Saturday, October 14, 2017

2017 books, #41-45

Gone with the wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Kindle edition.

I keep wondering why I haven't read many more books this year, but we've had some real bricks to read for book group, several of which I didn't quite finish so didn't count as reviewable...  This would have been a 993-page paperback so it had to be a Kindle book.  I hadn't read this before, although obviously had seen the film.  I didn't really enjoy the film because I hated Scarlett so much; and my opinion of her didn't really improve on reading this.  (I think she should just have been called Emma to warn the reader; literary Emmas seem uniformly awful.)  There are some moments, when she's in Tara with an entire household of hopeless and ailing mouths to feed, when I have some sympathy with her, but as soon as she starts to make her way in the world again, her natural selfishness becomes horribly rapacious, and it's painful.  What really did shock me, though, was what I find is called revisionist history of the Reconstruction, and much of that was left out of the film due to the prevailing atmosphere in 1930s America, along with the length of film production.  The idea that the Ku Klux Klan's foundation was entirely due to attacks by "uppity free blacks" on white women, though, was somewhat breathtaking, and the stereotyping of Yankee soldiers as opposed to our brave Confederate boys was a little bit nauseating in the current climate.  Parts of this book, which was named as America's favourite book (after the Bible) in 2014, definitely explain the romanticism around the Confederate statues in the south, and the myth of the noble Southern slave owner.  If you haven't read it, you probably should. I need a palette cleanser in the form of a more neutral account of Reconstruction, though.

Rain dogs, by Adrian McKinty. Kindle edition.

Sean Duffy's still there, in the Troubles, in the rain, in riot gear; but then journalist Lily Bigelow is found dead in the middle of the courtyard of Carrickfergus Castle, having supposedly fallen from the parapet.  The castle was locked, though, and the portcullis down; the only real suspect is the castle caretaker, but Duffy just can't find a motive. His superiors are as exasperated as ever at what they see as his tendency to overthink the case, but Duffy won't be bullied or rushed, and uncovers a series of plots involving local and international economic politics.  Another terrific book from McKinty.

Triple crown, by Felix Francis [audiobook]. Read by Martin Jarvis. Audible edition.

Jeff Hinckley's at it again in Francis's new thriller.  This time, he's investigating horse nobbling at the major US races, the famed "triple crown".  He goes undercover as an Irish "lad" (and oh dear, while I love Jarvis, his Irish accent isn't exactly stellar here; nor's his Puerto Rican) in a multinational crew, and keeps in touch with the US authorities with a succession of burner phones.  All the classic Francis elements are there - the teaching-us-about-an-unfamiliar-area, the derring-do, the personal peril, the getting-the-girl - and the plot rattles along very well.  Hinckley himself, however, is almost a cypher - Sid Halley, Toby Beach and Kit Fielding, just thinking off the top of my head, were memorable characters. Jeff's had three books to prove himself, and we still don't really know any more about him than we did at the beginning.  I'll keep reading these because they're immensely entertaining, but it's a bit of a quibble.

The burial hour, by Jeffery Deaver [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Audible edition.

Lincoln and Amelia return; and travel.  A nine-year-old girl witnesses a kidnapping in New York; the only thing remaining where the businessman stood is a miniature noose.  Shortly afterwards, an almost identical crime happens near Naples.  In both cases, the final breaths of the victim are recorded, set to music and put online.  Who is "the Composer"?  Rhyme and Sachs, all set to get married but bickering about their honeymoon location, fly to Italy to try to find out.  I don't think this is one of the best Rhyme books, but hey, it's Deaver, and Rhyme, and Italy, and Deaver's getting a great deal of fun out of taking Rhyme out of his comfort zone and giving him something additional to grumble about.  And while Jeff Harding's Italian accent isn't great, it's Jeff Harding.  There's a classic rug-being-pulled-out-under-you Deaver moment in there, too, which I enjoyed.

Deep France: a writers yarn in the Béarn, by Celia Brayfield. London: Pan, 2004.

Celia Brayfield's daughter goes off to college, and so rather than stay in London in her empty nest, she takes the gap year she never had and heads off to south west France with her page proofs, her cats (the extremely stupid Duchess, who lives on "Planet Pedigree", the perennially petrified Piglet, and Tarmac, the black one) and some trepidation.  The Béarn isn't the Dordogne with its huge proportion of "expat" residents (why we call them expats rather than the more accurate migrants is both obvious and depressing), but there are fair numbers of foreign residents around and despite her very good French, Brayfield seems to stick around mainly with them.  This is a lovely book - Brayfield obviously appreciates the slower more sustainable, rhythmic, seasonal way of life, and we hear about a year in a small community in one of the lesser-known bits of France, and recounts the year month by month with accompanying recipes. But she's not sentimental, either; one Kiwi couple's business is almost wiped out in a hard winter, and she's realistic about only really wanting to spend a year living in France.  I enjoyed this immensely.  As did the previous owner (this is yet another find from the Colts bookcase at Hove station - I really need to start leaving things there), given the various food splashes on the recipe pages...  One thing: the last section made me bawl on the train at the sheer optimism of it in terms of freedom of movement., people starting businesses, etc. - it was written in 2002. You might want to leave that section to read in private.

2017 books, #36-40

End games in Bordeaux, by Alan Massie. Kindle edition.

Catching up on some books read much, much earlier; it's too easy to leave books on the Kindle unreviewed because you don't physically have to put them anywhere.  I read this back in February in Paris; it turned out to be the last part of a 4-volume series, and I might go back and read the rest.  D-day has come, and the people of Bordeaux are waiting for the Nazi regime to crumble.  In the chaos of the liberation, consciences are examined; punishments are starting to be dealt out; and there's still hope that people who disappeared earlier in the war. Meanwhile Inspecteur Lannes, suspended from duty by his Vichy masters, is searching for a missing girl and uncovering allegations of historic sex abuse. It's a dark, slightly gloomy sort of book which fitted in terrifically with Paris in February...

The lion's mouth, by Anne Holt. Kindle edition.

The Prime Minister of Norway is found dead at her desk, having been shot. The last appointment she had was with a judge who, it turns out, is also an old friend, and has just been appointed chief of an enquiry into the deaths of babies in 1967.  As Hanne Willemson returns from her sabbatical in California to lead the investigation, she begins to discover other, more sinister, associations in the corridors of power, and to wonder exactly how corrupt the Norwegian establishment has become.  I really enjoy Anne Holt's books - and as a former Home Secretary for Norway, she presumably knows what she's talking about it terms of machinery-of-government!

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. Kindle edition.

A book group book.  I saw the recent film when it came out, and really enjoyed it; which meant that the actual plot of this book was somewhat tame in comparison without the additional spy story added in; but had forgotten quite how good the writing was, and how refreshing the children, and their freedom, was.  If it's been a while since you read this, or you never have, definitely worth a re-read. I am also remembering the look of joy on the face of one of our members who grew up in Canada, on hearing that this was the first of rather a long series!

A lesson in dying, by Ann Cleeves. Kindle edition.

The school at Heppleburn isn't an entirely happy place to be - the headmaster has a vendetta against a nervous young male teacher, and the PTA is in disarray. The caretaker, George Robson, notices all these things, and is worried about his somewhat scatty daughter joining the PTA.  Not as worried, however, as he is when the headmaster is strung up on the basketball hoop in the playground during a parents' Hallowe'en party. Inspector Ramsey investigates, and uncovers a morass of old grudges, incomer/native tensions and one final shattering secret.  I enjoyed this a great deal; haven't read any of the Ramsey books until this one.

A bird in the hand, by Ann Cleeves. Kindle edition.

Teenager Tom French is found, binoculars in hand, on the North Norfolk coast; he's been viciously beaten.  The floating population at the local bird observatory is shocked, but many of them soon move on to the next twitch. Retired civil servant and keen birdwatcher George Palmer-Jones starts to investigate, and discovers more secrets than he was bargaining for. Again, a new Cleeves series for me and one I'll follow up.

2017 books, #31-35

Another day in the death of America, by Gary Younge. London: Guardian Books, 2016.

Gary Younge picked a random 24 hours in the US, and the stories of 10 random children and young people killed by guns in that period.  The kids range from 8 to 20 years old, from a variety of backgrounds and ethnic origins; and in many cases, the deaths didn't even make the local news. The individual stories are heartbreaking; but the sheer banality of death by gun violence, and its acceptance by many families, is the most horrifying aspect of this book. Younge interweaves the history of, and attitudes to, firearms into the separate stories as a powerful howl of rage against the situation.

The absence of guilt, by Mark Gimenez [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Oxford: ISIS, 2017.

The Super Bowl is due to happen in Dallas, and the authorities uncover a plot to use a weapon of mass destruction inside the stadium.  A hate preacher is arrested and the president announces "We won!" on national TV.  Unfortunately, there's one snag: there's no evidence of a connection between the plot and the preacher.  That problem falls to new US district judge A. Scott Fenney; is he holding an innocent man, and if so, who are the guilty ones?  This is extremely well plotted with a good reveal towards the end.  It's also really quite hawkish and strays from anti-extremist to anti-Muslim an uncomfortable number of times.  Rather like the Vince Flynn books, it's slightly "know your enemies". Having said that, Judge Fenney is a good guy, and so are the characters immediately surrounding him.  I'd try another by this author, if Jeff Harding were reading it...

Blazing saddles: the cruel and unusual history of the Tour de France, by Matt Rendell. London: Quercus, 2007.

Matt Rendell's wild sense of humour is in evidence here; but he's also put together a great year-by-year history of the Tour with some anecdotes and a lot of fact (and some seriously good photos).  You get a really good sense of the different eras.  What comes over most, though, is the sheer lunacy of Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour and its first director, a man who said that the ideal Tour would be one only one rider could finish.  Obviously it's slightly dated now, but still an excellent read.

Presumed guilty: the British legal system exposed, by Michael Mansfield with Tony Wardle. London: Mandarin, 1994.

Michael Mansfield looks at miscarriages of justice in the British legal system, after his experience of representing the Birmingham Six and other high-profile cases.  The case he examines, though, is the murder of a man in a High Wycombe café in 1989, and the trial, conviction and subsequent acquittal of a man called Talat Sarwar.  Mansfield presents a compelling case for the adoption of the juge d'instruction system used in France, and includes a detailed description of how French prosecutors work with investigators, something I've found quite difficult to understand in the past.  Some of the things Mansfield recommends have been adopted in the 23 years since this book was written; some of the things he deplores have been reinforced.  A very interesting read, anyway.

Re: cycling: 200 years on two wheels, by Michael Hutchinson. London: Bloomsbury Sport, 2017.

An immensely entertaining history of cycling, from the earliest machines to the present day.  What I particularly like about this book is the social history element - the amount of freedom which cycling was able to give people, particularly women (and the kerfuffle about appropriate cycling attire for women is a sad and hilarious section), and the class perceptions of the activity at different periods in history.  There's also a thread running through which explains why the phenomenon of the competitive British road cyclist is relatively new, and includes Hutchinson's own history as a champion time-triallist.