Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (2016, Orbit)

Jack Sparks is the literary equivalent of a shock-jock – a loud, vulgar, offensive sociopath; always scheming and lying, and who lacks care and empathy. What drives him is his ego and its massaging by his fans and followers on every form of social media channel. His latest venture is 'Jack Sparks on the Supernatural' a book in which he sets out to debunk religion, the afterlife and the paranormal. His journey starts with an exorcism in Italy, which he interrupts by laughing at what he sees as an absurd, staged act. What follows is a series of increasingly creepy happenings, including a strange, haunting video with no provenance that appears on his YouTube channel that then disappears. Jack is determined to discover who made the video in order to prove it’s a hoax, using it as a means to gather content for his book as he meets with a combat magician and a group of paranormal investigators. But the more he tries to disprove the supernatural, the more it seems like it might exist, and it all seems to be leading to his inevitable death.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks follows the slow descent of a loutish, egotistical author as he tries to disprove the supernatural in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. The story is told through the book notes of Jack Sparks, collated and edited by his brother, who also intersperses the text with other evidence, such as letters and audio transcript. Sparks is somewhat of an unreliable narrator who is determined to both shock readers and favourably script his own portrayal. He travels from Italy to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, pursued by the consequences of an exorcism he disrupted and prevented. He creates antagonism and resentment, and in his wake leaves a trail of destruction. By mid-way through it’s clear where the story is heading, though there is still plenty of intrigue, twists and gore. While it’s billed as a dark comedy, the humour fell a little flat for me, in part because it is all rooted in the awfulness of Jack Sparks, a character with no redeeming features who is loathsome throughout. The story is well constructed and told, but I can’t say I enjoyed the characters or story very much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of Early One Morning by Robert Ryan (2002, Headline)

The mid-1920s, William Grover-Williams flees Ireland and his life as an IRA get-a-way driver to France. There he gets work as a chauffeur for William Orpen, an Irish artist whose muse and mistress is Eve Aubicq. Williams and Aubicq start an affair and marry, and she seed-finances his foray into racing cars. A natural driver, he is soon driving for Bugatti in grand prixs with his team mate and rival, Robert Benoist, a former First World War fighter ace. Benoist, Williams and Aubicq form a close friendship at and away from race circuits. When the Second World War starts Williams heads for England where he enlists, before being recruited into SOE. He’s then dropped back into France, reuniting with his wife and setting up a resistance network with Benoist and fellow racing driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille. As they build their network and start to undertake actions, the German SD are closing in, determined to put a halt to their work.

Early One Morning is a fictionalised account of the true story of William Grover-Williams, Eve Aubicq and Robert Benoist. Built around Williams, the tale covers from the mid-20s to the end of the war, with a separate thread tracing Williams’ SOE handler still seeking answers many years later. The main focus is the war years, especially Williams’ recruitment and training for SOE, his drop back into France and his work building a network with Benoist, and subsequent capture and internment in France and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As with all such fictionalised accounts of real people and events there is always a question as to the extent to which the author has taken artistic license with history, and undoubtedly Ryan has filled in detail – speculating on dialogue and action, and altering timelines for dramatic effect. But the broad arc seems roughly faithful, detailing the daring lives of two racing drivers and one of their wives. A little bit of a slow burner, the book picks up pace, intrigue and emotional resonance as it progresses. Overall, an interesting and engaging read.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Unusually for me I've started three books in a row where I've got fifty pages in and put the book to one side. I think I'll eventually finish all three, but I'm just not in the right mood for them right now. I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for, but perhaps it's Don Winslow's The Force, as that's next on the list.

My posts this week
Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox
Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
One job

Saturday, November 10, 2018

One job

Clarke hit the wet pavement like a breaching whale.

Miller followed him down, three bullets thwacking into the building entranceway.

His boss was missing the crown of his skull.


A pointless question asked as he scuttled into the lee of a parked car.

Somehow his gun had appeared in his hand, but his instinct was flight not fight.

A smattering of bullets peppered the car.

The most obvious paths to safety were back into the building, or bolt left or right. Instead, he sprinted across the road.

He’d one job, yet the mayor was dead.

So, it was fight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox (2017, Doubleday)

Aidan Waits is a disgraced copper, suspended and unsure if he has a future in the police. His boss though has a possible route back which involves exploiting the situation: Waits can go undercover, trying to enter the inner circle of Zain Carver, a major player in Manchester’s criminal world. A disillusioned, dishonest ex-policeman with a drug and drink problem is liable to drift into Carver’s orbit. The task can double-up with a mission for a government minister whose daughter has become a siren for Carver, a party girl being groomed to collect drug payments. Carver though is no ordinary criminal – he has brains, charm and his own man in the police. And Isabelle Rossiter has no desire to be reunited with her father; in fact, Waits suspects she might have good reason to have run. Carver’s world is no place for a young girl though as women in his harem tend to end up dead. Waits is quickly out of his depth, unable to trust anyone – his boss and fellow police officers, the minister, Carver and his coterie, and himself – and he’s not sure if and whether he wants to survive. Deep-down though he wants justice and he’s prepared to play all sides to try and attain it.

Sirens is a dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget, bought-up in the care system. He has a future that is seemingly going nowhere having badly messed up his police career. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld, persuade a government minister’s daughter to return home, and uncover Zain Carver’s man in the police. It’s a suicide mission, but Waits has nothing to lose. A man on the edge – disgraced, disillusioned, dishonest – he’s out of control and reckless. Aiding and avenging Carver’s sirens – Cath, Sarah-Jane and the newest recruit, Isabelle, the politician’s daughter – seems worth the risks. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along. Full of twists and turns and tension it catapults the reader through the seedy and violent underbelly of the city, the drug-filled hedonism of the night-life, and the criminal gangs and their rivalry that supply the highs and lows. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Waits is the perfect guide to this world, a fallen policeman who fits into the scene but can’t give up the notion of justice, even if it’s his own brand rather than defined by the law. While it could have been a fairly simple plot, Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan (Zaffre, 2018)

Winter, 1917. Lord Highmount, a weapons manufacturer has organized a gathering at Blackwater Abbey, his home on a Devonshire island, to try and make contact with his two sons killed in the trenches. Present are his wife and daughter, two spiritualists, a doctor and his patient who is suffering from shell-shock, his industrialist friend and his wife who have a son missing in action, an officer who works in the Ordnance Dept, and the abbey’s servants. Asked to attend by British intelligence are Captain Donovan, chaser and fixer of spies, and Kate Cartwright, daughter of the guest industrialist and former fiancée to the officer, who works in Naval codes and is also able to see ghosts. They’re job is to try and identify who has been passing on secret military intelligence to the Germans. Not long after the guests arrive a storm closes in cutting the island off and strange and sinister occurrences start to happen leading to murder. Donovan and Kate struggle to make sense of the unfolding events, especially since they seem to be chasing ghosts.

In A House of Ghosts Ryan mashes together elements of a golden age country house crime tale, a ghost story, and an espionage thriller. Using a classic setup, he isolates his characters in a house on an island, using the weather as means to trap them there. The house is an old abbey and is haunted by centuries worth of inhabitants, is riddled with secret passages, and has its upstairs-downstairs politics of servants and owners/guests. Among the guests are two spiritualists, a doctor whose shell-shocked patient can converse with the dead, and a woman who can see ghosts. They are there to conduct a séance and talk to their relatives killed in the trenches. One of the guests is also a German agent and two have been sent to capture the spy. The guests are all friends of the host Lord Highmount and have various interconnections, and the servants have their own agendas and linkages. The two main protagonists are Captain Donovan, an Irishman working for British intelligence, and Kate Cartwright, who is to aid him winkle out the spy. Two likeable characters, they immediately form a bond that extends beyond a working relationship. Ryan uses the set-up to good effect, with skulduggery mixing with ghostly happenings, and friends starting to turn on each other. The result is a story that rattles along, with plenty of intrigue and action. I was expecting it to be a bit more creepy and haunting and the identity of the spy master is no great mystery. However, the other happenings are not quite so clear, keeping the reader guessing about some elements of the tale. I imagine this is opening of a series featuring Donovan and Kate, or at least I’m hoping it is. Overall, an engaging, entertaining tale that harks back to the golden age of crime fiction.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

In anticipation of a trip to Taiwan I've been trying to track down some crime fiction set there. I've managed to order Ghost Month by Ed Lin and Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari. If anyone has any other recommendations for Taiwan-based tales, then I'd be grateful to hear about them.

Posts this week:
Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile
October reads
Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Kathleen drew a key across the bonnet, gouging the paint.

‘Are you crazy?’ Emily tried to pull her away.

‘He’s feckin’ two-timing me.’ Kathleen shrugged off her friend; scratched again.

‘He’ll kill you, you daft bitch.’

‘Fuck him.’ A heel folded under her ankle and she fell to one side.

‘Jesus. You’re wasted.’ Emily tried to drag her up.

‘Fucker!’ The stone thumped into the headlight; the car alarm wailed.


‘Fucker.’ She tried to stand, tears ruining her mascara.

‘Come-on, let’s go.’

They fled arm-in-arm.

Behind them Ryan shouted: ‘Fucking bitch!’

‘Next time I’ll scratch your fucking eyes out!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile (2017, Legend Press)

Rescued by an Irish aid worker, Theo arrived in Ireland from Rwanda aged seven. Aged twenty two and with an engineering degree, the financial crisis means he cannot find suitable work. Instead he takes up a job working in a restaurant kitchen and sells drugs for a criminal gang. At the restaurant he meets Deirdre, a middle-aged woman with three kids, and the pair form an unlikely friendship. Both are struggling to make a place in the world they are happy with. Theo is haunted by his childhood memories and is looking for a way out of the drugs trade. Deirdre wants an end to her domestic abuse but is too afraid and resigned to leave. When Theo’s friend Neville, the boyfriend of Deirdre’s daughter, Grace, is given a punishment beating by the criminal gang that Theo deals for, it provides the catalyst for change. But change comes with a heavy cost that neither is sure they want to pay.

Rain really does fall on everyone in Clár Ni Chonghaile’s tale of identity and belonging in situations of violence. Set in Dublin, the tale focuses on the life of Theo, a young man bought up in Dublin after being rescued from the Rwandan genocide, and his friendship with Deirdre, a middle-aged woman living with domestic abuse. Theo is somewhat of a lost soul who finds solace in the Irish language and poetry and deals drugs for a criminal gang to get by. Deirdre has resigned herself to living with the violence of her husband. Their lives become intricately interwoven through two key events centred on Theo’s best friend, Neville, that forces them both to confront their past and their future. Ni Chonghaile’s tale is a carefully crafted slice of social realism. It is shot through with empathy and pathos, but it is not for the faint-hearted with its scenes and discussion of domestic abuse, genocide, gang violence, suicide, and racism. These are not glorified, but rather form an everyday backdrop to ordinary people living difficult lives. The characterisation, character development across the story, social interactions and sense of place are excellent, and the whole tale has a deep-sense of believability to it. I can’t say it was a joyous or entertaining read, but it was certainly engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October reads

A varied month of reading, with one stand out book: She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper.

The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott ***
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey ****
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier ****.5
Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto ***
The Innocent by Ian McEwan ****
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey ***.5
Code Girls by Liza Mundy ****.5
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper *****
The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness ***
Basin and Range by John McPhee ****
The One Man by Andrew Gross ****.5

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott (Titan Books, 2016)

Winter, 1946. Duncan Forrester has resumed his career as a historian at an Oxford College after spending the war working for SOE in occupied Europe. The wife of his best friend is having an affair with a fellow don. When the don is found dead, supposedly stabbed and thrown from the rooms of the cuckolded husband, he is accused of murder. Forrester is convinced his friend is innocent and is determined to proof it. On the night of the murder, his college was hosting a dinner with a number of guests, including a German professor of literature and a Norwegian scholar of sagas. Forrester is convinced that there might be some connection, and this suspicion is heightened when he is attacked himself. The police, however, are uninterested, convinced they have the right man, leaving Forrester to draw on his war-time skills and contacts, travelling to London, Berlin, Denmark and Norway and tangle with dark forces in order to reveal the real killer.

The Age of Treachery is the first book in the Duncan Forrester series that follows the exploits of ex-SOE agent turned historian. In this initial outing, Forrester has returned to academic life as a junior fellow at an Oxford College. When his best friend is accused of murdering a fellow don who was having an affair with his wife, Forrester sets out to find the real killer, slowly uncovering a war-time conspiracy that some are willing to kill for to keep secret. The story is written as a kind of ‘Boys’ Own’ tale of adventure, with Forrester drawing on his historian skills to uncover evidence and his SOE-skills to stay alive as dark forces try to stop his quest. Dropped into the tale are before-they-were-famous cameos by real-life people such as Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher, and Kenneth Tynan. If one treats the story as a Boys’ Own take it’s reasonably engaging and entertaining, despite being somewhat thin and unbelievable throughout. That said, it would have worked more effectively if the identity of the killer wasn’t telegraphed from a very long way out and the solution to the ‘locked room’ element of the murder – that none of a room’s occupants can easily get to the site of the killing – wasn’t ridiculous.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally got another book in the post this week - The Right to the Smart City - co-edited with Paolo Cardullo and Cesare di Feliciantonio. I also published the intro and conclusion chapters as working papers (links below). I think it's an interesting set of essays and hopefully it'll pass smoothly through the production process. In reading terms, I've slowly been working my way through Rain Falls on Everyone, a socially realist portrayal of the struggles of a young Rwandan man in Dublin.

My posts this week
Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey
New paper: Towards a genuinely humanizing smart urbanism

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
New paper: Citizenship, Justice and the Right to the Smart City
Why won’t they leave me alone?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why won’t they leave me alone?

‘Why won’t they leave me alone?’

‘You know why; that video’s gone viral.’

‘But I never asked for it! I don’t even know who took it.’

‘You were being sexually harassed, Sarah. That creep’s life is hell now.’

‘And so is mine. Have you seen the abuse I’m getting on twitter? I was called a whore by a complete stranger yesterday.’

‘Another creep.’

‘A middle-aged woman. Why can’t people mind their own business?’

‘He was attacking you.’

‘And now it’s a global headline. And they’re judging me as much as him!’

‘It’ll soon be yesterday’s news.’

‘But not for me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey (1979, Simon and Schuster)

Christopher John Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee grew up in wealthy, upper middle-class homes in Southern California in the 1950s and 60s. Friends from an early age, they’d been altar boys together and shared an interest in falconry. Both started to dabble in drugs in high school and both were listless, unsure of what they would do after school, trying and dropping out of college. While Lee gravitated from selling drugs in school to forming his own drugs network, making runs to Mexico and regularly in trouble with the law, Boyce got work in a defence contractor through a contact of his father where, aged twenty one, he quickly graduated to handling highly classified spy satellite plans and international CIA communications. Disillusioned with America’s foreign policy and domestic politics in the early 1970s, Boyce decided to express his discontent by passing on secrets to the Soviets. Lee’s role was to act as a courier, taking copies of documents to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City where he was to sell the information. For Lee, the new line in finance offered the opportunity to expand his drugs enterprise. The two passed highly secret information for a couple of years before being caught, kind of by accident. Tried separately, they were both given long sentences for treason.

Lindsey’s book tells the story of Boyce and Lee’s lives and enterprise from childhood up to the end of the court case, exploring why two boys of privilege, whose fathers’ had served in the military or intelligence services, betrayed their country. Published not long after the court case, it is packed full of detailed information, cobbled together from various sources, including the trial, and extensive interviews with the protagonists. Since both Boyce and Lee were serial liars, and both tried to blame and frame the other for their enterprise, there’s always a sense that the account is Lindsey’s best attempt at untangling a muddled and contradictory set of stories. Nonetheless, it’s a comprehensive and engaging read about two young, opportunistic men who took advantage of circumstance, for different motivations, to commit treason. After finishing the book I decided to see what happened to the two men to find that Lindsey went on to write a second book about Boyce, who managed to escape from prison in 1980 and went on to commit 17 armed robberies before being recaptured; something I would have expected from Lee but not Boyce given their respective portrayals in The Falcon and the Snowman.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Atlantic, 2018)

When she was sixteen years old, Georgina Shaw – known as Geo – dated Calvin James, five years her senior. After a drunken party, Geo’s best friend and leader of the school cheerleading team, Angela Wong, disappeared. Fourteen years later, Angela’s remains are found in woods near to Geo’s old home and she and Calvin are arrested. He for Angela’s murder and the deaths of three other women, Geo for aiding and abetting in the death of her friend. The arresting officer is Kaiser Brody, a close school friend who she subsequently shut out of her life. An executive in a pharmaceutical company and on the verge of marriage, Geo’s live is upended and she’s given a five year prison sentence. Not long after being sent to prison, Calvin escapes and disappears. As Geo nears release, a fresh set of new bodies start to be found. While Kaiser hunts for Calvin, Geo is prepared to take her chances and confront her past.

Jar of Hearts takes place near to Seattle and is a spin on the serial killer genre. The tale centres on Geo (Georgina) Shaw, who at the start of the tale is convicted of aiding and abetting in the death of her best friend, Angela Wong, by her then boyfriend, Calvin James, fourteen years previously. Calvin subsequently went on to murder three other women. Geo, an executive at a major pharmaceuticals company, is sent to prison for five years. The story then tracks both back to Geo’s school days and the time prior to and after Angela’s death, and forward through her time in prison to her release when her past and Calvin seem set to catch-up with her. As such, the focus is very much on Geo, a woman living with the consequences of fateful decisions taken when she was sixteen, when she met and fell in love with a serial killer. Hillier does a very nice job of developing Geo’s character and uncovering the layers and secrets of the events fourteen years previously and their after-effects and subsequent years. Indeed, the tale is well structured, with both the historical and contemporary threads leading towards climatic denouements with twists. The book ended a bit too quickly I felt and I’d have liked to get a bit more post-denouement conclusion, but nonetheless an engaging and compelling read.