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.