Saturday, September 06, 2014

2014 books, #66-70

The persuader, by Lee Child [audiobook]. Read by Dick Hill.  [S.l.]: Soundings, [n.d.]

Walking through Boston in search of a bar one night, Jack Reacher spots Francis Xavier Quinn, a man he thought he'd killed a decade before. This is an odd novel, because it's one of the rare Reacher novels narrated in the first person. Reacher becomes close to his female colleague in this case, as he had in the case ten years before, and the narrative slides between decades.  The perspective is unsettling, but definitely works in terms of amalgamating the narratives, and the final sequences wouldn't work without it... I'm not as keen on Dick Hill as a narrator as I am Jeff Harding; but I gather Mr Hill is the reader of choice for Audible, and he's not at all bad...

The silkworm, by Robert Galbraith. London: Sphere, 2014.

Cormoran Strike's detective business is doing a lot better these days, after the Lula Landry case; and he's still able to keep Robin working for him. But Robin's about to be married to a chap who hates her job, and she's still trying to get Matthew and Strike to meet (which, let's face it, goes as well as everyone was thinking it would, when it happens.)  Meanwhile, Strike's engaged by Leonora Quine, wife of novelist Owen Quine, to track him down on the grounds that Leonora's running out of money to support their daughter, who has a learning disability.  There's a hole in the plot of this you could drive a Tube train through; but to be honest I didn't care; it was fascinating, entertaining, horrifying and most of all I really cared about several of the characters, even the unlikeable ones.  I suspect if you hated Strike first time round (as most people in my book group did), you mightn't like this one either; but I think he's a fundamentally decent guy, and I hope we're in for many more of these.  Galbraith has definitely laid down a few enticing threads for both main characters which might be followable...

Talk to the tail: adventures in cat ownership and beyond, by Tom Cox. London: Simon and Schuster, 2011. [Kindle edition.]

Tom Cox is the man behind the "Why my Cat is Sad" Twitter account, and the Little Cat Diaries blog; while a book on a man and his cats should be unbearably twee, it really isn't; largely because these are real cats, and Cox is fully aware about falling into that trap.  I suspect that if you've never lived with cats, this book will have no interest whatever; but if you have experience of the wide range of cat personalities and relationships, it's both a fascinating read and extremely funny, with the odd very moving passage.

Racing through the dark: the fall and rise of David Millar, by David Millar with Jeremy Whittle. London: Orion, 2011.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this - can't remember when I last read a sports autobiography, and I've never really known whether people at the top level of their sport have anything interesting to talk about apart from the sport.  But Millar has been striking in his contrition for, and determination to eliminate, doping; and he's probably racing his last Grand Tour with the current Vuelta a España.  I read this in about a day and a half and was resentful about putting it down; it's a fascinating account of Millar's life before, during and after his EPO period in the early 2000s, with a lot of information and asides about the state of the sport at the time. It's also pretty much warts-and-all; Millar doesn't disguise the fact he knows he's been a complete idiot at times, but can also describe the total highs of winning, and there's huge praise for people like Sir Dave Brailsford who was shocked and disappointing at the news of the doping, but stood by Millar's rehabilitation as a rider.  Really enjoyable if you have any interest at all in the subject.

One of ours, by Willa Cather. Kindle edition.

An absolutely wonderful book, and I need to read more Cather. Claude Wheeler leaves university to take on management of one of the family farms in 1914, but is overcome both by the power his father has over his life and an inexplicable discomfort with just about everything in life.  When the US enters the war, Claude enlists, and travels across to France in a troop ship.  The story is based on the life of Grosvenor, Willa Cather's cousin, who was also very uncomfortable in his own skin and made a similar journey to the First World War. She didn't want to write a war story, but said that "it stood between me and anything else"; the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  What's striking is the compassion (the Wheelers have German neighbours and friends at home, and Claude's encounters with starving French people and orphans change him), and the descriptions of the countryside both in Nebraska and France. I don't give spoilers in these reviews so can't discuss some of the overall themes, but if you're going to read one WWI novel from the US perspective, this might as well be it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 books, #61-65

Spider light, by Sarah Rayne [audiobook]. Read by Diana Bishop. [S.l].: Oakhill, 2005.

Like the previous book by this author, there are layers to this thriller.... It starts with Antonia Weston, who has come to the quiet town of Amberwood after a very public tragedy; Antonia's interest in local history turns out to precipitate a tragedy; and the unveiling of secrets inside a place.  This is another stunning, multidimensional thriller, and is definitely worth a read.

Shut your eyes tight, by John Verdon [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: AudioGO,  [n.d.]

Dave Gurney gets a call from a former colleague; and can't ignore it. A bride's been killed in the middle of her wedding reception - the murderer's identity seems to be straightforward, but nobody can find him. The plot is fascinating. I have to admit that I find Gurney's wife entirely irritating throughout these books...

Blood games, by Faye Kellerman. London: HarperCollins, 2011.

This book was called Gun games in the US; which I found interesting. Peter and Rina Decker's foster son Gabe Whitman finds a girlfriend; sadly, the girlfriend's family would find non-Jewish, non-Persian Gabe unacceptable, so their meetings are clandestine. Meanwhile, Decker is investigating the murder of other teenagers.  Plots intertwine very well, and this is probably the best in this series for a while.

Breaking point, by CJ Box. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.

The title makes explicit the theme of so many of CJ Box's thrillers - how far can you push an ordinary person before violence ensues?  Of course, if you're in Wyoming with infinite access to weapons, it all becomes more deadly.  A couple is threatened with extraordinary sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it all goes horribly wrong.  This is, as ever, tightly plotted and character-heavy; and I was somewhat horrified to learn in the afternote that the most unbelievable elements of the plot actually happened.

Two evils, by PJ Tracy. London: Penguin, 2013.

Four Native American girls are kidnapped, and one is found in a car park with her throat cut. Two young immigrants from Sierra Leone are gunned down. Gino and Magozzi investigate, but as the victims escalate and everything becomes more incomprehensible, Monkeewrench are called in to protect their own. This is well up to the standard of the previous books; plot-wise, it runs alongside so many post-9/11 terrorist thrillers, but then we also have the characters we know... One exception though - there's a repeated reference to putting a jihad on someone; I'm pretty sure that's not correct on either side of the Atlantic and it should be a fatwa.  Irritated me, anyway, and I couldn't find any evidence of usage!






Saturday, August 09, 2014

2014 books, #56-60

Written in blood: the remarkable caseboook of one of Britain's top forensic scientists, by Mike Silverman with Tony Thompson. London: Bantam, 2014.

Mike Silverman worked for the Home Office's forensic science service from the 1970s until the late 1990s, and then in various high-level advisory posts.  This is a fascinating account both of the development of forensic science, particularly blood-pattern and DNA analysis, and of the politics surrounding government departments during the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s.  Silverman goes into individual illustrative cases, and there's a lot of gentle humour at his own expense, but also looks as the factors which led to the closing of the last government forensic laboratories in 2010. An extremely interesting and readable book.

The skin collector, by Jeffery Deaver. London: Hodder, 2014.

A young woman is killed in a New York basement by having been tattooed with an obscure poison - the tattoo "the second" only tells Lincoln Rhyme that there will be more deaths to come.  There are, as ever, a huge range of twists and turns in this story. Possibly too many; this is the first time I've ever felt that Deaver might be becoming almost a parody of himself.  It's still highly enjoyable though, with some new bits and bobs for people like me who've become very fond of these characters...

A room swept white, by Sophie Hannah [audiobook]. Read by Julia Barrie. Oxford: Isis, 2010.

Fliss Benson gets into work one morning to find her boss has resigned and bequeathed her his documentary film about women who have been exonerated of killing their babies.  It's already been a bad day because Fliss has received an anonymous card containing sixteen numbers in a grid pattern, none of which mean anything to her.  Then one of the subjects of the documentary, Helen Yardley, is found dead at her home, with a card with sixteen numbers in a grid pattern in her pocket...  Very well-plotted and with a surprising ending, at least to me; and obviously based on real events.

The devil's cave, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2012.

An Inspector Bruno novel.  A woman is found floating in a boat on the local river, surrounded by black candles and other black magic symbols; later the local cave system is found to have been vandalised in the same way. Bruno is also juggling a domestic abuse case and a local development proposal which seems just too good to be true; and has a ridiculously cute Basset hound puppy to train.  Well up to the standards of this series; Walker loves the quaintness of Périgord but is also aware of the tensions and flaws inherent in modern French life.

Gironimo! riding the very terrible 1914 Tour of Italy, by Tim Moore. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2014.

In French revolutions, Tim Moore covered (most of) the route of the 2000 Tour de France a few weeks ahead of the riders.  This time, and 12 years later, he decides to cover the route of the Giro d'Italia, 1914 edition, as a reaction to the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. Not content with riding the 3,200km of the route, he decides to do it on a 1914 bicycle and in the traditional merino cycling garb of the pre-WWI cyclist.  This is hilarious and moving by turns, and tells you a lot about both the world of a hundred years ago and life in Italy today. Highly recommended whether you like cycling or not.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

2014 books, #51-55

The death chamber, by Sarah Rayne [audiobook]. Read by Diana Bishop. Bath: Oakhill, 2008.

Georgina Grey has inherited her great-grandfather's cottage, and with it, his papers. He was the doctor to Calvary Gaol, and when Georgina bumps into a pair of documentary-makers in the local pub she is astonished to find that they are doing research into psychic phenomena in the now-abandoned prison buildings.  As it turns out, though, the threat to Georgina and researcher Jude (a former foreign correspondent blinded in a war zone) is not so much psychic as very real; someone is extremely unhappy about the past being dug up and is prepared to act on it.

Wolf, by Mo Hayder. London: Bantam, 2014.

This is a very scary book; there's real violence (and Hayder goes for gory), but there's also implied and threatened violence which is even more frightening.  Oliver, Matilda and Lucia Anchor-Ferrers arrive at their holiday cottage to find a scene which is horribly reminiscent of a crime which happened to the family a decade before. The perpetrator of that crime is still behind bars, though... isn't he?  Then the police arrive to warn the family; and it all gets worse from there...  Meanwhile, Jack Caffery is trying to find the secret of his long-lost brother's death, and the owner of a lost dog.  This twists and turns all over the place towards the end; Hayder has created a hall of distorting mirrors.  Excellent, but gruesome.

Her brilliant career: ten extraordinary women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke. London: Virago, 2013.

This was a book-group book, not one I'd normally have picked up, but I'm glad I did.  Some of the figures in this book are very well-known even today - Patience Gray the cook, for instance, and Rose Heilbron QC who was active well into the 90s; but some like Sheila van Damm, rally-driver and manager of the Windmill Theatre, have vanished from collective memory.  Some of the women were remarkable for their lifestyles (van Damm was in a relationship with both Nancy Spain and magazine editor Joan Werner Laurie), some for their choice of profession; all are remarkable for their unconventionality in the times.  Definitely worth a read.

Without fail, by Lee Child. London: Bantam, 2002.

A Jack Reacher novel.  Reacher is contacted by his brother Joe's former girlfriend Emily Froelich; she's now head of Vice-President-Elect Armstrong's security detail, and wants Reacher to try fnding the holes in her plan to protect Armstrong.  Reacher and former colleague Frances Neagley take the part of would-be assassins and advise Froelich; at which point it becomes clear that the threat to Armstrong is more than theoretical. Even by Lee Child's high standards, this is a good one; and after a couple of the books above (notably The death chamber) I realised again that one of the reasons I like Reacher is that he works totally straightforwardly with women as well as with men; I hadn't even realised that was what had irked me about some of the books I'd read recently!

Do not pass go: from the Old Kent Road to Mayfair, by Tim Moore. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2002.

Tim Moore has always been obsessed with Monopoly, and has always lived in London. One of the things he's always been puzzled by is the arbitrariness of the choice of stopping-points on the board - why Vine Street? Why the Angel Islington? What do the groups of places have in common?  Moore goes to investigate, in the random order of throwing dice to start, and having others throw dice when he gets to his destination.  This is a lovely, funny ramble around parts of London you wouldn't necessarily visit as a tourist, and the chapter on "the greens" (Bond, Regent and Oxford Streets) is made more hilarious by the confession that "the prospect of an extended retail quest for goods you can't plug in or uncork fills my limbs with gravel".  There are a lot of interesting, well-researched facts in here as well, which slip into your head while you're laughing....

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2014 books, #46-50

And now the shipping forecast: a tide of history around our shores, by Peter Jefferson. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge, 2011.

This is a whimsical little book.  Occasionally a little too much so; but those moments are fewish and far between.  Peter Jefferson read the shipping forecast from 1969 until recently, and now reads the quotes on Quote, Unquote (I tried not to hold that particular thing against him when reading this book).  There's a lot of factual stuff on the construction and interpretation of the forecast, such as what the word then means with reference to types of weather, and some reminiscences of the different technologies used over four decades to get the forecast across. There's some general stuff about the BBC, and then a brisk tour around the shipping forecast areas.  If you're a Radio 4 nut, and don't mind the occasional awful pun, it's an entertaining read.

The crowded grave, by Martin Walker. London: Quercus, 2011.

Life's pretty complicated for Bruno Courrèges at the moment. A body's been found by an archaeological dig, which would be fine if it weren't wearing a Swatch; animal rights activists are letting out ducks being raised for fois gras; a new magistrate is proving problematic; and there's a Franco-Spanish ministerial summit happening on Bruno's patch which may be threatened by Basque terrorists. On top of that, he still doesn't know where he is in his relationship with Pamela, and ex-lover Isabelle has arrived to help with the summit.  This is a wonderful series of books - Walker lives in la France profonde for six months of the year and it shows.  International and local politics are skilfully dealt with, and you could definitely cook from some of the descriptions of wonderful meals.

Farewell performance, by Tessa Barclay [audiobook]. Read by James Bryce. Whitley Bay: Isis, 2001.

The first of the Gregory Crowne books. Crowne is promoting an orchestra in the Edinburgh Festival when the instruments of several cellists, including a Stradivarius, are apparently stolen. Shortly afterwards, an outbreak of food poisoning at the hotel seems to be more than a coincidence.  Crowne ends up investigating along with the local police.  This rattles along nicely, but I find Crowne a bit irritating, particularly with regard to what might be thought of as old-fashioned gallantry or might, in my case, be thought of as patronising behaviour to women...  The reading is good enough, apart from the pronunciation of Guarnieri as Garnery - as this particular instrument-maker turns up a few dozen times in the book, it becomes a bit grating.

The funeral owl, by Jim Kelly [audiobook]. Read by Ray Sawyer. Oxford: Isis, 2014.

Philip Dryden's dilemma in this week's Crow isn't how to fill the pages of his Ely newspaper; it's what to leave out.  The body of a Chinese man is found crucified in a churchyard; a "Fen Blow" removes topsoil from a huge area; and Humph's daughter disappears (while this isn't news, it does put a crimp in Dryden's travel plans while his usual chauffeur is engaged on family business). Is a Chinese gang operating in King's Lynn? What's the significance of drowned tramps being found in a ditch? And will Dryden's little boy ever be bothered to start walking?  As ever, this is as much about the characters as it is about the plots, and shows the Fens in all their strange beauty.

Hangman, by Faye Kellerman. London: Harper, 2011.

I was delighted to find that Kellerman had produced not one but two Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus books while I wasn't watching - this is always difficult to track because she's one of those increasingly rare authors producing books with different titles on different sides of the Atlantic, so you can never really work out whether you're likely to have read the book before under another name...   This one features a couple of recurring characters, doctor Terry McLaughlin and her hit-man husband Chris Donatti; but mostly also their 14-year-old son Gabe, a messed-up musical prodigy who is foisted on the Deckers when both his parents disappear.  Gabe's an interesting character; and it's good to see the other kids, including little Hannah, in adulthood or their late teens. Decker's approaching 60 at this point, but not really slowing down on the homicide front; while looking for Terry, he's also trying to solve a series of stranglings.  I enjoyed this one a lot; but you sort of need to go back to the beginning of the series to get the most out of it.



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 books, #41-45

The teleportation accident, by Ned Beauman. London: Sceptre, 2012.

Egon Loeser, an experimental set designer in early 1930s Berlin, is trying to construct a replica of a 17th-century "teleportation device" when he meets Adele Hitler (no relation), falls in love and follows her first to Paris, then to Los Angeles. This is a novel which starts off (as signalled) as Literary Realism, but passes through genres including farce, hardboiled detection, time travel, playscript and science fiction before crashing to a conclusion.  It's a very enjoyable read after the first few pages; but I'm not really sure what I got out of it in the end!  While you'd think that given the time and place there'd a more political awareness, Loeser is completely politically disengaged throughout the period.  I may well go back and read Beauman's first novel, Boxer, beetle, though.

Cross and burn, by Val McDermid [audiobook]. Read by Saul Reichlin. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2013.

The eighth of the Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series from McDermid, and follows on almost a year after the traumatic events of The Retribution. Carol and Tony are still estranged and trying to rebuild their lives in their different, dysfunctional ways, when two women are abducted, tortured and murdered - the characteristic they have in common is that they both look like Carol Jordan. Paula McIntyre asks for advice from Tony, but then DNA evidence is found which draws McIntyre's new boss DI Fielding to an almost impossible conclusion, and leads Paula to hunt down Carol and enlist her help.  This is well up to the usual standard, and Reichlin's reading is excellent as ever.

Think of a number, by John Verdon. London: Penguin, 2010.

Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD homicide detective, is contacted by an old college acquaintance about some very odd letters in verse form he's been receiving. It's a puzzle, and Dave tries to encourage his friend to go to the police; then the friend is killed in circumstances where there's a mass of evidence, none of it pointing anywhere.  Meanwhile, Dave's wife Madeleine is more than a little annoyed at his being sucked back into homicide investigation.  This is extremely tightly plotted and a real page-turner of a first novel; the author is a retired advertising executive who lives in the Catskills near Gurney's fictional home.  If you like early P J Tracy, this is one for you.

French revolutions, by Tim Moore [audiobook]. Read by Andrew Wincott. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2009.

Tim Moore's gradually growing fascination with the Tour de France, fuelled by early daily TV coverage of the event, reached its apotheosis in 2000, when at the age of 35 he decided to cycle the entire course ahead of that year's riders. Just finding out details of the route in advance was a challenge at that stage (how things like satnav and smartphones have changed things), quite apart from the physical challenges of riding over 3,000 kilometres on roads stacked with old men on butchers' bikes and Norbert Dentressangle pantechnicons.  This is an extremely funny account, and Moore is honest about the combination of hubris, chicanery, sheer agonising slog and unpleasant physical side-effects involved in getting round an approximation of the course, while giving some snippets of the history of the Tour.  Wincott reads very well (his French pronunciation of Ventoux and Troyes, and his insistence on pronouncing "derailleur" with a French accent aside) and this is a funny, engaging read.

The autobiography of Jack the Ripper, by James Carnac [audiobook]. Read by Mark Meadows and Christian Rodska. Bath: Random House/AudioGO: 2012.

The weirdest thing about this account of Jack the Ripper's exploits is that it came from the estate of the man who invented Larry the Lamb and Toytown.  Having looked it up, this is a genuine mystery - is this a work of fiction, or could it be the truth?  The jury's still out among Ripper theorists.  Whatever it is, it's immensely interesting and entertaining, and gives all sorts of details of life in the East End as well as new ideas about motivation.  Christian Rodska is the main reader as the voice of Jack/James Carnac, with Mark Meadows as the "framing" narrator talking about the provenance of the narrative.  Rodska is, as usual, utterly compelling as a reader.  This is not one for someone who's blood-phobic; but equally, there are no gratuitous blow-by-blow accounts of the killings.


Sunday, May 04, 2014

2014 books, #36-40

Howard's End is on the landing: a year of reading from home, by Susan Hill. London: Profile, 2009.

Susan Hill went searching for a book on her shelves, and discovered a treasure trove of unread books, or books she wanted to re-read. She decided to spend a year reading only things she found on her own shelves, and this book is the result.  There are short essays on different authors, and also on themes (school stories, detective fiction etc.); all very readable and an introduction to some new-to-me authors which have now been added to my reading list. There's also a particularly moving chapter on Charles Causley.  Hill has worked in the literary world since her first novel was published at the age of 18, and so has met and liked many of these authors, so personal anecdotes also feature. There are also some surprising dislikes, including an antipathy to Jane Austen, which gives this book an extra interest.

Jar city, by Arnaldur Indridason [audiobook]. Read by Saul Reichlin. Oxford: Isis, 2014. (Originally published in 2004.)

A man is found murdered in his Reykjavik flat. There are no clues apart from a cryptic note left on the body, and a photo of a young girl's grave. Erlendur discovers the man was accused of a terrible crime 40 years before, but never convicted. Meanwhile Erlendur's daughter has come home after some time away living a wild life. Parents and children feature heavily in this book, and the "jar city" of the title reflects a quite recent UK scandal.  Reichlin does his usual workmanlike job on the reading here, but somehow the story never really caught fire for me.

To die for, by Tessa Barclay [audiobook]. Read by Michael Tudor Barnes. Whitley Bay: Soundings, 2007.

The unlikely team of a (deposed) Crown Prince of fictional Hirtenstein and a London fashion designer (Greg and Liz) investigates a murder in the rolling stacks of the Museum of Music Heritage; the victim is a friend of Greg's and companion to an elderly Chopin fanatic, who in turn believes she is in possession of a photocopy of an original manuscript.  The search takes Greg and Liz to Paris, Scotland and Dover in search of the murderer.  This is what you'd call a "cozy" if you were American, I think; it's quite gentle, in places over-explained (yes, we've got it, she's a fashion designer so she likes clothes) and you can see things coming a long way off, but I'll look out for other books in the series because it buzzes along nicely. And Michael Tudor Barnes is an excellent reader and does all the accents.

The outcast dead, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2014.

Digging at the foot of Norwich Castle, Ruth Galloway unearths Victorian bones; a woman with a hook for a hand who may be the notorious murderer Jemima Green, hanged in 1867 for the murder of five children in her care. Meanwhile DI Harry Nelson is investigating the deaths of three other infants in the same family; he's convinced the mother is responsible although others on his team think otherwise. The cases intertwine - King's Lynn and its network of mothers and babysitters is only so big - and while Ruth learns about the intricacies of TV archaeology, she's also drawn in to Nelson's case.  This is well up to the usual standard of these books; I'm only sad that I read these way too fast.  And finally, the mystery of the King's Lynn Campbells factory tower is solved - I've kept thinking I've just looked out of the window at the wrong time, when it turns out the tower was demolished in 2012...

Let the devil sleep, by John Verdon [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Bath: Chivers/AudioGO, [n.d.]

This is the third one in this series, and contains major plot spoilers for the second one; but a new-to-me author so I didn't realise this.  I'll be going back and reading the others, anyway.  This has some of the elements of the Peter Decker or Dave Robicheau books, but with an element of the supernatural more reminiscent of Greg Iles or some of Harlen Coben's standalones. An old journalist acquaintance of retired cop Dave Gurney gets in touch: her daughter is producing a documentary on a 10-year-old series of murders by the "Good Shepherd", a murderer who was never caught, and she asks Gurney to keep an eye on her daughter. Gurney becomes fascinated by the original series of murders, and as the documentary series starts appearing, on the unintended consequences it unleashes.  This is very, very well-written, and I was very happy to spot the first in the series lurking in my "unread" pile, so will be picking that up soon!