Sunday, 5 February 2012

January Review

It's now February.... my oh my, the month has gone quickly. I thought I'd start off the month with a bit of a review of my January readings. On the whole, I enjoyed the books I picked to read in January, a nice mix of non-fiction, mystery and historical fiction. There were no 5 star books, but there were a couple that I quite enjoyed. It was a nice way to start off 2012 anyway. So let's start at the beginning.

I started and finished a couple of books while the missus and I were still vacationing in England over the holiday season.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks (3*). I've read a couple of Iain Banks' Culture novels the past year and found him to be a wonderful SciFi writer. This was my first attempt at one of his other stories. It's about a young man, late teens, who lives in Scotland and let's just say has some quirks. In his past he has killed 3 people, his brother has just escaped from an insane asylum and is heading home and his father hides himself in his study. This is a strange, but interesting story and there were surprises at the end. It brought to mind stories like Lord of the Flies, those odd, strange, but intriguing stories that stand off by themselves. I definitely think it's worth a read as it does offer a different style for Banks. I do think I prefer the Culture novels, but having read this, I think I may search out some of his other fiction stories.

The Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman (3*). One of my favourite books of any genre is Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. It's a book I've read a couple of times. I've never read any other of her histories, although I have purchased a couple of them in the past year. The Zimmerman Telegram also is set during the First World War. The British have intercepted a telegram from Germany, from Foreign Secretary Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in the US. The telegram instructs him and his counterpart in Mexico to stir the Mexicans up, to provide assistance so that they will engage the Americans and keep them occupied south of their border, rather than getting involved in the War in Europe. There are many interesting aspects to this story; one being the simple fact that I'd never heard of it before. The skill of the British code breakers in gathering key information from Germany and ensuring that the Germans didn't realise they had been compromised. How they ultimately use this knowledge to ensure that the US president, who sees himself as an honest broker trying to barker a cessation of hostilities so that he does not have to send US troops to take part in the war, can no longer stay neutral is also very interesting. Barbara Tuchman has a way of writing history to make it very interesting and accessible. She did so again with this story, one small incident in history but with great ramifications to the ultimate outcome of WWI.

Five Roundabouts to Heaven, by John Bingham (3*). This was the first John Bingham story that I have read. I found it while wandering around a nice used book store in Worthing, UK over the holidays. I have had Bingham's stories on my TBR list for awhile, so I was happy to find one finally. From 1952 to 1982, he published 17 novels. He was supposedly the inspiration for John Le Carré's most well-known character, George Smiley. Five Roundabouts was his second novel published in 1953. It is the story of two men, Peter Harding and Phillip Bartels, the story told mainly from Peter Harding's perspective. Harding is reliving his past, one of which he is not proud, as he elaborates on an incident in the past in which he tries to steal his childhood friend's mistress. Bartels is deeply in love with her and plans to leave his wife, but through the machinations of his friend instead decides to poison his wife. This is a nicely taut, psychological story, brings to mind Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. I will definitely continue to search for more of Bingham's novels as this was a nicely written, interesting story.

Blood-Dimmed Tide, by Rennie Airth (3*). This is the second in the Inspector John Madden mysteries; set in Sussex, England. The first was River of Darkness, a story I enjoyed very much. They are set just after the First World War and Madden is an Inspector with Scotland Yard, solving murders by serial killers while still trying to deal with his own personal wartime-related issues. In this second story, Madden is, in fact, retired and working a small estate in Sussex, with his new wife and children. He is drawn into a brutal murder of a local girl and ends up assisting Scotland Yard in their investigations. It is discovered that there have been other murders in other parts of England, and, in fact, in Germany, that appear to have been perpetrated by the same individual. The story is tensely-written and interesting. Personally, I do wish Airth had explored somewhat more the tension of dealing with the German police, who are going through issues caused by the ascension of the National Socialists to power. But other than that minor issue, the story is a worthy successor to Airth's first novel and well worth reading.

 Black Plumes, by Margery Allingham (4*). Margery Allingham was a prolific mystery writer from 1923 until the mid-60's. Her most noted character was Albert Campion, an upper class detective/ spy, who appeared in many of her novels. He did not appear in Black Plumes which came out in 1940. This story is an interesting character study. It is basically set in one location and follows the investigation of the murder of Robert Madrigal, who runs an art gallery along with his brother - in - law. The story follows the main characters as they try to deal with the murder, suspect each other and wait for the police to solve the case. It's a nice parlour mystery, with neat twists and turns until you reach the satisfying resolution. This was my second Allingham mystery and she is growing on me. I have another on my TBR shelf that I'm looking forward to reading.

Knights of the Black and White, by Jack Whyte (3*). This is the first story in Canadian writer, Jack Whyte's Templar trilogy. It is an interesting bit of historical fiction, following the Hugh de Payens on his journey to the Holy Land on behalf of a secretive brotherhood of knights, The Order of the Rebirth in Sion. His task, along with others of his order is to find the secret 'treasure' troves of the Tomb of Solomon, as in their beliefs, the truth of Christianity lies therein. It's a meandering sort of story, many vignettes, some action, some sex and ultimately, leaves you hanging for the second and third stories to finish the adventure. At times I wanted more to happen; the battle sequences were unsatisfying, the story was somewhat slow in developing. But at the same time, the story read easily for its length and I did end it wanting to read the next in the series. Worth taking a look at.

Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen (4*). This is the third Alvtegen story I've read, the other two being Betrayal and Missing. I do enjoy her style. Alvtegen is a Swedish crime writer who has written 5 mysteries as of 2007. Shadow deals with the death of an elderly woman, with no known relatives. A social worker begins the task of finding somebody who knows the woman, Gerda Persson, to assist with finding other family members and possibly to assist with funeral arrangements. This slowly developing idea brings us into contact with other people, the story being told from each person's perspective and as we get into the story, both past and present events unfurl that lead to a sinister, almost frightening ending. Alvtegen develops her story with a nice touch, teasing us with facts that make us wonder how they tie together. I did enjoy this mystery and I think you would like any of her stories.

The final two books were started in January, but finished the first week in February so I'll include them in my January Reading highlights.

Plan for Chaos, by John Wyndham (3*).  John Wyndham is one of my favourite all-time SciFi writers having written two of my favourite stories, The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. I was very pleased when I saw this story at my local bookstore, The Laughing Oyster. It was written at the same time as The Day of the Triffids, but didn't really get published at the time. It was newly discovered a couple of years ago and happily for me, this edition was released in 2010. It's quite different in style from his other stories and did take a few pages to get into. It reminds me of the old movie serials that they used to show before the Saturday matinee, teasing you over weeks to make you keep going to the movies. It's about a Nazi plan of domination, after the end of WWII. The story involves flying saucers, cloning, hidden installations, somewhere deep in South America (maybe). I must say I did find the story interesting. Did I enjoy it as much as my favourite Wyndham stories? No, I didn't, but at the same time I'm glad that it was released so that Wyndham's fans can read another of his stories.

Riverside Villas Murder, by Kingsley Amis (4 *). This is probably the most enjoyable book I've read in 2012, it was nicely paced, some nice twists and turns and some interesting plot lines. I must say that I originally purchased it partly because of the book cover, which caught my attention. I had previously read another Amis book, The Green Man, a sort of spiritual mystery and enjoyed it. This mystery was quite different, focusing on young Peter Furneaux, a teenager experiencing all those teen boy things, lusts after young girls (or the neighbour's wife), teen angst, issues with his parents. Peter becomes deeply involved in a murder that takes place nearby, in fact, the victim manages to stagger to his parent's house when Peter is home alone. This leads to an interesting police investigation, with Peter intimately involved. There are many neat aspects to the story and some neat twists that I didn't expect. I found it ultimately satisfying and I highly recommend.

Well, there you go, my January readings. I've started off February with Leviathan  by Scott Westerfield, an alternate history story and Long Way Round; Chasing Shadows Around the World by Ewen MacGregor, a motorcycle adventure around the world. They are interesting so far.

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