Past reads

A place to record some of the books I've read recently (or not so recently.)
The list is getting a little long, so........

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Murder on Ice by Ted Wood

The Sculptor by Gregory Funaro

Ruth Rendell. Portobello (2008) TV adaptations of Ruth Rendell's works have always given me a lot of pleasure, so I assumed her novels would do the same. Portobello is the first of her books I have read, but I shall be reluctant to try another.

It was not her characterisation that irritated me: all life is here from the petty criminal to the GP, to the art dealer, to the murderous thug. With a couple of genuine madmen thrown in for good measure, the cast was fine. All well described and fully-rounded, as were the descriptions of the Portobello area of London that gave the book its title.

What really annoyed me was the complete lack of research into a major plot point, which is unforgivable. For some inexplicable reason Ms Rendell decided to make one of her key characters addicted to sugar-free sweets. Well, not inexplicable from the plot's point of view. The man wanted to lose some weight and thought, as many people do, that sugar-free is the same as calorie free. It isn't, but that's not the main problem.

The guy, at the height of his craving, is consuming about two packs a day of the chocolate-orange flavoured lozenges. Now, if Ms Rendell had gone to a chemist's shop and bought two or three packets, as the character did, she would have made a discovery.

Sugar-free sweets come with a health warning, printed on the side of the pack and pointed out to you by the pharmacist whenever you buy them. She would have realised that the addiction would have removed the character from the rest of the novel, owing to the fact that he'd have been trapped in the bathroom by the sweets' side effect.

It's described on packs as 'may have a laxative effect'. Two packs a day will incapacitate you severely. Any diabetic woud tell you that. We've all thought we were immune, but it's inescapable. His doctor girlfriend would certainly have uncovered his secret a lot sooner because she would have been rushing him off to hospital with griping stomach pains and liquid diahorrea. He would not have been staring idly out of the window at the right time of day to see something that later becomes a key plot point, he'd have been too ill.

Coupled with Rendell's tendency to switch from thread to thread in the narrative within a handful of paragraphs (I suspect she writes for television automatically) this basic inaccuracy meant that Portobello was a deep disappointment.

Jodi Picoult My Sister's Keeper (2003 ) I never saw it coming. Honestly, I've not been that surprised by the ending of a book for a very long time. And yet it was the only way it could have ended, when I reconsider. The book in question is Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper. Now I'm bound to have lots of people laugh and say it was obvious, but not to me, it wasn't.
It's a moving tale of two sisters - not twins, although they have almost identical DNA because younger sister Anna is a designer baby, conceived to provide stem cell treatment for her seriously ill sibling. Kate has a rare form of leukaemia that only regular transplants of platelets, white blood cells, bone marrow and, eventually, a kidney, all donated by Anna, can control.
The story begins when 13-year-old Anna decides to take her parents to court for the right to make future medical decisions for herself. It is a complex plot about ethics, love, hate, and the devastating effects that a terminal illness has on every member of a family.
Alternating between tears and laughter, in the same way that the family copes, the reader is given a tour of the American family court system as well as learning about hospital politics. We also find out a lot about setting light to buildings, as father Brian deals with an arsonist in his work as a firefighter, on top of the pressures at home.
Anna hires a lawyer, who has a few problems of his own that complicate his motives for taking the case. He agrees to work pro-bono, initially because of the kudos that such a high-profile lawsuit will bring him, but becomes increasingly involved with Anna's dilemma. If she goes ahead with the action her sister will die; if she gives in she would lose even more than 13 years of medical procedures have already cost her.
This is another of the books I've read because it was featured on the World Book Night lists. It truly deserved its place there. If you don't already know it - read it.

Mary Daheim Loco Motive (2011) Stuntman Wee Willy Weevil causes havoc by jumping from the top of a bed and breakfast hotel. When he later turns up on board a train to Boston, which the amateur sleuth bed and breakfast owner happens to be travelling on, there is further chaos as his injuries from the fall prove fatal. Except his death was not natural. Lots of hidden identities, and  follow-the-money motives later, not to mention several more bodies, the B&B owner reveals whodunnit. Standard and railway police having failed to work it out for themselves, of course.
Terry Pratchett Snuff (2011, Doubleday) When Commander Sam Vimes is ordered to go on holiday by his wife, and finds out that Vetinari approves of the trip, it's not surprising that before long he's a policeman on the trail of murderers and drug dealers, rather than a tourist. He has to change the way a lot of people think before he can succeed in his mission, but he goes about it in typical fashion, according to the rules of the Ankh-Morpork city watch, even though he's off his patch in deep countryside. As you'd expect with Terry Pratchett, the jokes and puns are packed in between the flowing narrative and the clever footnotes. There are a few lessons along the way, and we finally get a hint on the nature of Nobby Nobbs's species!

Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (Originally published 1960. e-edition) What can I actually say about To Kill a Mockingbird? I think I must be the last person in the world to read it and even I knew the story, thanks to the 1963 film. It isn't an easy book to read, dealing as it does with some serious issues. Its use of language was scrupulously accurate for its setting (Depression era, deep South USA) but no less uncomfortable for that fact. It's no surprise that this book is required reading for highschoolers because the lessons it teaches need to be learned by all. The only real problem I had was getting rid of the image of Gregory Peck every time it mentioned Atticus Finch. It has to be the first time I've read a novel in monochrome.  I've been meaning to read Mockingbird for a long time and I'm glad I finally got round to it. If you are the only other person who hasn't read it - put that right immediately.

Arnaldur Indriðason Tainted Blood  (Originally published in 2000. e-edition)
Tainted Blood is another in the Inspector Erlendur series. Once again, Iceland plays almost as large a part in the story as the characters themselves. It features the same detective team as Arctic Chill but (my fault - I'm reading them in the wrong order) is an earlier story, so the backgrounds are less defined. Erlendur's troubled daughter plays a bigger part - as do her problems.
The novel was originally called Jar City and, once you find out what Jar City was, it seems a more appropriate title somehow. I'm not sure who took the decision to rename it, or why.  Jar City is a hospital department where tissue samples and preserved organs are kept. But the most appropriate title of all is the original Icelandic Mýrin, meaning marsh or swamp.
The story opens with a murdered body on which someone, presumably the murderer, has left a hand-written note. The reader does not find out what the note says until half way through the book, just that it consists of three words and the third is HIM, written in capitals. I found that annoying, and I can't believe that knowing the message in chapter one would have given anything away too soon. However, this is a non-spoiler review and I shall respect the writer's intentions.
Finding out who committed the murder, and why, takes the tale through some interesting twists, drags up old and forgotten cases, involves more than one location, and unearths some questionable police practices from a few decades ago. Erlendur is forced to tackle the damage that a retired colleague caused in order to make his way through the current mire of events surrounding the murder.
Another satisfying read that has left me wanting more.

Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl (2007 e-edition) What a beautiful bit of nonsense Artemis Fowl is! It's a children's book and I admit that I read it because it was there (like climbing Mount Everest). I fancied something easy to digest and I found it with Eoin Colfer's child criminal mastermind.
The eponymous main character is a 12-year-old rich kid whose parents are absent (physically or mentally) and who more or less runs his own life, with the assistance of his ever-faithful butler - called Butler.
In a bid to find even more riches* he comes up with a plan to kidnap an elf and hold it to ransom in exchange for a large sum of gold that he knows the Little People own.
He has a fight on his hands, because these Lords and Ladies are equipped with some pretty impressive technical hardware. He's soon face to face with Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit. (Lower Elements Police. The People have moved underground to avoid contact with humans in Colfer's fictional world.)
Please find time to read this book if you haven't already. It's daft, fun and very easy on the brain. and we all need a good laugh now and again.

*Long backstory. His dad lost a lot of the family wealth in a poor business move and Artemis is determined to restore it somehow. He's still stupidly rich though.

Arnaldur Indriðason Arctic Chill   (2008, Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb) My only previous experience of Icelandic fiction was the Norse sagas and some folk tales so it was quite an archaic range, but this crime novel was part sociology and part psychology of contemporary culture.
It bears comparison with Ian Rankin's Rebus series: it features the basically flawed central character of Erlendur, his detective team (one male and one female) and their personal life challenges (failed marriages, inability to start a family, addict child, etc.) set against a crime story.
Behind it all, in the same way that Rankin's Edinburgh is the scaffolding for the Rebus stories, there is the city of Reykjavik, almost a character in itself. I am not sure whether the fact that I have spent more time in Reykjavik than I have in Edinburgh added to the reality of the setting, but the streets and sights of the Icelandic capital were fully three dimensional for me, almost more than the characters. In particular I had difficulty giving female detective Elínborg a face, while the corrugated iron-clad, wooden houses around the old Seamen's College appeared in full colour in my mind's eye.
The story begins with the discovery of a young boy's body, frozen in the snow near his city-centre home. The child is Thai, and consideration of whether race was a factor in his murder offers the opportunity to explore some of the cultural challenges that twenty-first century Iceland is facing. If you enjoy a good crime novel, take the time to track down Arnaldur. He's worth it.

George Dawes Green Ravens. The blurb on the front (well, a sticker) says: "If you don't LOVE this book, we'll give you your money back". I wonder how many people took them up on that offer. Because if I hadn't borrowed it from a friend I might be considering it. Now, I'm not saying it's a bad book - far from it - but it isn't great. It's actually quite formulaic and, at times, downright irritating. For one thing, every chapter (section?) starts with the name of a character and, to make matters worse, whoever designed the printing chose to highlight the fact by increasing the text size considerably. If you want to know what I mean see here. At first it just grated slightly. By the end it was downright boring. Don't do it again Mr Green, whatever your editor thinks.
So. Deep South white trash family wins multi-million lottery and Great Lakes city con-man tries to dupe them out of it by threatening their friends and relations. Emotional turmoil pursues. Aged cop breaks the rules. All turns out...... well that would spoil it so I'm not saying. If you like potboiler US crime, go for it. But it's no Jeffery Deaver.
Jasper Fforde  Shades of Grey.  A departure from his usual genres and even he admits (in an afterword) that it was a challenge for him. It has some good jokes, as you'd expect from Fforde and I have to admit that I had no idea what an Ishihara was until I looked it up! I knew they existed - had no idea what they were called. Less literary than his other books. I'm not sure whether I shall bother to read the planned sequels. Well, maybe just one...