Books wot I red: The Burning Man, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency & Teach Yourself: The Cold War

It’s time for a week off from board games as I return to my (very) occasional mini book reviews section. Normal service will be resumed next week.

It’s been less than a year (Sept ’16) since my last three-book review post, which is good going for me! This time out I’ve taken in an old favourite from my two favourite ageing detectives, a non-fiction history book and something totally outside my comfort zone suggested by my better half – and all off the previous ‘what’s next’ list to boot.

So I’ve added three new books to the what’s next top five, including a first for me – a book I’m planning on rereading that I first read 20-plus years ago. And having already started my next book, I can already reveal it’s not on the list at all. Oh, the drama…

I’m reading so slowly nowadays that every second book I pick up seems to be the new one by my favourite author – which suits me just fine. And this time it was no exception, as I turned back to my old detective friends Bryant and May in The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler.

Reading about these ageing London coppers bickering away is much like the comfort you get from hearing old friends or relatives chatting away in the next room, but as the story started to develop a worrying illness for one of the lead characters started to give me the fear: was this the end of the line for my old chums?

The yarn was as gripping and well told as ever, but the last few pages had be blubbing like a baby. I don’t want to give anything away to fans of the series, and feel I’ve already hinted too much, so I’ll just note that the final page of the novel proclaims ‘Bryant and May will return’ – so don’t panic!

I talk about this series too much in these occasional book posts, but just to briefly recap: if you like genuinely well written books, fantastic characters you can fully invest in, a good detective/mystery novel, and are in any way interested in the ever so seedy underground history of London, this series is as an absolute must-read.

Having still been in the mood for light mystery novels at the end of The Burning Man, I turned to a book recommended to me by my new lady friend (hello Sarah!) – The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. She feared it might be a bit gentle and girly for me, but I liked the sound of her description so gave it a go.

I like a good detective yarn and that sold it to me – but  isn’t what you get with our lady detective from Botswana, Ma Ramotswe. Sure she solves cases, and one by taking on some dangerous characters, but this it is more about what it is like to live in Botswana, the character of its people, and how it is possible to take joy, and lessons, from everyday life.

In language and length it is a very easy read, while its bite-sized chapters make it an ideal airport holiday read. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way, because when I’ve read a few pages of books often classed in this way I’ve put them straight back down: this is a series I’d be happy to read on holiday – I’m not saying it is typical of books classified in that way. Easy read doesn’t mean poorly written; this is a good book.

It is also the first in a long series (17 and counting) and if I’m honest I won’t be rushing back to them; there are plenty of other books calling to me from my book shelves. But I’m pretty sure that, somewhere down the line, I’ll be in the mood for another visit to Botswana, if only to revisit the wonderful character McCall Smith has created for a cup of bush tea.

After a nice easy read, and three successive appearances on the list, I finally got to Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. One of my favourite two-player board games, Twilight Struggle, is set during this period and reading the cards in the game made me realise how little I knew of the conflict – embarrassing, as I lived through much of it.

From the breaking up of Europe at the end of the Second World War, through to the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it’s a terrifying tale of greed, corruption and intolerance; or in a word, politics. It starts out depressing and gets more so, but at the same time is a morbidly fascinating series of events.

While the book does a relatively good job of sitting on the fence rather than taking sides; and getting all the important events covered in just the right amount of detail for the likes of me; the layout felt like a big misstep. they’ve chosen to go region by region rather than in chronological order, which in theory makes sense – but for a ‘teach yourself’ book presumably aimed at novices it makes for scrappy reading.

I frequently found myself having to head to the index to cross reference incidents being mentioned that hadn’t yet been discussed, because they were in a different chapter (so while reading about the arms race, for example, I’d have to be looking up things about South America or The middle East that were coming in later sections). This may make it great as a reference tool, but as a book to learn about the Cold War it made for very tough going. I have another book – Robert J McMahon’s The Cold War: A very Short Introduction – awaiting me on the shelf which will hopefully do a better job.

What’s next on the list?

So there were three new entries to the list this time – and I’ve gone as far as putting No.1 in a REALLY prominent place so that hopefully I won’t forget to start it at some point this year…:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its fourth time at number 1, having been on six of these lists (a record). I still really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. A book written by a friend that I started proof reading for him, but stopped after three chapters (it’s fair to say I’m no proof reader). I got a physical copy from Amazon so I could finish it (but this is its second time on the list).
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. New entry! With the Cold War finally behind me, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. New Entry! Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  5. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. New entry! A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a board game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.

2 thoughts on “Books wot I red: The Burning Man, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency & Teach Yourself: The Cold War

  1. You can’t go wrong with the Prey books. That’s a rabbit hole too, because there are 27 of them. I’ve read all but the latest. Slight correction, the protagonist designs computer games.

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