Saturday, September 07, 2019

2019 books, #56-60

Bring them home, by DS Butler. Kindle edition.
Where secrets lie, by DS Butler. Kindle edition.

These were both Kindle bargains (most of the non-book-group books I read on the Kindle are, frankly); and very good. Detective Karen Hart lives in Lincolnshire in the house she used to share with her husband and daughter who were killed in a car crash five years earlier.

In Bring them home, two 10-year-old girls leave school a few minutes early, and disappear into thin air. Karen is immediately convinced that she knows who was involved - the girls were last seen on the land of Nigel Palmer, who Karen suspects of the murder of a young woman who rented a cottage from him and then disappeared.  But is Karen's obsession with the Palmers blinkering her to alternative suspects? Her bosses certainly think so.  This has a pleasing number of twists and turns, and characters with interesting background stories; I went straight onto the Kindle site and bought the second one...

In Where secrets lie, an old man's fall down the stairs isn't perhaps what it appears, when a mummified body is found in a suitcase in his front bedroom, and a threatening note is discovered in the kitchen.  Who is the body in the case, and is someone trying to take revenge? Does any of it connect with the old man's past as a headmaster? Again, lots of detours and false leads; all of the detectives in these books are also actual human beings with lives, which isn't always the case...

Would recommend both of these; and am hoping Ms Butler writes some more in this series.

The comforts of home, by Susan Hill [audiobook]. Read by Steven Pacey. Audible edition.

I think that if Steven Pacey didn't read these so very well, I might have given up on Simon Serrailler before now; but he does, so I haven't. Serrailler is still recovering from his near-death experience in the previous book, and has returned to Tarransay island before going back to work. Meanwhile his boss, who is also now his brother-in-law, has asked him to review the details of a cold case to placate the victim's mother who has gone to the press. And Simon's nephew Sam has also turned up on the island in a fug of post-A-level lack of direction. When a woman Simon knows and likes goes missing, he can't resist trying to find her; when her body turns up in the water, Simon ends up as SIO. What looked like a drowning is complicated from two angles; and Simon is too involved in the life of the island to be his usual neutral self.  I always find these books problematic because I am coming to dislike Simon quite a lot, while still being very interested in the other inhabitants of these books...

Turbulence, by David Szalay. Kindle edition.

An extremely quick read! Twelve short stories - well, not so much short stories as vignettes - about people travelling around the globe. Each story leads in to the next - a character in one story then becomes the focus of the next. The chapters are headed with the international airport codes, so it's fun to guess who will be the next main player. Some of these stories are intensely moving; some of them less so. But it says a lot about both the interconnectedness and the isolation of contemporary life. And somehow in very few words, you learn a lot about the culture of each place, and the sense of belonging, or not. Definitely worth a couple of hours of anyone's time.

Mostly murder, by Sir Sydney Smith. London: Granada, 1984. (First published in 1959.)

Sir Sydney Smith would have turned in his grave at the cover Granada put on this book - there's a review from the Daily Express, a warning that "some readers might find the illustrations disturbing!" and lots of pictures of rusty offensive weapons.  There's no doubt, though, that what Sir Sydney was trying to produce was a cross between a memoir and a popular textbook on forensics, and he succeeds on both counts. He talks about his early career in Edinburgh, a period of several years in Egypt where he became an expert on arsenic poisoning and bones, and then returning to Edinburgh to work on cases with, and against, the other forensic experts of the day, including Bernard Spilsbury.  There are some very notorious cases (I heard about this book in Tom Wood's book on Buck Ruxton), and some which establish new techniques in forensics. It's written in a humorous, very readable style which reminds me somewhat of Henry Marsh's Do no harm. Only available second-hand - if anyone reading this would like my somewhat tatty copy, do get in touch.

Monday, August 26, 2019

2019 books, #51-55

Educated, by Tara Westover. London: Windmill, 2018.

Tara Westover and her family grew up preparing for the End of Days. She didn't have a birth certificate, had never seen a doctor and was "homeschooled" in a rudimentary sort of way by her herbalist/doula mother. As she grew older, and events such as Ruby Ridge impinged on her father's paranoia and suspicion of all authority, she realised she needed to get out, and that education was the both the way to do it and the way she would lose her family.  It's a heartbreaking book, but absolutely compelling. I read it in one sitting.

Darkness and light, by John Harvey. London: Heinemann, 2006.

Picked this up at the Hove Cubs' book stall at the station; it had been a while since I'd read anything by John Harvey, and I'd forgotten quite how good he is. DI Frank Elder's first murder on the job was a women laid out meticulously on her bed; it remained unsolved, and a weight on his mind, ever since. Years later, Elder's estranged wife gets in touch with him - her friend's sister Claire has disappeared. Several days later, Claire turns up back at home - but dead, and laid out very like the other victim.  Elder has become a recluse in Cornwall but returns to Nottingham to look into the case, and soon realises he's dealing with a very disturbed mind.

The silver pigs, by Lindsey Davis [audiobook]. Read by Christian Rodska. Audible edition.

Marcus Didius Falco is ex-army, scraping a living as a private informer and living well on the wrong side of the tracks in first-century Rome, when a pretty young woman literally falls into his arms.  Falco becomes embroiled in family and political secrets, travels to England (which he hates) and meets another very interesting young woman. I've read this, and listened to it, several times; and it's still wonderful. Parts of it which moved me the first time round still make me cry; I think I may be picking all of these up on Audible gradually; if I can find the right reader. Christian Rodska can read the phone-book to me and I'd listen, but he does a wonderful job on these skilfully written Roman-era mysteries.

Penshaw, by LJ Ross. Kindle edition.

Another instalment in the DCI Ryan mysteries - this time, Ryan is investigating the death in a fire of a man who was heavily involved in the Miners' Strike of the early to mid 80s, and wondering whether there's a connection. Meanwhile, he has trouble nearer home with the knowledge that there's a mole in his department working with organised criminals. As ever, this is unspectacularly written, but the plot is great; and if you grew up seeing Penshaw Monument every day on your way to and from school and were a teenager during the Strike, the local colour is also excellent.

The stranger diaries, by Elly Griffiths. Kindle edition.

Clare Cassidy teaches in a secondary school, once a house owned by the Gothic writer RM Holland; Holland's study is still there, and Clare specialises in Gothic literature. However, when a fellow English teacher is murdered and a quote from Holland's most famous novella is found beside her, elements of the Gothic start crowding into Clare's, and her family's, life and make an eerie parallel with the novella. The story is told from three narrative viewpoints - Clare's, her daughter Georgie's, and DS Harbinder Kaur's; and this adds complexity because none of them really like each other all that much at the beginning of the story. It's very creepy, and also unputdownable.

Friday, August 09, 2019

2019 books, #46-50

Ruxton: the first modern murder, by Tom Wood. Kindle edition.

I think I originally heard this recommended by Val McDermid. Tom Wood is a former police detective who was fascinated by this trial. It's pretty well-known as the first "forensic" murder case because the scene was so well preserved by the first police on the scene, and the anatomists doing the post-mortem reconstruction were so dedicated. So I was wondering what might be new in this book. I think Wood adds the element of wonder at quite how good the investigation was; but he is also more nuanced about racial and class prejudice in the story - Ruxton was Indian, and also a very well-respected doctor in Lancaster in the 1930s...  He is also rightly outraged at how class prejudice affected the charges at trial, and how that had an impact on the respective families.

Death notice, by Zhou Haohui. Kindle edition.

Sergeant Zheng, who's been investigating a cold case from 20 years before, is found murdered; Captain Pei, the person who reports the body, is senior police officer in another area of China who also turns out to be extremely involved in the earlier case.  This is labyrinthine, and intriguing; nothing is as it seems and no facts can be trusted. It's workmanlike in style, and to be honest didn't give me a lot of sense of China, the reason why my book group chose it. The main kicker, though, is that you get to the end, find it's part of a trilogy and also discover that the second and third books haven't been translated yet - and might not be, due to poor sales...

My world, by Peter Sagan with John Deering. London: Yellow Jersey, 2018.

Peter Sagan is the only triple World Champion at road race cycling so far. He's also a force of nature. And those of us who don't speak Slovakian, and haven't heard him speak Italian, know very little about him because English is about his fifth language. Even so, he's funny and quirky in interviews. This year, he became the first person ever to wear the Tour de France green jersey 7 times. The green jersey, these days, signifies absolute consistency; being good at just about everything.  This book starts off feeling very ghostwritten by Deering; but it's engaging, and amusing, and very honest - he has some lovely things to say about Slovakia. We still share a lot with the Czechs. After all, they make the beer, so there's absolutely nothing to be gained in falling out with them. Oh, and we're in the EU, too. I'm looking forward to one of my British friends explaining to me why leaving it is such a good idea. I've been waiting a little while now... It's not so much that I'm super famous or anything like that, but more to do with us not having too many famous people, if you see what I mean. It's a quick read, there are some good photos - and there's several pages of analysis of That Incident with Mark Cavendish at the 2017 tour, too. It's an awful lot better than I was expecting, and I think does make me understand that what you see is what you get, but there's an awful lot below the surface too.

The wicked boy: the mystery of a Victorian child murderer, by Kate Summerscale [audiobook]. Read by Jot Davies. Audible edition.

Kate Summerscale started off with the fact that a 13-year-old boy killed his mother in 1895, ostensibly to protect his younger brother.  As you'd expect from the author of The suspicions of Mr Whitcher, she investigates the court proceedings and family background thoroughly. For me, though, the last quarter of the book is the most fascinating. What happens when someone spends years in Broadmoor and is then released, in 1912? How is a life to be lived? And what is an author to do, when she finds out? I found this bit of the book pretty much unbearably moving.

A second chance [Chronicles of St Mary's book 3], by Jodi Taylor. London: Accent Press, 2015.

Max is back, and she should probably know things aren't going to go well when she takes a to-be-Emeritus professor off on a harmless retirement jaunt for a handshake with Isaac Newton and they end up in a brawl in Green Street... And they haven't even hit Troy yet... It's another combination of heartbreaking seriousness with the joys of time travel (sorry Historical-research-in-actual-time). Not one to read as a standalone - another series you really need to read in order.

Friday, July 05, 2019

2019 books, #41-45

Broken promise, by Linwood Barclay. Kindle edition.

David Harwood left the Boston Globe to spend more time with his son, back at his home town paper. Unfortunately, the paper folds the week after he's re-employed, and he ends up moving back in with his parents. Also of concern is David's cousin Marla, who lost a stillborn baby 10 months earlier and isn't coping. When David goes to take food to Marla, he finds her feeding a 10-month-old baby, and there's blood on the doorframe of her house. On tracking down the baby's home, he finds a dead body in the house... As he looks into the case at his aunt's request, everything just becomes steadily more confusing, and more dangerous. What is happening, and does it have anything to do with the number 23, which seems to be involved in several crimes in the area?  This is satisfying on one level because this case is resolved, but also leaves many questions to be answered in the remaining two books of the trilogy.

Just one damned thing after another, by Jodi Taylor. Kindle edition.
A symphony of echoes, by Jodi Taylor. Kindle edition.

A case study in why selling the first couple of books in a series at a discount works for Kindle marketing. These are absolutely tremendous. Max (Dr/Miss Maxwell) comes from a terrible home situation to the University of Thirsk, and then to St Mary's, a historical research institute where they don't do time travel; oh, no, they "investigate major historical events in contemporary time", which sounds like the strapline for The Archers but way more fun.  These are at turns hilarious, touching, scary and just very much overall a rip-roaring read. I love the Thursday Next and Rivers of London books, and there's something of that in here - but also a very wry look at academia, action movies and historical stereotypes.  I am promising myself that I'll read some books I actually own before reading the next one of these, but it's difficult!

One more croissant for the road, by Felicity Cloake. London: Mudlark, 2019.

This is a lovely book - Cloake does her own, culinary, Tour de France, accompanied at times by a motley crew of friends and family; this is a love song to France and French life and cooking, with all the joys of the beauties of France mixed with the frustrations (lunchtime closing, the lack of corner shops, strangely poor croissants). It's self-deprecating, hilarious and also very informative, from someone spending 5 weeks eating her way round France. There's also a classic regional recipe with each stage/chapter.

The Tour de France: a cultural history, by Christopher S. Thompson [audiobook]. Read by Kevin Scollin. Audible edition.

The Amazon reviews on this criticise it for being too academic. I didn't find it so - but if you want one of those stage-by-stage who-won-what-where top-ten-lists books, this is not it.  It's a history of how the French sense of self has on occasion been defined and justified by the Tour, and what the Tour can say about the French character, and what France has wanted to say about itself.  There's also a thoughtful chapter about doping and the Tour; although this book is more than 10 years old, and even the 2009 "afterword" is well out of date on this.  One thing I'd say though - don't get this in the audiobook version if you'd prefer a reader who has any familiarity at all with French (and, on occasion, English) pronunciation.  This would have been a much more relaxing read if I'd not continually been going back 10 seconds to work out what a particularly mangled phrase should have been...

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.