Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 books, #86-90

Freeze frame, by Peter May. Kindle edition.

I'm starting to become quite freaked out with the coincidences in locations with this series of books - I read this while in Morocco for work in November, and one of the first scenes is set in the 1960 Agadir earthquake.  Then two days later, we were in a museum looking at a painting of the 1960 Agadir earthquake...  Anyway; this is another excellent Enzo Macleod mystery, which spans 60 years. Enzo is asked by a man's widow to look at his study and try to figure out the clues he left 20 years ago for his son, who died shortly after him without being able to work out who had killed his father.  The mystery takes Enzo to an island off the coast of Brittany - the man who was tried, and acquitted, of the murder is still around, and many of the locals don't want the story brought to life again.  As ever, Enzo doesn't let this deter him; even though things in his private life are doing their best to distract him...

The box of delights, by John Masefield. London: Egmont, 2014.

I'd forgotten quite how enjoyable this book was; and also that it was the companion to The midnight folk, which I'll have to track down and re-read.  Kay Harker comes home from school for Christmas, but some mysterious characters share a carriage with him, and a strange man at the station tells him that The wolves are running... Then his and his siblings' guardian is called to London at short notice and doesn't reappear, and clergy start disappearing from the Cathedral...  A creepy Christmas tale for all ages.

No man's land, by GM Ford [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: BBC Audio, 2008.

Frank Corso is summoned to a high-security prison, where inmates have taken over.  The ringleader, Timothy Driver, is the subject of one of Corso's biographies, and demands Corso come in and talk to him.  Subsequently Driver kidnaps Corso, and he and another prisoner escape.  Corso is dragged along during a killing spree; and a television journalist is also trying to track Driver and his companion down.  This ought to have been thrilling, and it's read as ably as ever by Jeff Harding, but I did find my attention drifting from time to time...

Fatal pursuit, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2016.

Bruno, chief of police in the Dordogne town of St Denis, is supervising a vintage car rally when news comes that a man has died on the outskirts of the village.  It looks like a natural death - the man is elderly, overweight and has a terrible diet - but Bruno's just not sure.  He can't find the papers the man is meant to have been working on, and there are no files on his computer relating to his current commission.  Meanwhile he's also dealing with a family feud, the car rally and the presence of his old flame Isabelle who has been stationed nearby dealing with a high-level fraud investigation. This series continues to charm, and also to wrap up satisfying plots; bravo.

Blowback, by Peter May. Kindle edition.

Enzo Macleod's fifth cold case from Roger Raffin's book takes him to a chateau in the Jura, home and restaurant to three-star Michelin chef Marc Fraysse, who was murdered seven years before.  He has a limited amount of time to investigate as the restaurant is about to close for the winter season, but he has a mole in the kitchen staff already, and the cooperation, at least initially, of Fraysse's family.  As he investigates, though, he digs up a mass of seething sibling resentment, betrayal and infidelity which both put him into danger and lead to disturbing parallels with his own life.  Another excellent outing for Enzo.

2016 books, #81-85

Bringing in the sheaves: wheat and chaff from my years as a priest, by Richard Coles.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016.

This is a lovely book.  It's based around the church's year, and mixes serious spiritual stuff with the comedy and tragedy of human life as seen by a parish priest.  Coles's compassion shines through, and there's some extremely funny stuff which is instantly recognisable to anyone who's been part of a church community.  Highly recommended.

Fool me once, by Harlan Coben [audiobook]. Read by January LaVoy. [S.l.]: Bolinda Audio, 2016.

What do you do when you've just buried your husband after his brutal murder in Central Park, but then see him on your nanny-cam?  Maya is convinced that Joe is dead, but she also wants to believe the evidence of her own eyes.  Joe's family has many hidden secrets; and Maya's not short of those herself.  This is another real brain-twisting thriller from Coben, who's the specialist in convincing you you haven't a clue what's going on...

Requiem Mass, by Elizabeth Corley [audiobook]. Read by Jonathan Oliver. Bath: Oakhill, [n. d.]

Andrew Fenwick has just returned to work after the death of his wife; he's assigned a missing persons enquiry which initially he feels is beneath him.  Then a teacher is murdered, and it turns out that there is an old link between the two women, and with two or three more.  Fenwick becomes convinced that someone is taking revenge for an old tragedy, and he and his colleagues start to hunt the killer.  This is a bit long, and not all that tightly-plotted; but Fenwick is well enough drawn that I'll look for more by this author.

A mortal curiosity, by Ann Granger [audiobook]. Read by Laurence Kennedy and Maggie Mash. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2011.

Lizzie Martin is sent off to Hampshire to be companion for a teenage woman, Lucy Craven, who has just lost her baby, and whose husband is in China.  She is living with two maiden aunts in an isolated house, and Lizzie is worried about Lucy's mental state. So is the mysterious Dr Lefebre, and this opinion seems to be confirmed when Lucy is found crouching over the body of a murdered man, covered in blood; the murder weapon is a knife from the aunts' kitchen.  Lizzie calls on Ben Ross, who comes down from London, and the two investigate again.  This has a cliffhanger of an ending...

The Green Mill murder, by Kerry Greenwood. London: Constable, 1993.

Phryne Fisher is at a dance marathon with goopish Charles Freeman when a man is stabbed right beside her.  Charles vanishes before being questioned by the police, and Phryne is left both to find Charles and to investigate the murder.  This is set squarely in the Jazz Age, with the wonderfully named Tintagel Stone and his band, and Phryne's little plane comes into its own here when she has to track down a shellshocked War veteran who has made his home in an isolated part of the Australian bush.  Wonderfully entertaining, as ever...

2016 books, #76-80

Splinter the silence, by Val McDermid [audiobook]. Read by Saul Reichlin. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2015.

Carol Jordan is still in exile, renovating her old barn in the Yorkshire hills. Until one night she has more than one too many, and is picked up by a traffic patrol and charged with drunk driving.  At her lowest, the only person she can think to call is Tony Hill.  But life is about to change for both of them as a result of a Home Office initiative.  Carol and Tony are back in harness, chasing a cyber-bully who seems to be driving feminists to suicide.  Another excellent book in this series.

Conclave, by Robert Harris. London: Hutchinson, 2016.

This book was completely fascinating.  I think anyone following this blog for long will know that a) I'm Catholic and b) I wasn't a fan of the last Pope; so a thriller set at a conclave which might, who knows, elect a progressive Pope was always going to be attractive.  This, in a way, reminds me of earlier John Grisham - the setup is brilliant; the characters are well-defined; there are cliffhangers all along the way; and somehow, the ending is ever so slightly disappointing.  I don't regret reading it, though.

Jeremy Hutchinson's case histories, by Thomas Grant. London: John Murray, 2016.

Recommendation from Jan - thanks!  This is the story of the cases of Jeremy Hutchinson, lawyer to the stars of iconoclasm and freedom of speech from the 1960s onwards.  The trial of George Blake, the Profumo affair, the Chatterley trial, right through to Romans in Britain and Mary Whitehouse, told in an entertaining, engaging style which puts the cases into the context of how the world was at the time. One of the books I enjoyed reading as a teenager was a history of Bernard Spilsbury's cases - this is way better. A truly excellent read.

Blacklight blue, by Peter May. Kindle edition.

The third of the Enzo novels; read it in Colmar in September.  Which was weird, because it starts in Strasbourg, which I was travelling through at the time... Enzo's daughter Kirsty is caught up in an assassination attempt, he's diagnosed with a terminal illness and his son-in-law's gym burns down, all seemingly in an attempt to stop him investigating another of the unsolved murders detailed in Roger Raffin's book.  Enzo establishes his family in a safe house, but the person looking for him is someone with many identities and who will not hesitate to kill.  This one has one heck of a twist in the tail...

The murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King. London: Allison and Busby, 2016.

Mrs Hudson comes home to Sussex to find a large pool of blood on the floor, and no sign of Mary Russell.  She calls the police, and Holmes; but is aware that all the clues left point directly to her - or, in fact, to Clarissa, the woman she once was.  This is much more about Mrs Hudson than it is about Mary or Sherlock Holmes, but it's pretty fascinating for all that, and an interesting exercise in alternative back-stories...

Saturday, November 05, 2016

2016 books, #71-75

A rare interest in corpses, by Ann Granger [audiobook]. Read by Maggie Mash and Glen McCready. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2006.

In 1864, Lizzie Martin comes to London from Derbyshire, as companion to her godfather's widow.  On the way to her employer's house, she sees a body being taken out of a house which is being demolished to make way for the new St Pancras Station.  As time goes on, she discovers that the household and the house at St Pancras have a connection, possibly a dangerous one; and that she's already acquainted with the police inspector charged with the investigation.  This is tightly-plotted, and I love the details on the building of St Pancras as someone who sees it every day.  The dual reading is a nice format, given the two narrators, and there's some real humour here.

Roughing it in the bush, by Susannah Moodie. Kindle edition.

Susannah Moodie and her husband emigrated to Canada in 1832, with their small baby in tow; this is the story of the first few years of their life in the new territory.  Susannah is at time exasperating - she has the sententious Christianity of her age - and the poetry at the beginning and end of each chapter did absolutely nothing for me; but it's a fascinating account, occasionally very humorous.  It has the attitudes, and language, of its age, but is often very refreshingly not what you'd expect from a Victorian matron.  And there's some awful hardship along the way, too.  I don't think I'd have carried on with this after the first few chapters if it hadn't been a book-group book; but on the other hand I'd have missed a lot by giving up.

I let you go, by Clare Mackintosh. London: Sphere, 2014.

A five-year-old, Jacob, is killed by a hit-and-run driver; the grieving mother of a dead child runs away to the Welsh coast; two police detectives on the verge of an affair can't let the hit-and-run case go, and continue to investigate.  It all seems pretty straightforward for the first half of the book, until there's a breakthrough - and a cliff-edge for the reader worthy of Jeffrey Deaver at his finest.  And it all gets even darker. I would warn (and this is slightly spoilery) that if you've found the Helen-and-Rob plot arc on the Archers distressing, this may not be one for you.  I found it hard reading at points but the need to know is very strong by that point.

Triumphs and turbulence: my autobiography, by Chris Boardman. London: Ebury, 2016.

Normally, I read for a bit on the train and then pick up my knitting and put on a podcast.  I started reading this on Thursday night, had to lever myself away from it to switch the light off, and finished reading on the train nearing home on Friday night.  I slightly regret reading this so quickly, but it had to be back at the library on Saturday...  This is a wonderful book.  If you like Chris Boardman and have heard him commenting and commentating, and podcasting, you can hear this in his own voice. It's self-deprecating, sardonic, funny, often painfully self-critical.  Boardman's fully aware of the degree of self-obsession required for performance sport, to the extent of having missed the birth of his second child because he needed to recce a course ahead of a race; and of the difficulty of leaving that mindset after retirement from competition.  And there are some great pen-portraits of the people he's worked with and raced with and against over the years, and a sense of the deep debt of gratitude he owes to his wife Sally, who's kept it all together all these years.

One day ahead: a Tour de France misadventure, by Richard Grady. Kindle edition.

You couldn't get a higher contrast to the last one than this book, read on the Eurostar on the way to Alsace in September.  Four amateur cyclists decide to race the 2012 Tour route one day ahead of the professional péloton , and rope a motley collection of friends in for the ride and as support workers. It's an occasionally very funny account of the attempt, and the love of France comes through strongly; but it's also an honest, warts-and-all account of what happens when you get eight disparate people, with different expectations and senses of entitlement, living in close quarters in two camper-vans for nearly a month.  It's a combination of a tale of massive, heroic endeavour and a warning never to go on holiday with people you don't know well...

Saturday, October 22, 2016

2016 books, #66-70

Cheer up, love: adventures in depression with the Crab of Hate, by Susan Calman. London: Two Roads, 2016.

This is a wonderful book.  It's often extremely funny, as you'd expect; but it's also extremely honest about living with depression, and some of the things Susan Calman has found help with her own depression; there's also a great section on the things to say, and not to say, at difficult times.  Calman looks at the impact of social media on mental health, at talking therapies, at people's attitudes to her being gay and depressed, at physical appearance...  It's all extremely engaging, and beautifully written, and (again) funny.  And obviously, there are cats. Highly recommended!

Out of bounds, by Val McDermid. London: Little, Brown, 2016.

A teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car, killing his three passengers and putting himself into a coma.  When his DNA is analysed to see whether he'd been involved in other car thefts, it seems to hold the key to the 20-year-old murder of a hairdresser killed on a night out. DCI Karen Pirie of the Cold Cases Unit is extremely keen to find the perpetrator of a crime which affected all the people involved so deeply, but it's not as straightforward as it seems; and Pirie also has enemies within Police Scotland who resent her involvement in the present-day crime and wish to stop her.  As the investigation goes on, some very powerful people are stirred up and Pirie's life is in danger.  As ever, this is brilliant.  (There's also an extremely accurate description of a Select Committee session in Portcullis House - Pete Wishart MP of the SNP is credited at the end for help with that one!)

The escape artist: life from the saddle, by Matt Seaton. London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

I had this recommended by the bibliography at the back of another cycling book; and it's a really interesting account of a keen amateur, almost-professional, cyclist in the 1990s, and the sacrifices people make to an obsession.  What I hadn't realised was that it's the Matt Seaton who's also the Family editor for The Guardian and widower of Ruth Picardie, whose heartbreaking Before I say goodbye... columns I read in the Observer in the 1990s.  So it's also a pretty poignant memoir; it balances the exhilaration of racing, and of feeling physically in completely top condition, with the guilt of not spending time doing more responsible, more social things.

The long way home, by Louise Penny. London: Sphere, 2014.

I finished The beautiful mystery, the previous book in the series, just before a meeting in Bloomsbury; and bought this on the way home.  Gamache and Reine-Marie are starting to enjoy a life in retirement in Three Pines, but there's one unresolved mystery - Peter Morrow hasn't returned to his wife Clara after their one-year trial separation, and while Clara is still undecided as to whether she really wants him back, she knows Peter wouldn't stay away if there wasn't something very wrong.  Gamache agrees to help find Peter, and it turns into a slightly bizarre road trip around Québec and Ontario. There's a lot about art and artists, and about losing one's way and trying to find it; and a surprising, heartbreaking conclusion.  Extremely good.

The critic: an Enzo MacLeod investigation, by Peter May. Kindle edition.

The second of the Enzo novels.  After solving one historic unsolved case, Enzo is again taking time out of his day job as a chemistry professor at Toulouse University to look at another case, this time in the vineyards of the Gers.  A prominent US wine critic went missing from the area a decade before, and no trace of him has been found, until his corpse appears displayed in a vineyard, seemingly having been pickled in wine all this time.  Enzo's enquiries aren't popular with everyone, though, and his motley crew of students, his daughters and their boyfriends prove both a help and a hindrance before the mystery is finally (slightly horrifyingly) solved.  This was a brilliant book to be reading in France last month.

2016 books, #61-65

Lanterne rouge: the last man in the Tour de France, by Max Leonard. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014.

This was a good year to read this book - the last man to finish on the Tour de France this year was the lovely Sam Bennett, who rode all but the first stage with stitches in his right hand and a clamp holding his little finger together.  Sometimes a bit of a joke, sometimes, like this year, a badge of honour and survival, the people who've "won" the lanterne rouge are a fascinating bunch.  Leonard picks a dozen from all eras of the tour, and looks both at the Tour they rode that year and the rest of their careers; and in doing so sheds light on this fascinating "honour".  Sam Bennett joked that as more riders finished the Tour than in any previous year this July, he was "the last of the last".  This book shows he's in extraordinarily good company.

Telesa: the covenant keeper, by Lani Wendt Young. Kindle edition.

This was a book group book, a YA novel. 18 year old Leila's father dies, leaving her with only her autocratic grandmother; rather than spend her summer at an academic camp, she travels to Samoa to try and find out more about the mother who died when she was a baby.  Far from being overjoyed, her mother's family are anxious and fearful at first.  Leila settles in well at school and makes friends for the first time, but strange things are happening to her physically, and she's also awakening sexually.  There's some fascinating stuff about Samoan traditions and superstitions here, and I think if I was a teenager I'd love these; as it was, reading about the perfectly-sculpted bodies of teenage boys made me feel uncomfortably like some middle-aged voyeuse.

How the light gets in, by Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2013.

This is a stunning book.  I like this series in general; but it's rare that a book manages to totally transcend its series, and this is one of those rare times.  The title comes from Leonard Cohen's Anthem; Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in. After the events of Beautiful mystery, Gamache and Beauvoir are estranged, the Homicide unit of the Sécurité du Québec has been decimated by malevolent high-ups, and Gamache himself feels defeated.  And in the middle of all this, Gamache has a call from Three Pines - Myrna's Christmas guest never arrived, and subsequently is found dead in her apartment in Québec City.  Her secret is that she was one of a set of quintuplets who were astonishingly famous as children.  But as Gamache looks into the crime, he's also being watched... There is so much despair, beauty and hope in this book.  It's worth reading the entire series just to get to it.

The murder road, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rogers. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

There's only one road out of the village of Shawhead; and now that road is blocked by a lorry which has got stuck under the bridge.  There's no sign of the driver, but the cab is bloodstained.  Ben Cooper starts to investigate, but the villagers of Shawhead are a strange lot, and his investigation isn't the only thing on his mind, as he drives back and forth to Nottingham to visit Diane Fry.  Another extremely good book in this series, and I love Mike Rogers's Derbyshire voice.

Dirty work, by Gabriel Weston. London: Jonathan Cape, 2013.

The book starts with a disastrous surgical operation; and moves on to the disciplinary hearing before the British Medical Association.  A young female doctor is charged with gross misconduct.  We hear the entire process through her point of view, and the book's divided into four sections, one for each week of the hearings.  We find out about her, about the events around the operation, about her family background and how she became a doctor; and as we move through, it becomes steadily more disturbing.  This is definitely not one for the squeamish, either physically or morally; it's one which will stick in my brain for a long time.  Weston is a doctor and writer, and recently presented a BBC series on the history of forensics, which led me to this book.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Knitting with Rainbows: a different kind of book review

Knitting with rainbows: making the most of gradient yarns, by Carol Feller. Available through Ravelry, or at Carol's website.

The knitting content on this blog hasn't been exactly stellar over the last few years - long days, much travel and the advent of Twitter are probably responsible - but the book reviews have carried on.  Today, a combination of the two!

I've been enthralled by the number of dyers who've started to produce gradient sets over the last few years; and the very different definitions of gradients - some sets start at one point in the colour wheel and move to another; some are different intensities of the same colour; and everything in between.  Some have four colours, some 6, some up to 15... Some come as mini-skeins, some as a single graduated skein.

When I was doing embroidery City and Guilds, I had a couple of sessions with Jean Littlejohn; and she used to joke that she did Mulberry Silks therapy.  This consisted of standing next to a stitcher staring helplessly at a perfect, unopened pack of colourful threads, and intoning Open The Packet... Use The Thread.... And I've felt slightly similar with the gradient packs I've bought.

So this book is extraordinarily topical, and welcome.

There are eleven lovely projects; the one on the cover particularly attracts me; and this pair of long, long handwarmers is beautiful.  There are cowls, and hats, and scarves, wraps and shawls of different shapes, at least half a dozen of which I'd love to make.  In many cases there are two versions of the pattern made with different gradient sets, giving a completely different effect.

This is way more than a book of patterns, though; which is what I love about it.  There's a lot of excellent practical information which helps a knitter lose the slight apprehension which comes with something which looks so perfect in the packet you don't really want to take the skeins out of the bag.

There's advice (and a table! Love tables...) on which techniques might go best with which type of gradient, and on what to do when your gradient set has a different number of colours or different yardage to the ones in a given pattern.  And the fun idea of creating your own gradient sets out of leftovers, sometimes by doubling up the yarn to give the effect you want.

At the back, there's also information on joining those pesky mini-skeins, combining gradient packs for larger projects, and how to break up the sets in different ways.  And there's a short bibliography (which makes my librarian's heart glad...).

Full disclosure: I was sent the eBook version for this review. It's a book I would willingly buy, and think is excellent value both for the patterns and for the number of ideas and the inspiration Carol gives to the reader.

Carol's running a KnitALong for patterns from this book over on Ravelry; so now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to drool anew at my Sparkleduck gradient set, and ponder what to cast on...

Sunday, September 04, 2016

2016 books, #56-60

Port mortuary, by Patricia Cornwell. London: Sphere, 2010.

Sometimes I wonder why I keep reading Scarpetta novels.  This is one which is brilliant in some ways, and then intensely annoying in others.  Scarpetta's called back from Dover air force base, where she's been dealing with the bodies of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to her own centre to deal with the mysterious case of an unknown man who continued to bleed after death... or was not dead when shut up in Scarpetta's mortuary's fridge.  And Scarpetta's husband Benton Wesley is, she suspects, working for the FBI again.  This is an entertaining and gripping read, even while you want to knock the heads of everyone involved together and tell them to get over themselves... I think the most irritating aspect of it is the invention of more back-story which has never been mentioned but is still an overwhelming consideration for Scarpetta...

Ordinary grace, by William Kent Krueger  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

It's 1961 in Minnesota. Frank is 13, with a father who's a Methodist minister and a mother who thought she'd married a lawyer; a mother who directs music beautifully, and an older sister who plays the organ and is about to go to Juilliard; and a younger brother who stammers...  And then that summer a child with a learning disability is killed on the railway tracks; and everything explodes.

This is a beautiful book.  A heartbreakingly beautiful book.  Many books are compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, as this one is in the reviews; and in so many cases this is just rubbish.  This is more knowing in tone; but has an added degree of absolute clarity. There's a murder, but it's sort of incidental.  The writing is so clear, and luminous, and there are some utterly perfect passages here.

Read this book.  And if you have any influence, get this guy a UK book deal; I can't get a single one of his others from the library...

A particular eye for villainy, by Ann Granger [audiobook]. Read by Laurence Kennedy and Maggie Mash. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2012.

Thomas Tapley, the neighbour of Scotland Yard Inspector Benjamin Ross, is found murdered with the traditional "blunt instrument" in his rooms. Lizzie Ross (née Martin) realises she saw him only hours earlier, being followed across Waterloo Bridge by a clown.  When Tapley's cousin, a QC appears, the plot thickens.  This is set in 1860s London, but Lizzie and Ben are unconventional enough as a couple to make it a fascinating read; and the geography is pretty good.  The readers are excellent.  I've no idea whether these books would be better read in order as I've come in in the middle of a series, but have ordered the first in the series from the library....

The corpse bridge, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rogers. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

The Corpse Bridge is the route taken for centuries by mourners from local villagers to the burial ground across the river. When the local landowner announces plans to turn the burial ground into a car park, bodies start turning up along the traditional route...  Back at work after the awful death of his fiancée (I'm sorry, but you don't expect this to be spoiler-free, do you?), Cooper's also got to deal with Diane Fry, about to move, finally, to Nottingham, and still with her TV in the back of his car. The plot here really is secondary to the characters, although it's not bad; and there's a very surprising twist at the end.

The beautiful mystery, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

A body is found in the abbot's garden of a remote island monastery in Québec, a monastery nobody had known about until a recent recording of Gregorian chant had brought them to the outside world's attention.  One of the monks has been killed, presumably by someone else within the monastery. Gamache and Beauvoir travel over to the island and investigate, but bring their past history with them, and this is exacerbated with the arrival of a hated senior colleague.  Meanwhile tensions within the monastery also emerge.  This is very good, and ends on a real cliffhanger as far as the characters are concerned.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016 books, #51-55

My brilliant friend, by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2012.

Elena and Lila are growing up in a suburb of 1950s Naples, in a neighbourhood where violence is commonplace and the Camorra are always hovering in the background.  Lila is a wild, fierce child, forever in scrapes, but brilliantly intelligent. Elena, although also extremely academically talented, is in her shadow.  Elena is able to pursue her education past middle school; Lila leaves at 14 and joins her father's shoemaking business.  This is the first book of 4; and while it was enjoyable enough, and the atmosphere is conveyed well, my book group all agreed that we had a great deal of difficulty liking any of the characters all that much. The book is roughly chopped off without resolving the cliffhanger the author gives us at the beginning, leading to a slightly cheated feeling on the part of the reader...

The racer: life on the road as a pro cyclist, by David Millar. London: Yellow Jersey, 2015.

This is a wonderful book. Millar takes us through the last year of his career as a member of the pro péloton, with all its ups and downs. Mainly downs, to be honest, but he's never self-pitying.  On the way, he talks about early-in-the-year training (in a chapter called Welcome to the Suck which starts I fucking hate January), the Flanders classics, the Ardennes classics, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Dauphiné, the gutting experience of being dropped by his team four days before the start of what would have been his last Tour de France, the Commonwealth Games, the Vuelta and the World Championships, the last two of which he raced with two broken fingers.  It's a brilliantly entertaining, often scatological, corruscatingly honest account you can almost hear Millar reading to you.  On the front and back cover he explains that I want to write something else, a book that years from now my children will read and see what it was like, that their dad actually did all those years ago, the racer he was.  But not only that, I want my friends from this generation to have something that will remind us of who we were. There was more to it than doping. We lived on the road because we loved to race.  He succeeds on all counts. Chapeau.

Test of wills, by Charles Todd. Read by Samuel Gillies. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 1999.

Ian Rutledge has returned to Scotland Yard after the First World War; accompanied by the constant voice in his head of Hamish, a man he had executed by firing squad for refusing to fight.  A malicious colleague sends Rutledge out into the shires to investigate the murder of a former officer who was found with his head blown off.  One of the main suspects is a shellshocked man, and Rutledge wonders who at the Yard has it in for him. Nevertheless, he investigates, and discovers a web of secrets, and some thoroughly unreliable witnesses. First in a series I'll be following up on.

My dining hell: twenty ways to have a lousy night out, by Jay Rayner. London: Penguin, 2012 (ebook), 2015 (print).

I think if I'd realised what a slim little volume this was (72 pp), I'd have bought the e-book, or forgone it altogether.  It's a compendium of 20 of Rayner's more disaffected reviews of bad restaurants, with a bit of an introduction. While I love Rayner's turn of phrase: The twist in 'Julian's Vegetable Lasagne' was that it didn't contain pasta. Instead, it was a dense block of finely mandolined root vegetables that tasted mostly of salt and pepper and effortless regret - I also respect him as an accomplished novelist and a very entertaining writer about food beyond the reviews.  I picked this up as an accompaniment to the Food commandments book he's just released, probably didn't read the blurb carefully enough, and so my disenchantment with this book might be my own fault.  I still don't quite understand why Penguin thought it important enough to publish in print edition though.  If anyone would like to read it, do drop me a line with some way to contact you, and I'll stick it in the post.

The soul of discretion, by Susan Hill. London: Vintage, 2015.

This is an excellent book. Don't get me wrong, it's back to form after a couple of slightly luke-warm books in this series.  Simon Serrailler is sent under cover to try to trap the leaders of a paedophile ring; while continuing to be a complete git to his girlfriend who's just moved in.  Meanwhile, his father's being accused of rape in the loos during a Rotary Club function.  The plot is tight; the relationships are as sharply observed as ever and the finale is absolutely gripping.  And then you go to the author's website, and find that although she's left at least three cliffhangers, she has no plan to write another Serrailler novel... and it all feels a bit futile.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

2016 books, #46-50

Missing you, by Harlan Coben [audiobook]. Read by Kerry Shale. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2014.

Detective Kat Donovan is signed up for an online dating site by her friend Stacey.  Out of curiosity, she logs in and finds the profile of her ex-fiancé, a man she hasn't seen for 18 years. But when Kat gets in touch, she realises all isn't as it seems.  And then the son of another woman hacks into the site, and enlists her help in trying to trace his mother... A classic Harlen Coben standalone, where nothing is as it seems; tightly plotted and terrifying on occasion, with a twist in the tail.

Faster: the obsession, science and luck behind the world's fastest cyclists, by Michael Hutchinson. London: Bloomsbury Sport, 2015.

I was a little bit dubious about this one, but I'd massively enjoyed Michael Hutchinson (or @Doctor_Hutch)'s previous book The Hour; this is all about the somewhat arcane discipline of the individual time-trial, and the physiology and psychology of speed.  It explains why Mark Cavendish is a completely different racer from Hutchinson, or from Froome; it explains that you can have a huge pair of lungs, but if you have the wrong kind of muscles, you can't take full advantage of it.  Hutchinson talks to people at the top of UK sport, as well as sports scientists, aerodynamics experts and dietitians to explore the notion of the world's fastest riders.  And he makes learning about DNA and wind-tunnels fascinating, and funny.

The hangman's song, by James Oswald. London: Penguin, 2014.

An Inspector McLean novel.  McLean's hated boss Duguid AKA Dagwood has seconded him to the Sexual Crimes unit, but he also answers his phone one night and ends up at a hanging.  When a second body is found in similar circumstances, McLean investigates much to Duguid's dismay.  And at the same time, McLean's domestic life is complicated by Emma Baird, newly out of a long coma and seemingly haunted by her experience.  Quite literally - one of the things I'm less keen on in these books is the presence of the supernatural; I keep reading them, but there is a lot of what the Americans would call "woo" in these books...

The redeemed, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bath: AudioGO, [n.d.].

Jenny Cooper's another with a complicated domestic life; she really can't decide whether to throw in her lot with Steve, and her son's now living with his father.  Among all this, she's dealing with an inquiest on Eva Donaldson, a former porn star, now Christian and seeking to eliminate pornography through a house church movement which is sponsoring a private members' bill on the subject.  Alongside this, there's also the case of  Alan Jacobs, a psychiatric nurse found in a graveyard with a cross carved into his chest and forensic evidence of very recent gay sex.  The cases seem very separate, but it's never that straightforward, and the politics around the bill leads to a great deal of pressure being put on Jenny by her masters in Whitehall.

Hillsborough: the truth, by Phil Scraton. 20th anniversary edition. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2006.

Having recently seen the documentary based on this book, I didn't learn a huge amount more; this is such a dreadful example of misconduct and a total lack of sympathy for the bereaved families that it makes hard reading.  I've had a fascination for the tragedy because friends should have been at that end of the ground that day, but had a non-life-threatening car crash on the M1 coming up from London that morning.  One of the best things about this book is the sheer tenacity of the families who refused to be fobbed off and carried on fighting for a full exposition of what had happened.  It's a horror that it took 27 years.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

2016 books, #41-45

Gone to ground, by John Harvey [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2007.

Stephen Bryan, a Cambridge academic, is found murdered in his bathroom. Initially suspicions fall on his partner, Mark, or on a random sexual encounter; but the loss of Bryan's laptop also makes the detectives wonder whether something in his research on 50s screen actress Stella Leonard might have something to do with it.  It may be that I listened to this in too many bouts, or it might be that Wincott's delivery was even more mannered than usual, but I couldn't find myself warming to this one, and the plot seemed strangely disjointed given the quality of Harvey's usual writing.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. London: Virago, 2014.

A companion piece to Home and Gilead, both of which my book group had read; but does also stand on its own, according to others who didn't belong to the group then.  I found this less satisfying than the previous two books, but still a tour de force of writing.  Lila is a compelling character, constantly poised for flight, and her strained relationship with her kind, elderly clergyman husband is at turns incredibly sad and rather wonderful.  The book roams freely across Lila's life in a sort of kaleidoscope, Highly recommended.

Waiting for Alaska, by John Green. London: HarperCollins, 2006.

2015's most challenged book, according to the American Library Association.  And as good as you'd expect, given that.  Miles is sent to high school at his dad's old boarding school, Culver Creek in Alabama, and meets his roommate Chip (The Colonel), friends Takumi and Lara, and the amazing, unpredictable Alaska Young.  There's smoking, and drinking, and teenage pranks; and a lot about religion and meaning; and something utterly dreadful happens in the middle I won't spoiler.  It's the kind of wonderful, lively, life-affirming book that some people can't resist trying to ban.

Death at Victoria Dock, by Kerry Greenwood. London: Constable, 2014 [originally published in 2002].

Phryne Fisher is blamelessly (for a change) driving through Victoria Dock when she's shot at, and a beautiful young man dies in her arms.  He turns out to be a Latvian, and a member of an anarchist group.  Phryne pitches in to investigate the murder, Meanwhile she's also hired by a man called Waddington-Forsythe to look for his daughter Alicia; Waddington-Forsythe père and fille are both deeply unpleasant individuals, so Phryne's thoughts often tend towards the anarchists.  This is another very pleasant romp.

The woman in blue, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2016.

Ruth Galloway is invited to meet an old friend at Walsingham, where the friend is at a conference. Surprisingly, Ruth's fellow archaeology student is now a vicar, and she's been getting threatening letters. Meanwhile Nelson is also in Walsingham investigating the death of a young woman who had left a nearby drug treatment centre in the middle of the night and been strangled.  Relationships, always complicated in this series, become even more tangled in this one, and the very strange atmosphere of Walsingham contributes to this.  Well up to the usual standard of these books, and another unputdownable read.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

2016 books, #36-40

Coffin road, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2016.

A man wakes up, soaking wet, on a beach.  He has absolutely no memory of how he got there - or, indeed, of who he is.  When he gets back to where he seems to have been living, he finds he's told people he's a writer, but there's no draft of a book on his laptop, and no personal identification in the cottage.  Trying to retrace his own movements, without revealing he has no clue who he is, he stumbles across a body. But did he kill the dead man?  Another brilliant book from Peter May; genuinely gripping.

London rain, by Nicola Upson [audiobook]. Read by Sandra Duncan. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2015.

Another of Upson's Josephine Tey novels.  It's the Coronation of 1937; the implications of the Abdication rumble on, but London has put on its glad-rags and is ready to celebrate.  All but Vivien Beresford, anyway; her husband has been unfaithful one too many times, and she's set on avenging her humiliation.  Vivien is the temporary editor of the Radio Times, and her husband Antony is one of the BBC's most respected commentators, so there's a lot of backstage-at-the-BBC in this one.  Josephine is there to watch the Beeb bring Richard of Bordeaux to the airwaves, and gets involved,  Meanwhile Josephine's uncertainty about her on-off relationship with Marta is coming to a head...  If you've enjoyed other books in this series, definitely keeps the standard up.

A trick of the light, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

Three Pines stakes its claim in the murder stakes alongside St Mary Mead and Midsomer, as yet another body is found in its peaceful surroundings, this time after Clara Morrow's triumphant vernissage in Montreal.  Initially, the woman's identity is a mystery; once it's discovered who she is, all sorts of secrets, mainly based around the Québec art-world twenty years earlier, start creeping out. Gamache, Beauvoir and co. investigate; but Beauvoir has problems of his own...  Another excellent book in this series.

The steel kiss, by Jeffery Deaver. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.

A Lincoln Rhyme novel (this is obviously the post in which I catch up with series...)  Lincoln has resigned from consultancy with the NYPD after a disastrous case; and Amelia hasn't forgiven him for it. However, a dreadful event in which Amelia fails to save a man from being eaten alive by an escalator motor brings Rhyme back from lecturing to investigation on the civil damages case. And he has a new sidekick...  This is good - it's Deaver - but there are one or two "reveals" which don't quite ring true; still entirely worth reading though.

Smoke and mirrors, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2015.

A Stephens and Mephisto mystery, set in Brighton in the aftermath of World War II.  Two children go missing, and Stephens is investigating when he hears of an eerie connection with an earlier murder in the theatre in which Max Mephisto is in rehearsals for Aladdin in panto.  I like the period details here, but somehow this one fails to catch fire...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

2016 books. #31-35

To rise again at a decent hour, by Joshua Ferris. London: Penguin, 2014.

A book group book. Again, one I'd not have read otherwise; unusually, one I wouldn't have minded not reading.  A New York dentist is told by a patient that he's a member of a persecuted religious group.  He has a history of girlfriends (Catholic, Jewish) who are part of religious groups, and has mainly been in love with their entire families... But all of a sudden, someone's stealing his identity.... I really didn't enjoy reading this - but did enjoy the discussion.

You are dead, by Peter James [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Weyman. [Rearsby, Leics.]: WF Howes [n.d.]

A Roy Grace book.  A woman is abducted from an underground car park while on the phone with her fiancé; another woman's body is discovered near Hove Lagoon.  Meanwhile, Grace, Cleo and baby Noah are attempting to move house... It has a plot, and a good cast of characters; and a very gripping ending; but it really did lose me in the middle. This may have been because of a somewhat lacklustre reading; or a not-very-good middling plot; not sure..

Reacher said nothing: Lee Child and the making of  Make me, by Andy Martin. London: Transworld, 2015.

I loved this.  Andy Martin thought that writing a book about watching Lee Child (Jim Grant) write his 20th Reacher novel would be a good thing to do. He then found that if he didn't get onto the project within a week, he'd have missed the boat. If you're a Child/Reacher fan, this is a fascinating look at how the books get made.  I love the writing of the first chapter.  You bury a body, and have no idea who the bloke was, or how he'd pissed off the bad guys; you have no more idea than the reader, at time of writing, what's going to happen. And you don't go back...

Already dead, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rogers. Oxford: ISIS, 2013.

Ben Cooper's still out recovering from the horrible death of his fiancée.  Diane Fry has been seconded in as a temporary sergeant. And a man's body has been found in a shallow runnel.  I'm really not sure about how the plot works out for this one, but I was also much more interested in the relationships; and in all cases, I was disappointed.  This book really didn't hang together for me. And it seems that Fry is much more akin to The Bridge's Saga Noren here than to anything we've seen in the past from her.  I'll read the next one, because the series has been pretty terrific so far; but this one really didn't work as far as I'm concerned...

The Burry Man's day, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable and Robinson, 2006.

Dandy and her friend Daisy go to visit a schoolfriend, Frederica, (school nickname Buttercup) and her rather lovely American husband at his strange ancestral castle in Perthshire.  They're around for the Burry Man's fair - a weekend of fun, with a somewhat sinister figure at the middle of it; the Burry Man himself wears a suit made of plant burrs, and tours the local pubs drinking whisky.  This year, though, the Burry Man is behaving strangely, and then, once out of the suit, the man who has taken the part collapses and dies.  Dandy and friend Alec investigate, and discover all manner of local secrets.  Very entertaining.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

2016 books, #26-30

Bury your dead, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Armand Gamache is in Québec City, recovering from the effects of his previous case. Jean-Guy Beauvoir is in Three Pines, doing the same.  Neither of them can resist an investigation, though, when it's presented to them; in Beauvoir's case, the conviction of Olivier in the previous book; in Gamache's, a centuries' old mystery culminating in a new murder.  But throughout both stories, there's an extra voice; the voice of young Agent Paul Morin, speaking from the grave.  All three mysteries come to a climax at the same time; it's a fascinating bit of storytelling and quite haunting, literally and figuratively. Brilliant.

The world of cycling according to G, by Geraint Thomas, written with Tom Fordyce. London: Quercus, 2015.

This is such a good book. Once I've reviewed it, I'll be returning it to the pile by the bed so I can dip into it again.  It's funny, all the way through.  It's informative - there are even diagrams to explain things like echelons. It has some brilliant anecdotes - the terrible things Geraint and Ed Clancy did to Mark Cavendish's strict diet, roasting lamb chops in front of Cav, etc.  And it shows both the pain of endurance cycling, and the reasons someone like G will get up in the morning with a cracked pelvis and go out there again.  Oh, and it really is so funny.  Read this book.

The disappeared, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bristol: Chivers/BBC Audiobooks, [n.d.]

Jenny Cooper is getting used to her job as Severn Valley's coroner; but then she has to deal with the distraught mother of a Muslim boy who has just had him declared dead. The police have written him off as a Jihadi; but Jenny feels the mother deserves an inquest into the disappearance given some of the suspicious circumstances.  Meanwhile Jenny's own teenage boy isn't wildly happy to be living with her, and she's torn between two potential relationships. Sian Thomas gives a good reading, and this is another excellent book by Hall.

Jacquard's web: how a hand-loom led to the birth of the information age, by James Essinger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Serendipitous find while idly looking for weaving in the University Library's catalogue.  This is a fascinating book which takes you through the influence of Jacquard's punch-card weaving invention on Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, through the business calculators of the 19th century and through to the birth of companies like IBM and into the computer age.  At all stages, the author has dug out details of the explicit mentions of the Jacquard weaving process and its influence in information science.  For anyone interested in either subject, this book is fascinating and extremely readable.  Having spent a couple of days tracing Jacquard around Croix-Rousse last year (still haven't blogged the photos!), even more fascinating.

Extraordinary people, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2006.

A new-to-me Peter May series - delighted to find I like this one too.  Enzo MacLeod lives in Cahors with daughter Sophie, and works as a professor of biology.  But his past history as a forensic scientist comes back to him with a wager made with a journalist that he'll solve the disappearance and suspected murder of a prominent politician ten years before.  The first clues to what happened to Jacques Gaillard come quickly, but they just reveal more puzzles, and as Enzo and Roger continue to investigate, they run into trouble from the authorities.  There's an interesting plot here which just fails to fall into Da Vince Code style occult conspiracy theory; and Enzo operating both as a scientist and an exasperated Dad is fun.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016 books, #21-25

The moth catcher, by Ann Cleeves [audiobook]. Read by Janine Birkett. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

Valley Farm is a tiny community, a big house and three luxury homes built on the land, lived in by wealthy people enjoying their early retirement and describing themselves as "retired hedonists".  The peace of the place is shattered when the young house-sitter at the big house, Patrick, is found dead by the side of the road.  Vera and her team investigate, and immediately find another body in the granny flat at the back of the house.  The only connection they can find between the two men is a fascination with moths.  As they dig into the history of the people in the new development, they find a great deal of boredom and dissatisfaction, and some very nasty secrets.  Janine Birkett does an excellent job with the different Durham/Newcastle/Northumbrian accents here.

Oh, and if you've already watched this in the TV series, still worth watching - unrecognisable.  I waited to finish listening to this to avoid plot spoilers - really needn't have bothered...

And the mountains echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Abdullah and his younger sister Pari live with their father and new stepmother in 1950s Afghanistan; until Pari is taken to live with a wealthy couple at the age of three and a half.  The book follows their lives, and that of their little brother Iqbal and their uncle Nabi; as well as the history of a Greek facial surgeon who comes to work in Afghanistan to repair the physical destruction caused by the war.  There are dark secrets here, too - and the savagery of poverty and war in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora over sixty years.  This is an intensely moving book, but has many loose ends - characters appear and then disappear just as suddenly - and somehow doesn't quite satisfy.  (Quick disclaimer that I haven't read any others of Hosseini's novels and I suspect a few of the characters may appear elsewhere, so this may make a lot more sense to people who've read the other two.)  It does give a fascinating look into a country we mainly know for its destruction, though.

The yellow jersey club: inside the minds of the Tour de France winners, by Edward Pickering. London: Bantam, 2015.

The idea for this book is the collection of living Tour winners which were assembled by ASO for the centenary tour in 2002. Pickering then decided to look at the post-Mercx-era winners, and the result is a series of short profiles of 21 Tour winners since 1975.  Some, like Bernard Thévenet, are less known to people like me who've only come to the sport recently.  Some stories are mostly recounted by the rider's peers. Some, like Greg LeMond, can talk the hind leg off a donkey.  And there's the odd chapter, like the one on Chris Froome, which seems to have been assembled from clippings.  And Lance Armstrong gets a chapter, because there'd be a huge gap in the record if not; Pickering doesn't pull any punches about the sport's drug-soaked history, though.  Definitely worth a read, if only to confirm the impression that these guys are all ever so slightly mad.

After the Armistice ball, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable, 2005.

The first book in a series featuring Dandy Gilver, a society woman somewhat buried in early 1920s Perthshire with her staid husband, and her two sons away at boarding school.  A friend in trouble makes appeal to Dandy to investigate a supposed diamond theft, and she seizes the opportunity.  The investigation soon takes a tragic turn, but Dandy and friend-of-the-family Alec become rapidly convinced that everyone has something to hide.  An excellent beginning to a series - have already reserved the next one...

The rider, by Tim Krabbé. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. London: Bloomsbury International, 2003. Originally published in 1978.

This is the weirdest, simultaneously documentary and hallucinatory book, the story of a 150km race told in 150 or so pages.  Krabbé is an author and former chess champion who also took up cycle racing in his late 20s, and rode many races in Holland, Belgium and France.  In this case, the race is the fictional Tour du Mont Aigoual (reconstructed since by various publications). Every move in the race is relived, and then there are special appearances by heroes of the sport, cycling alongside Krabbé in fantasy moments.  This was nominated by The Guardian as the best cycling book ever; the only way I can describe it is as an existentialist novel on wheels... Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2016 books, #16-20

The climb, by Chris Froome, with David Walsh. London: Penguin, 2015.

I enjoyed Cav's first autobiography (see last reviews post); but this one really is fascinating, mainly because Froome is always a bit of an enigma when you hear him in interview (other than Ned Boulting's great Sports stories documentary last year set mainly in South Africa and Kenya, which was lovely).  Froome takes us through his childhood in Kenya and South Africa - first in Kenya with his mother, and then later at boarding school in Johannesburg.  You realise quite how... different... his upbringing, and cycling experiences, are from the norm of UK and European riders. There's the story of his having sent an e-mail purporting to be from the Kenyan minister for sport to get himself into the 2007 World Championships as manager, team-leader and sole rider (and then felling a race official on the first corner of the time-trial); a heart-stopping story about his having nearly killed an old man who was coming out of an Italian off-licence; and the odd funny, never insulting, stories about team-mates.  (This, about the Sky Tenerife training camp: The rooms have small prison-cell TV sets that only trade in Spanish. There is nothing interesting to do and no distraction. We rely on each other for entertainment and, knowing just how entertaining we all are, we take the precaution of bringing box sets of television series.)  Over and over, there are the twin pillars of fairness, and hard work; Froome's passionate anti-doping stance comes through, as does his complete dedication to a goal.  There's a fair amount about the Wiggins/Froome rivalry here, but really, that's not what this book's about.  I like the fact that David Walsh (the man who worked so hard to expose Lance Armstrong over so many years) has a proper place on the title page - but he's let Froome speak here, and it's a funny, engaging, book about a very nice chap.

Career of evil, by Robert Galbraith. London: Sphere, 2015.

The third Cormoran Strike, and utterly true to form.  Robin receives a severed leg in a box; and discovers to her horror that there are potentially four people who might want to send such a thing to Strike. One motive is entirely personal; the other three accumulated in Strike's career of making himself unpopular with very nasty people. Strike and Robin investigate, while Robin's relationship and impending marriage to (the rather awful) Matthew also cause problems.  There are a couple of really horrific characters here, notably the dreadful Tempest, bullying and self-obsessed webmistress of a 'transabled' forum for apotemnophiliacs and those who wish to become disabled (this doesn't, as you'd imagine, go down well with Strike). Brilliant, occasionally scary, sometimes extremely funny, often moving; I think this series may be getting better as it goes on; but I'm a sucker for series where the characters' relationships and personalities are as strong as the plots.

Lifetime, by Liza Marklund [audiobook]. Read by India Fisher. Bath: AudioGO, [n.d.]

Journalist Annika Bengtson has separated from her husband; then she and her two kids only just escape a house fire.  Meanwhile, one of the most famous police officers in Sweden is found murdered in his bed, his 4-year-old son missing, his wife suspected of the crime which was committed with her police weapon.  Desperate to take her mind off her own troubles, Annika starts to investigate the police officer's killing - if the wife is innocent, as she claims, who could have abducted the child and murdered her husband?  As ever, Annika is unable to stay away from trouble... and the fact that the police think she might have torched her own flat isn't helping.  I do enjoy these - but I wonder if I'd sit down and read the books, rather than listening to the audiobooks - Annika annoys the hell out of me...

Rogue lawyer, by John Grisham. London: Hodder, 2015.

After Gray mountain, I was expecting something equally epic from this book; but this is effectively a set of short stories tied together by one character.  Sebastian Rudd is someone famous for defending the indefensible client, and is hated by the police, prosecutors and his ex-wife.  We see his custody battles for his small son interspersed by cases where defendants of various stripes appear. Rudd has ethics, but those ethics don't necessarily correspond with the law; and he is prepared to bend rules in what he regards as a rightful cause.  It's Grisham, so it's tremendously entertaining; but not one of his greats.

The black sun, by James Twining [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics: Clipper/WF Howes, 2006.

In London, an Auschwitz survivor is murdered in hospital and the arm with his camp tattoo is removed; in Maryland, an Enigma machine is stolen; in Prague, mindless vandalism at a synagogue fails to conceal the theft of a Czech painting.  Tom Kirk becomes involved, and soon realises nothing's quite what it seems.  This started off fascinatingly, but it degenerates into the normal Nazi-gold type of conspiracy thriller, and is less interesting for that.  I'll carry on with this series, and hope the theme's different next time, as I do like Kirk and his sidekick.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

2016 books, #11-15

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill [audiobook]. Read by David Thorpe.  Bath: Oakhill, 2010.

I wanted to read this because it was about cricket in America, and murder.  And it sort of is, and sort of isn't.  I really don't know what to say about this book other than that I'd hoped to enjoy it and eventually just sort of left, confused.  The fact I had to listen to the final disc twice, and still didn't work out what the author was intending to say maybe expresses either my lack of attention, or the lack of focus of this book...

This dark road to mercy, by Wiley Cash. London: Transworld, 2014.

I really wanted to love this book.  Cash's previous book, A land more kind than home, was a tour de force.  This sets itself up magnificently; a 12-year old and a 6-year old are put into a children's home in North Carolina; their loser dad abducts them; people are chasing the dad... But somehow it fails to deliver.  Having said that; this was a book-group book and we had so many things to talk about having read it...  And when I say I was disappointed - that's in comparison with the previous book which is quite astonishing.  This is still pretty good.

Boy racer: my journey to Tour de France record-breaker, by Mark Cavendish. Epub format. [Originally London: Ebury, 2010.]

Cav's first autobiography, written in 2009; and as opinionated and passionate (and occasionally chippy) as you might imagine if you've listened to any of his famously unpredictable post-race interviews. What I didn't necessarily expect was his ruthlessly realistic view of his own talents and how they match up to those of other sprinters; but he's someone who is always the first to praise his team's performance... This takes us through Cavendish's childhood, early racing, the Academy, and his first couple of really successful series with 9 Tour de France stage wins and the massive disappointment of being the only member of the UK Cycling team not to win a medal at Beijing. Cav's notorious photographic memory for every race is shown at its full advantage here - and his collaboration with Daniel Friebe (whose contribution is somewhat hidden in the credits at the very end) has made for a wonderfully readable book.

Sex, lies and handlebar tape: the remarkable life of Jacques Anquetil, the first five-times winner of the Tour de France, by Paul Howard. Edinburgh; London: Mainstream, 2008.

I had to get this out for the name - saw it in the bibliography at the end of another cycling book.  I didnt know much about Anquetil - his glory years were when I was a toddler - but he'd been the hero of my French penfriend's Dad, and one of those names who keeps coming up.  I can't say I particularly warmed to him as a person, which is probably why this has taken me months to read and I've only finished it now because it needs to be back to the University Library in a couple of weeks; but it's a fascinating story. Not least the fact that his daughter is also his step-granddaughter, the child of his stepdaughter - something the French penfriend's Dad didn't ever mention.  Anquetil's constant quest to avoid financial distress, even when he was earning hugely, and his seemingly unequivocal endorsement of doping, are alienating; but the book's a window of a world into the decade before Eddie Merckx's dominance and interesting from that point of view. If you like that sort of thing.

My family and other strangers: adventures in family history, by Jeremy Hardy. Ebpub format. [Originally London: Ebury, 2010.]

This is a lovely warm, funny book.  Hardy goes about investigating his family history in a somewhat haphazard way - perennially not really getting up in time to get a full day's research in, or being sidetracked by lunch; and this is endearing.  While he's toddling around graveyards failing to find stones, or being wildly enthusiastic about the research room at The National Archives, he's also reflecting on his own life, his family's (and thinks about family in general and how we make it, as his own daughter is adopted), and what it means to belong somewhere.  He explores Hitchin, and Arundel, and mentions many times that it would be much more helpful if he had an army of white-gloved helpers from Who do you think you are?  He also talks movingly about the deaths of Linda Smith and Humphrey Lyttleton, both very recent at the time of the book.  Many times, you're laughing with a lump in your throat. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

2016 books, #6-10

Make me, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2015.

Another excellent Jack Reacher book; I really don't know how he keeps up the standard, given that this is book 20.  Reacher's inner romantic is intrigued by the town of Mother's Rest; it has a railway station, so Reacher hops off at midnight to find out why the town got its name.  He meets a woman called Michelle Chang waiting for a work partner, who hasn't got off the train.  As the following day goes on, Reacher's curiosity about the origin of the town's name, and scouring of the streets for a monument, a gravestone or a museum, attract suspicion among this intensely rural community.  (Which is basically Standard Operating Procedure for anyone coming into contact with Reacher.)  As Reacher and Chang (ex FBI) start trying to find Chang's missing partner, the truth behind the grain-silo façade of Mother's Rest turns out to be something very strange, and then something very horrible indeed.  Lee Child's on top form here, riffing off the omnipresent "Reacher said nothing", and giving us a superb plot.

Land of second chances: the impossible rise of Rwanda's cycling team, by Tim Lewis. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014.

This was rated extremely highly by the guys at the wonderful Cycling Podcast in their round-up of the year's (or possibly the last couple of years') best books.  It starts with the presence of Adrien Niyonshuti in the mountain bike race at London 2012; and then goes back to look at Rwanda pre-genocide, during the genocide, and then during the reconstruction.  The beauty and the poverty of Rwanda come through so clearly; as does the evangelical zeal of the cycling fanatics of various nations who come together to try to help.  Initially, the aim is to produce indestructible, affordable coffee-carrying bicycles to help farmers get their produce to the processors earlier.  But then Team Rwanda was also born, and provided shelter, and the second chances mentioned to both the riders, many of whom had lost so many family members in the genocide, and the team coaches and staff, some of whom had... dubious... backgrounds they were trying to make amends for.  You learn about the Rwandan genocide, international development politics, cycling economics, and the enigmatic, wonderfully enlightened/completely dictatorial President Kigame.  You really don't need to be into cycling to read this book.

Greedy man in a hungry world: how (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong, by Jay Rayner [audiobook]. Read by the author.  [S. l.: HarperCollins Audio, 2013.]

Rayner's on a tear, here. He's spent way too much time among pretentious foodies; so the targets are local food, seasonality, farmers' markets, small-is-beautiful, industrial-is-bad, supermarkets-are-evil, GMOs-are-going-to-kill-us-all semi-orthodoxy.  To be fair, he goes at it like Ben Goldacre, but a Ben Goldacre with a hangover who hasn't had lunch yet.  And it's all really interesting.  He visits large, carbon-neutral, water-neutral, large-scale agriculture in the US; he talks to researchers into farming in the developing world.  He looks at food miles versus the other elements of the carbon footprint and concludes that maybe certain areas of the world are just better at some of this stuff.  And it's also emotional (interlaced as it is with memories of his late mother), and entertaining; and he's looking at the ethics of the thing all the way through - I enjoyed this immensely; and Jay Rayner's another guy who really should read his own books.

Flying too high, by Kerry Greenwood.  Scottsdale, Ariz: Poisoned Pen Press, 2007.

The second of the Phryne Fisher books.  Phryne has started to put down roots in Melbourne, moving out to her own house with her maid Dot; she's approached by two clients simultaneously.  Mrs McNaughton is terrified her son, a flying-school owner, will murder her husband; and a child (the utterly delightfully phlegmatic Candida) is kidnapped from the family of a recent lottery winner.  Phryne sets out to solve both murders, using her wits, her own special sense of morality, her red Hispano-Suiza and a series of borrowed aeroplanes.  I love this series; the next one's on order already.

Gray mountain, by John Grisham. London: Hodder, 2015.

I always forget quite how good a storyteller Grisham is; particularly when he's up on his environmental, David-v-Goliath, high horse as he is here.  Samantha Kohler is a victim of the 2008 financial crash; she's told by her New York real estate law firm to intern somewhere else for a year, and they might be in a position to take her back. "Somewhere else" turns out to be Brady, Virginia, working in a law clinic for impoverished families dealing with repossession, domestic violence and the health consequences of the strip-mining industry.  Samantha meets environmental lawyer Donovan Gray, a fierce opponent of the mining companies since his land (the eponymous Gray Mountain) was destroyed, and grows to like him. Part of this book is charming; part is very scary. It's vintage Grisham.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

2016 books, #1-5

The pie at night: in search of the North at play, by Stuart Maconie. London: Ebury, 2015.

Mr Maconie does it again, with his combination of romance and realism.  Having looked at the industrial history of the North in Pies and prejudice several years ago, he's gone back to find out how the British, and particularly the Northern English, have fun.  Different chapters cover the industrial heritage industry (with a lovely section on Beamish Museum), football, bowls, going to the dogs, museums, music, theatre, walking, eating and drinking, and the different experience of North and South.  And while Bill Bryson might write a book like this and dip into snideness, Maconie has such a huge curiosity and affection for his subject and for the people he meets that there's no danger of that here.  Highly recommended.

The double eagle, by James Twining [audiobook].  Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 2006.

In Paris, the body of a priest is dumped into the Seine; but during the post-mortem, a coin is found in his body - a rare double eagle, a coin thought not to exist.  Jennifer Browne of the FBI is commissioned to investigate, and this leads to the discovery of a robbery at Fort Knox, and the possible involvement of Tom Kirk, an art thief and former CIA agent.  The mystery takes Browne and Kirk all over Europe, with a brilliant reveal at the Invalides back in Paris.  Very well plotted - I guessed part of the plot but then it twisted again - and a good reading from Wincott (even if it is a bit strange hearing Adam-from-the-Archers doing a variety of US accents...).

L'étranger [usually, English: The Outsider], par Albert Camus. PDF downloaded to Kindle [originally published Paris: Gallimard, 1942].

I was uncomfortable with the potential illegality of the PDF I used for this re-read; but honestly, not uncomfortable enough to go up into my loft over Christmas to dig out my college copy, and this was one of January's book group books.  I had forgotten quite how good this is.  I re-read it in French because I knew I'd remember so many fervently-memorised quotes that it would be wrong not to; and because the language is so simple, but also so luminous, so clear-cut.  Reading it again while watching The Bridge and Sherlock, I wondered whether Meursault was another person who was entirely involved in society while absolutely puzzled by the feelings and expectations of others.  I was wary of coming back to something I'd been so blown away by as a 16-year-old, and then as a 22-year-old, but I got more out of this book again at more than twice that age.  And, of course, one of the central themes of colonisation/oppression/unrest between les arabes and the prevailing authorities is sadly as prevalent now as it was in 1942.

The Meursault investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Translated from the French by John Cullen. London: Oneworld, 2015 [originally published as Meursault, contre-enquête, Oran, Algeria: Editions Barzakh, 2013].

Our other book group book for January (both this and L'étranger are short reads).  The brother of the "Arab on the beach" speaks, and gives him a name, Musa, and a family; and tells the story both of Musa's life and of his own.  From the first sentence Mama is still alive today (contrasting with Camus's Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte) there are parallels with L'étranger throughout.  Most notably a memorable rant about the non-existence of God, which is repeated almost word for word in a totally different context.  Daoud explores the complete anonymity of Meursault's victim and the non-white population of Algeria as a whole in the period; he creates a garrulous, not entirely reliable narrator with a powerful voice of his own; and the way that Algerian society has changed in the period between its emergence as a nation and presence, with the increasing domination of religion. While acknowledging that he doesn't have the narrative gift of the original book, which he has been trying to throw off all his life (and, indeed, this really wouldn't work as a standalone novel), Daoud has created a fascinating companion piece.

Day of Atonement, by Jay Rayner. Kindle edition. Originally published in 1998.

Two Jewish teenagers in Edgware, Mal and Solly, go into business to produce Solly's "Pollomatic", an invention which cooks and strains the stock for chicken soup in a new, faster way.  When they start to expand their business, though, they need a longer spoon to sup with their main backer, a very savvy and ruthless businessman.  Although they later marry, the friendship between Mal and Solly is the bedrock of this book, and there are themes of loyalty and betrayal, family, Jewish identity (or lack of) and, of course, food.  It's an extremely funny book, but the ending did see me crying on the Tube. I enjoyed Rayner's The Oyster House siege several years ago but enjoyed this even more. Brilliant read.