Sunday, August 13, 2017

2017 books, #26-30

The underground railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  London: Fleet, 2016.

Cora's life on a cotton plantation in Georgia, where she is an outcast even among her fellow slaves, ends when she's persuaded by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, to run away.  Things go badly from the start - Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her.  Although they find a station on the railroad,  and are transported to South Carolina, they are now hunted.

In this book, and this is where the fiction comes in, the Underground Railroad is literally there, a network of hidden railroads with irregular trains flying North to freedom, with engineers, and tunnels, and conductors.  As Cora travels, she realises that situations which at first seem benign are actually quite insidious, and that she is endangering the people who shelter her.  It's an amazing story. There is, as you'd expect, an awful lot of casual brutality; that part isn't fiction... but it's also a compelling story, and very readable.

Bring me the head of Sergio Garcia! my year of swinging dangerously on the pro golf tour, by Tom Cox. London: Yellow Jersey, 2007.

I have no interest whatever in golf; but I do like the way Tom Cox writes.  Turning 30, Cox and his wife decide that he needs to get the teenage desire to be a golf pro out of his system, so he applies to join a minor Tour and competes in various tournaments.  This is a lovely account of falling in and out of love with a sport, and a critical look of the culture around golf.  Very readable if you like Tom Cox's cat books (he's the chronicler of the late lamented The Bear, AKA @WHYMYCATISSAD).

Peter Pan must die, by John Verdon [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2016.

A Dave Gurney book; and follows the same pattern as the others. Gurney gets involved in a new and potentially dangerous case; his wife alternately sulks and whines at him; things get ever more dangerous and he exceeds his brief but keeps on with the investigation; dangerous things happen; there is resolution.  That doesn't mean it isn't a good ride while it's going on (and Jeff Harding does his usual excellent job here) but there is a certain formula, and Verdon isn't as good as someone like Lee Child about varying it up, or telling us something new about his characters.  Definitely worth listening to; I'm not convinced I'd have read it in print though.

We'll always have Paris: trying and failing to be French, by Emma Beddington. London: Pan, 2017.

Emma Beddington had a fascination with the French from an early age; she went to French films, envisaged herself sitting moodily outside a Paris café smoking a Gitane, and mugged up on her Gainsbourg and Besson...  She met a Frenchman, married, had two children, and then had the chance to live in Paris.  And it wasn't at all what she expected.  This is the best account I've ever read of being miserable in posh Paris (granted, that's a niche memoir); weirdly, Beddington ended up living just round the corner from where I'd been miserable a a few years before, sitting on benches in the Parc Monceau watching her kids (my au pair charge, in my case), staring through the windows of pâtisseries, dealing with incredibly unfriendly French bureaucracy.  It's also an exploration of grief, and some tragedy; but it's also handled with a wonderful honest, humorous sense.  And there's a love story at the heart of all this; the central relationship, but also falling in and out of love with cities and the notion of home.  Brilliant book. One to be kept, which is a rarity these days.

Death ship, by Jim Kelly. London: Crème de la Crime, 2016.

Kids digging a fort in the sand on Hunstanton Beach unearth a bomb,which explodes.  Is it a WWII unexploded bomb, or something newer and more sinister? And is it connected with the new, and contentious, pier being built?  Shaw and Valentine are already based in Hunstanton, trying to catch a killer who's handing out poisoned sweets at bus stops, while looking for a missing Dutch tourist who walked out of his hotel one day and disappeared.  The more they look into the case, the more confusing all these strands become; and the further back Shaw finds himself digging.  Another really excellent book by Kelly, which romps along, and captures the atmosphere of the Norfolk Coast perfectly.

2017 books, #21-25

Dominion, by CJ Sansom [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Weyman.  Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2012.

It's 1952 and Britain is twelve years into Nazi rule under Lord Beaverbrook, Winston Churchill is leader of the Resistance and the British Jews are being rounded up for deportation to camps on the Isle of Wight.  Civil servant David Fitzgerald is recruited to the Resistance and asked to break scientist Frank Muncaster, an old school friend, out of the mental hospital in Birmingham where he has been confined after being accused of killing his brother.  This is very cleverly done - you find yourself thinking aaaah every now and then as another piece of the alternative world slots into place - and a good read.  Daniel Weyman narrates this very competently and reminds me that a well-read audiobook is a very satisfying thing indeed.

Silence, by Shusaku Endo. London: Picador, 2015. Originally published in 1966.

Portuguese priest Sebastian Rodrigues sets sail for Japan in 1640 to help the suppressed Christians there; and to find out what has happened to his former mentor who is rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues is idealistic, but life in Japan gradually brings him to the realisation that although there are still faithful people there, his presence is as much of a danger as a comfort to them.  This was... interesting... but really, if you want to read an account of a priest examining his usefulness in a hostile environment, you'd be better off with Greene's Power and the Glory.  There's a curious lack of detail about daily life in 17th century Japan to distinguish this from the Greene, too.

The wrong side of goodbye, by Michael Connelly. London: Orion, 2016.

A Harry Bosch book; and a good one. Bosch is working for the cold case unit in San Fernando, California, as a retired volunteer detective, and also doing private investigations on the side.  He is summoned to a meeting with a billionaire aerospace company owner who is at the end of his life, and tortured by the idea that he may have a living heir.  Bosch makes progress quite quickly despite worries about the people who might be interested in his not finding out about living relatives; but at the same time, the "cold case" he's working on, a series of rapes, suddenly starts to heat up again with another suspected attack.  This is very good indeed, even by Connelly's usual standards; having read much less than usual this year for whatever reason, I raced through this in a day and really enjoyed it.

Strangers on a train, by Patricia Highsmith. London: Vintage, 1999. Originally published in 1950.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on a long-distance train; after a night of drinking, Bruno proposes that he dispose of Haines's troublesome estranged wife, in exchange for Guy killing Bruno's hated father.  It would, he suggests, be the perfect crime as both would be entirely motiveless. Haines shrugs it off as a chance encounter; but then he leaves a book in Bruno's train carriage with his address in it, and creates a disturbing link between them...  I'd forgotten quite how compelling this thriller really was; it seems much more modern than something written in 1950, and most of us in my book group found it unputdownable once we'd started to read it. Very glad to have read it again.

Gun Street girl, by Adrian McKinty. London: Serpent's Tail, 2015.

Sean Duffy has what looks like a double murder and suicide to deal with. But as ever, he seems to be determined to make it as complicated as possible, at least in the eyes of his superiors.  The more information he turns up about the suspect, the less convinced he is by the initial view of the case.  And then a mysterious American agent, and MI5, turn up on his doorstep.  This series continues to be extremely engaging.