What I’ve Read This Month – October 2012

Books Bought:

  • Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand (Kindle)

 

Books Read:

  • You Think You Know Me Pretty Well – David Kessler (Kindle)
  • A Necessary End – Peter Robinson
  • The Hanging Valley – Peter Robinson
  • Past Reason Hated – Peter Robinson
  • Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand (Kindle)

 

The quest I reported about last month – reading all the Alan Banks crime novels (by Peter Robison) almost in one go – continues. This month I read three of the books in the series, along with two other books. So warning: the reviews are not going to be very insightful. After all, how much can one write about crime novels without giving too much of the plot away?

But this suits me well at this point. I’m going through a rough patch due to an illness in the family, so my attention span is somewhat limited and I cannot take too many “serious” books right now. The relatively slow-paced crime solving tactics of Alan Banks are just right. The murders are gruesome enough in some cases, but the entire atmosphere of this Yorkshire-based series – the beautiful countryside, the local pubs, the lazy rhythm of life – are all quite relaxing.

 

“You Think You Know Me Pretty Well” is a book I bought last month after seeing an ad in an Israeli newspaper over the New Year holidays, extolling its virtues as a suspense thriller of the legal genre (the book is entitled “15 hours” here). I had never heard of David Kessler before but hoped this book would be perhaps somewhat like the legal novels by John Grisham which I enjoyed reading many years ago (at least the first ones, which were pretty good). No such luck.

Alex Sedaka is the lawyer of a death-row client, Clayton Burrow (his name reminded me of Lincoln Burrows of “Prison Break” fame, another death-row inmate), who is a few hours from execution. The Governor calls Sedaka to a last-minute meeting with the mother of the young woman Burrow allegedly killed. The deal is simple: make Burrow reveal where he buried the body and the Governor will grant clemency.

Simple, but complicated. Burrow insists he is innocent and rejects the clemency offer. This rejection gets Sedaka thinking that perhaps his client is innocent after all. So begins a race against time to find evidence that will let Burrow off the hook. Sedaka, with the little resources at his disposal (a devoted secretary and a devious assistant) starts unearthing surprising facts that never came to light during the trial. He unveils bullying in school, child abuse and unwanted pregnancies ending in abortions overseas – to put together the puzzle of the dead woman.

The plot is interesting. The chapters are kept short and timed according to the sequence of events. The pace is fast and there is rarely a dull moment (except for the inevitable legal mumbo-jumbo that every legal thriller author feels compelled to inflict upon his readers). But something does not work. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think the problem starts about halfway through the book. The story becomes too complex and too unbelievable. New characters are introduced and new, unlikely, links are found between these characters. It all becomes a little too much. Not wanting to reveal the punch line, you’re going to have to take my word for it.

This book is OK if you have a few hours to kill on a lazy afternoon, but don’t expect to find the new Grisham in Kessler.

The third book in the Alan Banks series by Peter Robinson, “A Necessary End”, deals with the stabbing to death of a policeman during an anti-nuclear demonstration. Suspicion centres on the residents of a 60s-style commune in a nearby farm: the owner of the farm, Seth Cotton; his reclusive girlfriend, Mara Delacey; and a young man with a violent history, Paul Boyd. The commune is also home to a whacky astrologer, Zoe, and a Marxist artist, Rick.

Helping Inspector Banks in this case is an old acquaintance from his London days, Detective Superintendent Dick Burgess. Perhaps “helping” is not the right verb here. Banks is not very fond of Burgess’ abrasive and cocky attitude, not to mention his constant bragging about his (yet to be proven) sexual conquests. The duo try to work together but very quickly Banks realises that if he wants to save his career he needs to find the killer before Burgess does.

The plot of this book is one of the best so far in the series, especially thanks to the fact that most of the characters turn out to be something different from the stereotypical roles assigned to them initially. The dead policeman turns out to be a bully that relished the freedom police work gave him in beating people up. The violent Boyd has to run away lest he be blamed for a crime he did not commit. And the real killer, and his motives, turn out to be quite unexpected. This is a most enjoyable book.

The fourth book in the Alan Banks series by Peter Robinson, “The Hanging Valley”, was a disappointment for me. After enjoying the first three books in the series, I found this installment to be below the standards I have come to expect from Robinson.

The eponymous hanging valley is a beautiful place, favoured by hikers in Yorkshire. The beauty of the place is ruined when one of these hikers finds a decomposing body in the valley. Inspector Banks identifies the victim as Bernard Allen, an Englishman who moved to Canada and was in England for a home visit. To solve the crime Banks digs into the past, trying to unearth the motives that could bring about the death of a seemingly innocent man with no enemies. He feels there is a connection with an unsolved murder five years back.

Prime suspects are the Collier brothers, heirs to a local wealthy family who seem to be too chummy with a local B&B owner, Sam Greenock, a man well below their standing in society. Sam’s troubled wife, Katie, is one of the main characters in the book and unwittingly throws Banks off the scent with her problems. Convinced he needs a broader perspective in order to get to the bottom of things, he convinces his boss to spend some money and send him to Canada to dig around. In Toronto he meets with Allen’s ex-pat buddies and discovers the reason why Allen was killed. He rushes back to England to catch the killer.

If this is the first book you pick up in the Alan Banks series, don’t let it put you off Peter Robinson. Read my other review of his books and leave “The Hanging Valley” for a rainy day.

After a disappointing fourth book in the Alan Banks series, Peter Robinson makes a great comeback with the fifth novel: “Past Reason Hated”.

Just before Christmas, Caroline Hartley is found dead by in her house by her lover, Veronica Sheldon. Lying naked on the sofa, with her throat slashed open by a cake knife, the gruesome scene is accompanied by the sound of a Vivaldi record playing an infinite loop on the stereo. The first policewoman on the scene, Susan Gay, is a new character introduced in this book: a young detective working under our old friend, Chief Inspector Banks.

One of the suspects is Veronica’s ex-husband, a known composer. Betrayed by the discovery that his ex-wife prefers women to men, and known to have visited the scene of crime the same evening to deliver the Vivaldi record as a gift to Veronica, police suspect this might have led to a spur-of-the-moment emotional murder. Other suspects are the cast and crew of a local amateur theatre group to which Caroline belonged, complete with their intrapersonal intrigues and dislikes. Finally, Caroline’s estranged brother, abandoned by her to take care on his own of their ageing and ill father, seems to bear a grudge big enough to have driven him to murder.

Banks is at his best in this confusing multi-suspect setting, trying to weed out the obvious, but innocent, suspects and lure out the less obvious, but guilty, ones. Over his customary pints at the local pub and during the short, music-filled drives in his beloved Cortina, Banks gradually figures out who the mystery woman, witnessed by neighbours to have visited Caroline’s place at the estimated time of murder, is. Another masterpiece plot by Peter Robinson.

The human body is a wonderful machine. We think we know our bodies and what they are capable of. But very few of us end up in situations that put this knowledge to a real test. Louie Zamperini is one of these few people. Laura Hillenbrand tells his amazing story in “Unbroken”.

Born in 1917 Louie grew up in Torrance, California, as a son to Italian immigrants. He had a chaotic childhood, getting into trouble for petty theft, bullying and general misconduct. But he was a natural athlete, breaking the record for the one mile run in 1934. He ended up on the US Olympic team to the Berlin games in 1936, competing in the 5,000 metre race. He finished eighth, but his finishing lap was so spectacular that it earned him a personal meeting with the Fuhrer. Leaving that meeting, Zamperini stole Hitler’s personal flag.

Zamperini’s athletic career came to an end in 1941 after he enlisted in the US Air Force and trained to become a bombardier in the B-24 bomber. He was sent to the Pacific arena. On one of his early missions, the aircraft he was in, Green Hornet, crashed into the Pacific ocean, about 800 miles west of Hawaii. Of the eleven people on board only Zamperini and two others survive the crash.

Here begins an unbelievable story of endurance and courage. Zamperini and his friends drift for 47 days (!) in the ocean, surviving on rain water and fish and birds they manage to catch, all the while fighting off sharks and trying not to drown in storms. One of his mates doesn’t make it, but Zamperini and the pilot reach the Marshall Islands, where they were captured by the Japanese. As if the trial at sea wasn’t enough, Zamperini now had to endure harsh, sometimes almost deadly, conditions in various Japamese POW camps, until the end of the war. One of his most vicious tormentors was Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “the Bird”), later a fugitive war criminal.

The book is a breathtaking tale. Hillenbrand’s prose manages to convey the feelings of Zamperini during his long and harsh time at sea in as a prisoner. At times the reader is left breathless with the unbelievable sufferings the man has had to endure, while at the same time feeling awe and wonder at how much the human body and spirit can take and yet survive. The fact that Zamperini lived a full and fulfilling life after the war (despite a rough period after returning from captivity), running with the Olympic Torch in the 1998 Winter Olympic games in Japan, is testimony to the willpower and strength of the human spirit. Louie Zamperini, a hero.

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2 thoughts on “What I’ve Read This Month – October 2012

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Read This Month – Links « Nafka Mina

  2. Pingback: Reading List « Nafka Mina

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