Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Litigators by John Grisham

In The English Novel by Walter Allen he says of Benjamin Disraeli as a novelist "His strength lay in his specialised knowledge; it would be almost true to say that he had to become a politician before he became a novelist." If you substituted the word 'lawyer' for the word 'politician' I think the same would be true of John Grisham.

This book is packed with law. It involves a mass tort case against a huge pharmaceutical company, Varrick Labs. It is alleged that one of their drugs, Krayoxx, causes heart attacks. After I'd finished the book I was amazed that it wasn't boring. There is loads of specialised legal stuff, the behind the scenes haggling that goes on in cases like these, which could've been dry as sticks, but in Grisham's capable hands I was whisked along, learning as I went.

The reader sees the case through the perspective of the firm of Finley and Figg. Finlay and Figg are ambulance chasers, on the lowest rung of the legal profession. Oscar Finlay has resigned himself to this, but his partner, Wally Figg, still has big dreams. Wally believes that they can make their fortunes by riding the coat-tails of the Krayoxx case.

We don't really get to learn much about the characters. Oscar is in an unhappy marriage, Wally is a recovering alcoholic - that's about as much as we know. But I don't really think we need to know more than that. The story isn't about the characters, it's about the law and it's about greed. The case is huge, drawing in litigants from all over the US. Varrick Labs is prepared to stand by Krayoxx and fight. They employ a big firm to defend them. An equally big firm is co-ordinating the plaintiffs. Around these two big fish swim hundreds of little minnows, hoping to get in on the action.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I thought that the story was great, and while being entertained, I learned a lot.

The spring flowers are starting to come through in my garden. If I had a bigger garden I would collect snowdrops, which are my favourite flower. I do have these, and I love them. They are called 'Ketton', and the information from the catalogue says that they were introduced 'by EA Bowles after the second world war from the village of that name in Rutland'. There are hundreds of different snowdrops, all subtly different.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Rees

This is the third in the Omar Yussef series of novels. Omar Yussef has come with his family from his home in Bethlehem to attend a wedding in Nablus. The groom, Sami, is a policeman and he gets Omar Yussef involved with an investigation. There has been a theft from the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus.

'I knew you'd be intrigued, as a history teacher who's knowledgeable about all elements of Palestinian culture.......They are part of Palestinian culture aren't they?'
'The Samaritans? They've been here longer than we have Sami. They claim to be descended from some biblical Israelites who remained in this area when their brethren were exiled to Babylon. In a way, they're Palestinians and Jews and neither, all at the same time.'

The precious Abisha Scroll is the item which has been stolen from the synagogue. It is extremely valuable, not only in monetary terms, but also in religious significance. Then the son of the Samaritan priest is found tortured and murdered, and Omar Yussef finds himself embroiled in a very dangerous situation. It involves the tiny Samaritan community and some of the richest businessmen in the area.

I've enjoyed both of the Omar Yussef novels I've read previous to this, and I enjoyed The Samaritan's Secret just as much. As always I enjoyed learning more about Palestine and way people live there. I have come to realise that I enjoy reading about unlikely sleuths - and Omar Yussef is certainly unlikely. I particularly enjoyed learning more about his family in this book; his complicated marriage to Maryam, and his adored granddaughter Nadia.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

The story begins with Anthony Cade, a dashing tour guide, who bumps into an old friend in Bulawayo. This friend charges him with two tasks; firstly to deliver a politically sensitive memoir to publishers in London, and secondly to return a packet of incriminating letters to a woman named Virginia Revel.

Once in London Cade has to have his wits about him. There are people who want the manuscript and will go to great lengths to get it. He meets Virginia Revel and together they travel to Chimneys, the stately home of Lord Caterham. Chimneys has a history of being used as a meeting place by the great and the good when subjects of national importance have to be discussed privately. They arrive to find that a murder has taken place, and there is a connection with the memoirs.

This summing up in no way does justice to the complexity of the story. There are almost two stories - the political story surrounding the memoirs, and also an old-fashioned jewel heist. There are some wonderful characters. I particularly loved Virginia Revel, a young widow who's nobody's fool and has an eye for adventure. Together she and Cade reminded me a bit of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford with their devil-may-care attitude. I also loved Inspector Battle, the Scotland Yard policeman who comes to investigate the murder. Understated and a bit taciturn, he sees more than he lets on and there's not much that gets by him.

I didn't guess who the villain was of course, I never do. Though I have to say I don't know how anyone could've worked this one out. Altogether I thought it was a good read and I enjoyed it. I read it as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

We went to our local RSPB reserve the other day. There is always plenty for kids to do there, and Billy did the Berry'd Treasure Trail which involved finding the special information boards about berries and answering the questions on his clipboard. It was a very sunny day, and I snapped our shadows on the path. We live in a very industrial area, and this reserve is right in the middle of it, but nature thrives here.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the appartition was a sign of destiny......

This is how the novel opens. That ship, the Ibis, is part of Deeti's destiny, and the destiny of a lot of other people too.

The story is set in nineteenth century India, against the backdrop of the Raj and the opium trade. Deeti's livelihood depends on the trade, but her husband is a useless addict, and she is trapped in the marriage. The Ibis is an old slaving ship which has been refitted to transport opium. An inexperienced crew member, Zachary Reid, finds himself rapidly promoted up the ranks to second mate, as death and disease take the senior officers. The ship is owned by Burnham Bros., a shipping and trading company. Benjamin Burnham is a tough ambitious businessman who is pushing to increase his share of the opium trade. A victim of this push is Neel, the Raja of Raskhali. The Raja's family have invested money with Burnham Bros for years, and have received handsome profits. But Neel has got into debt with Ben Burnham and will suffer the consequences.

This is a very atmospheric story. Water is very symbolic in it, the sea that brings the Ibis, the Ganges which provides a route of escape for Deeti. Neel lives on a luxurious houseboat, he has let himself drift for years, believing his way of life is unchangeable. But the tides of change are rolling in and he is in danger of being swept away.

I thought this was a fascinating book. Some of it was difficult to understand, I struggled with the dialect at times. But this just added to the feeling of being in another world. River of Smoke is the sequel to this book and I am looking forward to reading it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheljen

I first came across the Ballet Russes when reading Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell, a biography of the dancer Lydia Lopkova. I know nothing about ballet, but was captivated by the world described in the book. So when I saw this biography of the founder of the Ballet Russes I jumped at the chance to extend my knowledge.

Sergei Diaghilev was a man of immense talent and vision and energy. He lived life at breakneck speed, he lived for art and music and beauty. He loved and feuded with equal passion and he was a big man whose presence dominated a room. As a young man he admired and sought out the old guard of Russian cultural life and later he discovered and encouraged some of the brightest new talents.

He was born into a wealthy family who fell on hard times. Money, and the lack of it, was to be an issue for Diaghilev his whole life. He attended university in Moscow where he read widely and expanded his circle of friends. In an early example of the confidence in himself which would be vital to his career, he and his cousin decide on a whim to visit Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy at this time was the most famous and influential man in Russia, and Sergei and Dima just pitched up on his doorstep one day. Tolstoy kindly exchanged a few words with them and Diaghilev wrote a ten page letter to his stepmother about the visit, describing every last detail.

Diaghilev seems to have been a great networker.  He knew everyone, from Tchaikovsky to Oscar Wilde, but some of his closest collaborators, such as Leon Bakst, he had known since he was a young man. Pre-revolution he was close to political power, but less so after 1917 and eventually he was exiled from his beloved Russia.

Sjeng writes; In the course of a twenty-three-year career Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before (or has done since).

Around the time I read this book I watched the film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky about an affair that the two were rumoured to have had. I enjoyed it, it was beautiful to look at, if a little cold. The main pleasure for me was seeing some of the characters I was reading about portrayed on screen.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

I've been looking forward to starting the Harry Potter series with Billy. I've read them myself and we've watched the films together, but he hasn't read the books. I think we're off to a good start with them - not a peep out of Billy while I was reading to him.

I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone around the time it first came out, and I'd forgotten what a 'children's' book it is compared to the later ones in the series. It's a boarding school adventure story (with magic), but so well done. The story is simpler than the later books and the characters are presented very straightforwardly.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

There are a lot of things about Hogwarts which would appeal to a child - not least being away from their parents. Another is the food, from the chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans on the trolley on the Hogwarts Express, to Harry's first feast at the school.

Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled high with food. He had never seen so many things he liked on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs.

And any school child would recognise the way Harry has to negotiate his way amongst the other children. A bond is immediately struck with Ron, and his friendship with Hermione blossoms slowly. And he has to stand up for himself against his arch enemy Draco Malfoy.

I don't know if I'll get to read the whole series to Billy. He enjoys his bedtime story at the moment, but I suppose it won't be long before he thinks that being read to is babyish. Maybe I'll get as far as the Goblet of Fire.