Saturday, June 15, 2019

2019 books, #36-40

Old Possum's book of practical cats, by TS Eliot. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. London: Faber, 2009.

A 50th birthday present from Manda two years ago - belated thanks... Eliot is one of my favourite poets (he'd have to fight that one out with Seamus Heaney), but I have the straightforward collected version, and I think I've only read the Old Possum poems once.  Scheffler works his usual magic on the illustrations and this is a joy to read.

Long road from Jarrow: a journey through Britain then and now, by Stuart Maconie. London: Ebury Press, 2017.

Stuart Maconie decided to walk the same road as the Jarrow Marchers, 80 years to the day after they did the route. He talks about the original marchers (and the myth of the original marchers) and the social conditions of the time, but also looks at it through an immediately-post-Referendum lens, looking at the social divisions in Britain then and now.  And as it's Maconie, it's done with a gently mocking eye.  He asks people in the towns he's passing through what they know about the Jarrow March (surprisingly little in most cases); and personally, I was really surprised that they, and he, passed through my home town of Chester-le-Street on the first night... not something I think is commemorated anywhere in the town.  He also covers moments from history of the towns he goes through - the railways at Darlington; Hillsborough while going through Sheffield; the Italian community in Bedford... He finishes at Parliament (where the marchers never entered) talking to Tracy Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen and successor to Jo Cox. It's really difficult to describe this book - there's so much about contemporary Britain in it. Highly recommended.

The moor, by LJ Ross. Kindle edition.

A DCI Ryan mystery. A circus comes to the Town Moor in Newcastle, and the sound of a jingle on the radio brings back a horrific and forgotten memory to a young girl, who seeks out Ryan; she has remembered her mother being murdered on the circus's previous visit to the Town Moor, when she herself was just a toddler. The whole of Ryan's crew get involved in both looking after the girl, and tracking down the mother's killer.  Another enjoyable Ryan story, with a twist in the tail ready for the next in the series.

Con law, by Mark Gimenez [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Audible edition

John Bookman (aka Book) is a constitutional law professor at a stuffy university; he's also a Harley rider and a martial arts practitioner. When former intern Nathan asks for his help, he bikes down there with his current intern Nadine, only to find he's arriving in time for Nathan's funeral. Book becomes embroiled in the world of fracking and pollution, and it all gets pretty dangerous.  Gimenez is no Lee Child when it comes to action sequences, but the plot is great, and it's framed by Book's constitutional law lectures and the conflicting characters attending them, which are also extremely enjoyable for geeks like me who admire places with a written constitution.

The salt path, by Raynor Wynn. Kindle edition.

Raynor and her husband Moth are made both bankrupt and homeless as a result of an investment with a friend which goes horribly wrong. The day after they lose their home, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness. The temptation is to give up, but they have nowhere to go and nothing to do after a lifetime of farm work; so they go walking the South West path, all 615 miles of it.  I wish this weren't a true story, but it is, and is told warts and all. I know a lot of people have found this book inspirational and uplifting; I didn't; but I was in awe of the determination and sheer bloodymindedness people can rise to when they have no real alternative.


Friday, May 31, 2019

2019 books, #31-35

Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker. Kindle edition.

This was a fascinating book; and also a somewhat depressing one. Walker is a sleep scientist, and also the voice of doom for those of us who struggle to get enough sleep, or work at times which are contrary to our natural circadian rhythms. He outlines the physical and mental health benefits of sleep, talks about the ways some creatures sleep (in the sea, on the wing, perched in branches), the different types of sleep and why each is important, and talks about a wide variety of studies.  I found the tone quite smug in places, and I'm not sure I'd have finished it if it hadn't been a book group book; but in the end I did find it definitely worth reading.

White bones, by Graham Masterton. Kindle edition.

I don't tend to review books I haven't finished, but am making an exception for this one.  It looks like an interesting set-up - Irish, female, senior police officer with corrupt businessman husband investigates a number of skeletons with ritual elements found buried at a local farm - but the extreme torture and violence in this one meant I couldn't read it. I am not a squeamish reader, as people who've been reading these reviews over the years will appreciate, but this seemed to slip over into violence-porn and I felt very uncomfortable reading it. These books come up in the £0.99 Kindle deals quite often; personally, I'll be avoiding them.

Good omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman [audiobook]. Read by Martin Jarvis. Audible edition.

In anticipation of the TV/Prime series starting on Friday, and of going to the Southbank Centre to see Neil Gaiman (and David Tennant! and Michael Sheen!) on May 29, I had another listen to this lovely reading of the book.  Jarvis, as the reader of the William stories, is perfect for this. For anyone who hasn't read this yet, please do. It's Just William meets the apocalypse; very funny, very British. Really looking forward to the series.

A rare book of cunning devices, by Ben Aaronovitch [audiobook]. Read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Audible edition.

A Peter Grant (Rivers of London series) short story, set in the British Library; if both of those things make you happy, you'll love this.  It's only half an hour of audio, but it's a lovely little listen.

Pieces of her, by Karin Slaughter. Kindle edition.

Andy came home after various failed false starts in New York, to look after her mother during breast cancer treatment; three years later she's still here, at the age of 31, working as a police dispatcher. After a shocking violent incident at a diner, in which her mother (apparently calmly and professionally) kills a man shooting at them, and another at their home, Andy finds herself on the run. Not only does she not have a clue what's happening, but she's also really not sure any more who her mother is, or was, or whether anyone can be trusted.  This is tremendous. Miss-your-stop-on-the-Tube tremendous.



Monday, April 22, 2019

2019 books, #26-30

When the dogs don't bark: a forensic scientist's search for the truth, by Professor Angela Gallop [audiobook]. Read by Sandra Duncan. Audible edition.

Newly arrived at the Forensic Science Service after a PhD in sea-slugs, Angela Gallop's first case was one of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper. During a career both in the FSS and then later in her own company, Forensic Access, Professor Gallop was involved in many of the famous cases, and also in the re-investigation of many of the miscarriages of justice, from the 1970s on.  She talks about the cases, the development of forensic science, the politics of the Home Office/MoJ involvement in the forensic services, and about being a woman dealing with the police in the 1970s and 80s.  This is really fascinating, and I'll probably listen to it again.  Duncan's reading is as good as ever. Coincidentally, I was also listening to the BBC podcast Shreds, about the murder of Lynette White and the Cardiff Three miscarriage of justice, and Prof Gallop was interviewed; the match of her voice and Sandra Duncan's is excellent to the point of being slightly uncanny.

Prayer for the dead, by James Oswald. Kindle edition.

Another DI McLean mystery. A colleague of McLean's perpetual thorn-in-the-side-journalist, Jo Dalgleish, is reported missing and then found dead in a locked cave, surrounded by Masonic symbolism. Meanwhile McLean's friend Madame Rose, a transgender tarot card reader and fortune teller, is being harassed. DS Ritchie is back at work after the events of the previous book and has joined a discussion group at the local church (Mary, the vicar of that church, is a brilliant character.) which takes her into McLean's local area. Meanwhile the disasters which have befallen both McLean's beloved Alfa Romeo, and his previous home, rumble on; as do the extremely strained relationships he has with his superior officers.  I keep reading this series for the people, despite my annoyance with the often supernatural conclusions of the plots.

One was a soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. New York: Minotaur, 2011.

It's been ages since I read a book with Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne; devoured this in a day. Clare is newly back from Iraq; and while her reunion with Russ should be relatively uncomplicated, her experiences in conflict have changed her. She joins a therapy group of similarly damaged veterans at the local community centre, but the group suffers its own tragedies, several of which also involve Russ in investigation; Russ and Clare's relationship is stretched to the limit when they disagree on the cause of a veteran's death. Loved this; it's definitely a series you need to read in order. Sadly, I gather there's only one more in this series so far...

Daisy in chains, by Sharon Bolton. Kindle edition.

Maggie Rose represents men who are unfairly convicted, gets them out of prison, and then writes books about them. Hamish Wolfe is a convicted serial killer, and Hamish's mother enlists her to help get him out of prison.  Maggie is sceptical, as is DS Pete Weston whose actions helped convict Hamish in the first place. And then there's the Wolfe pack, a team of Hamish groupies... This has a twist in the tail worthy of Jeffery Deaver, but there are several along the way. Highly recommended.

Bookworm: a memoir of childhood reading, by Lucy Mangan [audiobook]. Read by the author. Audible edition.

This is a re-listen - but I didn't review it first time round, and that's a shame. It's quite marvellous. Lucy Mangan is a few years younger than me, so a handful of the books she grew up with aren't familiar; but oh, my goodness, the ones which are... from Teddy Robinson to Judy Blume, the family from One End Street to the Chalet School, Mangan looks at her childhood (Northern Catholic fistbump) and her almost total abdication of the real world in favour of books. It's a glorious book which has you laughing, crying, and nodding furiously. If you're a bookworm of a certain age. The reading is great, too - I'm not a fan of writers reading their own books, on the whole, but Mangan does this wonderfully.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

2019 books, #21-25

Dead men's bones, by James Oswald. Kindle edition.

Perfect companion to a weekend in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  DI Tony McLean is investigating one case, that of an entirely-tattooed man found in a river, but is called away to investigate the death of a prominent MSP who has apparently smothered his daughters, shot his wife and then killed himself in his garden.  Weirdly, his boss Duguid is encouraging him to do his thing and complicate the investigation, unlike his usual request to wrap the case up quickly.  As McLean continues to dig into the case, he begins to realise he's a pawn in someone's chess game... There is a bit of supernatural stuff again in this, which I know is Oswald's USP, but I always find it ever so slightly annoying; but that doesn't detract from a really fascinating plot, and the characters are, as ever, worth reading.

Evil has a name [audiobook]. Narrated by Paul Holes, Jim Clemente and others. An Audible original.

This is a follow-up, in real life, to Michelle McNamara's I'll be gone in the dark: one woman's obsessive search with the Golden State Killer. Just months after McNamara's tragically early death, some amazing detective work led to an arrest in this series of 40-year-old rapes and murders. Jim Clemente, a former FBI profiler, and Paul Holes, the man who re-opened the investigation into the cases, tell the story of the case; there are also interviews with some of the victims where they're allowed just to tell their stories. A fascinating series, particularly if you've read the McNamara book.

The secret barrister: stories of the law and how it's broken, by the Secret Barrister. London: Macmillan, 2018.

This is an excellent book, funny and horrifying in turns; one relatively junior barrister's view of criminal law as it's currently practiced in the UK. The author takes the system to task, pointing out the impact of sentencing policy, trial practice and the impact of cuts in the legal aid system. At the same time, he acknowledges how many of the people running the courts system are trying to do the right thing against all odds.  Each chapter is illustrated with examples of actual cases, which are told with a great deal of compassion and occasionally a huge amount of humour. Definitely one worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

Threads of life: a history of the world through the eye of a needle, by Clare Hunter [audiobook]. Read by Siobhan Redmond.  Audible edition.

This book sits alongside Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's work: the first 20,000 years and Rozsika Parker's The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine as a fascinating story of social history through textile craft. Hunter's focus is more on British history than the other two mentioned, and also brings in her own life as an artist-in-residence working with different communities.  From Opus anglicanum to the Glasgow Girls and then into contemporary craft, Hunter has interesting things to say even for people like me who felt reasonably well-versed in the history of embroidery.  The reading is lovely, a gentle Scottish voice which reflects the origins of the author and makes for extremely easy listening.

The Ronde: inside the Tour of Flanders, the world's toughest bike race, by Edward Pickering. London: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

As with several other successful cycling books I've read, this book tells the history of the Tour of Flanders by means of looking at one edition of the race (in this case, the 2011 race), and then widening the shot to give the history of the people and places discussed. It also broadens out to include the history of Flanders, and of Belgium. There are interviews with riders about their memory of that year's race, and with the organisers and team owners and directeurs sportifs. It's a fascinating book; I was about three-quarters through it when this year's race started and I got a lot more out of watching than I otherwise would...

Sunday, April 07, 2019

2019 books, #16-20

The sleeping and the dead, by Ann Cleeves. Kindle edition.

A body is found in a local lake during a summer of drought; it's identified as Michael Grey, a boy who'd attended the local school thirtyyears before. Prison librarian Hannah Morton is particularly shocked: Michael is her boyfriend, and she'd just assumed he'd left the area.  Now she's a suspect in his death, and buried memories are rising to the surface. I quite liked Peter Porteous, the lead detective, a man who thought he'd left the stress of big-city policing behind; I did enjoy this book although not as much as some of Cleeves's others...

Burial of ghosts, by Ann Cleeves. Kindle edition.

Lizzie Bartholomew has a one-night stand in Morocco with a man she imagines she'll never see again. A few months later, a solicitor comes to her with an offer of £15,000 to set up her own business, a legacy from the mysterious man on the Marrakech omnibus, on condition that she try to trace his son.  We gradually find out about Lizzie's background, the incident that has changed her life and meant she can't work in social work again, and as she digs deeper into the circumstances, the danger she's leading herself into by investigating the man's family. This is a fascinating book; it has some elements of a Barbara Vine novel in terms of being quite disturbing in parts.

Rapid Falls, by Amber Cowie. Kindle edition.

Cara's sister Anna was driving Cara and her boyfriend Jesse back from their senior prom when the car went off the road and into the river; Jesse is killed and Anna is incarcerated. 20 years later, Cara is married with a baby, and Anna, newly released from prison, is struggling with drink and mental health issues.  As Anna tries to reclaim her life, though, her memories of that night differ quite markedly from her sister's. Is the established view of what happened actually the truth?  This is really excellent and the reality of what happens creeps up on the reader...

Close to home, by Cara Hunter. Kindle edition.

8-year-old Daisy Mason has gone missing from a family party But her parents' reaction seems very odd - her mother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances, and her father seems very reluctant to cooperate with the police. As DI Fawley investigates, things become even more unclear, and everyone is under suspicion. Tightly plotted police procedural with some interesting police characters.

In the dark, by Cara Hunter. Kindle edition.

A woman and a child are discovered in the basement of a house, during renovations next door. The elderly man upstairs claims no knowledge of them, and there are no recent missing person reports; and the woman screams every time the child is brought to her in hospital. DI Fawley and his team become embroiled in a series of complications which just make the whole situation more confusing, until the truth comes out.  This is disturbing in parts, but this is definitely a series of books to read.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

2019 books, #11-15

California Fire and Life by Don Winslow [audiobook]. Read by Jon Lindstrom. Audible edition.

Jack Wade is an arson investigator; he prides himself on his "just the facts" approach and lack of emotional engagement in the fires he looks at for California Fire and Life, under his boss, Goddamn Billy. When a woman is found burned in the remains of her house, and everything seems to be wrong, he breaks his rules and throws himself into the case. This has wonderful elements of the classic hard-boiled detective story; extremely enjoyable, with the requisite deadpan delivery from the reader.

Milkman, by Anna Burns. Kindle edition.

"The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man". This beginning is pretty arresting; and I loved this book. It had elements of Joyce in the wandering, dazzling, circling prose, but then brought right back to earth with something very ordinary. I found elements of it hilariously funny, and a lot of it heartbreaking. It's set in the Troubles, and the everyday breathtaking absurdity of living in a divided community is everywhere, characterised by "the renouncers" and "the defenders". Wonderful. (I'm not sure everyone in my book group will agree - I know a couple of people were finding it quite heavy going so we're going to talk about it next month instead...)

Collected poems, by Isaac Rosenberg. Amazon: [s. l.], 2013.

This is an Amazon-printed edition compiled by a fan of Rosenberg's work; and the first collected edition of his poems.  Rosenberg's Break of day in the trenches is well-known and a staple of anthologies,  but this has all the war poems, and the pre-war poems. Unlike many of the war poets, Rosenberg was working-class, Jewish and had never had patriotic feelings about the war.  "I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over."  The whole book runs to 72 pages, but there are some beautiful things in here. I think my favourite of those I hadn't read before is My days. Appropriate, too. (Apologies in advance if this link starts blaring sound at you - it was the only online source I could find.)

A study in Sherlock: stories inspired by the Holmes canon, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. London: Titan, 2011.

These are fun. Some are intended to be straightforward additions to the Holmes canon, but more are a sideways glance, and even more are pretty self-referential along the lines of the Sherlock TV series. There are stories from Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, Laura Lippman, Dana Stabenow, Jacqueline Winspear and many more, all taken into different environments, and sometimes into the world of the characters the authors usually write (Dana Stabenow's is a Kate Shugak short story)... Really enjoyable; and some of them, like the best fanfiction, make you think back to canon. (I have to confess that the one I didn't finish was the story written as a graphic novel - much more my fault than the author's...)

The cycling podcast: a journey through the cycling year, by Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe. London: Yellow Jersey, 2018.

This is fun. I started reading this very shortly after it came out, and after I went to the launch event; and then somehow I lost it in the pile of unread books, after reading as far as halfway through the 2017 Tour.  There are some great bits in this book - an account of the cycling world in 2017 - not least the parts I love about the Cycling Podcast. Yes, they know a lot about cycling, and things like the finances surrounding cycling, the history of particular stages, and they're prepared to discuss things like doping, the history of the sport, the precarious financial situation of a sport which relies 100% on sponsorship... But there's also a lot on the love of the thing, and the beauty of Italy, France and Spain during the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta. And the food. Lots of stuff on the food. And it's mostly also really funny.  There are also lovely guest contributions from Seb Piquet (the Voice of Race Radio), journnalists Orla Chennouai, Fran Reyes, Ciro Scognamiglio and Fran├žois Thomazeau, along with riders Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Joe Dombrowski. While it's now approaching 2 years out of date, if you're interested in reading about the loveliness of following road racing, you might still want to get hold of this book. You'll have to buy your own copy though; I'm keeping mine.

Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 books, #6-10

The stone circle, by Elly Griffiths. Kindle edition.

The eleventh of the Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson books. This time, another circle is found on the Norfolk Coast, as in the first book, and the coincidences pile up as the son of Erik, the leader of the first dig, appears to lead this one. Leif is one complication. A recent body found at the site of a prehistoric burial is another. And Nelson's entangled private life takes another turn at the birth of his son, while Ruth has a decision to make.  I enjoyed the last one, set in Italy, but this one takes us back to King's Lynn and North Norfolk with a side of Cambridge. I just wish I could read these more slowly - I devoured it in 24 hours...

Six degrees of assassination, by MJ Arlidge. Audible full cast recording.

This is a series of 10 half-hour episodes, really well acted by Andrew Scott, Freema Agyema and others - and a free Audible series for subscribers.  Ten years after 7/7, the Prime Minister is visiting a charity in East London when he is shot three times in the chest. Alex Townsend (Scott) and Ellen Townsend (Agyema) investigate, and find layers upon layers of conspiracy. I thought this was excellent.

The moonstone, by Wilkie Collins [audiobook]. Read by Peter Jeffrey. Audible edition.

One of my favourite books, and an excellent reading by Jeffrey. The account of the dreadful Miss Clack is particularly well done. Popularly supposed to be the first detective novel in English, and still an excellent read/listen.

The Tour according to G: my journey to the yellow jersey, by Geraint Thomas with Tom Fordyce. London: Quercus, 2018.

This starts off in a slightly awkward way, unlike Geraint's previous book; but once racing is underway, Fordyce does an excellent job of capturing G's voice and we're taken stage by stage through last year's race. As ever, I'm amazed at the recall of riders of the different stages, and there's also a great deal of humour and some interesting stuff about the Team Sky dynamics which were a subject of great interest from commentators. There's also a good chapter about the craziness of the media storm around Geraint's win, and some contributions from Tim Kerrison, Dave Brailsford, Sara Thomas and Chris Froome. Definitely brought back some of the joy of seeing Geraint win last summer.

Twelve patients: life and death at Bellevue Hospital, by Eric Manheimer. Kindle edition.

This is the book which inspired the new Prime series New Amsterdam, which I found myself binge-watching last weekend; and, as so often, the book is better than the series.  Manheimer gives an unflinching view of public medicine in New York, through twelve different patient stories, one of them his own treatment for throat cancer. He looks at the horror of illness and the extreme damage sometimes done by its cure; and also at the wider issues of poverty, immigration status, obesity, insurance (and the lack of it) and so on. But it's also a hymn to public health care, the dedication of staff, the strange families which are created around both long-term treatment and long-term work relationships, and the beauty and diversity of central New York.

2019 books, #1-5


Attempting to get back into the swing of book reviews this year; and hoping to put in some crafty-type posts as well!

The cadaver king and the country dentist, by Robert Balko and Tucker Carrington, with an introduction by John Grisham [audiobook]. Read by Robert Fass. Audible edition.

I heard about this one on one of the criminal justice podcasts I listen to; the story of coroner Dr Steven Hayne and dentist and "bite mark analyst" Dr Michael West. Hayne ran an "autopsy factory" in Mississippi, single-handedly performing the vast majority of the state's autopsies for many years, while West hired himself out as a jack of all trades in the forensic science expert witness business, specialising in science such as bite mark analysis which is now discredited as "junk science".  Between them, they made vast amounts of money, and contributed to some blatant miscarriages of justice, condemning (mainly black) defendants to prison, often for many years.  This book exposes their crimes, and is introduced by John Grisham, chair of the Georgia Innocence Project.  It asks some disquieting questions about prosecutorial conduct, the reliability of professional expert witnesses, and institutional racism in the criminal justice system as a whole. Definitely worth a read/listen.

Longstone, by LJ Ross. Kindle edition.

Another of the DCI Ryan mysteries; this time, a marine archaeologist disappears while diving for a Viking longship he believes he has discovered.  Dr Anna Ryan is there when the body is found, and Ryan isn't far behind. This one is set in and around Seahouses, which was where we often went for day trips out, and several times for school trips, so the setting added to the interest for me.  These are always workmanlike and interesting; the style sometimes grates but the plot makes them more or less unputdownable...

The sealwoman's gift, by Sally Magnusson. Kindle edition.

Set in 17th century Iceland and Algiers, this is based on a true story of slavers' raids on Iceland. As such, it's historically fascinating; there are several historical sources for the male protagonists, but very little for the females, and Magnusson attempts to fill in the gaps.  The first hundred pages or so are not for the squeamish, in that a journey on a slave ship is portrayed in its gory reality; and it says interesting things about religion, class and sexual dynamics.  I have to say that I found it pretty heavy going, but that didn't seem to be the case for most of the other people in my book group.

Gallows View, by Peter Robinson [audiobook]. Read by Simon Slater. Audible edition.

I'd forgotten how good the early Peter Robinson books were; may have to go back to them. In this one, Banks (newly moved from London to Yorkshire for a less stressful life) is faced with a peeping tom, a pair of glue-fuelled robbers and a potential murder of an old lady. He's also dealing with pressure from a local women's group who feel the peeping tom incidents aren't being treated with the necessary seriousness. Tightly plotted, and well read by Simon Slater.

If we were villains, by ML Rio [audiobook]. Read by Robert Petkoff. Audible edition.

Recommended by Jan - thanks, Jan!  This is brilliant. A group of seven young acting students are in their final year at a prestigious private college specialising in Shakespeare; up to now, the group dynamics have worked well, even if it has been predictable who will land all the leading roles. As the year goes on, though, things begin breaking down, and the framing device - the release of the narrator from prison - indicates that a tragedy of some kind has happened.  The book is broken down into acts and scenes, each act with a prologue set in the present, and the story gradually unrolls.  It's absolutely compelling from start to finish, and the reader is also excellent. Highly recommended...