Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 books, #76-80

Kennedy's brain, by Henning Mankell [audiobook]. Read by Anna Bentinck. Oxford: Isis, 2008.

When archaeologist Louise Cantor's son Henrik is found dead at his flat, she refuses to believe it was suicide.  While going through his papers, she is shocked to discover that Henrik was HIV positive; and that he had an obsession with the conspiracy theory that John F Kennedy's brain disappeared prior to his autopsy.  She also finds a letter and photograph from Henrik's girlfriend in Mozambique. Travelling to Australia to inform her estranged husband of the death, and then to Africa, Louise becomes embroiled in other conspiracies and mysteries.  Mankell's knowledge of, and love of, Africa come out strongly in this book and the conclusion is both shocking and makes a lot of sense.

"Knitting by the fireside and on the hillside": a history of the Shetland hand knitting industry c. 1600-1950, by Linda G. Fryer. Lerwick: Shetland Times, 1995.

This is a fascinating account of the industry of knitting in Shetland.  There's very little about the actual garments themselves, but a lot about the financial dependence of women on knitting, and about the "truck" system which kept many women trapped in a barter system rather than a cash economy. The author uses contemporary statistics and accounts-books to illustrate, and it's presented very interestingly.  One factor I really hadn't understood was the serious over-representation of women in the economy due both to wars and to losses in the fishing industry, and the number of single women of working age in the population.  My only quibble with this book is that it was originally produced as a dissertation and it would have been advisable for the author to employ a competent editor - the over-use of commas, in particular, seriously detract from the readability of the book and break up the flow of what would otherwise be an engaging read.

The coroner, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bath, BBC Audiobooks, 2010.

Jenny Cooper is appointed HM Coroner for Severn Vale, after a period away from work due to a breakdown following a messy separation from her husband and teenage son, and after the sudden death of previous coroner Harry Marshall.  She starts off on the wrong foot immediately, offending her Coroner's Officer and reopening an inquest against the wishes of the parents.  As she continues, she realises that her fragility has contributed to her getting the job, and that powerful interests are at play in thwarting her investigations.  Really enjoyed this - the next one's on order. (Recommendation from my Dad, I think, this one!)

Cocaine blues, by Kerry Greenwood. Scottsdale, Ariz: Poisoned Pen Press, 2006. [Originally written in 1989]

The first of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, and an excellent start.  Phryne is now a creature of luxury and a flapper of some reputation, but grew up poor in Australia until war and other disasters catapulted her father into the family title.  In this book, she returns to Australia at a family friend's request - he's worried about his daughter who may be being slowly poisoned by an abusive husband. Almost as soon as Phryne arrives, she encounters another crime - the carrying on of an illegal abortion trade which nearly kills a young woman and has killed several others.  This is delightfully written - Phryne is rather in the Amelia Peabody mode of female detectives (Her dangerous imports into her native land included a small lady's handgun and a box of bullets for it, plus certain devices of Dr Stopes' which were wrapped in her underwear under an open packet of Ladies' Travelling Necessities to discourage any over-zealous customs official) with a similar love of appropriate clothing. I discover to my delight that there are twenty of these so far - thankyou, Ned, for the suggestion!

Front runner, by Felix Francis [audiobook]. Read by Martin Jarvis. [S. l.]: Bolinda, 2015.

Jeff Hinckley is back. In this case, he's approached by Champion Jockey Dave Swinton, who confesses he's deliberately lost a race.  Swinton then clams up, but phones Jeff the following day to discuss further - this turns into an attempt on Jeff's life, followed by Swinton's apparent suicide in his burning car.  Hinckley is, as ever, unconvinced by the obvious explanation, and investigates further into the murky business of race-fixing.  I am so glad Felix Francis picked up the reins (sorry) on this series; they are classic Francis and each one is a joy.

2015 books, #71-75

The hour: sporting immortality the hard way, by Michael Hutchinson. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2007.

Hutchinson (@Doctor_Hutch on Twitter) started off as an academic in international law, but after realising it bored him to death he pursued his alternative career as a writer and cyclist, more specifically a time-triallist.  He has been extremely successful with a men's record of 56 national and international ITT races, in a time when cycling hadn't hit the stellar heights it has now.  This book is mainly about his preparations for the Hour Record, which ultimately he didn't manage to break.  It's told in a funny, occasionally moving style, full of the trials and tribulations of shifting requirements from the commissaires, supportive (and not) e-mails from previous record-holders, and a history of the Hour itself.  And it's being told by someone with a pretty ordinary budget; you can't necessarily imagine Bradley Wiggins trying to get two bicycle frames from Heathrow by Tube, for instance...  Lovely book, extremely well written.

Deity, by Steven Dunne [audiobook]. Read by Jonathan Keeble. Bath: Oakhill, [no date].

Four Derby College students go missing, but few worry too much about disaffected sixth-formers taking off.  Until a video is broadcast on the internet, purporting to show the sutdents committing suicide.  Is it real, or fake?  And either way, why has it been produced?  DI Damien Brook investigates.  This rattles along very nicely, with some seriously creepy bits towards the end; and there are a satisfying number of twists and turns.  Nice workmanlike reading by Jonathan Keeble, too.

Little black lies, by Sharon Bolton [audiobook]. Read by Antonia Beamish, Kenny Blyth and Antonia Price-Lewis. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

It's 12 years after the Falklands War.  Catrin Quinn is still grieving for the two boys she lost when her best friend's car rolled over a cliff, carrying them with it. Callum Murray is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress caused by the war. Rachel Grimwood is still racked by the guilt of Catrin's boys' death.  And then young boys start disappearing, three in three years...  This is a complex story, told from all three points of view; who are we meant to believe? it's never obvious.  This is another excellent book from Bolton, and a great reading from all three voices.

Close encounters of the furred kind, by Tom Cox. London: Sphere, 2015.

Another lovely book from Tom Cox.  A book about four cats and their humans should be a bit twee; but somehow isn't. Mainly because Cox is loving, but not sentimental, about all animal life, and his account of moving within Norfolk and then to Devon is appropriately enthusiastic about parts of country life, but realistic about other elements.  Sweary Shipley, self-obsessed Ralph, intrepid Roscoe and, of course, poet-philosopher The Bear, all play their parts here, along with glorious ginger George and assorted neighbouring cats including the memorable Uncle Fuckykins.  The human cast of characters include Tom's Dad, a man who speaks ENTIRELY IN CAPITALS. There are also little interludes such as the Cat Horoscope section, which includes Gemini: This week brings a significant fork in the road for you, in the form of having to decide whether to sit on two clean towels or in a plant.  If you've ever owned, or been owned by, a cat, you'll laugh and cry your way through this.

Time of death, by Mark Billingham [audiobook]. Read by the author. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

Tom Thorne and Helen Weeks manage to get a weekend away on their own; but then they turn on the TV and see the partner of one of Helen's schoolfriends being arrested for the abduction of two teenage girls.  Helen goes back to her home town to support her friend, but old secrets start coming out of the woodwork, along with old resentments.  Characteristically tightly plotted, and with elements of Billingham's sense of humour, this is also an excellent reading by the author.  The consistency of this series is amazing.

2015 books, #66-70

The citadel, by A J Cronin. London: Vista, 1996.

Originally published in 1937, this is a powerful, semi-autobiographical novel about a doctor in South Wales and in London. Andrew Manson, newly-qualified, comes to Wales to learn his trade from an experienced GP.  When he arrives in Drineffy, he finds that his mentor is paralysed by a stroke, and that the other GPs in the town are a strange ragtag bunch.  Manson learns on the job, and becomes aware of how inadequate his education has been in equipping him to help with real-life problems; and he also develops a burning rage at how inadequate health services are for the poor.  This is both a great read, despite its somewhat old-fashioned melodramtic style (I read this as a teenager and found it unputdownable on re-reading) and a very influential book; Cronin and Aneurin Bevan both worked at the Tredegar Cottage Hospital which was the model for the creation of the NHS.  One feeling I don't remember having when first reading it was the amount of sympathy I have for Manson's wife Christine; probably a function of age and experience!

Library of the dead, by Glenn Cooper [audiobook].  Read by Pete Bradbury. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2010.

A murderer is on the loose in New York; FBI agent Will Piper is assigned the case. All that connects the victims is their having received a postcard telling them they were about to die.  The story boings around between contemporary New York, medieval Isle of Wight (second audiobook running with an Isle of Wight component!) and the 1930s.  And, to be honest, is overly complicated.  I may not have been concentrating when we finally understand the why of what's happening, but I don't think so.  I didn't really enjoy this, or really work out what was going on...

The book of souls, by James Oswald.  London: Penguin, 2013.

The last victim of the Christmas Killer was DC Tony McLean's fiancée Kirsty. 12 years after McLean was instrumental in the killer's conviction, the man dies in prison.  And then the killings start again...  I really enjoyed reading this one, as the last; but while the final scenes were thrilling, it just felt a little empty.  There are supernatural elements here I don't get, and they're fundamental to the plot; and while I can deal with quite a lot of what the Americans helpfully call "woo", it does detract for me from what's otherwise a really excllent police procedural with a lot of great characterisation...  If you're not bothered by Greg Iles's leaps of faith, you won't be here either; it just feels weirder in a British context.

Damage: a Dick Francis novel, by Felix Francis [audiobook]. Read by Michael Nielson. [S. l.]: Bolinda, 2014.

Jeff Hinckley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority.  In the course of his investigations, he witnesses a murder of a racecourse bookie by a banned trainer. Days later, it turns out just about all the horses at a major race meeting have been doped.  There's something deeply wrong in horseracing - and Jeff has a nasty suspicion it might come back to the board.  This is another wonderful Felix Francis book which recreates the themes of vintage Dick Francis within the modern context. Doping, bribes and a leading sporting body - surely not?  And a good reading by Nielson.

Go set a watchman, by Harper Lee. London: Heinemann, 2015.

I bought this the day it came out - but it took until suggesting it for book group to make me read it. To kill a mockingbird is probably my favourite novel, and while I knew the background (and associated controversies) to this one, I was pretty nervous coming into it.  I shouldn't have been; Lee's style shines through and by about page 12 I was heaving a sigh of relief.  It's not a patch on To kill a mockingbird - if it had been, it'd have been published as is, and we might not have had the later book - but it's an interesting read, and there are some genuinely funny moments, particularly the waspish descriptions of the coffee party Jean Louise's aunt throws for her.  It degenerates rather when people start hurling bits of the constitution at each other, like a sub-standard episode of The West Wing, and the ending is probably even more ambiguous than Lee intended; but if you enjoyed Mockingbird, this is definitely worth a read.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Woolly Wormhead: the View from the Red Pen

The next stop on Woolly's 10 year anniversary blog tour after Susan Crawford's lovely post - this is editors' week!  Introducing ourselves as Heather Murray, tech editor/maths checker, and Liz Marley, test-knitter and copy-editor.  And both fans, obviously...  (And that post title: it turns out that Heather uses a purple ballpoint and Liz uses neon orange fountain-pen ink...)

We're hosting this on Liz's blog, but it's a joint effort, which seems appropriate given what we do.  Being people who like structure, we decided on a few questions and answers...

Q: When did we both meet Woolly?

Heather: If I am remembering correctly I think I met you both at Skip North, in I think 2007. I remember learning how to use Procion dyes with Liz, and teaching Woolly Crochet Provisional Cast-On on a bus trundling round the yarn shops of West Yorkshire. I first started working with Woolly in the middle of 2010 with some individual designs, and then the reprint of Going Straight.

Woolly at the I Knit Weekender in 2009

Liz: I met Woolly at Skip North in 2005, the first "real" one.  Woolly was building a freeform crochet hat, and also a Hex hat; the two impressions I came away with were that she was both extraordinarily talented, and also Not A Morning Person.  Then we kept bumping into each other at shows (I remember one just-about-silent journey from King's Cross to Ally Pally way too early in the morning, both of us clutching caffeine of choice), and I have good memories of the Going Straight launch party in 2007. Thankfully, we stayed in touch when Woolly and the family started spending much of the year in Italy, and it's been a pleasure to have her to stay over the last couple of years when she's taught at the Sheep Shop in Cambridge.

(Thanks, Sarah from the Sheep Shop, for the photo!)

Q: What do we find most interesting about the way Woolly designs?

Heather: I love that each design has its own internal logic, and I love discovering that as I work through the pattern. She is very good at making each section of the Hat flow into the others, so that while each section is interesting and beautiful in its own right, the whole still manages to be more than the sum of the individual parts. Her Hats have a wonderful sculptural quality, while still being very wearable.

Liz: I'm constantly amazed by the way Woolly thinks in 3D.  She seems to know every time exactly what she's trying to achieve, and to be able to picture the whole thing in her head.  I suppose part of it is her art and engineering background, and it's always a beautiful thing to watch!  I also love the crowns - you never get the feeling they're an afterthought.  (This is possibly why I don't actually own any Hats designed by any other designer.)

Tucked. Photo © Woolly Wormhead

Q: What do we each contribute to the editing and production process?

Heather: Mostly I am keeping an eye on the maths when I go through either a single pattern or a book. I check that the tension given combined with the stitch counts will give Hats of the stated sizes, and that each time a stitch count is given for a pattern repeat, or increases or decreases, that it all works out in all of the sizes. I make sure that all of the appropriate information is clearly given so that the knitter can successfully make their Hat in their chosen size.  I also check for consistency in use of abbreviations within the pattern and within the whole book, and within Woolly's body of work.

Liz: I'm part of Woolly's small, friendly, test-knitting pool, and we get to see the designs at the just-written-up stage.  At that point, I try and shut off my brain and knit to exactly what's written in the pattern. If I have the slightest doubt, I don't do what I'd normally do as a knitter and try and fudge things or work things out myself - I flag it up, because if I don't get it, there's the likelihood that someone else won't either.  And then, after Heather's done her tech-editing magic, I copy-edit patterns for the books (and, over the last couple of years, for the Mystery KALs too).  That involves a little bit of spelling/grammar work, but mostly consistency - making sure that the style flows between patterns and between books, and that, for example, type/font styles are consistent across the board, that the Table of Contents has the correct pagination once the final order of patterns has been determined, that nothing's been inadvertently cropped in layout, and so on.

Q: Favourite Woolly pattern from the last decade?

Heather: My favourite Hat to knit has been Quynn  . I have so far knitted 10 of these! 3 each for my nephew and nieces (luckily they are young enough that they aren't reading this so wont realise that they are each getting one for Christmas!), and one for me. Quynn was the only hat one of my nieces would voluntarily wear last winter. My favourite Hat to edit has probably been Asymloche . That was a fun brain puzzle to see how this one worked! Each segment is different and there are short rows and different stitch counts to keep track of. Good fun :-) And another good example of where Woolly has taken what is a rather difficult concept and created a beautiful Hat with a pattern that is easy to follow.

Quynn. Photo © Woolly Wormhead

Liz: Favourite I've kept for myself - last year's MKAL, Sophora; I love this one both for the lovely 7-point pattern on the crown of the beret, and for the folded brim which makes the knitter feel very clever in the completion of it (and keeps your ears really warm).  Favourite I've knitted for someone else - made a Baby I-Cord Beanie for my nephew in November 2007 which he wore from it being way too big, as in this photo, to when it was making ridges in his forehead because it was so much too small!


Q: Favourite Woolly pattern from Painted Woolly Toppers?

Heather: I think this is probably Dancette. I love the way the changes of direction work with the hand painted yarn. And I enjoyed the opportunity to use a bit of Pythagora's Theorem to check the depths of the Hat :-)

Dancette. Photo © Woolly Wormhead

Liz: Knew I shouldn't have let Heather go first! - I test-knitted Dancette and it is so very clever (and I now know what a Dancette is)!  I also love Jetty - the use of dropped-stitch waves on a Hat is really unexpected, and the decreases work so beautifully towards the crown.  Must get that one out and wear it this winter!

Jetty. Photo © Woolly Wormhead

Finally, in celebration of Woolly's 10 years of publishing and blogging, there's a prize on offer at each stage of the Tour - a project bag made by Woolly herself, and a pattern of your choice.  And as it's also my (Liz's) 10th blog anniversary, I've dyed a skein of organic merino in a heavy aran-weight which will also be making its way to the winner!

To enter, please leave a comment below, telling me which of Woolly's Hats is your favourite and why, before midnight (GMT) at the end of next Sunday, December 20.  I'll pick a winner first thing on the Monday morning.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


The scarf I finished on Friday night/Saturday morning while listening to the news from Paris on the radio.  Destined for a Christmas present.


2 x 2 houndstooth check on 7.5 dpi heddle; the yarn is Herriot Heathers from The Sheep Shop - 100% baby alpaca and feels like it!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fun of the fair

To Festiwool at Hitchin.  Given that I'd been up until after 3am listening to French radio, wandering around the house and ranting, I wasn't exactly the most awake I've ever been.  But it was a lovely event, and good to meet some knitters and look at some beautiful things.

Here's the haul:  Silk and baby camel from Travelknitter; Sokkosu O merino from Whimzy, which will become an ikat warp scarf, I hope; Nimbus (merino/silk/yak) from Sparkleduck in a colour Heather assured me would go well with the other two colours I have, and indeed does, beautifully.  I picked up another couple of things but they were for gifts so not shown here...


Now off to dinner with friends in the village.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Not a night for blogging

I had an idea for a post tonight; but there are no words compared to what's going on in Paris.

Other than maybe, dear God, not again.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


If you've watched/listened to the news today, it won't have escaped your notice that the Indian prime minister is in town.  And if you tried to get through the Westminster area, you'd have been sent off in all sorts of odd directions; all roads closed all day.  This surprised my colleague and me; we needed to get to the building in the middle to retrieve our visitor, the guy delivering a training course to our colleagues, and take him to lunch.  There wasn't nearly as much fuss when the Chinese premier came last month.  But it was so wonderful how quiet the whole area was without traffic.


I gather there were protesters up on Whitehall, but we couldn't get up that far; on the way back, we did see the small welcoming committee, with their lovely crocheted banner, chatting away to the police on a warm, sunny afternoon.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015


There has been so much overshadowing kerfuffle about the Cenotaph observations this year. I used to work about 100 yards from the Cenotaph and have generally posted something here about Remembrance Day, but this year even showing a picture of the Cenotaph might contravene my draconian non-partisan employment clause!

On the way from my new building to my old building, I pass this: the monument to the Bali bombings.


There are 202 doves; people of 21 nationalities were killed; and it stands as a powerful memorial.

Very obviously, we need to remember people who voluntarily, or under duress in time of war, put themselves in harm's way to serve their country.  We should remember their bravery, and terror, and the sacrifice they made willingly or unwillingly.  And we should also remember the "collateral damage"; most obviously military families and the civilians who can't get out of the way.

I remember realising, with a shock, that three guys having a kickabout on my village green a couple of years ago were each playing with one prosthetic leg.  I remember a friend visiting the village at about the same time having a similar experience in the queue in the shop one evening when she bent down to pick up her bag and realised half the legs under the shorts of the fit young men in front of her were made of high-tech metal.

There are also the MSF medical staff killed while volunteering their services to save lives in appalling circumstances; and the people drinking in Birmingham pubs or dancing in the nightclubs of Bali, totally unaware they were part of someone else's war.

There are no more World War I veterans, and the number of living World War II veterans is dwindling rapidly; but we need a space to acknowledge the chaos wars continue to wreak in so many lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I'm loving the Great Pottery Throw-Down on BBC2 at the moment.  Particularly the appreciation that this stuff takes time.  

The art teaching I had at school was universally a bit rubbish in terms of inclusiveness.  It was technique-driven, and if you couldn't do the technique, you were left behind.  And "left behind" was definitely the right phrase in one year, where we spent the entire year learning watercolour, with a teacher who wasn't qualified in art teaching, who insisted that left-handers still lay a wash in the right-handed way; which meant we four left-handed kids were utterly scuppered to begin with because you had to lay the wash and paint over it in a certain order. (It's illustrative that I remember there were four of us. One in seven. One in seven kids who may as well not have turned up that year.  It's given me an appreciation of difference. But I'd rather have learnt to use watercolours.)

I've always made things, and combined colours. But the first time I actually did this formally was at a pottery class.  I made something or other in the basement of the Student Union (I think?) at Cambridge, and then some pots during my MSc at Loughborough; I still have one or two bits and bobs from the Loughborough club, and I think a couple of bowls may still be around with my ex-husband.

And then in the late 90s I went to a class at Cottenham with Debbie Cain, who had a completely different attitude to pots; you hand-built (there were wheels, too, but not enough for everyone; and there were lots of things you could do by hand-building); and there was a certain satisfaction in hand-building pots. Everything took a long time compared to Great Pottery Throw-Down - you only had 2 hours a week, you had the time unwrapping and wetting-down your pot, you had to take the tools out of the box again and wonder which scraper you used last time, you probably only had about an hour a week to do stuff, you queued for the kiln - but after a couple of months, you got something.

I have this 24cm high x 10-14cm diameter vase. I use it for stocks in spring, and sunflowers and chrysanths in autumn.


To all extents and purposes, it's rubbish.  I built it over three sessions, and you can see that. It's massively lumpy. There are bubbles and really-not-correct textures in the glaze, and I didn't understand what the pale glazes were for, or what they did.  The top flares out and for some reason I've textured the internal surface of the flare.

And I love it; and I'm proud of it.

By all standards of pottery, it's rubbish. When I take it down off the top of the kitchen cupboard to put flower in it, I smile.

God bless whoever thought of Great Pottery ThrowDown, and all who sail...

Monday, November 09, 2015

A little touch of Harry in the night

Just spent the evening at an excellent performance of Henry V at the Barbican. Had the pleasure of the company of Nic AKA Yarns from the Plain.

Has to be said, I wasn't totally convinced by Alex Hassell's Henry during the first half - he was edgier, less authoritative than I'd seen the part played before - but he showed Henry as a man who'd grown out of his wild days but was still very much a work in progress, and it worked extremely well.  The other absolutely stand-out performance was from Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus, appearing in his cardi and cords to apologise for the inadequacy of the play.

If you can get tickets,  go.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

View from the bus stop

Sometimes it's easy to get blasé about working in central London.  Recently, I've been doing a mystery knitalong which is shaping up very nicely


and as it's London-themed, I've been taking the odd photo here and there to get people into the mood. Last month, I was waiting for a bus to take me to book group, and realised that my new bus stop (we moved offices in August) isn't at all in a bad location.


From left, the London Eye, the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben; St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, Church House and the Business, Innovation and Skills Department...

Not bad, really!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

2015 books, #61-65

A spool of blue thread, by Anne Tyler. London: Vintage, 2015.

Abby Whitshank always starts the story of how she and her husband Red fell in love with It was a beautiful breezy yellow-and-green afternoon...  This is the story of four generations of Whitshanks and a house; and, increasingly, family secrets.  I've been very bad at keeping up with my book reviews, and it's over a month since I read this book, so some of the details of plot have escaped me; but I'd unhesitatingly recommend it!

The monogram murders: the new Hercule Poirot mystery, by Sophie Hannah. London: Harper, 2015.

This was fun. I didn't read it when it came out because it got dreadful reviews; but a colleague whose opinion I trust on these things had enjoyed it.  In this case, three bodies have been found in a London hotel, in their separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in the mouth.  Poirot and his sidekick on this occasion, a newly-promoted Scotland Yard inspector, investigate. This amused and irritated me in equal measure, as all Hercule Poirot stories do; Poirot is as ever infuriatingly condescending to Inspector Catchpool and still going for the "collecting everyone in the library" school of dénouement; Hannah has done a fine job here and I think the plot is possibly somewhat more interesting than many of Christie's...

The cycling anthology. Volume 1. Edited by Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014 [originally Peleton Publishing, 2012].

A fine collection of essays of various lengths on professional cycling, written by some of the best journalists in the business; Particular favourites are David Millar reflecting on his impending retirement and his rides with friend Michael Barry around Girona; the story of the Orica-GreenEDGE team; Kenny Pryde with an unusual take on drugs in cycling; and two views of Bradley Wiggins from William Fotheringham and Jeremy Whittle. I'm very glad there are another five of these volumes to get through!

Personal, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2014.

Someone has taken a pot-shot at the French president, and that someone is obviously an expert sniper. Reacher, not a bad sniper himself, is called in to shortlist the candidates; and then to hunt down a man he'd already put in jail once.  This one takes Reacher to Paris and to London; Child is at his best when introducing Reacher and his companion to British life, as an ex-pat Brit, and this canters along at a fine pace. It's amazing that this series hasn't really flagged in 19 books.

Face of the devil, by N J Cooper [audiobook]. Read by Julia Franklin. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2011.

Teenager Suzie is found dead near her uncle's boat on the Isle of Wight; Olly Matkin, a schizophrenic schoolmate, is found covered in Suzie's blood, claiming he's killed her to take the devil out of her. Psychologist Karen Taylor and DCI Charlie Trench investigate. Did Olly really kill Suzie, and if so, was he put up to it by someone else?  This is excellent, and the Isle of Wight setting is really interesting too. Julia Franklin is a good reader, if not wildly exciting.

Friday, November 06, 2015

It's beginning to look a lot like...

.... no, it's OK. I'm not going to say it.

But preparation for the End of Year Holiday is underway at casa Greenside.  This is part of last year's production


and although I only have one child to knit for this year, I still have something of a heap of things to make. Not least because I have gently introduced my brother to the Way of the Hand-knit Sock, via making them for his wife who has toasty feet while he complains about his cold toes.  Bwahahaha.

So, Friday nights this month, to give me an incentive for weekend production, here are the votes from the Latvian jury figures.  I include a semi-niece's birthday, and caughtknitting's birthday in the Christmas figures, and this year there's a baby due near Christmas (You Know Who You Are, pregnant lady!) ...

Total items 15
Kitted up 11
Started 10
Cast off or equivalent 6
Blocked/otherwise finished and labelled 5
Already with recipient 2

Let's see where we are next week.

Now, although it's only 8:45pm and I've only been in for an hour, I'm off to bed with knitting, books and my phone/Bluetooth speaker as I've just been told there's a Charles Paris I've missed on Radio 4. Bill Nighy, mmm.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Penny for the Guy

As November 5 rolls round, I suppose the thing that always strikes me is the image of the supposed signatures of Guy Fawkes both before and after torture...

... and the realisation that religious terrorism is still very much alive today.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Confluence (n)

: a place where two rivers or streams join to become one
: a situation in which two things come together or happen at the same time

Soundtrack for this post*

These photos are from Lyon, taken on 17 September this year.  Since I was last in Lyon in May 2013, they've completed a mad and beautiful thing right at the tip of the peninsula which divides the Saône from the Rhone just before they flow together and sweep down towards the Mediterranean.  It's part social housing, part world-class museum, part industrial park; it's a grand projet in the modern French tradition, and in a way we somehow fail to manage.  Here's the view to the South through the confluence, taken from the top of the amazing new museum I hope to blog about later in the month.  I am short, so you'll have to believe me that the line of posts marks the final coalescence of two of France's great rivers.


And here's the view to the North; more modern development to the right, 19th century development to left; the mediaeval centre is out of sight on the other side of the presqu'île.


When you go to Lyon and you're out of the tourist areas (stopping off for a glass of something after the triumphant conquest of a yarn shop, say...), people ask you what brings you to their city.  And when you say "I'm here on holiday" they do a double-take.  Lyon spends a fortune advertising itself as a destination; it's France's second city; it has wonderful history... But then, you could say the same thing in the UK context about Birmingham, and maybe people would react the same way.

Go to Lyon. It's gorgeous. And there's a direct Eurostar on the way there (don't get me started about UK customs and immigration on the way back!)

*Renaud is actually singing about teaching his daughter about penny chews and sherbert lemons here, but it felt like the right accompaniment.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Coming and going

One of the many reasons I don't blog much any more is because I spend nearly 4 hours of each weekday commuting.  And while I love trains in general, sometimes they exasperate me beyond bearing.  But the two London stations I see most often are really beautiful these days.

Here's the clock tower of St Pancras, seen through the uncovered and refurbished windows of King's Cross. A decade ago, those windows were covered in netting, absolutely filthy and mostly broken.  A decade before that, St Pancras was a dilapidated shell, saved by John Betjeman and other campaigners in the 60s but a shadow of its former glory. Now both are thriving, living stations, the centre of a new complex which includes Central St Martin's School of Art.  When I hear people getting on the "all modern life is rubbish" tack, I think of the restoration and development of this area and smile.


Monday, November 02, 2015


It's not very often that I knit something for myself - something that isn't a sweater, anyway.  Usually, I'm knitting things to give away or as samples for classes these days.  This Vacillate pattern, though, was something I saw and instantly wanted; and while I was trying to choose yarn, the Lava quarter from The Golden Skein arrived.

The red yarn in this skein is dyed by Travelknitter, the grey by Sparkleduck. Both are dyers I love, and both had a high silk content (Travelknitter's Tanami silk and baby camel, Sparkleduck's Pulsar silk and BFL).  This was done as a knitalong (KAL) in the designer's group on Ravelry, and the deadline for posting photos was October 31. As ever, I only just made it!

I think this one's going to get a lot of wear this winter.  The pattern is great - a simple chevron for most of the rows, with a bit of slip-stitching along the way - and it feels very Art Deco.


Sunday, November 01, 2015

It's that month again; let's have another go...

So, I'm trying this thing again.

  NaBloPoMo November 2015 

This time round, I'm going to try to make things easier on myself by saying I'll just post a photo with a bit of a caption, and then if I get anything else written, that'll be great. But I'm aware that this blog has been all-but-moribund for a couple of years, other than book reviews (and thanks to everyone who has commented on those!), so anything's better than nothing, maybe?

My favourite photo of this year so far is one I took with my phone on the way to the university library one Saturday morning in July. I cut through my old college (Clare), and there was due to be a wedding in the gardens that day, so the beautiful new(ish) gate to the garden was closed. I loved the threefold reflection of the chairs through the lens in the gate, and the colours seemed so quintessentially English.  All the very best to the couple who were married on that day.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

2015 books, #56-60

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. London: Transworld, 2013.

A book group book, and not one I was particularly looking forward to - yet again, I was pleasantly surprised.  This is Pride and prejudice told from below stairs, and to my non-Austenite mind, the lack of concern the Bennets' servants pays to them does them credit.  There are descriptions of the hard reality of early 19th century servanthood - the chilblains, the swill buckets, the emptying of the gazunders and all - but also a more sweeping, less confined view of the world than the gentry are allowed. We see the impact of the Napoleonic wars, and the ways the characters have made their money (I don't know whether the Bingleys did make their fortune in sugar plantations, but it leads to some interesting ideas); and there's a really rather wonderful and powerful love story in the middle of it all.  Maybe two.  I'd completely recommed this as a Good Read

Good as dead, by Mark Billingham [audiobook]. Read by the author. Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Tom Thorne is called in personally to help with a siege in a newspaper shop. The owner, a man whose son had killed himself in prison, has kidnapped Helen Weeks, a policewoman involved in family cases and another man; Tom has to investigate the son's death, the original case and also try to make sure that both hostages stay safe.  I'm not doing a good job at describing this one, but it's another really good Mark Billingham plot and keeps the tension ramped up.

The ghost fields,  by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2015.

A Ruth Galloway novel, and an excellent one.  This time, Ruth is called in to look at bones found in a WWII aeroplane found in a field during building works.  Weirdly, the body isn't decomposed in the way Ruth would expect - it seems to have been buried in different earth entirely.  There's the usual cast of characters, with a return from Frank Barker whose TV company wants to make a documentary on the US involvement in WWII...  and the introduction of the rather sinister Blackstock family.  The plot takes you along, the relationships are complicated and interesting, but as ever, it's Ruth and her personality and observations which keep me reading.

"Ruth switches on Radio 4 for comfort but it's a dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, and after a few minutes of desolate moorland and doomed love, Ruth turns it off again. I cannot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul. That's all very well, Ruth tells Cathy, but sometimes you just have to."

The brutal telling, by Louise Penny [audiobook].  Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2009.

Gamache is back in Three Pines; this time, the body of a man has been found in the village bistro.  Nobody seems to know who the stranger is, or where he's come from; but as the details appear, we seem to know even less about how he died, and why.  Gamache is with Beauvoir and Lacoste, both of whom have troubles of their own; and we encounter old friends including mad poet Ruth Zardo and the continuingly odd Peter and Clara Morrow with their artistic rivalry.  In the end, the revelation is genuinely shocking; while I've never considered this series belonging to the "cozy" category, I'm now sure that Penny is another of those authors like McDermid who's unafraid of the demolition of a well-loved character.

Silent voices, by Anne Cleeves [audiobook]. Read by Charlie Hardwick.  Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Vera Stanhope is a very reluctant gym-user, but has been pressured into it by her GP. When she finds a woman's body in the steam room, she hopes she's just come across a natural death from over-exertion, but no such luck. Vera investigates with her usual vigour, trampling witnesses and colleagues in her path... This is a brilliant reading by Charlie Hardwick who's able to distinguish between a variety of North East accents.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

2015 books, #51-55

How to speak money, by John Lanchester. London: Faber, 2015.

A book group book; and fascinating.  Lanchester starts with a brief introduction to how he came to write this book, and some background on the financial system as it exists today; then the bulk of the book is an alphabetical dictionary of financial terms; and then he wraps up with some thoughts about the way he sees people's attitude to money changing in the present and the future.  This could be an extremely dry read, but Lanchester has come at this book as a layman, and a funny, engaging layman at that.  (And he does distinguish between BULLSHIT and NONSENSE quite early on...)  Highly recommended.  I'd quote some things, except that my copy's now at work as a quick reference for the next tricky financial term that comes along...

The bones beneath, by Mark Billingham. London: Sphere, 2015.

Absolutely gripping from start to finish.  Stuart Nicklin, a serial killer Tom Thorne put behind bars a decade before, announces that there's another body to find on an isolated Welsh island; but he'll only tell the police where it is if Thorne accompanies him to the island, and another prisoner comes with him to ensure his safety.  Thorne reluctantly agrees.  Despite the accompanying police and prison officers, Thorne is uneasy about the scary, amoral Nicklin, and this concern only deepens as the weather on the island worsens.  While this could be one of those classic "what's that noise outside; let's split up" stories, it's Billingham so it's way better than that.  And there's a strange accompanying narrative which suddenly snaps into focus... in my case, too late...  This is one I couldn't read at bedtime because the suspense was too much to be reading it in the dark!

Natural causes, by James Oswald. London: Penguin, 2013.

DI Anthony McLean has quite enough to deal with; he's been assigned an obviously old murder in the basement of a mansion, while trying to cope with the death of the grandmother who brought him up.  Meanwhile, someone is killing old and influential men...  The cases intertwine... I liked this because we really genuinely get to care about McLean's colleagues, and that's an essential as far as I'm concerned; and because there are a number of twists in the tail of this one.  Oswald's definitely one to watch.

The woods, by Harlan Coben [audiobook]. Read by Carol Monda and David Chandler. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 2008.

Twenty years ago, four teenagers at a summer camp walked into the woods and were never seen again. The brother of one of those teenagers is now the county prosecutor, and is taken to see the body of a recently-dead man who bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the missing.  This is another great book by Harlan Coben, where nothing is as it seems and where the lead character doubts his sanity at various points.  Really excellent stuff, and two very good readers.

The dying season, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2015.

A Bruno, Chief of Police novel and another extremely good one. Bruno is attending a 90th birthday party for a war hero; the following day, one of the guests is found dead. While the man was a known alcoholic and ostensibly the death isn't suspicious, Bruno is wary of taking it at face value.  Meanwhile, Bruno has his somewhat complicated relationship with Pamela, and the presence of hundreds of feral deer encouraged by a fervent but misguided écolo to deal with.  Again, the food, the wine and the landscape of Périgord noir feature as characters in this book, and it's not one to read if you're at all peckish at the time!

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

2015 books, #46-50

Bad blood, by Linda Fairstein [audiobook]. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper Audio, 2007.

Another Alexandra Cooper book, and for me a curiously flat one. Cooper is prosecuting Brendan Quillan, a rich businessman who's accused of killing his wife.  When Quillan's estranged brother is killed in a tunnelling accident, the focus of the investigation shifts and Cooper investigates.  This one fills in a bit of detail about Cooper's later boyfriend (this is a rare series I'm not reading in order) but otherwise really didn't appeal to me; Rosenblat did the usual bang-up job with the reading, but I couldn't stop it just being background noise.

Common people: the history of an English family, by Alison Light. London: Fig Tree, 2014.

Weirdly, a colleague and I found we were reading this one at the same time.  We then worked out we'd both heard about it via the BBC History Magazine...  This is a strange book; Light looks at the history of her family, but uses it to mirror the history of England at the time.  There's a huge amount of poverty and an unexpected amount of mobility (geographical and only occasionally social), and she takes us through the world of the workhouse, the mental hostpiral and the building trade as these affected her family in their time.  I couldn't keep track of who all the people were, but it didn't seem to matter; it's a fascinating book which talks about profoundly ordinary people through the last couple of centuries.

Flowers stained with moonlight, by Catherine Shaw. London: Allison and Busby, 2005.

Another not-in-order series... Vanessa Duncan is a teacher in a Cambridge school for girls, but a notorious court case she was involved in four years before has brought her to the attention of a distraught mother.  Mrs Bryce-Fortescue's daughter is accused of murdering her husband, an extremely wealthy landowner living near Haverhill.  While Vanessa doesn't believe Sylvia committed the murder, she also doesn't believe Sylvia's story.  Investigation of the case takes her to Paris (with her fiancé and two other mathematicians) and to Calais.  I guessed what was going on quite quickly, although there was a twist I wasn't prepared for; and there's a fascinating real little episode in mathematical history built in (Catherine Shaw's alter ego is a professor of maths at Jussieu in Paris).

The truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. London; MacLehose Press, 2014.

This is a brilliant book.  I wish I'd been able to sit down and devour it in one sitting, but it's a brick of a book so not one I could carry around.  Young star-of-the-moment author Marcus Goodman has a mentor, Harry Quebert; when bones are unexpectedly dug up in Quebert's garden in 2008, Harry tells Marcus of a love affair he had with a 15-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, in 1975.  The bones are identified as Nola's, and Harry is arrested.  Marcus is suffering from severe writer's block (that difficult second novel) and when his publisher gives him the alternative task of writing Harry's story, he takes it on both to save his skin and to try and prove Harry innocent.  On the way, many secrets and lies are uncovered and there are some real switchbacks which make you re-examine everything which has gone before.  It's also a book intertwined with ideas of fame, and the art of writing, and reputation; a tour de force.  (Ironically, Dicker is now in the position Marcus was in at the beginning of the book.)  The front cover says it's a Great American Novel in all but authorship, and I think this is probably true; there's a slight detachment from American life which is probably necessary, but it feels American in the way that an Edward Hopper painting does - there are gaps, and loneliness, and everyone has a story to tell.

Dust, by Patricia Cornwell [audiobook]. Read by Lorelei King. Rearsby, Leics.: Lamplight, 2013.

I shouldn't have started listening to this. I really shouldn't. But some of the recent Scarpetta books have been quite good.  This, however, isn't one of them. Kay and her husband Benton (and every time she calls "Benton" I think of that bloke in the park, which really doesn't help) investigate a series of murders; while simultaneously trying to avoid Benton's evil boss.  It goes along really pretty tediously for about 9 of the 11 discs in this set, and then I had to listen to disc 10 three times to work out what the hell was going on.  The plot was OK (given that)... I think the thing which irritated me most was Cornwell/Scarpetta's inherent rush-to-judgment; always there but so much in this book.  "It's a masculine space, lacking warmth or creativity" (WTF?)... and while I don't have the exact quote, there was a statement that the lack of pens/pencils/mugs on a desk was an exact correlative to a lack of hobbies and hinterland... And why use more frigid when you mean colder?  Yes, I'm really grumpy.  Lorelei King does her best with this one, but really... no.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

2015 books, #41-45

Never go back, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2013.

Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet a woman whose voice he liked over the phone. When he arrives, not only is she absent, but he finds himself arrested by the military police for a 16-year-old assault, and is also under disciplinary proceedings for having fathered a child at about the same time.  Reacher finds himself being summoned back under military discipline, and confronted with all the exasperation that being under a bad commander can bring.  Absolutely up to the usual standard; and the Reacher/Susan Turner combination is a wonderful thing.

Dreaming spies,  by Laurie R. King. London: Allison and Busby, 2015.

Mary Russell heads back to Oxford to study, and partly to give herself and husband Sherlock Holmes some space after a long voyage.  What she finds on her doorstep when she comes back home one evening plunges her back into events on that voyage between Mumbai and Edo, and into the Japanese culture she and Holmes encountered there.  The Russell books have sometimes been a little variable in quality, but this is one of the good ones, and highly recommended.

The Zig-zag girl, by Elly Griffiths [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Philpott. London: Quercus, 2014.

Not a Ruth Galloway book, this one - and set around Griffiths's home town of Brighton.  Three veterans of a secret army unit are brought together by the murder of a magician's assistant, found chopped neatly into three in three trunks.  Edgar Stephens, now a policeman, tracks down old comrade Max Mephisto, only to find that the victim is known to him.  Stephens's theory that the murder has something to do with his, and Mephisto's, army experience is borne out by another murder, and it then becomes a fight against an unknown enemy, with a twist in the tail I'd guessed, but only just guessed...  This appears to be the beginning of another series - I'd happily read about Stephens again.

Eddy Merckx: the cannibal, by Daniel Friebe. London: Ebury, 2012.

I learned a lot from this book - the climate of cycling in the 1970s, why Merckx was feared so much by his fellow riders because of his ferocious need to win in all circumstances, where he fits in with cycling history, and so on.  But sadly I didn't learn to like the man.  I wanted to - Friebe obviously does - but somehow I just couldn't take to him...  An interesting, well-written read though!

Recipe for life: the autobiography, by Mary Berry [audiobook]. Read by Patricia Hodge. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes/Lamplight, 2013.

Another biography, but this time a bit more of a known quantity.  Mary Berry doesn't confound expectations here - she has the blend of the highly conventional (she has strong opinions on nose-piercing, tight maternity wear and inappropriate dress) and the groundbreaking (working constantly from the early 1960s when finding a husband would have been perfectly acceptable to her family), and her wicked sense of humour shines through.  She doesn't flinch from describing either her parents' bewilderment at her lack of academic achievement at school, or the death of her son William as a teenager in his first car.  It's a story of constant reinvention.  One of the things which stood out for me was also her generous praise for other cookery presenters and writers, particularly those like Jamie Oliver who have a completely different style.  The reading by Patricia Hodge is predictably wonderful.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

2015 books, #36-40

Exposed, by Liza Marklund [audiobook]. Read by India Fisher. Bath: AudioGo, [n.d.]

Annika Bengtzon is on a summer internship from her provincial newspaper, working at Sweden's largest tabloid newspaper.  She's not initially impressed at being assigned to the tip-off line, but then has a call to say that a young woman's body has been found at a cemetery. Fiercely ambitious, Annika is not always an attractive character - she's prepared to use people for her own purposes - but the plot is gripping, involving senior politicians, nightclub strippers and rival newspapers.  I did feel that the ending let it down somewhat, but I'd read another in this series.  The main plot, it's explained, is an incident which happened to Marklund herself when she was a journalist; and India Fisher's reading is very good (I was somewhat worried when I realised she is the breathy voice of Masterchef, but she was considerably less mannered here!).

Put me back on my bike: in search of Tom Simpson, by William Fotheringham. London: Yellow Jersey, 2002.

A biography of Tom Simpson by someone who admires him, but is also concerned with drug-taking in sport; Simpson comes over as a tremendously attractive, flawed character and I really hadn't realised quite how famous he was in his time, as the first British cycling superstar. Fotheringham tells the story of Simpson's life and tragically early death, and also talks to medical experts and those who were around at the time about the use of amphetamines, alcohol and other substances in Simpson's time. It's an unvarnished account, but the respect for the man's achievement shines through both in the main narrative and in the interviews with those who were close to Simpson.

A slip of the keyboard: collected non-fiction, by Terry Pratchett [audiobook].  Read by Michael Fenton Stevens. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

Oh, Pterry; we miss you.  And never as much while listening to the acerbic wit of the man talking about how to look after authors on tour; how not to piss off authors by sending them unsolicited manuscripts; how to become an author; what it's like writing for local newspapers and as a nuclear power station press officer... Tour diaries, articles for newspapers, introductions for SF Con programmes... it's all here. And then, towards the end, the fury and exploration after the Alzheimer's diagnosis, and the passionate belief in the right to decide on the manner and moment of one's death.  I'm not sure you even need to have enjoyed anything by Terry Pratchett to enjoy reading this...

The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. London: Andersen Press, 2007.

This was my annual "challenged" book.  The American Library Association puts out a list each year of the 10 books which have been subject to the most attempted bannings at libraries. This year, this was the top book so, as far as I was concerned, a must-read. Apparently unsuitable due to being "anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”
So, obviously, I had high hopes of this one going in, and they weren't disappointed.

Arnold/Junior is an energetic, opinionated, bright narrator, with a huge determination to succeed. After a couple of terrible events, he decides that only enrolment at the local selective, white high school will get him out of his current situation in a Native American reservation.  Unfortunately this alienates many of his previous friends while failing to win him new ones.  This is a brilliant depiction of teenage life, lack of belonging, the beauty of realising how your family and community fit into the wider world... It's told with compassion and a huge amount of humour - it's a hilarious book - and I'm so glad the ALA brought it to my attention...

The library paradox, by Catherine Shaw. London: Allison and Busby, 2006.

Vanessa Weatherburn, married to Maths don Arthur and living peacefully in Cambridge with her children Cecily and Cedric in the late 1890s, has a penchant for private investigation.  When she's asked by dons from London to investigate what is essentially a locked-room mystery, she can't resist. The investigation brings Vanessa into contact with the Hasidic community in North London, and the academic community based around King's College London.  The dénouement is somewhat weak, but the colours and flavours, and the exposition of Victorian attitudes towards Judaism, is rather wonderful.  And there's some Dreyfus Affair, which was about the only thing in late 19th century French history which really intrigued me.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

2015 books, #31-35

Knife edge, by Paul Adam [audiobook]. Read by Seán Barrett. Oxford: Isis, 2009.

In London, a Kurdish immigrant is murdered and found on Hackney Marshes; Joe Verdi, an investigative reporter, makes contact with part of the man's family, but the man's wife Irena has vanished into the world of illegal agricultural workers in Norfolk.  Joe tries to track Irena down, and investigate the trade in illegal workers, by going undercover as a Romanian migrant worker.  Meanwhile his partner Ellie is investigating the death of a neighbour due to typhoid, and making connections between the two cases.  This is an occasionally horrifying exploration of the world of illegal immigration, and of the price we pay for cheap food; the geography of the Downham/Lynn area is spot on here, and Barrett's reading is as excellent as ever.

Blaze: the forensics of fire, by Nicholas Faith. New York: St Martin's, 1999.

This book looks at the history of fire investigation through examples of some of the most infamous fires in the UK, Ireland and the US.  It's extremely well-written, as you might expect from a guy who has been in editorial posts at the Sunday Times and the Economist; and what surprised me was how recently forensic investigation, used in crime detection for so long, was introduced to the area of fire research.  There's also a description of how computer modelling is used to explain the causes of many fires.  I picked this up a a result of the Val McDermid book, where it was cited several times, and will try and track down some of Faith's other books on crime and air accident investigation.  Slightly harrowingly, one of the fires discussed is at the World Trade Centre, but this book was written before September 11, and the assurance Faith has that the fire precautions there worked extremely well seems sadly dated now.

How to build a girl, by Caitlin Moran. London: Ebury Press, 2014.

I am eating this noise like mouthfuls of freezing, glittering fog. I am filling with it. I am using it as energy. Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you're going.

This is brilliant.  Moran emphasises that this book isn't autobiographical - it's just about some other girl who grew up in Wolverhampton with a lot of siblings at exactly the same time as she did...  She does a fabulous job of remembering exactly what it was like being a teenage girl in a dull town; and interweaves it with tales of overly precocious (and hilarious) rock journalism and excess; she takes you along for the ride while also being able to laugh at herself in retrospect.  It's a wonderful, wonderful book.  It is, as you'd expect, very sweary and pretty no-hold-barred; and all the better for it.

Rough ride, by Paul Kimmage. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2007. (E-book version)

(Couldn't have a set of book reviews without a cycling book, obviously!)
Paul Kimmage had four seasons as a professional bike racer in the late 1980s, leaving the sport in 1990. He has immense affection for the sport, and a total hatred of the dopers who brought it down. He's very honest about his own professional career, and gives a good idea of the life of a professional domestique in an era with considerably less money in the sport, where cyclists had to wash their own kit after seven hours on the road and accommodation was occasionally on school floors. And he's also followed all the scandals, and the scientific developments, which are included in a series of epilogues to the different editions (this was originally published shortly after his retirement in 1990). It's an excellent, predictably moving account of what happens to the majority of contenders in professional sport; but with the additional horrible twist that nothing in cycling in that era or the succeeding one was as it seemed.  I started reading this in the immediate aftermath of the rather puzzling CIRC Report, with its unsubstantiated claim from one (unnamed) rider that 80% of the peleton were still doping; it does make quite sad reading.

Teenage revolution, by Alan Davies. London: Penguin, 2009.

Alan Davies was born at the other end of the country from me, but only a year before; so many of the people and events he talks about in this book are recognisable and familiar - I suspect I spent a lot of the time reading this book nodding my head...  Davies canters through his adolescence and student years in full recognition that he was a bit of an idiot a lot of the time; some of it's hilariously funny, and some quite moving, but all of it's entertaining.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

2015 books, #26-30

The burning room, by Michael Connelly. London: Little, Brown, 2014.

Harry Bosch has been teamed up with a new partner, Lucia Soto, and they have a case which is both cold and live at the same time: a mariachi musician who was shot in an apparently gang-related incident ten years before dies from his injuries, and Bosch and Soto can finally take charge of the bullet.  As they begin to investigate, Bosch suspects that Soto is not entirely focused on the case; he challenges her, and suddenly they have two cases on their hands... Another excellent book with the very likeable Bosch; and with a very unexpected ending which leaves the reader in suspense about Bosch's future...

Forensics: the anatomy of crime, by Val McDermid [audiobook]. Read by Sarah Barron. Whitley Bay: Clipper, 2015.

I'd heard the abridged version of this on Radio 4 earlier in the year, and went to the exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, which was fascinating; when it was mentioned again somewhere, I thought I'd get the full version out in hopes that Ms McDermid would be reading it*. She wasn't, but this reader is excellent; sounds enough like McDermid in the main narrative, and is able to produce accents from all over the place to differentiate the various experts.  If you're interested in the history of forensic science it (and the exhibition) won't tell you anything very new, but it's a great shortish introduction, and rattles along, much like a McDermid novel.

*My main criticism of our new library catalogue is that although you can search by reader, it doesn't appear on the record display, so if you're interested in the title, you have to search multiple times to make sure it's not being read by someone you really dislike...

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou. London: Virago, 2014 (originally published 1969).

 The first of Angelou's seven volumes of autobiographies, this one starts with young Marguerite (Maya) Johnson and her brother Bailey Jr growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, having been delivered to her maternal grandparents at the ages of 7 and 6. It's a childhood defined by the walls of church, school and the racism endemic in the South in the 1930s, with some truly shocking illustrations of how respectable black people were subject to humiliation by white people, even the "powhitetrash". Maya and her brother are transferred between Stamps and California to stay with one parent or another; during one of the California stays, something happens to 8-year-old Maya which ends her childhood way too early and she returns to Stamps.  While this could be the worst of misery memoirs, which much justification, little Maya's (and grown-up Maya's) humour and appetite for life shine through, and there is hope and joy in this book.  This was a book group book, one I've meant to re-read for a while, and I have the second volume of the autobiography on hold at the library.

Second term: a story of spin, sabotage and seduction, by Simon Walters. London: House of Stratos, 2001.

As you can probably tell from the date, the second term of the title is that of a fictional PM rather like Tony Blair, had Blair been a hospital doctor before his arrival in politics.  PM Stephen Cane does have a pitbull-like Press Secretary, in this case a Liverpudlian redhead called Charlie Redpath, a fearsome woman with seemingly no scruples.  While it's fascinating in its imaginings of the lengths politicians will go to to retain power, and in the characters crushed in their paths, it ultimately fails because there are no likeable characters in this book at all.  It's interesting as a roman à clef, trying to imagine who's who, though, given that the author had been a political journalist for 20 years at the point of writing this book.

Runaway, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2015.

This, on the other hand, has sympathetic characters galore.  Jack, Maurie and Dave escape their various family and carers to follow their 50-year-old path back to London, as a dying wish to Maurie; the body of a man they'd all assumed long dead has just been discovered, and Maurie knows who the murderer is.  The book switches between the 17-year-olds in 1965 and the 67-year-olds now; with the addition of Jack's grandson Ricky who they've more-or-less kidnapped.  It has elements of early Iain Banks in its humour and slight absurdity (think Espedair Street or The crow road); and is also able to turn instantly from farce to tragedy.  The plot's good, but the plot's largely unimportant compared to this cast of wonderful characters. Different from the other May I've read, and absolutely brilliant.

Monday, April 13, 2015

2015 books, #21-25

Inside Team Sky, by David Walsh. London; Simon and Schuster, 2014.

A much more encouraging book about cycling, this one, and one I was reading the week of the (rather unsatisfactory) CIRC report into doping.  Walsh, as a famous sceptic about the use of drugs in the sport, is invited by Sir Dave Brailsford to spend a year, or chunks of it, with Team Sky; he's asked to live with the team, ask any questions he wants, wander into any room, open all the cupboards and just generally poke around for any evidence that Sky's famous commitment to clean riding isn't as it seems.  Walsh comes at the task as someone who's almost afraid to believe that a team is this squeaky clean - and with the awareness that Sky have been caught out once over Geert Leinders's involvement - because his heart has been broken repeatedly by the sport he loves.  He's gradually won over by the 2013 Tour de France, and living on the inside of the team; Froome's success in that race makes this book a lovely thing to read.

Thinking about it only makes it worse, by David Mitchell. Kindle edition.

I've been reading this book in bits on the Kindle - I think reading it all in one chunk would be Too Much of a Good Thing, and might also make you feel quite depressed about the state of the world, which isn't what Mitchell's intending.  At least, I don't think that's what he's intending. This is a collection of Mitchell's columns collected together in themes.  Some of them I remember from the original, some I don't; in any case, it makes a fascinating picture of the things we've been obsessed with as a country over the last few years, and immensely readable.

The murder stone, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2009.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie have gone to celebrate their 35th anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasses, a luxury hotel they first visited before they were married.  All the other rooms have been booked up for a family reunion of the Finneys, a strange and disfunctional family who are present to honour the memory of Charles Moreau, Mrs Finney's ex-husband.  When a murder happens, the family are most disconcerted to find that they have the chief of the Bureau d'homicide du Sûreté du Québec in their midst. As ever with these books, the plot dances along, and Sims gives his usual excellent reading.

The devil's edge, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rodgers. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 2011.

Ben Cooper starts investigating some aggravated burglaries in the Peak District, one of which has involved the murder of a whole family. Meanwhile Diane Fry is, predictably, hating her secondment to management training in a nearby force. When Ben's brother shoots a man attempting to burgle his farm, Diane returns to investigate the incident; Ben, meanwhile, is partnered with an old school friend and finding connections between the crimes and events in Sheffield.  This is, as ever, extremely well-written; there's not enough Fry-Cooper interaction for my taste but the new dynamic is interesting, and this is a good reading.

One summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson [audiobook]. Read by the author. Bolinda Audio [Audible]: [S. l.], 2013.

It may be that if you look at any year, you can see many things coming together at once, but so many things which shaped 20th century America, and indeed the world, seemed to have their confluence in the summer of 1927.  Bryson looks at Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic; Babe Ruth's unbelievable summer of home runs; the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti; and the birth of the talking picture; and many more topics important at the time but since largely forgotten, like a devastating flood of the Mississippi. The characters weave in and out of each other's stories like foxtrotting couples on a dance floor, and Bryson is at his entertaining best with the incidental details and the interesting factoid.  He's also a chap who reads his own work well, so this is highly recommended as an audiobook.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

2015 books, #16-20

Adventures in stationery: a journey through your pencil case, by James Ward. London: Profile, 2014.

This is a lovely romp through the history of familiar stationery, from the "lead" pencil to the paperclip via the Bic biro, with its historical rivalries and patent wrangles.  A large amount of its charm is the familiarity of the objects discussed. If you've ever enjoyed a book by Simon Garfield, this may be the one for you...

Oranges are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. Library eBook.

Sorry for the lack of publication information - the library seems somewhat coy about which supplier it's using!  Think it might be OneClick Digital though.  This book was much funnier than I was remembering, but also more insubstantial somehow - it may just be that it's not out there on its own as a diary of teenage lesbian experience and religious strangeness - definitely worth a re-read though.

Criminal enterprise, by Owen Laukkanen [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: Oakhill, [n. d.]

Carter Tomlin seems to have a perfect life - big house, lovely wife, pair of charming children and a senior job in accountancy.  When his job goes south in the recession of 2008, and he's waiting to negotiate a loan at a new bank, he makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to rob it instead.  Then he robs another. FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere hones in on Tomlin from one direction, while Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens picks up the trail from another. The two cops haven't talked since their first case together, but that's all going to change very quickly; Carter Tomlin's decided he likes robbing banks for the thrill of the thing, and this makes it all very dangerous.  This is a second book by Laukkanen (although sadly the library doesn't have the first one yet), and an accomplished, well-plotted book.

Seven deadly sins: my pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh. London: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

More David Walsh - this is almost the story of LA Confidentiel, reviewed in the last set; why it came to be written, and what happened next.  There's a lot more Walsh and a lot less Armstrong in this one; Walsh admits that Armstrong took over his life, and his family, and his energies, for thirteen years, since the first Tour de France victory Walsh simply couldn't believe.  This is fascinating from the point of view of the recent history of cycling, but also as the story of an obsesstion; and as well-written as you'd expect from an award-winning journalist.

The crime writer's guide to police practice and procedure, by Michael O'Byrne. London: Robert Hale, 2009.

Michael O'Byrne uses his expertise in the police in Hong Kong, London, Surrey, Thames Valley and Bedfordshire, where he retired as chief constable, to write this guide for crime writers - he also declares an interest as a yet-to-be-published crime writer himself.  This is a wonderfully readable short guide to current police procedure, from the beginning of an investigation (plot tip: PCSOs are much less likely to throw up at the scene of a murder than CID officers, because they see dead bodies more regularly) through to forensics, presenting evidence in court, collaboration with international agencies and so on.  In each chapter there are also the odd hints and tips about how, while staying within believability, tension or plot elements might be introduced; and it's all presented with the idea that if you're going to throw away the rulebook to make a good story, you may as well know what that rulebook is.  Highly recommended for all readers of crime.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

2015 books, #11-15

A wanted man, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2012.

Lee Child and Jeff Harding are pretty much the dream team as far as I'm concerned; but this is also a really gripping book.  Reacher, still with the injuries incurred in The Affair, is hitching a lift to Virginia, hoping to meet the FBI agent he'd connected with during those events.  After a long time, he's picked up by three strangers, ostensibly work colleagues on a marketing trip.  But are they? And why have they picked up Reacher, whose facial injuries make him look even more dodgy than usual?  Something is wrong, and by the time Reacher works out what it is, he's in it up to his neck.  Classic Lee Child; not a word wasted (certainly not by Reacher, who characteristically "says nothing" many, many times) and gripping to the end.

LA confidentiel: les secrets de Lance Armstrong / Pierre Ballester et David Walsh. [Paris]: Editions de la Martinière, 2004.

This one took a while - my French cycling/drugs vocabulary needed a bit of brushing up - but definitely worth a read. Written in 2004, this book was the first journalistic exploration of Lance Armstrong's use of EPO and other banned substances, and interviews a selection of people including Frankie Andreu, Greg LeMond, and several other less famous cyclists whose careers were ended either by the side-effects of banned drugs, or the refusal to take them.  Several interviews with Armstrong himself are included.  Walsh has written since on this subject, but the fact that this book accelerated the investigation into Armstrong and the US Postal team makes it a powerful document.

I'll catch you, by Jesse Kellermann [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

The world's best-selling thriller writer, William de Vallée, disappears from his luxury yacht; his friend and fellow writer Arthur Pfefferkorn decides to pick up where Bill left off, and steals his manuscript (and leading man, Dick Stapp, a Reacher/Mitch Rapp hybrid).  Pfefferkorn has no idea where this theft will lead him, and descends into more and more farcical adventures in East and West Zlavia, including several escapes, a brace of resurrected dictators and a lot of unlikely facial hair.  This is an extremely funny parody of the hard-boiled spy novel, with the knowledge of thrillers picked up both from Kellermann's own previous novels but also those of his parents Faye and Jonathan; Lee Child meets Tom Sharpe in a picaresque adventure.

Village of secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead. London: Chatto and Windus, 2014.

I heard an interview with Moorehead on the BBC History podcast and was intrigued by this book, which tells the story of the people of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon and particularly the town of Chambon, who sheltered hundreds of Jewish children during the Vichy period and helped thousands more Jewish people to escape to Spain, Italy and Switzerland.  Moorehead was intrigued both by the story of these ordinary people who, inspired by their Protestant faith, set out to protect vulnerable Jews, and who subsequently went unacknowledged for many years. It's a fast-paced, moving account of individuals in a terrible time; and while there has been a lot of argument in recent years as to the degree of collaboration and resistance which went on, the basic goodness of people who had very little themselves in quietly defying the authorities shines through.

At death's window, by Jim Kelly. London: Severn House, 2014.

A family out on a sand-bank discover the tethered body of a man; meanwhile burglaries with a political dimension have been happening to second homes all around the area.  Initially, the murder looks like the act of gangs of rival samphire pickers, but Peter Shaw and George Valentine aren't so sure.  Then a second body is discovered, and everything becomes, if anything, less clear.  As ever, this is set on the North Norfolk coast; while this is a well-written, intriguing thriller with a genuinely good twist in the tail, Kelly's ability to describe the villages and skies of the coast is alone worth reading this book for.