Spies, Lies and A Birthday Surprise: The BBC Oxford Bookclub in January

I did the Jo Thoenes radio show on Wednesday - another enjoyable afternoon spot, and another five books to recommend after feverish reading over the past few weeks. I reckon I'm reading more books now than I have ever done before in my life... For those interested, you can listen to my stint on BBC iPlayer (this will expire after Tuesday Feb 2nd BTW). You'll need to forward to 1 hour 8 minutes (or start at the 1 hour mark, if you want to hear Phil Collins singing Invisible Touch) and then I discuss the following books:
  • Operation Mincemeat is the gripping, incredible, barely credible yet true story of Major Martin and possibly the most successful deception of WWII. By floating a corpse loaded with falsified documents, the British Secret Service hoped to throw the axis powers off the scent of the planned invasion of Sicily, but the sheer effort that went into its planning and execution almost defies belief. Based on original research, newly discovered documents, and at times reading like a wartime thriller, the book works on many levels. The main reason I enjoyed it was the case of characters - such as the ├╝ber-British Gomez-Heare, the unlikely Agent 'Garbo' - and a highly placed nazi intelligence officer who deserves to be more widely known for the crucial role he played in ensuring the nazi high command believed the deception. (BTW, if you would like to hear Ben talk about the book, currently riding high in the bestseller chart, we have him coming to Abingdon for an event on February 11th)."
  • Hardball by Sara Paretsky is the latest VI Warshawski tale from the legendary US crime writer. I must admit, I didn't know too much about 'Vic' Warshawski before this book, but I am definitely a fan after finishing this one in the wee small hours. Not sure whether it's because books I've read recently tended to have been fairly slow-moving, and very descriptive, but with Hardball, there is hardly a spare word or ounce of flesh on it, it moves along so quickly. Paretsky's own experiences suffuce this book - from her early days as a community organiser in Chicago during the race riots of the 1960s, to her work with groups representing the disadvantaged and poor in Chicago today (in which she worked with the then Illinois Senator, Barack Obama). Hardball starts with 'Vic' investigating a missing person's case from the turbulent 60s, and what initially looks like a hopeless 'cold' case suddenly ignites. There is a wonderful cast of gang members, corrupt policemen, sleazeball judges, even sleazier politicos, and a mobile-phoned obsessed younger cousin. By the end of the book several of these characters it seems are trying to shut Vic up by an increasing array of nasty (and violent) methods. Warshawski is a wonderful character, and as a bloke reading it you do feel like jumping in to protect her from the nasty people trying to bump her off - not that she would a) accept your help, and b) she doesn't need it anyway. There's a great paragraph in the book for British crime fans (I'll let you discover that) and there is a lovely - and poignant - last sentence, and it's nothing less than Vic deserves after everything she's been through... I'm looking forward to quizzing Sara about the book and the character when she comes to Abingdon on February 19th, click here if you fancy coming along to what I promise will be a fantastic evening...
  • The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge is not a new book - but has been recently reissued. It's sometimes cited as Bainbridge's finest and most accessible work (although a poll of our customers suggested According To Queenie instead). This is a first-person account of Scott's doomed trip to the south pole. It ends with Captain 'Titus' Oates uttering his immortal lines about going out 'for some time' and I read this over the recent snowy weather, which did help to get it into context. Everyone knows the story of Scott - or thinks they do - but this shines a welcome light (albeit a fictionalised one) onto the impossible situation Scott was in given the pressures, knowledge and incredibly bad luck he suffered in the two years it took to make the expedition. 2012 will mark 100 years since this archetypal heroic british failure, and it's well worth the effort.
  • "Troubadour" by Oxfordshire's Mary Hoffman was recently shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Children's Book Award, and although we know Mary better for her Stravaganza time-travelling renaissance adventure/romance series for kids author, this is a gripping, rip-roaring romantic adventure - albeit one set against the incredibly bloody and brutal suppression of the Cathar religion in southern France in the 13th century. Strong female characters (at a time when, briefly, women of a certain class almost enjoyed the same rights as men in terms of property) make this a great book for 9 year olds and above - although with a warning that Mary does not hold back at times on just how brutal the Pope's crusade against the Cathars actually was.
  • Finally, one of our 'books of the decade' in the shop, I talked briefly about "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. With everyone busy on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, it is well worth re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's ground-breaking book (originally published in 2000) that tells how social networks operate, and when they achieve 'the tipping point' in terms of an idea whose time has come.
Next show will be on February 24th - so I'd better get looking around and reading my next selection...

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