Sunday, 30 August 2009

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: This is a very unusual book. It is set in the early years of the last century and relates events at the end of WW1 and the beginning of the Russian revolution. The writing is curiously old-fashioned – in fact it reads like a novel translated from Russian. (Dostievsky-lite?) A Czech regiment is stranded in a small Siberian town in 1919 and hoping to get home by going east to Vladivostock. They believe their lives will be in danger from the Reds. A stranger arrives claiming that he has escaped from a prison camp in the north and is being pursued by a cannibal. Also in the town is a group of castrati who believe that this is the only way to achieve true goodness. So we have murder, cannibalism and castration in the story – quite a combination! There are some quite chilling episodes and some brilliant descriptions. Some of the story elements are a bit drawn out and overlong – some judicious editing would have helped. But a very intriguing novel and I look forward to reading more of Meek’s work.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: Another brilliant offering from Kate Atkinson. The narrative is multi-stranded and numerous characters appear – so the reader certainly has to concentrate. But every page brims with quirky ideas and the whole plot is very entertaining. Some characters such as Jackson Brodie and Louise Monroe are included from previous books but are not at the heart of the narrative. Reggie, a sixteen year old girl, is a great creation. She is quirky and passionate and I couldn’t help but race to the end in the hope that all would be well! Some reviewers have complained that the plot has too many coincidences. But as Jackson says towards the end of the book “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” But it’s not all fun and games. The crime at the beginning is truly shocking and graphically described as is the violent rescue at the end. But along the way are many funny, sad and heartwarming moments….. A lovely book

Friday, 21 August 2009

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

DATE PUBLISHED: 1992 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: I bought this book months ago and immediately put it on one side because a) I hadn’t realised it was non-fiction and thought it was a novel and b) it was just so enormous – 650 pages! However when I finished the last DVD in The Wire I felt bereft and missing the mean streets of Baltimore. So now was the time to tackle Homicide….. I was not disappointed – in fact it is one of the best pieces of factual reportage that I have ever read. Simon was given access to the Police Department Homicide team for a year during which time he came to know the individual detectives and their strengths and weaknesses, the problems of policing the city, the local politics, the tyranny of the “solved crimes” league tables. He also records the black humour that detectives use as well as the many acts of empathy and kindness. Rarely a day goes by without a murder taking place. Many are easily solved – such as domestics. Murders involving drug dealers and customers are usually met with a wall of silence and often the culprit is never identified. Other murders (such as when the victim is a child) arouse great anger and distress and extra resources are poured into the squad in order to find the guilty person. Although non-fiction the book is constructed like a novel. As the book progresses the reader becomes more and more involved in the life of the homicide department. I found myself willing Pellegrini to somehow find the killer of little Latonya Wallace…… The writing is superb – not a superfluous word – and the book is packed with social issues relating the crime and punishment. Highly recommended for anyone who likes crime fiction or police procedurals.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Turbulence by Giles Foden

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: August 2009 NOTES: A fictionalised version of the attempts to predict the weather in the run-up to the D-Day landings. Henry Meadows is the young maths prodigy who is sent to Scotland to assist in making an accurate forecast and at the same time try to make contact with Wallace Ryman. Ryman has supposedly devised a system that brings together many of the variables of forecasting – the Ryman Number – but as a pacifist he is unwilling to allow his work to be used to advance the war. Meadows recounts his story in 1980 from a “berg ship” carrying ice to Saudi Arabia. Although the story of the D-Day landings has been written about many times not a great amount of attention has been given to the importance of correct weather prediction. Foden also puts forward the reason for joint planning among the allies – that if the weather forecast turned out to be wrong then no one country would be blamed for this. For much of the narrative the action of the weathermen is removed from the servicemen who are doing the actual fighting but these two strands were brought together very satisfactorily at the end. He sensibly doesn’t attempt to do a re-writing of the landings but gives us just enough detail to complete the story. My main problem with the book was my incomprehension of the weather prediction formulae and theories presented. Much of it made no sense at all (to me) and in the end I just had to let the words flow over me…. However I did manage to grasp the concept of the “berg ship” and Pykerite and very much enjoyed all these parts. Meadows comes over as a likeable but gauche and socially inept individual. Ryman is a fascinating and larger than life character and the book came alive when he entered the narrative. And Turbulence ends with a mystery – a rather clever device!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: July 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: Another Commisario Brunetti story set in Venice. Donna Leon continues to bring Venice alive to the reader – and shows us not just the parts beloved by visitors but also its dark underbelly. The Brunetti family come over as real characters and play an important part in the story. A young Roma girl is found drowned in the canal and Brunetti is soon convinced that it was no accident. But no-one seems to care about her fate – not even her family. (The lack of concern from her family was the only false note.) But Brunetti refuses to let the case die and is determined to find the truth. There is a certain realism about the way the story unfolds. He faces lots of frustrations in the investigation but no big chases or shoot-outs or violent confrontations. The ending is somewhat low key and I can understand that some readers (but not this one) felt a bit cheated. A good light enjoyable read.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

DATE PUBLISHED:2007 DATE READ: July 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: The somewhat dysfunctional Wopuld family is planning a get-together at their ancestral home in north-west Scotland to discuss the proposed buyout of their family business based on a board game. Alban (who by now only holds 100 shares in the company) is still haunted by his mother’s suicide at Garbadale when he was a baby. He is also still holding out hopes for a rekindling of his childhood love for his cousin Sophie. They were discovered making love and forcibly kept apart – this tactic was led by the manipulative Grandma Win. Albarn now has a relationship with the enigmatic Veruschka – a university mathematician who loves her own independence. The story comes to a head at Garbisdale. Alban is convinced Grandma Win knows more about his mother’s suicide than she has admitted and he conspires to trick her into revealing what she knows – but is then devastated when he finds out the secrets she has been keeping. He also delivers a stinging attack on the US company wanting to buy out the family and consequently gets a better prices for the family shareholders. A cracking read – lots of funny comments and comic situations as well as some really dark corners.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Children of Men by P.D. James

DATE PUBLISHED: 1992 DATE READ: July 2009 NOTES: In a world where no child has been born for 25 years a small group of five rebels begin to plan to challenge the ruling dictatorship of England. But the five are far from united and seek help from Theo Faron, an academic who is the cousin of Xan the Warden of England. He believes there are many injustices and agrees to help them albeit reluctantly. He is also strongly attracted to Julian, a beautiful member of the group. Soon one of the group is killed and it is revealed that Julian is pregnant – obviously a momentous event. When her husband realises it is not his child he runs away to betray the group, having hoped to use the birth to gain power and prestige for himself. Children of Men is a beautifully written dystopic novel The infertility has caused changes in attitudes and morality as the population becomes distorted. Many social issues are raised: -“voluntary” suicides of the elderly -indulgence of last born Omegas leading to criminality -importation of other races to fill the labour gap but without being given any rights -brutal suppression of criminals The author also explores the way in which the regime in power wants to “do the right thing” but ends up prioritising policies and never quite coming to grips with the most serious problems. A really interesting novel that – and Theo is a great invention as the reluctant hero.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: July 2009 NOTES: A Russian poet is murdered in a quiet Edinburgh street and nearby on the same night a drug dealer is stabbed. Rebus and Clarke begin to see links with the Russian businessmen visiting the town, local politicians and (of course) Cafferty. It is Rebus’ last week in the job and needless to say he continues to break all the rules and upset his superiors. Exit Music is written with great verve. Characters are very well written and the city atmosphere feels authentic - even if some of the plotting is a bit far-fetched. Far too many neat links and coincidences for me…. As in the previous books Rankin cleverly includes real news events in the narrative. Bankers are depicted as evil dark forces – he must have been greatly amused when RBOS went bust! Rebus is a great character and will be missed – perhaps Siobhan will step up to take his place? As this was the last of the series I was hoping for a really great final book but this was on the whole a bit disappointing. Not the final flourish I was hoping for.