Sunday, August 13, 2017

2017 books, #26-30

The underground railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  London: Fleet, 2016.

Cora's life on a cotton plantation in Georgia, where she is an outcast even among her fellow slaves, ends when she's persuaded by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, to run away.  Things go badly from the start - Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her.  Although they find a station on the railroad,  and are transported to South Carolina, they are now hunted.

In this book, and this is where the fiction comes in, the Underground Railroad is literally there, a network of hidden railroads with irregular trains flying North to freedom, with engineers, and tunnels, and conductors.  As Cora travels, she realises that situations which at first seem benign are actually quite insidious, and that she is endangering the people who shelter her.  It's an amazing story. There is, as you'd expect, an awful lot of casual brutality; that part isn't fiction... but it's also a compelling story, and very readable.

Bring me the head of Sergio Garcia! my year of swinging dangerously on the pro golf tour, by Tom Cox. London: Yellow Jersey, 2007.

I have no interest whatever in golf; but I do like the way Tom Cox writes.  Turning 30, Cox and his wife decide that he needs to get the teenage desire to be a golf pro out of his system, so he applies to join a minor Tour and competes in various tournaments.  This is a lovely account of falling in and out of love with a sport, and a critical look of the culture around golf.  Very readable if you like Tom Cox's cat books (he's the chronicler of the late lamented The Bear, AKA @WHYMYCATISSAD).

Peter Pan must die, by John Verdon [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes, 2016.

A Dave Gurney book; and follows the same pattern as the others. Gurney gets involved in a new and potentially dangerous case; his wife alternately sulks and whines at him; things get ever more dangerous and he exceeds his brief but keeps on with the investigation; dangerous things happen; there is resolution.  That doesn't mean it isn't a good ride while it's going on (and Jeff Harding does his usual excellent job here) but there is a certain formula, and Verdon isn't as good as someone like Lee Child about varying it up, or telling us something new about his characters.  Definitely worth listening to; I'm not convinced I'd have read it in print though.

We'll always have Paris: trying and failing to be French, by Emma Beddington. London: Pan, 2017.

Emma Beddington had a fascination with the French from an early age; she went to French films, envisaged herself sitting moodily outside a Paris café smoking a Gitane, and mugged up on her Gainsbourg and Besson...  She met a Frenchman, married, had two children, and then had the chance to live in Paris.  And it wasn't at all what she expected.  This is the best account I've ever read of being miserable in posh Paris (granted, that's a niche memoir); weirdly, Beddington ended up living just round the corner from where I'd been miserable a a few years before, sitting on benches in the Parc Monceau watching her kids (my au pair charge, in my case), staring through the windows of pâtisseries, dealing with incredibly unfriendly French bureaucracy.  It's also an exploration of grief, and some tragedy; but it's also handled with a wonderful honest, humorous sense.  And there's a love story at the heart of all this; the central relationship, but also falling in and out of love with cities and the notion of home.  Brilliant book. One to be kept, which is a rarity these days.

Death ship, by Jim Kelly. London: Crème de la Crime, 2016.

Kids digging a fort in the sand on Hunstanton Beach unearth a bomb,which explodes.  Is it a WWII unexploded bomb, or something newer and more sinister? And is it connected with the new, and contentious, pier being built?  Shaw and Valentine are already based in Hunstanton, trying to catch a killer who's handing out poisoned sweets at bus stops, while looking for a missing Dutch tourist who walked out of his hotel one day and disappeared.  The more they look into the case, the more confusing all these strands become; and the further back Shaw finds himself digging.  Another really excellent book by Kelly, which romps along, and captures the atmosphere of the Norfolk Coast perfectly.

2017 books, #21-25

Dominion, by CJ Sansom [audiobook]. Read by Daniel Weyman.  Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2012.

It's 1952 and Britain is twelve years into Nazi rule under Lord Beaverbrook, Winston Churchill is leader of the Resistance and the British Jews are being rounded up for deportation to camps on the Isle of Wight.  Civil servant David Fitzgerald is recruited to the Resistance and asked to break scientist Frank Muncaster, an old school friend, out of the mental hospital in Birmingham where he has been confined after being accused of killing his brother.  This is very cleverly done - you find yourself thinking aaaah every now and then as another piece of the alternative world slots into place - and a good read.  Daniel Weyman narrates this very competently and reminds me that a well-read audiobook is a very satisfying thing indeed.

Silence, by Shusaku Endo. London: Picador, 2015. Originally published in 1966.

Portuguese priest Sebastian Rodrigues sets sail for Japan in 1640 to help the suppressed Christians there; and to find out what has happened to his former mentor who is rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues is idealistic, but life in Japan gradually brings him to the realisation that although there are still faithful people there, his presence is as much of a danger as a comfort to them.  This was... interesting... but really, if you want to read an account of a priest examining his usefulness in a hostile environment, you'd be better off with Greene's Power and the Glory.  There's a curious lack of detail about daily life in 17th century Japan to distinguish this from the Greene, too.

The wrong side of goodbye, by Michael Connelly. London: Orion, 2016.

A Harry Bosch book; and a good one. Bosch is working for the cold case unit in San Fernando, California, as a retired volunteer detective, and also doing private investigations on the side.  He is summoned to a meeting with a billionaire aerospace company owner who is at the end of his life, and tortured by the idea that he may have a living heir.  Bosch makes progress quite quickly despite worries about the people who might be interested in his not finding out about living relatives; but at the same time, the "cold case" he's working on, a series of rapes, suddenly starts to heat up again with another suspected attack.  This is very good indeed, even by Connelly's usual standards; having read much less than usual this year for whatever reason, I raced through this in a day and really enjoyed it.

Strangers on a train, by Patricia Highsmith. London: Vintage, 1999. Originally published in 1950.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on a long-distance train; after a night of drinking, Bruno proposes that he dispose of Haines's troublesome estranged wife, in exchange for Guy killing Bruno's hated father.  It would, he suggests, be the perfect crime as both would be entirely motiveless. Haines shrugs it off as a chance encounter; but then he leaves a book in Bruno's train carriage with his address in it, and creates a disturbing link between them...  I'd forgotten quite how compelling this thriller really was; it seems much more modern than something written in 1950, and most of us in my book group found it unputdownable once we'd started to read it. Very glad to have read it again.

Gun Street girl, by Adrian McKinty. London: Serpent's Tail, 2015.

Sean Duffy has what looks like a double murder and suicide to deal with. But as ever, he seems to be determined to make it as complicated as possible, at least in the eyes of his superiors.  The more information he turns up about the suspect, the less convinced he is by the initial view of the case.  And then a mysterious American agent, and MI5, turn up on his doorstep.  This series continues to be extremely engaging.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017 books, #16-20

The apprentice of Split Crow Lane: the story of the Carr's Hill murder, by Jane Housham [audiobook]. Read by Jim Barclay and Anna Bentinck. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper/WF Howes, 2016.

Sarah Melvin was killed at the age of five in Felling, Newcastle, in 1866; the first suspects were her parents, poor Irish immigrants, but then when the real killer was discovered, it raised as many questions as it answered.  While Housham keeps returning to the murder, this is also a wider investigation into notions of sanity and responsibility in Victorian England, an exploration of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, a look at the early days of Broadmoor, and a discussion of a few similar cases of the era.  Really interesting, and genuinely suprising at times.

In the morning I'll be gone, by Adrian McKinty. London: Serpent's Tale, 2014.

Sean Duffy has been demoted for an incident which happened, unseen, during I hear the sirens in the street; he's offered his old rank back, in Special Branch, for agreeing to investigate the escape of an old school friend, IRA commander Dermot McCann, from the Maze Prison in 1984.  When visiting McCann's ex-wife, Duffy hears about the unsolved suspicious death of her sister, Lizzie Fitzpatrick, three years earlier.  He makes a dangerous bargain, and continues to pursue both cases.  As ever, real events are woven carefully into the narrative here, with tremendous effect in the eventual climax of this novel.  It's probably just as well I have to wait for the library to come up with the next book...

Zola and the Victorians: censorship in the age of hypocrisy, by Eileen Horne. London: MacLehose, 2015.

Unlike the English Victorians in the first book in this post, nobody comes out well here.  Including Emile Zola, who is a hero of mine.  I had no idea about the reception of Zola's books in Britain - I read them in French and was captivated enough to want to do a PhD in them - although I did know that they'd scandalised a section of French society.  Here, the attitudes expressed 60 years later in the Chatterley case - "would you wish your wife or servant..." - are right to the fore, to the extent that publishers of Zola in English, in however bowdlerised a fashion, were prosecuted for indecency, while copies of the books in French were openly sold.  Henry Vizetelly, the publisher involved, is ruined, while Zola seems profoundly indifferent to his fate, quibbling only about his royalties. It's a stunning indictment of hypocritical prudishness, closed-minded Philistinism and a distrust of foreign influences which is depressingly familiar today.

Silent witnesses: the story of forensic science, by Nigel McCrery. London: Arrow, 2014.

I'm told the author of this is the creator of Silent Witness on TV, but as I've never seen it... A short, workmanlike history of forensic science which covers all the usual bases, but less interestingly than Val McDermid's recent similar book.  Some interesting additional/alternative test cases for some of the information though.  The photos in the middle of the book are stunningly uninformative and could easily have been left out...

To hell on a bike: riding Paris-Roubaix, the toughest race in cycling, by Iain MacGregor. London: Bantam, 2015.

MacGregor cycled from Lands end to John O'Groats in the 1990s, and took up cycling again in his early 40s; after cycling the Etape du Tour in 2013, he looked for another challenge.  So why not the "hell of the North", Paris-Roubaix, or its sportive equivalent?  This is a nice mixture of a history of the race, some self-deprecating stuff about MacGregor's own cycling prowess, and some excellent interviews with journalists, commentators, former racers and organisers of the race - MacGregor's background in publishing has obviously allowed him to build an impressive contacts book - ending with an account of the ride itself.  Very enjoyable and readable; and some really good photos in this one.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

2017 books, #11-15

Cast iron, by Peter May. London: riverrun, 2017.

The sixth, and presumably last, of the Enzo books - although Enzo's wager with Roger Raffin covers seven historic cases, all the loose ends are tied up in this book and it seems very final.  Which is a shame, as this is an immensely entertaining cast of characters.  In this book, though, Enzo is looking for the killer of Lucie Martin, a 20-year-old girl found in a dry lake bed years after her disappearance. The killing has always been blamed on Régis Blanc, a serial strangler who was known to Lucie, but Enzo isn't so sure, and Blanc has always denied the killing.  Meanwhile, Enzo's investigation is putting his daughter and her fiancé in danger.  Excellent plotting, the sort of book you devour in a couple of sittings.  I'm going to miss this series.

Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor [audiobook]. Read by Leighton Pugh. Rearsby, Leics.: WF Howes/Harper Audio, 2016.

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a body is found in a tomb which ought to be empty; James Marwood is asked by the government to investigate. Marwood has no choice - he's the son of a printer who was disgraced for Republicanism and who is now deeply affected by dementia - but the investigation takes him deeper into political intrigue and danger.  I sort of enjoyed this - but I found it really difficult to remain concentrated on it, despite the reader being a good one.

Medium raw: a bloody Valentine to the world of food and the people who cook, by Anthony Bourdain. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

This has all the hallmarks of classic Bourdain - hundred-miles-an-hour, no-holds-barred, full-frontal writing; but from ten years after Kitchen confidential opened up many doors to the restaurant world, and after Cook's tour gave Bourdain the opportunity to travel all over the world in the search for exotic food.  Starting, shockingly, with the consumption of ortolans, Bourdain writes about the world of cooks and restaurants and food producers, and also about the difference in himself between the angry, burned-out man who wrote Kitchen confidential and the husband and father he is by 2010. Excellent book.

Long time dead, by Tony Black [audiobook]. Read by Darth Cruickshank. Oxford: Isis, 2010.

This is the fourth one in a series, which may be why I felt as if I was slightly missing information all the way through.  Anyway; Gus Dury is taken to hospital after a hit-and-run, but his alcoholism is causing worse problems.  His best friend Hod asks him to investigate the on-campus hanging of an Edinburgh University student with a rich, high-profile mother who has promised a large reward. Gus needs the money, and gets a janitor's job at the university so he can take a look into the case; he uncovers a similar hanging which happened in the 1970s, and realises his life is in danger.  I enjoyed this; but I'm not convinced I'll be looking for others in the series.

I hear the sirens in the street, by Adrian McKinty. London: Serpent's Tail, 2014.

Sean Duffy, back at work after the events of The cold cold ground, is given the case of a torso found in a suitcase.  When he tracks the suitcase back to its previous owner, he finds another murder, that of a UVF soldier; everything becomes more complicated, step by step.  And then there's the Troubles to deal with... Another excellent, gripping read with the background of the Falklands War...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017 books, #6-10

The hanging tree, by Ben Aaronovitch.  London: Gollancz, 2016.

The sixth of the Peter Grant series, and another really enjoyable read.  A young girl is found dead at a party of Bright (and Drugged-up) Young Things, and Lady Ty's daughter is present.  Peter is called in because he owes Lady Ty a favour, and because it's probably not politic to have the daughters of river gods involved in this sort of thing.  So we have a combination of Peter, the super-rich, magic and the river gods. What could possibly go wrong?  If you haven't picked up this series before, do. But start at the beginning or parts of this will make no sense whatsoever.  Only regret is that I raced through it way too fast...

Cold earth, by Ann Cleeves [audiobook]. Read by Kenny Blyth. Oxford: Isis, 2016.

During the funeral of Magnus Tait, a landslide crashes through what should have been an abandoned croft, and the body of a beautiful woman in a red dress is found in the wreckage.  Jimmy Perez has no idea who she is, and starts to investigate; then he finds the woman was already dead when the landslide hit.  As he tracks the woman back through her stay on the island, he begins to realise that he is stirring up a number of vested interests including the oil companies which give Shetland their prosperity.  I don't know why I really didn't quite get into this book; the reader is good; the plot is well-done. Maybe I was just distracted by other things.  I may go back and read/listen to this one again before the next one comes out...

Fear of 13. Netflix.

A bit unusual, as this isn't a book or an audiobook, but it might as well have been the latter; you could listen to it without the visuals, as the majority of the visual content is watching one man sitting on a chair telling his story of wrongful conviction.  It's quite disorienting, because you find out a lot about Nick Yarris's life inside prison, and his state of mind, before you ever find out how and why he ended up on Death Row for 21 years.  It's two hours of intense, very moving narrative delivered like a one-man show - it's no wonder that Yarris now makes part of his living in public speaking.

A very English scandal: sex, lies and a murder plot at the heart of the establishment, by John Preston. London: Penguin Viking, 2016.

This is a story I vaguely remember from childhood, but didn't understand properly at the time; it's Jeremy Thorpe, and the attempted murder of his lover Norman Scott.  As the child of card-carrying Liberals, I remember the shock when he resigned, and the scandal of the trial, but not much else.  This book gives short biographies of everyone involved, who might have known what and when, and how much coverup there actually was (spoiler: a lot).  And it's all very readable.

Trieste and the meaning of nowhere, by Jan Morris. London: Faber, 2002.

Trieste is literally neither here nor there, a place which no country has really seemed to want over the centuries and which has ended up as the tag-end of Italy, nearer former Yugoslavia than anywhere else, and without its original purpose as a trading port for the whole Mediterranean.  Morris writes lovingly about it - the first visit, as a young soldier during World War II, and the subsequent ones - but also slightly wonderingly, not really being able to pin down its charm.  It's a memoir of the city, and also of Morris herself.  Not a lot happens, but I have a strong desire to visit it and just be a flâneuse in this city.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017 books, #1-5

Inferno, by Dan Brown [audiobook]. Read by Paul Michael.  Rearsby, Leics: Clipper, 2013.

This is, of course, dreadful tosh.  But a good shout at the CD player over New Year was welcome, and although it was initially a disappointment that Jeff Harding wasn't reading this one as well, the reader was excellent, particularly in the area of Italian pronunciation.  There was so much wrong with the Dante part of this that I won't even start; and the setup so that Robert Langdon could mansplain his way round another landscape was as clunky as ever.  But there were some pleasing plot twists, and a lot of knitting, tidying up and reading was done while listening to this.

The cold cold ground, by Adrian McKinty. London: Serpent's Tail, 2012.

I heard about this author via @TriciaindaHouse on Twitter - an excellent source for book recommendations if you like the sort of thing I review here.  This is a brilliant book, and happily it's the first in an ongoing series.  Sean Duffy is a rare bird, a Catholic sergeant in the RUC in the spring of 1981.  Most of his work is in attempting to contain sectarian violence, but then he comes across a very odd case - two killings of gay men within a matter of hours.  Is this the work of a serial killer, or something different?  There are some great "period details" here - high-security visits of Margaret Thatcher, the IRA hunger strikers, the backdrop of the Royal Wedding - and also some shocking reminders of how totally abnormal life in the North was at the time.  Highly recommended.  I've already got the second one on reserve.

Saturday requiem, by Nicci French [audiobook]. Read by Beth Chalmers. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2016.

It was a completely open and shut case when 18-year-old Hannah Docherty was arrested for the murder of her mother, father and brother, and she's been incarcerated in a secure hospital ever since.  When Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist, is asked by the police to assess Hannah, she is horrified and haunted by the girl's condition, and begins to investigate the circumstances of the murders.  What she finds makes her doubt both her own sanity, and Hannah's guilt.  This is tightly plotted and fascinating.

Paper towns, by John Green. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Margo Roth Spiegelman is Quentin Jacobsen's next door neighbour, and an awesome rebel. Q has been in love with her forever, and is amazed when she commandeers him to go on a riotous, night-long revenge prank. And then Margo disappears.  The phenomenon of paper towns was unfamiliar to me until I read this book...  The setup, and to an extent the main character, who is not the narrator, is familiar from Green's Looking for Alaska, but this is an altogether different thing, and makes you laugh and cry, and believe, as I did as a teenager, that dysfunctional teens are probably the best.

The strange case of the composer and his judge, by Patricia Duncker [audiobook]. Read by Maggie Mash. Rearsby, Leics.: Clipper, 2010.

Hunters in the Jura come across a strange sight: a semi-circle of dead bodies, staring upwards into the sky.  Dominique Carpentier, a judge with more than a passing interest in cults, is called up by a policeman who is also her old lover; the pair start to investigate, and realise that there is a connection between the dead and a composer and conductor, Friedrich Grosz.  This is a strange sort of book - half police procedural, half a search into a mystical realm, and I'm not entirely sure it's successful; but it's a good listen, with an excellent reader.