books

For the Missing by Lina Bengtsdotter

The search for a missing girl in rural Sweden forms the backdrop to this intelligent crime story from Lina Bengtsdotter. A teenager, Anabelle, has not returned home from a wild party in a down-at-heel town in deepest Sweden. DI Charline “Charlie” Lager and her colleague Anders have been sent to investigate.

Nearly everyone involved in this procedural is troubled. We first meet Charlie recovering from a monumental hangover and one-night stand. But that’s as nothing to the goings on in Gullspång, where the town’s teenagers are drinking nearly as much as their parents, everyone reliant on the local paper mill for a living, and under-age sex and drugs are very much on the cards.

Inevitably the police initially get nowhere, but not everyone is being as helpful as they might. At the same time, Charlie is facing up to the face that she’s returning to the town of her childhood – somewhere she hoped she would never return to again.

Everywhere you turn in this novel, there are ghosts of what happened before, and it probably wasn’t pretty.

The book moves along quite nicely, and it has a structure that sends the reader forwards and backwards in time as we learn what really happened. I found the book highly readable, with it portraying a depressing picture of a part of the Swedish countryside that I found convincing.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Orion, for an ARC. For the Missing is published on 13 December.

Where the Truth Lies by M J Lee

Ten years ago, a junior detective accidentally captures “The Beast of Manchester.” In the present day a series of dead prostitutes in turning up on the streets of Manchester. Is there a relation between the two in this pacey police thriller?

Now a Detective Inspector, Ridpath is recovering from treatment to cancer and has been given the task of working as an officer for coroner’s court. This should be an easier route back into full-time detective work, but things don’t quite go as easily as planned. When an exhumation of the body of one of the Beast’s victims reveals an empty coffin, things are turned upside down.

This first in a new series of books is set in and around Manchester, and we get a good flavour of the area: snarled up traffic on the Oxford Road; the emptiness of Media City. Being set in the world of the coroner’s court is unusual and creates a point of difference from other police series.

The book is real page-turner, with short punchy chapters jumping between Ridpath, another young detective, DS Clark, and the evil doers. The story is fast paced, never standing still for more than a few moments. Ridpath’s recovery from cancer is omnipresent, but it’s his wife who is more worried about it than him. And the police world around the story feels authentic.

This isn’t a book for the squeamish, but it rattles along and it reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Canelo. Where the Truth Lies is out now.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge

In 1983, seven teenagers go into the wood and only six come out. Thirty years later, a body is found and DCI Sheens instantly realises it must be Aurora, the teenager who disappeared all those years ago, but who was never found.

Aided by his small team, including the novice DC Hanson, we revisit the characters thirty years on. Did one of them do it? Are they covering up for one another?

Set in and around Southampton and the New Forest, this is a page-turner, with the narrative flipping backwards and forward between 1983 and the present day, as we learn more about the teens and their lives and friendships from the time.

The dynamic between Sheens and Hanson is interesting and unusual. Is Sheens, who went to school with the victim, covering something up himself? The distrusting Hanson has some issues her life too.

Gytha Lodge has created a story with some all-too relevant themes, with characters who exhibit some of the complexities and contradictions that people do have.

Overall, an intriguing tale, that kept me gripped until the end.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin UK for my ARC. She Lies in Wait is published on 21 March 2019.

Fear by Bob Woodward and The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Like many political watchers, I’ve been equally appalled and yet addicted to watching what is going on currently in US politics.

Right now there’s the dismal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being elected onto the US Supreme Court despite a number of serious accusations being made against him, few of which are truly being taken seriously. In the meantime, there’s Trump mocking the accuser at a rally (and then denying it despite all evidence to the contrary).

These two books, in their own separate ways, describe in some detail the ineptness of the Trump administration, the lack of focus and the general 

Bob Woodward’s Fear is currently riding high in the bestseller lists and for good reason. Woodward has written about presidents all the way back to Nixon, but this feels more urgent than probably any of those other titles. He has a very measured tone, rarely inserting his own authorial voice into the narrative he’s telling. Instead, he relies on first hand testimony of many people, usually speaking anonymously.

Woodward’s narrative is direct and steady. He paints Trump in a similar light to others – notably Michael Woolf in Fire and Fury earlier this year – in that Trump is like a toddler in the way he can be distracted and then completely forget about something. The book opens with an official simply lifting a letter that would start a trade war with South Korea and jeopardise US military intelligence in the region. Once the letter has gone (and Trump does love signing things), the President forgets about it. At least until someone else brings it up – perhaps either on Fox News, to which he’s addicted and gets much of his information, or from someone like Peter Navarro, an economist for whom, almost uniquely, trade is considered bad. 

The book repeatedly explores the lack of a basic understanding of how modern businesses are driven, how having a trade deficit with a country isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and just really simple things like how modern supply chains work. Trump, as we know, is obsessed with things like steel production, and has started a trade war with China that has almost instantly required the government to bail out farmers who have been hit by tit-for-tat tariffs.

The tone all the way through the book is measured and never breathless. And that just makes it all the more vital. 

Meanwhile the always very readable Michael Lewis has The Fifth Risk, which examines the workings of the US government following the Trump victory. He zooms in on a handful of departments, digging into the background stories of some of the people who work there, and explaining what the departments do, and why their work is often vital but undervalued. 

On more that one occasion, he relates stories of people who were being loaned government money without realising that it the government that was lending the money, as the money is often distributed via local banks. 

There are horrifying stories of the Trump’s dreadful transition team, coming into the various departments weeks or months after the election, rather than the next day, not being interested in what those departments actually did, and generally being very unsuited to the roles. 

It seems that another failing of US government is the level to which so many jobs are political appointees. Trump has been singularly bad at filling these vacancies, and when he does, they’re often people who have no interest in the subject at hand. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know what the department does! You would think a quick search of Wikipedia might be in order before you enter the building.

In the meantime, these apparatchiks wander around getting government employees to stop using the term climate change.

Perhaps worse are people who do know what the department does, but in whose outside interests, a level of dismantling works in their favour. A case in point is Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather, the private weather provider. Trump nominated him to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who run the US National Weather Service. AccuWeather uses data paid for and provided by the National Weather Service to bolster its forecasts. Yet it has fought hard to prevent the US Government widely publishing that weather themselves. There is no National Weather Service app, and that is no coincidence. AccuWeather’s app is very popular and delivers significant advertising revenue. Myers has fought hard to prevent that data being made widely available despite the fact that he personally benefits.

The books is full of stories like this. Lewis finds people who are working in the government sector, often for less money than they could earn elsewhere, because they believe they have a civic duty. How much is all of this going to be undone by Trump? Time will only tell. 

This was another book that was clearly published in a rush, and as such, it perhaps doesn’t hang together as much as some of his other books. And yet, the subject matter is probably much more important than that of his other books. Lasting damage could be done to millions of Americans by the actions of a few.

What both books make really clear is that there are a lot of people with no experience, no knowledge, and no wish to actually learn anything new. Being informed is somehow not a good trait within this administration. 

Note: Any spammy off-topic comments will be deleted. Particularly those from people who’ve never previously commented on my website and those which talk in condescending terms about the victims of sexual attacks. My blog. My rules.

Love is Blind by William Boyd

A new William Boyd novel is always to be welcomed, and as with the superb Sweet Caress from 2015, Boyd has returned to a familiar “whole life” novel. (A recent Guardian piece by Boyd explores that challenges of this form, and notes how relatively few novels of this type there are).

Love is Blind tells the story of Brodie Moncur, the son of a fire and brimstone Scottish clergyman, who takes up the trade of piano tuner for a piano building business in Edinburgh. Soon enough Brodie moves on to a late 19th century Paris where the young, free and single man attempts to support the growth of the piano business by sponsoring performers to use their pianos.

In this way he runs into the ‘Irish Liszt’, John Kilbarron and his business partner brother Malachi. He also meets the Russian opera singer Lika. And so begins a tale that wanders across turn of the century Europe and further beyond. 

Whole life novels like this need to condense a lot into a few pages, meaning that the plot tends to move along apace. Yet, we still need to time to get a feeling for the place and the period that we’re in. Boyd does this comfortably – his siblings trapped in the family home with their overbearing father ruling the roost; Edinburgh, Paris and Nice as the horse seems to be slowly beginning to make way for the motor car; and the high society of ‘Piter’ – St Petersburg.

The narrative keeps moving forward, and the characters feel real enough – big and bold though they may be at times. While perhaps not quite as strong as Sweet Caress which was a remarkable novel presenting us with photographs ‘taken’ by its protagonist, I was nonetheless entranced by this and when the end was reached, could have stayed on for much more.

Reading this also made me realise that I really do need to return to The New Confessions, Boyd’s 1987 novel that I first read around that time. My paperback edition is around somewhere…

Prior to reading Love is Blind, I finally caught up with Boyd’s recent collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. While some characters are shared between stories, these are a series of mostly unrelated contemporary tales. I especially enjoyed the epistolary story of letters from an increasingly exasperated producer attempting to get a film off the ground. The story of the title is more of a novella, and is easily the best of the bunch as we follow Bethany through her early life and loves, and a series of jobs largely organised by her mother. The final story has the best hook, yet is perhaps the weakest and seems to stop a little too abruptly. But the short story seems to be a neglected medium – fit only for 15 minute slots on Radio 4, and to pad out seasonal editions of broadsheet newspapers when popular crime writers are commissioned to pen a festive whodunit. You won’t spend long on these tales, but they’re fun while you’re there.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

As I got stuck into this astonishing story about a Silicon Valley company that was going to change medicine forever, but didn’t, I was instantly thinking, “Someone really needs to make a film about this!”

Well, it turns out they are, with Jennifer Lawrence slated to play Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, the company this book looks at in forensic detail.

But let’s take a step back. I think lots of people will be well aware of the Theranos story, it’s rise and fall. But many more may not be. While the company’s CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, became very famous in Silicon Valley, I’m not sure that was true more widely, and certainly not beyond US shores.

Theranos was a unicorn company; a startup that quickly became valued at over $1B. Their big idea was that they had a machine that allowed people to have blood tests, using just a finger pin-prick’s worth of blood. From that, many tests – upwards of 200 – could be run. This would revolutionise medicine. People who needed to, could closely monitor their blood. Diseases would be caught early. The machine would be so portable that it be used in placed regular lab tests couldn’t, like military front lines.

The major problem was that the machine didn’t really work. Building medical kit takes lots of R&D, and lots of time. But Theranos was not willing to wait. It was rushing to market, trying to sell machines to clients before the technology was ready. Meanwhile Holmes herself became famous, adopting the traits of her hero Steve Jobs, and getting cover stories on some of the biggest magazines following Silicon Valley.

Behind the scenes, as John Carreyrou reveals in this fascinating book, things were not great. There was a massive turnover of staff in the laboratories where they were trying to make things work. If you raised problems with management, you would be considered the problem, and you’d probably get fired.

It ended up cultivating a company of yes men. Sunny Balwani, the company’s number two for many years, was a particular tyrant. He had a temper on him, and had a trigger finger when it came to firing people. More problemmatical was his lack of technical understanding of what they were trying to do. He was also in a relationship with Holmes, something they tried to keep secret.

Carreyrou, who broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, tells the story behind the story fantastically well. It’s almost like a thriller that you can’t put down. Theranos was obsessed with secrecy; partly because they didn’t want competitors to learn what they were doing, and partly because they didn’t want others to know how badly they were doing it. Employees were served with draconian non-disclosure agreements and legal threats when they left, and when it began to emerge that some people were talking to Carreyrou, Theranos hired the most aggressive lawyer they could. They intimidated those speaking out, and almost certainly putting lots of people under constant surveillance.

Meanwhile Theranos had managed to gather together an astonishingly high-profile board that included Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. Holmes seemed to have an ability to wow these people with her drive and determination. In one of the sadder aspects of the story, when Schultz’s own grandson, who did some work for the company, saw it’s true colours, he was unable to persuade his grandfather. Schultz senior was more willing to believe Holmes than he was his own kin.

Holmes even managed to get $125m out of Rupert Murdoch – his biggest single personal investment. Entertainingly, when Holmes realised that Theranos was being investigated by the Wall Street Journal (proprietor R Murdoch), she tried to persuade Murdoch to intervene. To his credit, he would not. He ended up losing all $125m.

This is a story of secrets and lies. But it’s also a story of some of the gung-ho Silicon Valley attitude being adopted in sphere where there are real world dangers. If your blood tests aren’t accurate then you run the real risk of either not having something diagnosed, or believing that you are healthier than you truly are. It’s one thing if some software like an app doesn’t work straight away – that can be fixed later, or patched. You might just end up with annoyed customers. But health is different. I do wonder sometimes, if we face similar issues with self-driving cars. It’ll be one to watch.

Highly recommended, and I can’t wait for the film!

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

March Books

Oh dear. I’m really slacking now. Just three books this month which is very poor.

In my defence Amazon went and released series 2 of the very fine, but not enormously talked about, Bosch. And Netflix went and released a new series of House of Cards, before which I had to watch last season’s. Then there was the arrival of a new season of Daredevil. OK I’ve only watched a couple of episodes of that so far.

And lest anyone think I just watch shows on the streaming services, the finest dramas are probably to be found on the BBC right now. Happy Valley and The Night Manager have now concluded, and Line of Duty is getting fully into the flow in its third series!

But what about books?

The Shepherd’s Life is James Rebanks book on life as a shepherd in the Lake District, and it seems to have been a bit of a hit. You’ll find stacks of copies in your local bookshop, and it’s heavily discounted on Amazon.

Rebanks is a very entertaining writer, telling the tale, season by season, of what it’s like to work on a sheep farm in a valley on the edge of the lakes. Interspersed between those stories, is his life story – and those of so many of those around him. Early on you read of what it was like at school, where none of the kids who were children of farmers really wanted to be there. The idea that they might “better” themselves and get out of farming was an anathema, and anyone who suggested as much was treated with disdain.

In case you didn’t really think it, the life of a shepherd is a tough one, and you need a family to help get the work done. Reading the book I’m still not sure how farmers like Rebanks make ends meet. When you read that some farmers don’t even bother selling the wool from their sheep preferring to burn it, so low are the prices, that you wonder what kind of person is willing to forgo so much to continue a life that his forefathers led.

The book is also a bit of a meditation on the ways different people see the Lake District. As a child, Rebanks didn’t really understand the pull of Wainwright or Wordsworth. That was a different world to his – gathering sheep in from the high fells and tending to lambing sheep in the snow. But even spending a little time in the city reveals perhaps city dwellers’ needs for places like the lakes. Perhaps that’s why Countryfile or Springwatch do so well on TV?

As a companion piece to this book, you could do worse than watch the documentary Addicted to Sheep. It was recently shown on BBC4 but has now slipped out of the iPlayer catch-up window. But the film is still being screened in its full-length version at screenings around the country, notably in some rural locations. But it’s also available from the makers on DVD, and I’d imagine it’s possible that it’ll turn up on a download or streaming service at some point.

The documentary tells of the life of a pair of tenant farmers in the Pennines, detailing a very similar life looking after their flock. Even though I saw the shortened version of the film, the pace was lovely, and if you’d be very much mistaken if you think life is dull! The book and the film have very definite parallels. Well worth seeking out.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a new series of crime books featuring the Canadian Inspector Domenic Jejeune. Written by Steve Burrows, this series of novels seems to have so far only been published in Canada, despite being set in Britain.

Jejeune finds himself in a different rural location – the North Norfolk coast, an area well known to me! And this is crime novel set in the world of birds, birders and birdwatching. A TV scientist and environmentalist has been found dead near his home in the fictional Saltmarsh (Wells Next the Sea perhaps?) with Jejeune and his team having to find the murderer in this high profile case.

Things move along quickly enough and for anyone familiar with that part of the world, real places like Cley and Stiffkey also feature. While there are a couple of scenes that don’t hold-up to being authentic, it’s a fun romp, and I’ll be looking out for the next books in the series. Because we’re a little behind the Canadian publication, we seem to get three books from him this year, with A Pitying of Doves next up.

East Anglia also features a little in Rain, a short book about four walks taken by Melissa Harrison. She begins in Wicken Fen, somewhere I do know a little, in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, not far from the Norfolk border. It’s an area where the low-lying land has not been completely tamed, and where reeds allow a range of wildlife to prosper in a habitat that has largely disappeared.

She continues with walks in Shropshire, the Darwent Valley in Kent, and on Dartmoor, each time, as the title implies, in the wet. That’s important because so many of us (non-sheep farming urbanites anyway) only really get into the countryside when we know it’s going to be dry, and it’s a different place in the rain. The importance of it is reiterated throughout this slim volume, with too much or too little having long-lasting and (as we know) devastating effects.

February Books

My reading volume dropped a little in February, as will be noted below.

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle is a lovely tale about a con-man and his latest – perhaps final – mark. The book alternates perspectives, but mostly this is about Roy – who when we meet him is on a date with Betty. We quickly realise that he is not a nice character. He seems scheming and we’re not sure what his goal is. Betty on the other hand seems very sensible – yet somehow she is nonetheless drawn to Roy.

Quickly we’re told that not all is as it seems. Betty is being helped by some friends, while with Roy, we get flashbacks further and further into his past. He’s clearly a chancer, and indeed a conman. Where is it all going to end?

The Good Liar is a fun page-turner always trying to twist and turn. I’d basically worked out where it was going before it got there, but it was a good read nonetheless.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré was a book I of course wanted to read ahead of the current BBC/AMC adaptation. I have read some, but by no means all of Le Carré’s work, and I remember my father getting this book as a gift one birthday or Christmas sometime after it came out. It tells the story of Jonathan Pine, the night manager of a Swiss hotel. When arms dealer Richard Roper arrives at his hotel, he recalls a time previously in Egypt where the same man had caused the death of Sophie, a woman he’d fallen in love with. Then he’d tried to report the arms deal to the British authorities, but this had led to the woman’s death. Now “The Worst Man in the World” was back in his life. What follows is an exemplary thriller as Pine is recruited by Leonard Burr, and an operation is launched against Roper – living a lavish lifestyle on a private island with his private yacht.

It’s interesting to see what has been maintained from book to screen, and what has been changed, updated (the novel was published in 1993) or expunged. Because even six hours of drama struggles with nearly 500 pages of story.

I loved the book, and need to catch up with Le Carré even though I fear he’s no longer writing novels. (He did publish a long piece about the transition of this book and his other work from page to screen.)

Wildwood by Roger Deakin is a book I’d long known about but never read. I actually came to it via an evening listening to extracts of radio and music at an In the Dark event with Ian Chambers. One of the excerpts was from The House, a Radio 4 documentary on his home, Walnut Tree Farm, in Suffolk. In an email conversation with Chambers afterwards, I ended up picking up this book to read, and it’s wonderful.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (to give it its full title) is an exploration of trees and woods. There are reminscinces from Deakin’s childhood where he’d taken an especially keen interest in the wildlife surrounding his school with some superb teachers. He talks about trees, woods, forests, those who work in them, and those who work with the wood itself. The first part of the book sees him travelling around the UK visiting various woods and forests – often sleeping out in them. The later part tells of his travels to sometimes quite remote parts of the world, for example exploring wild apple and walnut trees in Kazakhstan and Kurdistan.

Although this wonderful book is now nearly ten years’ old – it was published posthumously in 2007, Deakin having died in 2006 – it still seems very popular. Indeed there does seem to be a renaissance in nature and wildlife writing right now. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when a fellow-commuter and I both found ourselves, one morning sitting facing one another and reading the same book!

Holloway by Dan Richards, Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Stanley Donwood is really paean to Roger Deakin. Some years earlier, Macfarlane had visited the south-west to find an ancient holloway – an enclosed usually wooded path, where years of use have carved out the ground – following in the footsteps of the protagonist in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Although that book was fiction, the hidden holloway described was seemingly true, and is not marked on maps.

Following Deakins’ death, Mcafarlane and friends take another trip to the same area, and this very brief booklet is the outcome. It’s a lovely book to read following on from Wildwood.

InDesign Type by Nigel French is obviously a bit of a specialist title. Basically I needed something to help me with typography as I tried to lay out a photobook in InDesign – a program I’m not especially familiar with. While I wouldn’t pretend that this title is the best introduction ever to InDesign, it is fantastic at explaining the nuances of typography, fonts and text layout. On a handful of occasions now I’ve lain out type for photobooks, and it has always been that aspect of them that has disappointed me.

January Books

Every year in January, I note something in this blog about including more books, and then I don’t really write about them. Well I’m making the same promise again, but more broadly I want to round up what I’ve been reading at the end of each month. We’ll see how I get on. Links to all the books at the bottom.

I should admit that the list is perhaps a little longer than usual this month because I’ve chucked in a couple of books read over Christmas, and I’ve picked up a couple that I’d not finished from last year. Oh, and I’ve mentioned a couple already, but I’ll mention them again for completeness here.

438 Days by Jonathan Franklin is the story of Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadorean fisherman who managed to survive for over a year, adrift at sea in a tiny fishing boat. I remember vaguely reading the story when it was published around the world when he’d been found, and filed it away as a little unlikely. Then I read a long extract in The Guardian last autumn and was given the book at Christmas. It’s an astonishing story, and undoubtedly true. Franklin does a wonderful job of telling that story.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, is a slight book, but a powerful one. It tells the story of Andreas, a simple man born in the Austrian mountains for whom life really happens around him. It’s set during the 20th century and encompasses World War II and later the growing tourism boom in the Alps. It’s a small delight.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, was something that I of course read because of the BBC adaptation. I read it just ahead of the TV version, and actually the adaptation is very close. Of course the book itself has been altered since its original publication to remove racial epithets, but the story remains the incredible story. And if for some reason you don’t know who did it, then it’s worth reading.

Cyclogeography by Jon Day, I have already written about. But it’s a fine meditation what it is to be a cycle courier, and where cycling fits into our world.

What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is the more rounded book on being a cycle courier. She explains in more depth what the world of courier is like, and just how tough it is. About now is when many of us aren’t on our bikes so much, yet the courier is still out there delivering. It’s also more of a memoir, and details Chappell’s life and relationships.

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, is another golden age crime novel. I caught some repeats of the Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter TV version recently, and thought that it’d be interesting to pick up a copy of the novel since I’ve never read Sayers. It’s smarter and sharper than I’d realised and I think she’s probably a better writer than Christie. I’ll read some.

Slade House by David Mitchell, was something I originally picked up towards the end of last year. Mitchell largely writes chunky volumes, but this is a ghost story of sorts and is meant to be read at a perhaps quicker pace. Slade House has a mystery, and every few years strange things happen. A well-told tale.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot came to my attention via a review by Will Self in The Guardian, and I wasn’t sure if I was interested in reading a book about additction. Liptrot had left her home in the Orkney Islands to live in London, but there she developed alcoholism and her life began to fall apart. She managed to climb out of her downward spiral, returning to the Orkneys and eventually an especially remote island. This is her memoir on that addiction and her life afterwards. It’s very well told, and I was glad that listening to Liptrot on The Guardian’s book podcast won me around to reading it.