Summer holiday reading

Critic Michael Hoggitt has picked a selection of the latest  titles to take away on holiday: About Face by Donna Leon; Brunetti's Venice, by Toni Sepeda; Not for Wimps - Men and the Ageing Game by John Parry and Alexander Janaway's Redboubt.

About Face
by Donna Leon
(Published by William Heinneman, £16.99)

Donna Leon's eighteenth Commissario Brunetti novel About Face (William Heinneman, £16.99), begins with the Venetian policeman and his wife Paola, attending a dinner party given by his parents-in-law, the Conte and Contessa Falier. During the course of the evening Brunetti  finds himself in conversation with the enigmatic Franca Marinello, the wife of a prominent and wealthy businessman, who's physical appearance leaves him a little perplexed. However, he finds that they have a mutual fascination with the writings of Virgil and Cicero, and the detective is more than happy discuss the classics with a like-minded person.

A few days after the event he is visited at the Questura by his father-in-law. The Conte is considering a business venture with Franca's husband, Maurizio Cataldo, and asks Guido if it would be possible for him to make some discreet enquiries about Cataldo and the various businesses he is associated with. The Commissario also has a second visitor in Maggior Filipo Guarino, from the Caribinieri in neighbouring Maghera, looking for assistance regarding the possibility of Mafia involvement in certain businesses in Venice. Although seeking Brunetti's help the Maggiore seems reluctant to part with much more than basic information. He will only tell Brunetti that the owner of a trucking company has been murdered, and that the death may be connected with the transportation of illegal, and even more serious, that of highly dangerous toxic materials.

He agrees to e-mail a photo of the dead man to the Questura, but is then himself found murdered. Although it is not within his jurisdiction, Brunetti, together with his friend and associate Inspettore Lorenzo Vianello and Pucetti, a trusted member of his team, makes an unofficial nocturnal visit to the scene of Guarino's death where they find evidence of toxic substances in catastrophic proportions.To further his covert investigations the Commissario enlists the help of Signorina Elletra Zozzi, secretary to his immediate superior, Vice-Questura Patta, who's efficiency, list of useful contacts and computer 'hacking' skills never fails to leave Brunetti in a state of wonder, even though he quietly suspects some of her methods don't quite fit the letter of the law! It also transpires that the Commissario's new acquaintance, Franca Marinello, has been seen in the company of a man of dubious reputation with a history of violence. Given that here husband also has shady connections, could there, perhaps, be a connection?

Although each novel stands alone, to fully appreciate the character of Donna Leon's creation I would suggest you read the complete series, starting with Death at La Fenice. With each new book the reader learns ever more about Guido Brunetti, a policeman with brains (he has a law degree and reads the Classics), who could be compared to Oxford's Morse. However, the Commisario scores on style, charisma and compassion. Unlike Morse he has a family - an attractive, intelligent and aristocratic wife, Paola (daughter of the aforementioned Conte and Contessa Orizio Falier), a university lecturer, who surprisingly, given her background, shares her husband's more 'left-wing' views, and two believable teenage children in Raffaele and his opinionated sister Chiara. In Guido's off-duty moments  the reader becomes privy to the everyday love, humour and chaos, plus the occasional war zone, that is normal family life and with which, no doubt, most of us can relate!  As a diversion from the official investigations, the reader is allowed also to form a picture of what makes him 'tick' in his everyday working life. We observe the interplay with colleagues and suspects alike, including his main protagonist, Vice-Questura Patta, a vain and arrogant man for whom Brunetti, a Venetian through and through, has little respect. Patta is not a native Venetian and is incapable of comprehending the 'Veneziano' mentality, being more concerned with image and power than dirtying his hands with everyday police work

Donna Leon is an award-winning crime writer, born in New York of Irish/Spanish descent. She has lived in Venice for many years and is associated with many societies and institutions, including the baroque vocal group Il Complesso Barocco, and her affection for all things Venetian is self evident. However, the books are essentially crime stories and not guide books, and if I have one negative comment to make it is that too many descriptions of the city and its environs do, on occasions, tend to distract the readers' attention from the actual storyline.

Brunetti's Venice
by Toni Sepeda
(Published by William Heinneman, paperback £12.99)

As a companion to the novels of Donna Leon I heartily recommend Brunetti's Venice - Walks through the Novels, a guide book with a difference. Presented in an unusual and innovative format, the author, Toni Sepeda, invites us to walk through 'La Seressima' in the company of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Having visited the city on several occasions and, along with countless others, become hopelessly lost, missed many interesting and unusual sights, often wished for some quiet haven away from the hordes of fellow tourists, and longed for a 'local'  to help. This book is akin to having an old friend to show you around the city of their birth, a city which they know intimately. Someone to open up the places that most casual camera-toting tourists would never know, or possibly even care, existed! 

Spread over 12 chapters, or 'walks' - each illustrated with clear and detailed street maps - Guido Brunetti  takes us on the most interesting tour of his beloved city imaginable. Starting at  La Fenice Opera House, where the world was first introduced to the detective  and ending at the famous Rialto Bridge, we are eased through the maze of calle (including the short cuts) visiting en-route his favourite restaurants, the best (and most reasonable) bars to enjoy un'ombra or the strongest espresso, beautiful little-known chapels and their treasures, and even pastry shops and florists, all of which are used by the locals. We accompany him from his home in San Polo to his place of work, the Questura in Castello, and on his frequent vaporetti trips to the more distant scenes of his investigations. Each guided element is accompanied by extracts from Leon's novels, providing an evocative and atmospheric addition to the area tours.If you are planning a trip to Venice, arm yourself with this book - 'The Serene Republic' will be an even more magical experience!

Not for Wimps - Men and the Ageing Game
by John Parry (Book Guild, £8.99)

For any man over the age of 60 (or indeed anyone, male or female, interested in this particular area of the male psyche), I urge you to read Not for Wimps. I found it to be one of the most amusing, albeit one of the shortest, books I have read in a long time.

Parry has managed, in only 104 pages, to capture all the joys and angsts of the male ageing process with cutting observations and wry wit, accompanied by humorous drawings, which all men of a certain age (and yes folks, I do fall into this category!) will readily identify.

Research has apparently revealed that between 65 and 75 are the happiest years in a man's life, and the author does a great job of verifying this. Split into various hilarious sections he chronicles the attitudes of the more mature male on subjects as diverse as politics, health and death, even broaching the 'taboo' subject of the more intimate side of growing older The book does a great job of dispelling the myth that as our hair turns grey we all turn into grumpy old men (although my wife may, on the odd occasion, dispute this!)  Parry also tells us that recent research shows that a significant number of those attending health and fitness clubs or using local authority facilities  are seniors, and from my own personal experience I see no reason to dispute this. In fact most older men have an overwhelmingly positive attitude to life and take a great deal of interest in their wellbeing and in the world around them. Released from the burden of the daily rat-race, and with wisdom on your side, the world does, to use the old cliche, become your oyster. There are so many things to occupy new-found leisure time, so many interesting places, both home and abroad, to visit, societies to join, old friends to catch up with and new ones to be made, books to read and perhaps even write, new hobbies to explore - the possibilities become endless. On reading Not for Wimps I clearly identified with most of the author's observations, and if you fall within this particular age group, I suspect that the vast majority of you will also see a lot of yourselves in the pages!


by Alexander Janaway(Book Guild, £16.99)

If you're looking for a completely different read, then Alexander Janaway's Redbout  is certainly that. From what I admit was just a cursory glance at the publicity blurb I was expecting a conventional tale of medieval knights and derring-do. However, it turned out to be a sort of Dungeons and Dragons meets Lord of the Rings - hardly suprising when you realise that the author's day job is that of a training and project manager in the computer games industry! This said, once I began reading I was surprised to find that the novel actually began to grow on me. It follows the exploits of Captain Jon Forge and his men, serving the army of the fictional land of Ashkent.

Following a short and bloody war with the equally fictitious country of Graves, they are ordered by the arrogant, and as it transpires, treacherous, Duke Burns, to oversee and guard the rebuilding of an abandoned bridge, the physical work to be undertaken by Bantusai slaves led by the enigmatic Juma. They are actually being sent into a trap by Burns, who's only allegiance is to power and wealth. Forge must decide whether to retreat, which goes against all his principles, or to stand and fight. What follows takes the form of a more conventional tale, with all the grit, black humour, tragedy, violence and, yes, even compassion, of men in battle.

Redoubt is part fantasy and part epic war story and for a debut novel Janaway has done a creditable job. Sheer escapist nonsense perhaps, but hey, who needs serious all the time!

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