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 EspaƱa.  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.