Book Reviews

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Anthology #4

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

I am reasonably confident that I will not be alone in knowing very little about Wilbur & Orville Wright, other than that they were the first to achieve powered flight, in 1903; this excellent biography redresses this for me, and it is a very comprehensive summary of the lives of these two highly industrious, but also very close individuals, who changed the world so comprehensively with their tireless & assiduous work to achieve their dream and bring it to reality. The transition from bicycle makers to aeroplane technologists might seem almost unfeasible, but they clearly had the capability & the determination to work methodically and master the physics of their project, progressing from simple kites to sophisticated & aerodynamically sound flying machines: that included the design & manufacture of their own internal combustion engines to provide the motive power; although they did have some very capable help with that. From the early struggles & failures, and daunting environmental conditions in their testing location, they battled through against some ridicule, to final success & well deserved recognition. This highly recommended book is supported by some excellent photos & diagrams. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4711-5038-8.

Get Me The Urgent Biscuits, by Sweetpea Slight

Although I am only really a dilettante when it comes to ‘the theatre’, because my involvement hitherto has been exclusively in the amateur sector, I very much enjoy the process of acting, and I have worked with both amateur & professional actors at different levels in film & television, some of whom have become permanent & dear friends, so this memoir by a woman with the endearing nickname of Sweetpea is a captivating glimpse into the world of professional theatre in the 1980s & ’90s, predominantly but not only in London, and the personalities she encountered in her work as assistant to the indomitable and almost stereotypically eccentric Thelma Holt. Similarly to Holt, Slight had aspirations to be an actor [although Holt did work professionally as an actor, initially], but they were both aware that acting is an extremely precarious profession, so Holt moved into producing, and when, perhaps serendipitously, Slight started working near Holt, albeit on work experience, Holt saw her potential and took Slight under her wing. Thereafter, a heady whirl of work followed for the next twenty years, during which Slight had to contend with low wages but high job satisfaction, and her uncertainty about her sexuality. The book ends with Slight deciding to branch out on her own, but with no indication as to her chance of success in the future: this article throws some light on it—she is now PA to Anne Robinson [the expression “out of the frying pan…” springs to mind!] The large print paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by W F Howes Ltd., Leicester [Weidenfeld & Nicolson], ISBN 978-1-5100-9803-9.

Codename Faust, by Gustaf Skördeman

This is the second book in this series featuring Detective Sara Nowak, and it is set in & around Stockholm; the previous one, the author’s debut thriller, was called Geiger, and this was the codename of the spy whom Nowak unmasked. This, and other backstory details which the author helpfully feeds into this narrative, could rather spoil a potential reader’s enjoyment of the first, after reading this one, but the protagonist’s credentials are established, nevertheless. Nowak is the almost archetypal feisty, independent female police officer, prepared to bypass normal rules of procedure to achieve her goals, and she had a difficult childhood, although here she is, ostensibly at least, happily married to a successful music promoter, and his family is also very rich. She is back at work under some sufferance, after being badly injured during the operation described in the previous story, and when, beyond her acceptable jurisdiction, questionable deaths, or obvious murders of former spies start occurring, she is warned against becoming involved, but what does she do? [no three guesses required!] I wish I knew Stockholm well, or had a detailed city map, to follow the story, but that didn’t unduly detract from my enjoyment of this story, which has a clever twist right at the end. The hardback I read was published in 2022 [2020], by Zaffre, London [Bokförlaget Polaris, Sweden], ISBN 978-1-8387-7654-1.

The Cambridge Plot, by Suzette A. Hill

This is a somewhat whimsical little story; although not quite so high on the whimsy scale as the Bertie Wooster adventures; or, indeed, those of Lord Peter Wimsey, which aren’t actually whimsical. However, the title is quite a good pun, which I won’t explain here, but it should very quickly become clear, because it is applicable to 2 different strands of the story. It is set in the halls of Cambridge academe, and after a fairly protracted [but not unenjoyable] introduction, there is a series of deaths connected to the commissioning and execution of a new statue, intended to commemorate a previous, illustrious [although not to all] alumnus. This story features returning characters Professor Cedric Dillworthy, his long-time ‘friend’ Felix Smythe [a London florist who enjoys royal endorsement], and a young woman, Rosy Gilchrist, who works at the British Museum. The time period isn’t specified, but it appears to be set in the 1960s, so there is a whiff of the Miss Marple about it. The deaths are explained without any high degree of sleuthing being required, and there isn’t enough jeopardy to really set the heart racing, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is an easy read from an author who only took up writing at the age of sixty-four, after a career in teaching [so perhaps not prompted by The Beatles?]. The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018] by Allison & Busby, London, ISBN 978-0-7490-2298-3.

Book Review

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The Talented Mr Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith

I can’t remember if the cover of the previous Varg story I’ve reviewed, The Man with the Silver Saab, showed the author’s given name with a diaeresis over the first A, as it is on this one, but I have eschewed using it here, because it looks superfluous to me, and something of a self-indulgence: perhaps it makes Smith feel more exotic—especially given the prosaic nature of his family name. That aside, I remember enjoying the previous book, so I was looking forward to reading this one and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. That said, notwithstanding that this latest story continues with the same characters as the previous one [a perusal of my aforementioned review would be beneficial here], there is one slightly odd element: in the previous story, Varg strikes up an amorous relationship with the temporary receptionist employed by his dog’s vet, but here, there is no mention of this when Martin, the deaf, lip-reading dog, is taken for a routine visit to monitor his depression & serotonin levels [half-way through the story] so, given that many readers do enjoy following books’ protagonists’ progress in succeeding stories, we are left in the dark as to whether Varg’s previous attachment was successful, or not—we have to assume not, unfortunately, as there is no mention here of a love interest.

There are two main story threads here and, as previously, they are dealt with in a slow, laid-back way by Varg: he’s much too thoughtful & considerate to go blundering in aggressively, as some other detectives might—I can’t speak for other fictional Swedish detectives, of course. In addition, one element from the earlier story which does overlap here is Varg’s suppressed infatuation with his colleague, Anna; this is thrown into some confusion when she confides in him that she suspects her husband of having an affair. Naturally, Varg is conflicted: he would love this to mean that Anna’s marriage can be terminated, and he could confess his true feelings; this also makes him feel guilty, for his selfishness, and he is ambivalent about whether he could condone his complicity in Anna’s subsequent unhappiness, until she accepted him: but would she?

The ongoing cases are the possible blackmailing of a university lecturer, and the possibility of a scam involving wolf-like domestic dogs being sold abroad purporting to be real wolves. As before, Varg includes his uniform colleague Blomquist in these investigations, and Varg suffers the same mixture of emotions about working with this man who can be tedious & irritating, but also has surprising & unexpected insights. Varg also has to work hard not to alienate his neighbour, Mrs Högfors, who is very accommodating with her care for Martin, but she has a pathological dislike of Russians, and she is not immediately dismissive of the political views of Varg’s brother, who is leader of the rather Pratchett-like Moderate Extremists; surely an oxymoron? That’s Smith’s little joke, of course.

These stories are always, for me, a pleasant meander without too much jeopardy, whilst still dealing with real-world issues, albeit in a tongue in cheek way. There are occasional allusions to peculiarly Swedish nastiness, but I enjoy not having to confront them continually in these books. As before, I am happy to recommend this one, and I would be pleased to find the third book, albeit the first of the trilogy [so far], naming the locus of Varg’s professional work: The Department of Sensitive Crimes. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020] by Abacus [Little, Brown], ISBN 978-0-3491-4408-5.

Book Review

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The Man with the Silver Saab, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is an author whose name I certainly recognise, and of whose work I know I should be more aware, if not actually familiar with, but the series which I might previously have come across, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, some of which has already been televised, so I believe, didn’t have any specific appeal for me, but for unknown reasons; now that I have read this quirky little story, I would be prepared to investigate other books by him, and there are at least four other series, apart from the Detective Varg, of Sweden, series, of which this book is a member: the aforementioned The No1. [etc.], the 44 Scotland Street [apparently “the world’s longest-running serial novel”], and The Corduroy Mansions series, and the Isabel Dalhousie novels.

The Varg stories have been described by one reviewer as “Scandi blanc”, which I would consider cleverly accurate. Ulf Varg is the head of a police department in Malmö, the Department of Sensitive Crimes, which does have a somewhat ‘politically correct’ ring to it, but I don’t think the author is trying to make a political point here: one has to assume that he must have some minimal knowledge of the Swedish police system to qualify him to write these stories, so perhaps there is such a thing? This is certainly not an all-action, ‘gung-ho’ type of story, but there is a lot of inner dialogue, predominantly from the main character, but also from some of the supporting characters. The main storyline concerns a potential art fraud, which has impacted negatively upon the career of a respected art historian & expert assessor, so the possible suspects have to be treated with great sensitivity; not least because of the potentially large sums of money which can be involved.

Concurrently with this, at the beginning of the story Ulf has to deal with a bizarre attack on his beloved deaf dog, Martin, by a malicious squirrel in a local park, which results in possibly incompetent surgery by his veterinarian: Martin’s nose, almost severed in the attack, requires reattachment, but it appears to have been reattached upside down. The surgeon dismisses this as unlikely, despite the visual evidence apparent to Ulf, citing the difficulty of the procedure, and Ulf feels inhibited to ask for any sort of restitution, and during Martin’s recuperation, he seems unaware of any problem, which has to be more important to Ulf, ultimately. The incident does have a positive outcome though, apart from Martin’s recovery, because Ulf, who is currently single and has been in emotional turmoil because of his infatuation with a married colleague, finds the temporary secretarial replacement in the veterinary practice sufficiently attractive to ask her on a date. The other metaphorical thorn in Ulf’s side is another of his colleagues, Blomquist, who is a pedantic & somewhat verbose individual, holding forth on personal dietary regimes at tedious length; he is also, however, fastidious in his work, so Ulf tries hard to accommodate him and appreciate his good qualities, such as they are!

The resolution to the main aspect of the plot is the result of steady & thoughtful work on Ulf’s part, so there are no car chases, or shoot-outs, but there is a fair amount of psychological evaluation of suspects, of the type that might be employed by Holmes or Poirot: there are no mentions of “little grey cells” though, thankfully. The use of the classic Saab [I couldn’t find a photograph of a silver one, so a yellow one will have to do] driven by Ulf is undoubtedly a deliberate device to elevate Ulf from what could, otherwise, be a bland character, so if you enjoy thoughtful crime stories without undue stress or jeopardy [perhaps an inaccurate generalised assessment on the evidence of only one book, but nevertheless], then I can happily recommend these books, and Smith’s writing style is erudite, but not too obviously or irritatingly so. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021; Little, Brown] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14478-8.