Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016 books, #51-55

My brilliant friend, by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2012.

Elena and Lila are growing up in a suburb of 1950s Naples, in a neighbourhood where violence is commonplace and the Camorra are always hovering in the background.  Lila is a wild, fierce child, forever in scrapes, but brilliantly intelligent. Elena, although also extremely academically talented, is in her shadow.  Elena is able to pursue her education past middle school; Lila leaves at 14 and joins her father's shoemaking business.  This is the first book of 4; and while it was enjoyable enough, and the atmosphere is conveyed well, my book group all agreed that we had a great deal of difficulty liking any of the characters all that much. The book is roughly chopped off without resolving the cliffhanger the author gives us at the beginning, leading to a slightly cheated feeling on the part of the reader...

The racer: life on the road as a pro cyclist, by David Millar. London: Yellow Jersey, 2015.

This is a wonderful book. Millar takes us through the last year of his career as a member of the pro péloton, with all its ups and downs. Mainly downs, to be honest, but he's never self-pitying.  On the way, he talks about early-in-the-year training (in a chapter called Welcome to the Suck which starts I fucking hate January), the Flanders classics, the Ardennes classics, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Dauphiné, the gutting experience of being dropped by his team four days before the start of what would have been his last Tour de France, the Commonwealth Games, the Vuelta and the World Championships, the last two of which he raced with two broken fingers.  It's a brilliantly entertaining, often scatological, corruscatingly honest account you can almost hear Millar reading to you.  On the front and back cover he explains that I want to write something else, a book that years from now my children will read and see what it was like, that their dad actually did all those years ago, the racer he was.  But not only that, I want my friends from this generation to have something that will remind us of who we were. There was more to it than doping. We lived on the road because we loved to race.  He succeeds on all counts. Chapeau.

Test of wills, by Charles Todd. Read by Samuel Gillies. Rearsby, Leics: WF Howes, 1999.

Ian Rutledge has returned to Scotland Yard after the First World War; accompanied by the constant voice in his head of Hamish, a man he had executed by firing squad for refusing to fight.  A malicious colleague sends Rutledge out into the shires to investigate the murder of a former officer who was found with his head blown off.  One of the main suspects is a shellshocked man, and Rutledge wonders who at the Yard has it in for him. Nevertheless, he investigates, and discovers a web of secrets, and some thoroughly unreliable witnesses. First in a series I'll be following up on.

My dining hell: twenty ways to have a lousy night out, by Jay Rayner. London: Penguin, 2012 (ebook), 2015 (print).

I think if I'd realised what a slim little volume this was (72 pp), I'd have bought the e-book, or forgone it altogether.  It's a compendium of 20 of Rayner's more disaffected reviews of bad restaurants, with a bit of an introduction. While I love Rayner's turn of phrase: The twist in 'Julian's Vegetable Lasagne' was that it didn't contain pasta. Instead, it was a dense block of finely mandolined root vegetables that tasted mostly of salt and pepper and effortless regret - I also respect him as an accomplished novelist and a very entertaining writer about food beyond the reviews.  I picked this up as an accompaniment to the Food commandments book he's just released, probably didn't read the blurb carefully enough, and so my disenchantment with this book might be my own fault.  I still don't quite understand why Penguin thought it important enough to publish in print edition though.  If anyone would like to read it, do drop me a line with some way to contact you, and I'll stick it in the post.

The soul of discretion, by Susan Hill. London: Vintage, 2015.

This is an excellent book. Don't get me wrong, it's back to form after a couple of slightly luke-warm books in this series.  Simon Serrailler is sent under cover to try to trap the leaders of a paedophile ring; while continuing to be a complete git to his girlfriend who's just moved in.  Meanwhile, his father's being accused of rape in the loos during a Rotary Club function.  The plot is tight; the relationships are as sharply observed as ever and the finale is absolutely gripping.  And then you go to the author's website, and find that although she's left at least three cliffhangers, she has no plan to write another Serrailler novel... and it all feels a bit futile.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

2016 books, #46-50

Missing you, by Harlan Coben [audiobook]. Read by Kerry Shale. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2014.

Detective Kat Donovan is signed up for an online dating site by her friend Stacey.  Out of curiosity, she logs in and finds the profile of her ex-fiancé, a man she hasn't seen for 18 years. But when Kat gets in touch, she realises all isn't as it seems.  And then the son of another woman hacks into the site, and enlists her help in trying to trace his mother... A classic Harlen Coben standalone, where nothing is as it seems; tightly plotted and terrifying on occasion, with a twist in the tail.

Faster: the obsession, science and luck behind the world's fastest cyclists, by Michael Hutchinson. London: Bloomsbury Sport, 2015.

I was a little bit dubious about this one, but I'd massively enjoyed Michael Hutchinson (or @Doctor_Hutch)'s previous book The Hour; this is all about the somewhat arcane discipline of the individual time-trial, and the physiology and psychology of speed.  It explains why Mark Cavendish is a completely different racer from Hutchinson, or from Froome; it explains that you can have a huge pair of lungs, but if you have the wrong kind of muscles, you can't take full advantage of it.  Hutchinson talks to people at the top of UK sport, as well as sports scientists, aerodynamics experts and dietitians to explore the notion of the world's fastest riders.  And he makes learning about DNA and wind-tunnels fascinating, and funny.

The hangman's song, by James Oswald. London: Penguin, 2014.

An Inspector McLean novel.  McLean's hated boss Duguid AKA Dagwood has seconded him to the Sexual Crimes unit, but he also answers his phone one night and ends up at a hanging.  When a second body is found in similar circumstances, McLean investigates much to Duguid's dismay.  And at the same time, McLean's domestic life is complicated by Emma Baird, newly out of a long coma and seemingly haunted by her experience.  Quite literally - one of the things I'm less keen on in these books is the presence of the supernatural; I keep reading them, but there is a lot of what the Americans would call "woo" in these books...

The redeemed, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bath: AudioGO, [n.d.].

Jenny Cooper's another with a complicated domestic life; she really can't decide whether to throw in her lot with Steve, and her son's now living with his father.  Among all this, she's dealing with an inquiest on Eva Donaldson, a former porn star, now Christian and seeking to eliminate pornography through a house church movement which is sponsoring a private members' bill on the subject.  Alongside this, there's also the case of  Alan Jacobs, a psychiatric nurse found in a graveyard with a cross carved into his chest and forensic evidence of very recent gay sex.  The cases seem very separate, but it's never that straightforward, and the politics around the bill leads to a great deal of pressure being put on Jenny by her masters in Whitehall.

Hillsborough: the truth, by Phil Scraton. 20th anniversary edition. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2006.

Having recently seen the documentary based on this book, I didn't learn a huge amount more; this is such a dreadful example of misconduct and a total lack of sympathy for the bereaved families that it makes hard reading.  I've had a fascination for the tragedy because friends should have been at that end of the ground that day, but had a non-life-threatening car crash on the M1 coming up from London that morning.  One of the best things about this book is the sheer tenacity of the families who refused to be fobbed off and carried on fighting for a full exposition of what had happened.  It's a horror that it took 27 years.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

2016 books, #41-45

Gone to ground, by John Harvey [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2007.

Stephen Bryan, a Cambridge academic, is found murdered in his bathroom. Initially suspicions fall on his partner, Mark, or on a random sexual encounter; but the loss of Bryan's laptop also makes the detectives wonder whether something in his research on 50s screen actress Stella Leonard might have something to do with it.  It may be that I listened to this in too many bouts, or it might be that Wincott's delivery was even more mannered than usual, but I couldn't find myself warming to this one, and the plot seemed strangely disjointed given the quality of Harvey's usual writing.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. London: Virago, 2014.

A companion piece to Home and Gilead, both of which my book group had read; but does also stand on its own, according to others who didn't belong to the group then.  I found this less satisfying than the previous two books, but still a tour de force of writing.  Lila is a compelling character, constantly poised for flight, and her strained relationship with her kind, elderly clergyman husband is at turns incredibly sad and rather wonderful.  The book roams freely across Lila's life in a sort of kaleidoscope, Highly recommended.

Waiting for Alaska, by John Green. London: HarperCollins, 2006.

2015's most challenged book, according to the American Library Association.  And as good as you'd expect, given that.  Miles is sent to high school at his dad's old boarding school, Culver Creek in Alabama, and meets his roommate Chip (The Colonel), friends Takumi and Lara, and the amazing, unpredictable Alaska Young.  There's smoking, and drinking, and teenage pranks; and a lot about religion and meaning; and something utterly dreadful happens in the middle I won't spoiler.  It's the kind of wonderful, lively, life-affirming book that some people can't resist trying to ban.

Death at Victoria Dock, by Kerry Greenwood. London: Constable, 2014 [originally published in 2002].

Phryne Fisher is blamelessly (for a change) driving through Victoria Dock when she's shot at, and a beautiful young man dies in her arms.  He turns out to be a Latvian, and a member of an anarchist group.  Phryne pitches in to investigate the murder, Meanwhile she's also hired by a man called Waddington-Forsythe to look for his daughter Alicia; Waddington-Forsythe père and fille are both deeply unpleasant individuals, so Phryne's thoughts often tend towards the anarchists.  This is another very pleasant romp.

The woman in blue, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2016.

Ruth Galloway is invited to meet an old friend at Walsingham, where the friend is at a conference. Surprisingly, Ruth's fellow archaeology student is now a vicar, and she's been getting threatening letters. Meanwhile Nelson is also in Walsingham investigating the death of a young woman who had left a nearby drug treatment centre in the middle of the night and been strangled.  Relationships, always complicated in this series, become even more tangled in this one, and the very strange atmosphere of Walsingham contributes to this.  Well up to the usual standard of these books, and another unputdownable read.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

2016 books, #36-40

Coffin road, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2016.

A man wakes up, soaking wet, on a beach.  He has absolutely no memory of how he got there - or, indeed, of who he is.  When he gets back to where he seems to have been living, he finds he's told people he's a writer, but there's no draft of a book on his laptop, and no personal identification in the cottage.  Trying to retrace his own movements, without revealing he has no clue who he is, he stumbles across a body. But did he kill the dead man?  Another brilliant book from Peter May; genuinely gripping.

London rain, by Nicola Upson [audiobook]. Read by Sandra Duncan. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2015.

Another of Upson's Josephine Tey novels.  It's the Coronation of 1937; the implications of the Abdication rumble on, but London has put on its glad-rags and is ready to celebrate.  All but Vivien Beresford, anyway; her husband has been unfaithful one too many times, and she's set on avenging her humiliation.  Vivien is the temporary editor of the Radio Times, and her husband Antony is one of the BBC's most respected commentators, so there's a lot of backstage-at-the-BBC in this one.  Josephine is there to watch the Beeb bring Richard of Bordeaux to the airwaves, and gets involved,  Meanwhile Josephine's uncertainty about her on-off relationship with Marta is coming to a head...  If you've enjoyed other books in this series, definitely keeps the standard up.

A trick of the light, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2012.

Three Pines stakes its claim in the murder stakes alongside St Mary Mead and Midsomer, as yet another body is found in its peaceful surroundings, this time after Clara Morrow's triumphant vernissage in Montreal.  Initially, the woman's identity is a mystery; once it's discovered who she is, all sorts of secrets, mainly based around the Québec art-world twenty years earlier, start creeping out. Gamache, Beauvoir and co. investigate; but Beauvoir has problems of his own...  Another excellent book in this series.

The steel kiss, by Jeffery Deaver. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.

A Lincoln Rhyme novel (this is obviously the post in which I catch up with series...)  Lincoln has resigned from consultancy with the NYPD after a disastrous case; and Amelia hasn't forgiven him for it. However, a dreadful event in which Amelia fails to save a man from being eaten alive by an escalator motor brings Rhyme back from lecturing to investigation on the civil damages case. And he has a new sidekick...  This is good - it's Deaver - but there are one or two "reveals" which don't quite ring true; still entirely worth reading though.

Smoke and mirrors, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2015.

A Stephens and Mephisto mystery, set in Brighton in the aftermath of World War II.  Two children go missing, and Stephens is investigating when he hears of an eerie connection with an earlier murder in the theatre in which Max Mephisto is in rehearsals for Aladdin in panto.  I like the period details here, but somehow this one fails to catch fire...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

2016 books. #31-35

To rise again at a decent hour, by Joshua Ferris. London: Penguin, 2014.

A book group book. Again, one I'd not have read otherwise; unusually, one I wouldn't have minded not reading.  A New York dentist is told by a patient that he's a member of a persecuted religious group.  He has a history of girlfriends (Catholic, Jewish) who are part of religious groups, and has mainly been in love with their entire families... But all of a sudden, someone's stealing his identity.... I really didn't enjoy reading this - but did enjoy the discussion.

You are dead, by Peter James [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Weyman. [Rearsby, Leics.]: WF Howes [n.d.]

A Roy Grace book.  A woman is abducted from an underground car park while on the phone with her fiancé; another woman's body is discovered near Hove Lagoon.  Meanwhile, Grace, Cleo and baby Noah are attempting to move house... It has a plot, and a good cast of characters; and a very gripping ending; but it really did lose me in the middle. This may have been because of a somewhat lacklustre reading; or a not-very-good middling plot; not sure..

Reacher said nothing: Lee Child and the making of  Make me, by Andy Martin. London: Transworld, 2015.

I loved this.  Andy Martin thought that writing a book about watching Lee Child (Jim Grant) write his 20th Reacher novel would be a good thing to do. He then found that if he didn't get onto the project within a week, he'd have missed the boat. If you're a Child/Reacher fan, this is a fascinating look at how the books get made.  I love the writing of the first chapter.  You bury a body, and have no idea who the bloke was, or how he'd pissed off the bad guys; you have no more idea than the reader, at time of writing, what's going to happen. And you don't go back...

Already dead, by Stephen Booth [audiobook]. Read by Mike Rogers. Oxford: ISIS, 2013.

Ben Cooper's still out recovering from the horrible death of his fiancée.  Diane Fry has been seconded in as a temporary sergeant. And a man's body has been found in a shallow runnel.  I'm really not sure about how the plot works out for this one, but I was also much more interested in the relationships; and in all cases, I was disappointed.  This book really didn't hang together for me. And it seems that Fry is much more akin to The Bridge's Saga Noren here than to anything we've seen in the past from her.  I'll read the next one, because the series has been pretty terrific so far; but this one really didn't work as far as I'm concerned...

The Burry Man's day, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable and Robinson, 2006.

Dandy and her friend Daisy go to visit a schoolfriend, Frederica, (school nickname Buttercup) and her rather lovely American husband at his strange ancestral castle in Perthshire.  They're around for the Burry Man's fair - a weekend of fun, with a somewhat sinister figure at the middle of it; the Burry Man himself wears a suit made of plant burrs, and tours the local pubs drinking whisky.  This year, though, the Burry Man is behaving strangely, and then, once out of the suit, the man who has taken the part collapses and dies.  Dandy and friend Alec investigate, and discover all manner of local secrets.  Very entertaining.




Sunday, April 03, 2016

2016 books, #26-30

Bury your dead, by Louise Penny [audiobook]. Read by Adam Sims. Oxford: Isis, 2011.

Armand Gamache is in Québec City, recovering from the effects of his previous case. Jean-Guy Beauvoir is in Three Pines, doing the same.  Neither of them can resist an investigation, though, when it's presented to them; in Beauvoir's case, the conviction of Olivier in the previous book; in Gamache's, a centuries' old mystery culminating in a new murder.  But throughout both stories, there's an extra voice; the voice of young Agent Paul Morin, speaking from the grave.  All three mysteries come to a climax at the same time; it's a fascinating bit of storytelling and quite haunting, literally and figuratively. Brilliant.

The world of cycling according to G, by Geraint Thomas, written with Tom Fordyce. London: Quercus, 2015.

This is such a good book. Once I've reviewed it, I'll be returning it to the pile by the bed so I can dip into it again.  It's funny, all the way through.  It's informative - there are even diagrams to explain things like echelons. It has some brilliant anecdotes - the terrible things Geraint and Ed Clancy did to Mark Cavendish's strict diet, roasting lamb chops in front of Cav, etc.  And it shows both the pain of endurance cycling, and the reasons someone like G will get up in the morning with a cracked pelvis and go out there again.  Oh, and it really is so funny.  Read this book.

The disappeared, by M R Hall [audiobook]. Read by Sian Thomas. Bristol: Chivers/BBC Audiobooks, [n.d.]

Jenny Cooper is getting used to her job as Severn Valley's coroner; but then she has to deal with the distraught mother of a Muslim boy who has just had him declared dead. The police have written him off as a Jihadi; but Jenny feels the mother deserves an inquest into the disappearance given some of the suspicious circumstances.  Meanwhile Jenny's own teenage boy isn't wildly happy to be living with her, and she's torn between two potential relationships. Sian Thomas gives a good reading, and this is another excellent book by Hall.

Jacquard's web: how a hand-loom led to the birth of the information age, by James Essinger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Serendipitous find while idly looking for weaving in the University Library's catalogue.  This is a fascinating book which takes you through the influence of Jacquard's punch-card weaving invention on Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, through the business calculators of the 19th century and through to the birth of companies like IBM and into the computer age.  At all stages, the author has dug out details of the explicit mentions of the Jacquard weaving process and its influence in information science.  For anyone interested in either subject, this book is fascinating and extremely readable.  Having spent a couple of days tracing Jacquard around Croix-Rousse last year (still haven't blogged the photos!), even more fascinating.

Extraordinary people, by Peter May. London: Quercus, 2006.

A new-to-me Peter May series - delighted to find I like this one too.  Enzo MacLeod lives in Cahors with daughter Sophie, and works as a professor of biology.  But his past history as a forensic scientist comes back to him with a wager made with a journalist that he'll solve the disappearance and suspected murder of a prominent politician ten years before.  The first clues to what happened to Jacques Gaillard come quickly, but they just reveal more puzzles, and as Enzo and Roger continue to investigate, they run into trouble from the authorities.  There's an interesting plot here which just fails to fall into Da Vince Code style occult conspiracy theory; and Enzo operating both as a scientist and an exasperated Dad is fun.






Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016 books, #21-25

The moth catcher, by Ann Cleeves [audiobook]. Read by Janine Birkett. Oxford: Isis, 2015.

Valley Farm is a tiny community, a big house and three luxury homes built on the land, lived in by wealthy people enjoying their early retirement and describing themselves as "retired hedonists".  The peace of the place is shattered when the young house-sitter at the big house, Patrick, is found dead by the side of the road.  Vera and her team investigate, and immediately find another body in the granny flat at the back of the house.  The only connection they can find between the two men is a fascination with moths.  As they dig into the history of the people in the new development, they find a great deal of boredom and dissatisfaction, and some very nasty secrets.  Janine Birkett does an excellent job with the different Durham/Newcastle/Northumbrian accents here.

Oh, and if you've already watched this in the TV series, still worth watching - unrecognisable.  I waited to finish listening to this to avoid plot spoilers - really needn't have bothered...

And the mountains echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Abdullah and his younger sister Pari live with their father and new stepmother in 1950s Afghanistan; until Pari is taken to live with a wealthy couple at the age of three and a half.  The book follows their lives, and that of their little brother Iqbal and their uncle Nabi; as well as the history of a Greek facial surgeon who comes to work in Afghanistan to repair the physical destruction caused by the war.  There are dark secrets here, too - and the savagery of poverty and war in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora over sixty years.  This is an intensely moving book, but has many loose ends - characters appear and then disappear just as suddenly - and somehow doesn't quite satisfy.  (Quick disclaimer that I haven't read any others of Hosseini's novels and I suspect a few of the characters may appear elsewhere, so this may make a lot more sense to people who've read the other two.)  It does give a fascinating look into a country we mainly know for its destruction, though.

The yellow jersey club: inside the minds of the Tour de France winners, by Edward Pickering. London: Bantam, 2015.

The idea for this book is the collection of living Tour winners which were assembled by ASO for the centenary tour in 2002. Pickering then decided to look at the post-Mercx-era winners, and the result is a series of short profiles of 21 Tour winners since 1975.  Some, like Bernard Thévenet, are less known to people like me who've only come to the sport recently.  Some stories are mostly recounted by the rider's peers. Some, like Greg LeMond, can talk the hind leg off a donkey.  And there's the odd chapter, like the one on Chris Froome, which seems to have been assembled from clippings.  And Lance Armstrong gets a chapter, because there'd be a huge gap in the record if not; Pickering doesn't pull any punches about the sport's drug-soaked history, though.  Definitely worth a read, if only to confirm the impression that these guys are all ever so slightly mad.

After the Armistice ball, by Catriona McPherson. London: Constable, 2005.

The first book in a series featuring Dandy Gilver, a society woman somewhat buried in early 1920s Perthshire with her staid husband, and her two sons away at boarding school.  A friend in trouble makes appeal to Dandy to investigate a supposed diamond theft, and she seizes the opportunity.  The investigation soon takes a tragic turn, but Dandy and friend-of-the-family Alec become rapidly convinced that everyone has something to hide.  An excellent beginning to a series - have already reserved the next one...

The rider, by Tim Krabbé. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. London: Bloomsbury International, 2003. Originally published in 1978.

This is the weirdest, simultaneously documentary and hallucinatory book, the story of a 150km race told in 150 or so pages.  Krabbé is an author and former chess champion who also took up cycle racing in his late 20s, and rode many races in Holland, Belgium and France.  In this case, the race is the fictional Tour du Mont Aigoual (reconstructed since by various publications). Every move in the race is relived, and then there are special appearances by heroes of the sport, cycling alongside Krabbé in fantasy moments.  This was nominated by The Guardian as the best cycling book ever; the only way I can describe it is as an existentialist novel on wheels... Highly recommended.