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.