Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Saladin Murders by Matt Rees

Whenever I open the newspaper and see an article about the conflict in Palestine I think 'I really must read this, it's important'. Then I struggle through it and end up none the wiser. Matt Rees' first book in this series, The Bethlehem Murders, really made me think for the first time that I had some sense of what life is like for ordinary Palestinians.
This book, The Saladin Murders, is the second in the series. It features the same hero, Omar Yussef. He works as a history teacher in a UN school in Bethlehem. He and a UN colleague, Magnus Wallender, make a trip to Gaza to do an inspection of the UN schools. They discover that one of their teachers there has been arrested, clearly for political reasons. They are drawn into the murky world of Gaza politics where might is right and the best ordinary people can hope for is to keep their heads down and hope trouble doesn't find them. Wallender is kidnapped and Omar Yussaf struggles to keep going in the face of danger.
I thought this was an excellent book and I'm really looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I do like a book involving magic and I was immediately attracted to this book when I read a review of it in SFX magazine.
Peter Grant is a London policeman who is just coming to the end of his probationary period. He is not a particularly gifted policeman but in the course of a murder investigation he meets Chief Inspector Nightingale. It turns out that Nightingale is the last wizard in England and that Grant shows an aptitude for magic. So Grant joins Nightingale's department (there are only the two of them in the entire department) and becomes a trainee wizard.
The murder that brought Nightingale and Grant together has supernatural elements to it. People who have no motive and no previous history of violence are suddenly murdering each other. Nightingale believes that they are being possessed by an unquiet spirit. Grant finds himself questioning ghosts and performing arcane rituals in order to discover the identity of the spirit. He also finds himself mediating in a land (or water) dispute between Mother and Father Thames.
I really enjoyed this book. Grant is plunged into a world he didn't know existed and he's having to learn on the job. The story is written in the first person and Grant's voice is alternately amazed, confused and scared. Nightingale is mysterious and we don't learn much about his past, but it does seem as though his past might be longer than his appearance suggests. One thing that would've helped me is a map of London. The city is important in the story and I would've liked to trace where the action was taking place.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin

Set in the early 20th century this book is about Jim Stringer, a detective with the railway police. He is new to the job and has been relocated to York, which was (and is) a central hub of the railway system. His superior officer gives him the task of investigating robberies from the freight yards at York station. It is believed that the thefts are an inside job. Because of the sensitive nature of the investigation Jim  is working alone and reporting only to his immediate superior officer. I couldn't quite understand why such an inexperienced man would be left to work on his own so much without a lot of support. But as a new face in the city Jim is able to infiltrate the gang he believes to be responsible without  anyone recognising him as a railway employee.
This is the third of the Jim Stringer novels. Andrew Martin conjures up the early years of the 20th century beautifully and I like the fact that Jim is a working class hero. I have passed through and changed trains at York station many times and it always adds to my enjoyment of a book if I have personal knowledge of its location. I have to say though that this isn't my favourite of the three. In the first two books Jim actually worked on the trains, he was working his way towards his life's ambition of being a train driver. He was an amateur detective and I liked that. Jim himself isn't very happy with his new job, he's been forced into it and I thought that his unhappiness led to an air of gloom pervading the book. Also his wife features barely at all. I like Jim's wife - she's a clever woman living at a time when opportunities for women like her were just opening up.
So, I enjoyed it, I think that Jim is a very likeable hero, but I hope in the next book he's getting his hands dirty on the trains again.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is a favourite of Billy's. It is the second time I've read the book to him and he's seen the film several times.
It is the story of Mary Lennox, a girl born in India in the nineteenth century. Her parents are part of the social whirl of the British Raj and have very little time for their daughter. Consequently Mary is lonely and spoilt, without friends and without the social skills to make friends. A cholera epidemic sweeps through the community and Mary's parents die. At the age of 10 Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, in the huge Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire.
This is where  the bulk of the story takes place. Misselthwaite Manor is not a homely place  and Mary arrives in winter when the landscape is forbidding and bleak. Her uncle is absent most of the time and the plain speaking Yorkshire servants are very different to what she has been used to. Despite her flaws (which aren't really her fault) Mary is an intelligent and curious girl and she begins to adapt. She meets her cousin Colin, a sickly boy of her own age. Like her he is lonely and spoilt but together they discover companionship and learn how to be children and have fun. Mary has also met Dickon, a local boy who has a wonderful affinity with nature. The three children work together to bring Colin back to health.
Their main tool in this is the garden of the title. The children are the only ones who go into the abandoned, overgrown walled garden. It is a magical place for them as they work to make it beautiful again and Mary and Colin come to life as the garden does.
The book was first published in 1911 and it's a moral tale, as I suppose most children's books of its time were. But it's not at all preachy, and I think that its lessons are true; fresh air and exercise are healthy, children need affection to thrive, and it does no good to dwell on your problems. I think it is a timeless book and one that I can't see ever going out of fashion.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

This book is the first in the Erast Fandorin series. Erast Fandorin is a young man who is in his third week as a policeman in Moscow in 1876. He has been brought up to expect a wealthy, comfortable life but his parents have died and left him needing to support himself. He comes across the case of a rich young man who has committed suicide in a public park. The man's behaviour before he shoots himself, his strange suicide note and especially the fact that there was only one bullet in the six-chambered gun arouse Fandorin's suspicions. He gets permission to investigate further and his investigations take him into the upper echelons of Moscow society and the disturbing nihilism of its youth.
I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but I have to say that it didn't really stay with me once I'd finished it.