance; perfect roller-coaster entertainment with some interesting social points thoughtfully made.

Deadlocked, by Joel Goldman. Part of the Dead times four anthology, available for the Kindle.

Lou Mason witnesses an execution by virtue of giving an old friend, the arresting officer in the case, a lift to the jail.  After the execution, both the mother of the executed man and the son of his two victims ask Mason to sue the other co-defendant, a man acquitted of the crimes, who is now a prominent local businessman.  Mason puts his relationship and his life on the end to try and determine the truth.  I'm very sad that there only seem to be four of these novels as Mason's an engaging character and this series could run further; with any luck, the Kindle anthology might prove successful enough for the author to write another one.

Capital, by John Lanchester. Kindle edition.

The inhabitants of Pepys Road are surprised by the launching of a campaign of postcards featuring the front doors of their houses with the message "We Want What You Have".   As each card arrives, we find a little more about the people and lives in this largely-gentrified London street; the old lady who was born in the house she lives in (and her Banksyesque grandson), the nouveau riches, the banking couple with the nanny, the Polish builder, the Asian corner shop owners and the young footballer from Senegal, his father and his agent, the Zimbabwean traffic warden who walks the street...  Every situation has its interesting points and there's an intertwining of people's lives.  The panoramic scope of the novel means that there's sometimes a lack of depth, but it's a fascinating read for all that.

Bad pharma, by Ben Goldacre [audiobook]. Read by Jot Davies. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2012.

A fascinating and very scary discussion of the pharmaceutical industry from the point of view of doctor and investigative writer Goldacre, which explains the testing procedure, publishing tendencies and modus operandi  of the industry, and why the newest, shiniest drug is very often far from being the best one.  It's explained in language that anyone reasonably intelligent can understand, even without any prior knowledge of the drugs and conditions involved, without being patronising.  Must find out what else he's written.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

2013 books, #11-15

Seems to be taking longer than usual to get through books; but it's been a ridiculous couple of weeks.

The water clock, by Jim Kelly [audiobook]. Read by Ray Sawyer. Isis: Oxford, 2002.

The first of Jim Kelly's Philip Dryden books and an excellent one.  Even if reading a book set in snowy Fens while sitting in said snowy Fens with a dodgy boiler is a bit of a mixed pleasure.  A body is found frozen in a car which has driven into a drain; sadly, not that uncommon in the Fens in the winter, but it's less common to find the body in the car boot.  Later, a second, much older body is found on the roof of Ely Cathedral.  Local reporter Philip Dryden investigates and personal and historical events interlock.  I love the geographical accuracy of these books - there are very few inventions, and when there are, they make sense.  Nice reading by Ray Sawyer.

How I won the yellow jumper: dispatches from the Tour de France, by Ned Boulting. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2011.

As a neophyte to the Tour de France in 2010 (I came in via the Tour de Fleece, a parallel spinning event where we spin our wheels in time to the cyclists'), I had no idea about the teams, and the green jersey, and the King of the Mountains, and that it was a team event.  I'm a total Francophile so I was mainly there for the scenery, to be honest...  But as someone who's naturally a bit of a geek (my other sport is cricket which I've been following for years, and I like my rules complicated), the whole complexity of the thing really got me involved.  Ned Boulting was my guide, effortlessly providing information about the teams, the gradients, the politics...  I had no idea he'd arrived in 2003 from football, with no more idea than I had seven years later.  If you've seen Ned Boulting in action, the book is as funny, charming, articulate and irreverent as you'd expect (review on the cover "Quirky, warped, enthusiastic and funny": Chris Boardman), and packed with a huge amount of information.  It was published before the 2011 Tour, so some elements are strangely dated now (Wiggins just a contender who hadn't really made his mark again in 2010 after a good 2009, Lance Armstrong highly suspect but as yet undisgraced).  Even if you've no interest in cycling, if you love good writing from a fan of just about anything, I suspect you'll be pulled in and enchanted by this book.  I raced through it (sorry), and am slightly sad about that; I sort of have a compulsion to read it all again, as it was too good to put down.

The vanishing point, by Val McDermid. London: Little, Brown, 2012.

This is a strange one; but very, very good.  A little boy is kidnapped at a US airport within sight of his carer Stephanie; most of the narrative happens in a small interrogation room at the airport as the FBI attempt to discover what has happened.  It's really difficult to say what else happens without spoiling, but it involves Stephanie, a ghost writer, getting involved with a reality TV star whose career mirrors Jade Goody's, and the spiral her life enters.  I'm really not sure what I feel about the ending, and would love anyone else who's read this to let me know; McDermid drops you down a Deaver-sized hole a couple of times in the course of this book, and I'm not completely convinced it all works; but blimey, it's a good read.

A blink of the screen: collected shorter fiction, by Terry Pratchett [audiobook]. Read by Michael Fenton Stevens and Stephen Briggs. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

The first weird thing about this collection is the introduction by AS Byatt; not necessarily your typical Pratchett anorak (and I used this advisedly given that she re-reads copiously), which is, of course, why she's doing the introduction.  This is a pretty tremendous collection; particularly given that stories written for the school magazine get their turn among later work, and stand up pretty well, considering.  It's the same intelligence and sense of the absurd at work over more than 40 years, and there are so many themes which are developed later...  I think the absolute stand-out story for me is one of the Discworld-related ones, The Sea and Little Fishes.  If you're a fan of Granny/Mistress Weatherwax's headology (and I so very much am) this is an absolute must.  There's also an out-take from the story, which is chilling, given separately at the end of the book.  There's also a very excellent committee-related one called A Collegiate Casting-out of Devilish Devices, which anyone who's been on a committee, or within earshot of teachers, will recognise entirely.  There are also wonderful pieces of whimsy like Lord Vetinari's speech at the official twinning ceremony between Ankh-Morpork and Wincanton, and the Ankh-Morpork National Anthem (unofficially on YouTube; as Pratchett comments, there are scallywags out there on the Internet...lyrics in the commentary afterwards.)

Motion to kill, by Joel Goldman. Part of the Dead times four anthology, available for the Kindle.

I gather these were also available in paperback at one time and may still be.  I got this anthology for Kindle for something ridiculous like free, or £0.70 - but for four really good books, the £6.50 Kindle now want for it is well worth the money.  If you like Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar books, you'll adore these.  There's some of the same element (Jewish professional drawn into detection, network of supporters, funny elements, awkward romance) and the plots are excellent.  I'm going to give a brief note on each separately though, as there are actually four full-length novels here!

In Motion to kill, Lou Mason has moved to a corporate law firm in Kansas City from a small personal-injury firm, to the disgust of his campaigning leftie aunt who brought him up.  Unfortunately, his partners seem to be dropping like flies, and there's a limit to the police's interest.  Mason starts investigating and becomes ever more aware of the cesspit under his law firm.  Lots of twists and turns, and quite a surprising ending.