Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This seems familiar ...

Had a strange experience this afternoon.  I was reading an editorial in one the national daily newspapers.  It felt strangely familiar.  Then I realised that it paraphrased a blog article I wrote yesterday on another blog.  Same observations and argument.  It didn't quite copy directly, although it wasn't far off in places.  For example, my first line:

"After three years of rapidly rising unemployment, and 22 months after the government published 'Building Ireland’s Smart Economy – A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal', it has finally set out a plan for job creation.".

It's second line:

'Coming as it does, after three years of rapidly rising unemployment, and 22 months after the Government published 'Building Ireland's Smart Economy -- A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal', the initiative is not before its time.'

The government press release didn't mention the previous report or how long since it was published; I joined the dots and worked out the length of time and I ummed and ahhed about whether to use 21 or 22 months (it was published in Dec 2008).  Nice to know that the post was worth lifting and rewriting, and I'm not too fussed about it, but is this what journalism has become, rehashing blog posts?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unfolding space

The students are back and the university has a bit of life again after the summer.  It's kind of odd when only the staff and postgraduates are around.  I gave a two hour session yesterday detailing a genealogy of thinking about space.  I decided to try and illustrate ontogenetic conceptions of space (as something that becomes) as opposed to ontological conceptions (something that is) using a couple of videos of guerilla art; the idea that space is transduced - its a happening or an event or doing - as opposed to an absolute container in which life takes place.  I thought I'd share them as I think both are them are interesting and entertaining.  Both are set in train stations and disruption the usual socio-spatial production of the space.  Enjoy.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review of Love, Sex and War by John Cosgrove (Pan, 1985)

Love, Sex and War is a social history of gender and sexual relations during the Second World War.  In a fascinating book, Cosgrove covers an enormous amount of ground, using a broad range of data (including official statistics and declassified reports, interviews, and newspapers) from a number of different countries, principally the UK, US, Germany, Soviet Union, Canada, France, Italy and Australia.  Chapters cover the mass mobilisation of women into uniform, civil defence, factories and farms (and the tussles over morals, home life, child care, equal pay, movement away from home, unionisation, etc), sexual liberalisation, war brides, affairs, illegitimate births, divorce, prostitution, VD rates, sex crimes (all of which soared), patterns of socialising, fraternisation with liberated/conquered populations, homosexuality in the armed forces, black propaganda, sexpionage, cinema and music, demobilisation and women losing their jobs, the moral backlash post war.  Cosgrove does well to draw all of this material together into a reasonably coherent narrative, detailing how such a large scale and total war broke down gender and sexual relations relatively quickly, and despite a moral backlash at the end of the war, sowed the seeds of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The text is very readable and engaging, especially when illustrated with interview data.  There are a couple of issues with structuring, both within and between chapters, but overall this is compelling social history and will make fascinating reading for anybody interested in the (r)evolution in gender and sexual relations in the twentieth century and the breakdown of conservative morality.

4.5 stars

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

Ireland has been in the international media quite a bit this week as analysts and the markets try to decide if we're going to go the way of Greece.  Personally, I'm not convinced that we are, but neither is the situation looking good.  In fact, it looks awful.  Over half my posts this week have been on the other blog I contribute to - Ireland After NAMA. IAN provides analysis and commentary on the present crisis in Ireland as it unfolds and if you're interested in understanding what is happening here then its worth a read.  In fact, this week's posts are useful because they provide a range of graphs and charts that give a good overview of where we're presently at with unemployment, house prices, government bond yields, GDP/GNP, emigration, the office property market, and planning permissions.  All of them look like the design for a ski-slope.

My posts this week:
Financial transparency
When is a property a new propery?
Review of Smoked by Patrick Quinlan
First issue uploaded
Planning permissions, Q2 2010
What kind of mystery writer are you?
NAMA/DEHLG and school building
Review of The Green Ripper by John D. Macdonald
'Remarkable turnaround'?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Review of The Green Ripper by John D. Macdonald (Pan, 1980)

Travis McGee, salvage consultant and some-time detective, has finally found love with the lithe, Gretel.  Working at fat farm/real estate development as an all-round help – running with the fatties, coaching tennis, looking after the paperwork – Gretel has managed to stumble across a secretive organisation plotting a terrorist incident.  A fanatical religious sect, with cold war enemy connections, is trying to buy twenty acres of undeveloped land.  Only Gretel recognises one of the men, having encountered him when trying to rescue the sister of her former husband from the cult.  In order to protect their cover, the sect murder Gretel, and in so doing ignite the wrath of McGee.  Going undercover, expressly against wishes of the feds, McGee infiltrates the cult with the aim of exacting revenge.

The Green Ripper is the 18th McGee novel in a series of twenty one.  Macdonald writes elegantly in an easy and engaging style.  His characterisation is excellent, and he has a keen eye for observing and commenting on different social phenomena.  The first half of the story is well plotted and paced, unfolding in a way that draws the reader in.  The second half though lacked any real credibility.  Whilst how the religious cult operates and the motivations behind their actions seemed realistic, how they act with respect to McGee is a nonsense.  The rule of the camp is to kill all interlopers.  McGee is not only spared, he is invited into the group and becomes a confidant to all the other elite combat group members.  Then when they discover the truth, he triumphs against odds of 11 to 1.  All tense stuff, but it’s all but impossible for the reader to buy it.  I was confident based on the first thirty pages or so that this was going to be a five stars book, but in the end it tailed off to be a slightly above average affair.  There is more than enough here though to convince me to read more of his books.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What kind of mystery writer are you?

I’ve meaning to write this post for a few days but the semester has started, I’m backing teaching and it’s a crazy time of the year.  A couple of weeks ago Maxine at Petrona, responding to a post by Martin Edwards, discussed ‘what kind of a mystery reader are you?’  Martin had readers divided into two groups: "those who like to try to solve the mystery themselves, before the solution is revealed, and those who simply enjoy the story and make no serious effort to work out what is going on."  I guess I’m in the first group, though I don’t try too hard, and I don’t mind too much if there’s not much of a mystery in the book.  In fact, a few of my favourite books in the last year or so have been more about exploring a particular life or time or idea, rather than being a whodunit – Philip Claudel’s ‘Brodeck’s Report’, Dave Zeltserman’s ‘Killer’, Daniel Woodrell’s ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘The Ones You Do’, and Alan Furst’s ‘The Foreign Correspondent’ – all crime novels that have twists and turns, but no real revelatory moment of solution. 

It seems then that crime writers fall into two camps, those that are seeking to create a puzzle that they invite readers to try and solve as they read (or enjoy when it’s revealed), and those that are trying to do something else, such as exploring a particular idea or way of life, etc.  And my sense is that those that set up a puzzle are divided into two groups as well – those that are planners and work out the entire plot and puzzle in advance, and those where it unfolds through the writing.  I’m in the latter camp.  I have no idea how a story is going to unfold and end when I start.  My strategy is largely to keep as many people in the frame for as long as possible and see where the writing takes me.  If the story involves a murder, then who the perpetrator is will often change a few times in the journey until I settle on an outcome I’m happy with.  And the puzzles are with a small 'p' - they are not trying to come out of left field, or involve a massive twist, and I leave some puzzles unsolved (as many crimes are).  It’s the same with writing my academic books – I have no predetermined argument and therefore no idea as to how they’re going to unfold either.  The argument emerges through the writing and often the argument is open-ended.

So, what kind of writer are you – puzzle maker or social commentator or something else?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

First issue uploaded

I've finally uploaded the last elements of the first issue of Dialogues in Human Geography into the publisher's online production system.  It's a new academic journal I'm co-editing for Sage.  It has a different format to other Geography journals because it only publishes forums and not individual papers.  So, there is a lead article with 4-6 commentaries, followed by an author response.  Book reviews are also done as forums with an author response.  The aim is to foster immediate dialogue around important ideas and issues.

The other journal I co-edit, Progress in Human Geography, has been ranked 2nd  in the world for citations in 2009 (out of 61 human geography journals).  It's been in the top three for the last few years, so this is another year of consolidation.  Very happy with that!  Will take a good few years to get Dialogues up to that kind of ranking.  Now onto issue 2 (the problem with editing a journal is it never ends, between the two journals nine issues a year have to go off - it's like producing an edited book every 5 or 6 weeks, which when written down scares the heck out of me!).  Best not to dwell on it.  On to issue 2 ...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review of Smoked by Patrick Quinlan (2006, Headline Review)

Lola Bell is twenty five and has gained a karate black belt after being raped as a sixteen year old in a Chicago project.  Mr Shaggy and Mr Blue Eyes advertise for models, who on turning up for the audition are raped on film, but they get more than they bargain for when Lola decides to try her hand at modelling.  ‘Smoke’ Dugan is Lola’s boyfriend and a former professional arsonist, but after one of his devices was used to kill a plane load of innocent people, he assassinated his employer, stole 2.5 million dollars, faked his own death and fled to the small, coastal town of Portland, Maine.  Only Smoke has been spotted and a team dispatched to take him back to New York.  Denny Cruz is the gun for hire charged with the task, though he’s rapidly losing his appetite for killing those that cross the mob.  To accompany Cruz is Moss, a man mountain enforcer, and Fingers, who boosts cars and enjoys the odd bit of torture.  Smoke manages to evade the first attempt to snatch him and the team turn their attention to Lola and her demure librarian flatmate, Pamela.  As does Mr Shaggy and Mr Blue Eyes, who want revenge for the havoc created by an angry Lola.  So unfolds a sequence of bluffs, abductions, car chases, beatings and trades, as everyone tries to stay alive, escape or exact revenge.

I thought the opening chapter of Smoked was excellent.  If the whole book had managed to keep up the same pace and style it would have been a cracker.  As it was, the following chapters got bogged down in back story and manoeuvring characters into position rather than driving the story along, before picking back up in the second half.  Once it does pick-up it careens along nicely to the end.  Quinlan is particularly good at creating a set of larger than life characters that are well penned.  Scenes are generally well told, especially those with action in, and the dialogue is credible.  I can easily see the story converting to the big screen.  Overall, a book that didn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening few pages but nonetheless an enjoyable read.  

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

My Gunshot Road problems should hopefully be solved this week.  I popped into my local bookstore yesterday and they've ordered it for me.  It should be in Thursday or Friday.  No idea why Amazon had me waiting over three months for an item that the local bookstore could arrange delivery of in thirty seconds (assuming it turns up!).  I guess I should have tried the local store first, though there was a marked difference in the price.  I also picked up a John D. Macdonald book, The Green Ripper, in a secondhand store.  Since it was de facto top of the TBR I launched in last night.  Great stuff so far.  The cover is a very late 70s design, with a beautiful woman, half her chest on display.  Very different to the other 13 covers I found on the web, nearly all of which are variation of a hooded figure carrying a machine gun. 

My posts this week
The Map Reader cover design
What to do with the land bank being assembled?
Review of The Arms Maker of Berlin by Dan Fesperman
Boxed in
A new challenge
Gunshot Blues II
Review of Saturday's Child by Ray Banks

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review of Saturday’s Child by Ray Banks (Polygon, 2006)

As a teenager in inner city Manchester, Cal Innes ran with the wrong gang and ended up in Strangeways Prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Back on the outside he’s trying to go straight, running unofficial private investigations and attending a boxing outfit for young offenders.  When crime lord, ‘Uncle’ Morris Tiernan asks him to find a rogue casino dealer who’s disappeared with a large amount of money, Innes feels he’s no choice but to take the job.  Only Innes isn’t the only one trying to find the dealer.  Tiernan’s psychopathic son, Mo, is also on the hunt.  Following the trail from Manchester to Newcastle, it’s clear that there’s more to the case than money and unwittingly Innes has put his life on the line to aid father over son.

Saturday’s Child is a gritty view of the Northern underclass; hard men prowling the streets getting into scrapes and dodgy deals, making ends meet with menaces, and the other folk who survive amongst them.  Banks does a credible job of portraying post-prison life and the world of inner city Manchester.  Innes and Mo Tiernan are well penned characters, and the others are mostly more than stock support figures.  In the main the story is well plotted and told.  Banks has a keen observational eye and a nice turn of phrase, and the dialogue and scenes are nicely constructed.  The tactic of having two first person narratives was a little jarring at first but worked well overall.  Where the story started to unravel a little was in the second half.  The relationship with Donna was under-developed and felt like a weak, convenient plot device that served a particular purpose, but went nowhere.  And the ended felt limp and partial, with at least one major thread left hanging.  I don’t mind open endings, but this felt forgotten as opposed to open.  Overall, an enjoyable slice of modern day, gritty, urban, British noir.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gunshot Blues II

I'm really unimpressed re. this bit of news.

We regret to inform you that we have been unable to obtain the following item:
Adrian Hyland "Gunshot Road: An Emily Tempest Mystery (Emily Tempest Mystery 2)"

Our supplier has informed us that this item is no longer available. This item has now been cancelled from your order.

I pre-ordered the book and have spent the last couple of months reading rave reviews.  Very frustrating.  I guess I'll go a different route.  Grrrrr!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A new challenge

I've been asked by two colleagues in the UK to be a participating author for the new Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography (existing dictionaries in the series can be found here).  I've spent the last week working on a draft headword list to decide on the c.2000 entries that will need to be written.  An interesting task in itself.  We've decided to go the writing rather than editing route and no doubt writing the 700 odd entries we'll each be assigned will be a challenge.  Entries will either be 50-100 words, 100-500 words, or 500-1000 words.

I think this might just complete the publishing/disseminating set on the academic side of things as I've already: written monographs, written school and university textbooks, written chapters for edited books, edited books, edited a reader, edited journals, edited an encyclopedia, edited book series, edited special issues of journals, written reports and policy documents, written for popular magazines, written editorials for national newspapers, made a TV documentary, done live TV radio and debates, and had books translated.  Writing a dictionary makes a full house?  Regardless, I'm feeling buoyed up by the whole project at the minute.  Should be a fun challenge.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Boxed in

Ron Earl Phillips has announced the winner of his inaugural flash fiction challenge.  A small field, but I was delighted to hear my entry, Boxing Dumb, was the runner-up.  A nice pat on the back.  I'm still getting used to the short story format and the flash fiction challenges seems to be proving a good method of self-learning.  Thanks to Ron for hosting and the nod.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of The Arms Maker of Berlin by Dan Fesperman

History professor, Dr Nat Turnbull, specialises in studying German resistance movements during the Second World War.  He’s dragged from a library late at night by a FBI agent when boxes of stolen, classified documents are discovered in the summer house of his mentor, Professor Gordon Wolfe.  Strange happenings have plagued Wolfe in recent weeks and the FBI want to know the importance of the files.  Turnbull is only happy to help out; anything to get access to such interesting material.  At the initial court hearing, Wolfe hints that there is an important trail ahead, but before he can elaborate he is found dead in his cell.  The boxes reveal that Wolfe was an American agent in Switzerland during the war working for the future head of the CIA, Allan Dulles.  His job involved running agents in Germany linked to resistance groups.  There are are four files missing from the boxes; files that promise dangerous secrets if the various forces gathering to hunt down them down is anything to go by.  So begins a race across America, Switzerland and Germany as Turnbull tries to uncover the truth and a ruthless arms billionaire seeks to thwart his progress.

The Arms Maker of Berlin is a curious book.  It’s essentially an Indiana Jones-style hunt for important historical documents, with a tangle of individuals and groups also after the prize.  It’s a book that left me a little conflicted.  It really shouldn’t have worked.  The prose was workmanlike and sometimes clunky.  The characters were stock, and fairly thinly drawn, and the dialogue often wooden.  And the plot was pure fantasy and ridiculous in places.  And yet, despite all that it kind of works, in the same way as some Hollywood action films work – the Indiana Jones movies, for example.  It has goodies and baddies (and it’s not always clears who is which), a splash of romance, some intrigue and mystery, a dash of suspense and violence, and a veneer of historical respectability.  Which kind of compensated for the other shortcomings.  There are lots of better crime/thrillers concerning the Second World War from Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, John Lawton and others, but if you like an Indiana Jones-style yarn this might be for you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Map Reader cover design

We've been sent three mock covers for The Map Reader book.  We can either go with one of these three or ask to go back to the drawing board.  What do you think?  Which one do you like best or do you think we should ask for more options?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

A fairly hectic week. Had two minor operations - foot on Monday, chest on Wednesday.  They seem to have gone okay, though it would be more comfortable if I hadn't managed to tease open a couple of the five stitches in my chest.  A new dog arrived on Thursday.  We now have three in the pack - one who thinks he's the leader, but isn't; one that's been profoundly deaf since birth and refuses to recognise that there is a pack; and a new, confused one who's trying to work out what kind of crazy pack this is.  I'm sure it'll settle down soon.  Hopefully.

My post this week:
Review of Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett
Decentralisation - halt, reverse, modify or proceed as planned?
Review of The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Samson
Short story: Boxing Dumb
Because what we really need is more zoned land
Review of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Saturday snippets from Saturday's Child

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Saturday snippets from Saturday's Child

Saturday's Child by Ray Banks is set in working class Manchester and Bank's does a pretty good job at immersing the reader in culture.  He has a good observational eye and a nice turn of phrase.  Some of my favourite lines from the first hundred pages or so:

"The way the story goes, Morris Tiernan once had a bad debt slit from arsehole to appetite"

"The girl looks like she has covered her face in glue and headbutted a bag full of ball bearings."

"A working class hero is something to be.  But then six bullets, point blank, and not one of them hit Yuko."

"I'm your Dad, but I wouldn't trust you as far as I could shit you, son."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1932, Penguin)

Nick Charles is a former PI, now looking after the business interests his wife has inherited, and living a wealthy life.  Nick and his wife, Nora, have travelled to New York for the Christmas holiday, staying in a suite in the Normandie.  Rather than the relaxing break they were hoping for, they are dragged into investigating the death of Julia Wolf, secretary to eccentric inventor, Clyde Wynant.  Swirling round Nick and Nora, as he tries to determine who killed Wolf, are Wynant’s estranged family, his former partner, his lawyer, some low-life hoodlums, and the police.  All of whom seem to have something to hide and gain.  The only person missing is the one everyone wants to meet – Clyde Wynant; the thin man.

The Thin Man is a crime farce, written in an all-tell, dialogue and action style, with no excess fat in the prose.  There’s a lot of melodrama, with people storming in and out, kissing and making up; and lots of lying, deceit, manipulation and double crosses.  Nick Charles is the rock at the centre of all this carry-on; the tough, no-nonsense PI, who’s able to calmly and authoratively take charge and sort the wheat from the chaff, and is attractive to dames and admired by men.  He’s the guy that everybody naturally turns to for help, including the police.  The characterisation is well developed and Hammett keeps the dozen or so central characters swirling round each other, with the pace relentless without being excessive, and the plot twisting continuously.  The story had a little too much melodrama for my taste, but it’s an enjoyable hardboiled yarn nonetheless.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Boxing Dumb

This is my entry for Ron Earl Phillips' flash fiction challenge. The challenge was to write a short story that concerns receiving an unsolicited box and what's inside (the deadline is tomorrow, if you're interested in submitting a piece; prize is a copy of Needle Magazine). 

‘What is it?’

‘A box.’

‘I can see that,’ I said turning the small wooden box, little bigger than a matchbox, in my hands.  ‘What’s in it?’



‘Yeah, its empty, you know.’

‘So, what’s it for then?’  I ask flipping the lid to reveal an empty cavity.

‘For putting stuff in.  You know, like … things.’

I could tell this was going to be one of those conversations, you know, dumb and evasive.  Jimmy was head of the pack in dumb.  He was pretty good at evasive and shifty, but then he usually had good reason; he did dumb things.  Let’s just say he wasn’t the highest wattage bulb.  Still, he’s my brother and I’m a long way from florescence. 

‘So, why are you giving it to me?’

‘So you can put stuff in it.  To keep them safe, like.  You know, in case … I made it.’

‘You made it?’

‘Well, you know, I …’

‘You stole it,’ I finished for him.  Jimmy hadn’t made a single thing in his life.  The idea that he’d managed to create something as finely crafted as this was laughable; he’d have difficulty making a potato head. 

‘I borrowed it.’

‘What do you mean, you borrowed it?  Does that mean I now have to give it back to them?’

‘No, no, its yours.’

‘So, you didn’t borrow it then?’

‘Well, no.’

‘So, who did you steal it from?’


‘No-one?  Jimmy stop fucking about and tell me where you got the box.’

‘What does it matter?  I’m giving it to you.  As a present.’

Little alarm bells are now starting to tinkle two inches above and behind my right ear; exactly where it states ‘caution’ on one of those phrenology busts – you know, those heads where they’ve written on what each bit of the mind relates to.  If they did one for Jimmy half the spots would be blank, the other half downgraded.

‘It matters plenty, Jimmy.  What if I take my new box out in the wrong place; like in front of its former owner?’

‘You won’t.’  He refuses to look me in the eye.  ‘I promise.’

‘You’re lying, Jimmy, and you’re promises are worth shit.’

‘Look, I just found it, okay.  It was lying there, you know, like out in the open, so I took it.  They shouldn’t have … they should have hid it if they didn’t want anyone to take it.’

‘So, now its their fault that you broke into their house and took their box?’

‘I didn’t break in.’

‘So, you were a guest then, were you?’

‘Kind of.’

‘Kind of?’


‘Jimmy, just tell me where you got the fucking box.’

‘You can put precious things in it.  Keep them safe.  You know, like … stuff.  Things, like.’

The alarm bells are now clanging like church bells, but once Jimmy’s decided he’s not going to tell you a specific thing he sticks to his guns.  I could take a baseball bat to him and he wouldn’t offer up the truth.  He’s like that.  Stubborn.  A convincing lie would be better than a bat, but then Jimmy’s lies are as transparent as a wedding night negligee.

‘What was in the box, Jimmy?’



‘It was nothing, like.’

‘What was nothing, like?’

He stays silent, scratching nervously at his chin.

He wants to tell me, I know he does.  That’s why he’s giving me the box.  It’s not a present; it’s his way of letting me know he’s fucked up and he needs help.  He won’t tell me who he’s robbed, because he can’t bring himself to, but he’ll tell me what he’s robbed.  He knows he’s been dumber than a sack of pheasants.  I just need to tease it out of him; let him feel that he was hoodwinked into letting up his secret.

‘So, it wasn’t worth much?’


‘Pawn Stars thought it was basically worthless?’

‘I didn’t take it to them.’

‘You take everything to them.’

‘I didn’t go to them.’

‘You always to go them.’

‘I couldn’t, could I?  What are they going to do with a …’  He trailed off.

‘With what?’

‘With nothing.’

‘Jesus, Jimmy!  Just tell me what was in the fucking box!  Do you want me to help you or not?’

* * *

‘Are you fucking nuts?’

Jimmy offered me the pinkie.

‘Get away from me with that fucking thing.’

‘It’s his finger.’

‘No shit.  What the fuck are you doing with his finger?’

‘It was in the box.’

‘Jesus, Jimmy, have you got a death wish?  Does he know its missing yet?’

My dumb ass brother has stolen Johnny K’s pinkie.  Johnny lost it in a knife fight when he was a young hood and he’s kept it as a kind of sick trophy.  The story is that the other guy lost a lot more, like his manhood.  Just the thought of JK’s blood soaked hands wielding that knife across the poor bastard’s groin brings tears to my eyes.  Johnny K is, if you hadn’t realised, a psychopath.  He runs every racket in the neighbourhood with an iron fist.

‘I … I don’t know.’

‘What the fuck were you thinking?  Don’t answer that; you weren’t fucking thinking.  Shit!’

There’s dumb and then there’s suicidal.  Stealing Johnny K’s pinkie was suicidal.  Involving me was tantamount to aiding and abetting murder.  We’re both dead men walking.

‘I … We …’

‘Just shut the fuck up, Jimmy.  I’m trying to think here.’

This was my own fault, I shouldn’t have insisted on knowing what was in the box.  I should have just taken the box, thrown it in the sock drawer and let Jimmy work out what he was going to do with the pinkie.

‘You better tell me how and why you stole Johnny K’s pinkie.’

‘I didn’t steal it, I …’

‘Yeah, yeah, I know, borrowed it.  Save it for the jury or executioner.  Just tell me what that fuck you’re doing with it.’

‘Well, me and Pete Stewart were …’

I can’t help but groan.  If there’s anyone dumber than Jimmy, its Pete Stewart.  He wasn’t last in the queue when they were giving out brains, he was a no show. 

‘Look, Pete’s sound.  Johnny K asked him to do a wee job for him, and Pete asked me to help, you know, for a bit of tab money.  Just moving crates from his garage into a van.’


‘Yeah, these big boxes.  Heavy as hell.’

‘And what was in them?  Forget that; I don’t want to know.  So, you moved these boxes, then what?’

‘Then Janey invited us into the house; give us a drink and pay us, like.  She’s wearing this low cut …’

Janey is ten years younger than Johnny and is well aware of the kind of influence she can exert over men.  She flirts like crazy, though you’d want a death wish to so much as glance at her. 

‘The box, Jimmy.’

‘No need to be …’

‘The box.’

‘Well, it just sitting there, you know, on the mantelpiece.’

‘You’re in Johnny K’s house, and you decide to help yourself?’

‘It was just a box.’

‘Yeah, that he keeps his fuckin’ pinkie in!  It’s like his most prized possession.  Everyone knows about his pinkie!’ 

‘I didn’t know it was in that box, did I?  I thought it was jewellery or something.  I just slipped in my pocket whilst she was doling out the cash.’

‘Oh, god.’  What did I do to deserve Jimmy as a brother?

‘Maybe we could throw it away?’

‘Yeah, that would work up until the moment he comes looking for it.  It won’t take him two seconds to work out that either you or Pete took it.  At least if you‘ve still got it we can put it back’

‘I never thought of that.’

‘You don’t think, period.  We’re going to have to return it.’

‘Return it?’

‘Yeah.  Do you have a better idea?’

* * *

‘Couldn’t we just post it back?’ Jimmy asks.

Now he starts to think of alternatives.  It would be perfect except for the fact that we need to get it back before Johnny realises it’s missing.  Fingers crossed.


We’ve cleared the wall and we’re making our way through the garden towards the house.  Thankfully, Johnny doesn’t have dogs.  He doesn’t need them.  You’d have to be crazy to break into his house. 

‘Well, how about just posting through the letter box?’ Jimmy hissed.

‘Will you shut the fuck up, Jimmy.’

‘I’m just trying to help.’

‘Well, don’t.  Where’s the best place to break in?’

‘The front door.  The lock’s a piece of shit.’

‘The front door?’


‘Jesus.’  What the fuck am I doing, creeping up to Johnny K’s house?  Jimmy made this mess, he should sort it out.  What is it with older brothers, always having to clean up after siblings?

‘And the place is empty?’

‘His car’s not here.’

‘Now what?’ I ask as we reach the door.

There’s no answer, but before I can turn on my heels, the door opens, Johnny K filling the frame, his shaved head glowing gold in the hall light.

‘I’ve been expecting you.’

‘You’ve been expecting me?’

‘You’ve got my finger?’

‘Er …’

‘You better come in.’  He stands back and ushers me in.  Jimmy’s nowhere in sight; no doubt a couple of hundred yards away and travelling fast.

‘I …’

‘Come-on.  Stop fucking me about.’

Reluctantly I step over the threshold, following Johnny through to a large kitchen.


‘I … Well, you know …’

‘I’ll swap you.  You give me your box, and I’ll give you this one.’  He produced a small, dark box from his pocket.

‘There’s no need for … I didn’t … It was …’

I pull his box from my jacket pocket and hold out my hand.

Johnny takes it and offers the other back.

‘I’m okay.  I’m sorry about … well, you know … the box.’

‘Take it.  You’ll need it.’

‘I’ll need it?’ I repeat, reluctantly taking my second unsolicited box in as many hours.

‘For your finger,’ Johnny says, taking a meat cleaver from a rack.

‘My … look Johnny, let’s not be hasty here.  I didn’t take your finger, my …’


And that’s it; I’m in a corner in more ways than one.  Do I grass on my brother, putting him in danger at the same time as I reveal my own disposition for giving people up, or do I let Johnny cleave my pinkie from my hand for a crime I didn’t commit? 


Family and honour or self-preservation?

Yeah, I know, impossible choice, right? 

But you have to pick one.

If he would only stop smiling maniacally I might be able to think straight.

‘You were saying?’ Johnny asks.

‘I …’ 

‘I think it’s a fair swap, don’t you?  One box for another?  An exchange of pinkies.’

‘I …’

How the hell had it come to this?  Two hours ago the world was on an even keel.  Well, as even as could be expected.  Now this.

‘You can pick the hand.  I can’t say fairer than that, can I?’

For the life of me, I can’t understand why I am proffering my left hand.  What part of the brain controls self-sacrifice for dumb-ass brothers?  I bet that’s not on one of those phrenology skulls. 

Johnny has led me to a butcher’s block, placing my left pinkie on the edge of the board, my other fingers curled up out of the way.

‘This might sting a little,’ Johnny says, raising the cleaver above his head.  He’s clearly enjoying himself, his eyes twinkling with glee.  He’d dearly love me to make a break for it so he could use the cleaver indiscriminately.

My only thought as the steel flashes down is – I deserve this.  The only reason I’m there, swapping mementos, is because I suggested we come. 

And I thought Jimmy had an echo between his ears.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review of The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Samson (Harper Perennial, 2005)

Israel Armstrong has managed to secure a post as a librarian in a small, rural community on the North Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.  Bookish, naïve, social awkward, Jewish and vegetarian, he’s a fish out of water.  When he arrives he finds the library has been closed and he’s been reassigned to drive the mobile library, an old van that has been mothballed for a few years.  To add to his woes, his living quarters is a chicken coup at an isolated farm, his boss is spiky and manipulative, and the previous librarian and mobile van driver are hostile.  To make matters much worse though is the fact that the libraries 15,000 books are missing, but the local authority doesn’t want to tell anyone for fear of ridicule.  Unless he can track them all down without the aid of the police, running any kind of service is going to be all but impossible.  But when you’re in a strange place, with its own odd ways, hunting for stolen loot is anything but straightforward.

The Case of the Missing Books
is effectively a cozy set in Northern Ireland.  It has a quirky, awkward, central character as the sleuth and a cast of other colourful characters, and it takes place in a small town where everybody knows everybody else.  The central plot revolves around Armstrong trying to find his feet in a strange place, where the locals are at one level welcoming and, at another, standoffish, whilst he tries to locate the missing books.  It’s one of those books that I’m kind of ambivalent about.  It passed a few pleasant hours, but did not set the world alight.  The plot is relatively straightforward and there is a gentle humour throughout, though no real belly-laughs; a kind of Last of the Summer Wine sitcom/farce vibe.  My one real problem was that I found it difficult to believe in Israel Armstrong as a character.  There were a few things that didn’t add-up.  On the one hand he’s been a compulsive reader since a young child and he knows about books, and yet what’s in those books barely seems to have penetrated his skull.  His bookishness and educational attainment didn’t quite sit right. And in general terms he's blessed with about every negative trait going, with few social skills or powers of deduction, and yet somehow he bumbles through whilst offending just about everybody at some point.  Overall, if you’re a cozy fan then this might appeal.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I'm a few chapters in on 'The Arms Maker of Berlin' by Dan Fesperman.  The plot is good, but not so keen on the writing style.  Fesperman employs a couple of devices that bug me.  The first is unnecessary repetition.  So he'll have a sentence such as 'The woman looked tired and bedraggled.'  Followed by: 'She was a wreck.'  The second sentence is redundant.  Another one is telling the reader what is going to happen later in the story.  For example, stating something like, 'Little did he know that on Friday he'd be sitting on a plane with the woman flying to Switzerland.'  I now know how the story is about to unfold and what is going to be happening in four days time.  I don't need to know this, it serves no purpose, and knowing it detracts from my reading experience.  I can live with the balance of show and tell, though I'd prefer more tell, and the melodrama and stock characters, but the other things bug me (and I'm sure there are aspects of my writing that annoy the hell out of people).  Regardless, what makes the book interesting and enjoyable is the story itself, which has me hooked.  Does plot supercedes everything else ...?

What are your reading bugbears?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Bantam Press, 2005)

Mitch Turner, a CIA agent, is found dead and dismembered in a Bangkok hotel room.  He’d been taken there by Chanya, the star prostitute at the The Old Man's Club, a venue run by Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s mother and his boss, Colonel Vikorn.  Vikorn’s initial strategy is to make out that Chanya had killed in self-defence.  Once it becomes clear that Turner is a CIA agent in the Muslim south of the country he invents a cover-up pointing at Al Qaeda, planting forensic evidence that can link the scene directly to the terrorist group.  Vikorn also has another agenda to stir into the mix; a long running battle with General Zinna, a corrupt army officer.  Jitpleecheep does his master’s bidding, but he’s increasingly drawn to the charms of Chanya, and the case exerts a strange fascination that tugs at both sides of his genetic inheritance (from his American father and Thai mother).  As he travels to the South and through the sex bars of Bangkok he becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering the truth behind Turner’s death.

For me, Bangkok Tattoo was a book of two halves.  The first half was interesting and entertaining, immersing the reader in the sights and sounds of the seedier side of Bangkok.  The story raced along and had plenty of intrigue and twists and turns.  In the second half the story unravelled and lost focus and direction.  The main plotline of the first half petered out and another thread came to dominate, and the story resorted more and more to show rather than tell, and less and less plausible.  The ending redeemed things a little, but it still felt a little flat and relied on Jitpleecheep forgetting that he had a vital piece of evidence in his possession.  In general, the characterisation is good, and Sonchai Jitpleecheep makes for an interesting central character, caught as he is between the worlds of the police and Bangkok nightlife, and American and Thai society, and the most of the other characters are colourful and engaging.  The exception is the Americans who are stereotypical, dull and by the numbers military types.  The observations of Thai society are informative, though I was somewhat dubious as to how prostitution, and lives and attitudes of the women who practice it, are portrayed.  Whilst I have little doubt that the nature of prostitution in Thailand is different to that in the West, I’m not at all convinced that its quite as Burdett portrays it; that paying for sex is an unproblematic transaction in Thai society where women willing engage with little emotional damage or other consequences.  After so much promise in the first half, it was a shame that the story fizzled out in the second.  That said, I’m still going to check out the first book in the series, Bangkok 8, as it’s clear that Burdett can tell a good yarn, and there’s enough promise here to merit another outing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a writing, editing and kind of political week.  Hopefully, The Map Reader, will go in the post to the publisher in the next few days.  All the introductory pieces have been drafted and the excerpted chapters have been edited.  Just a couple of bits need polishing and tidying up.  I've also drafted two thirds of my short story for Ron Earl Phillips' flash fiction challenge - has to be about receiving an unsolicited box and what's inside - which I'll complete and post sometime in the next five days (deadline is Sept 10th; prize is a copy of Needle).  Also had some discussions with officials in a government department and a semi-state agency, both on condition of confidentiality, which was very interesting but frustrating I can't share!

My posts this week:

TBR panic (abated)
Warm but not red hot
Review of Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell
August reviews
Do we need another airport?
Review of Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review of Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 1989)

The night watch are a sorry bunch - the drunken Captain Vimes, the reticent Sergeant Colon, and shady Corporal Nobbs.  The butt of many jokes they spent their nights trying to avoid trouble.  But trouble is coming as the Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren has stolen a book from the Unseen University and is using it to summon a dragon.  As the Watch try to come to terms with a dragon materialising in the city, they also have to induct Lance-Constable Carrot, a human bought up in dwarf mine who thinks that the law is something to be upheld and enforced, rather than avoided.  Rather than giving the brethren the power they crave, the dragon soon reverses the roles and declares itself king, demanding all the things that dragons desire such as a heap of gold to sleep on and the monthly sacrifice of a maiden.  Desperate to know something about the creature, Vimes meets the formidable Lady Sybil, who has an aristocratic heritage, and breeds small swamp dragons.  Between them - the dragon, Carrot and Lady Sybil - might just be the making of Vimes and the Watch.

Pratchett has a wonderfully inventive mind and a natural storytelling flair.  It’s a powerful combination leads to novels that are highly enjoyable, and yet also make the reader reflect on a particular issue – in this case, desire, power and law and order.  Setting his stories in Discworld frees his parables of certain constraints, allowing him to draw on myths and legends, and to come at things in an oblique angle, meaning its message does not feel contrived or preachy.  The result is a set of books that appeal to a very wide demographic (I'm as hooked now in my forties as I was in my teens).  The plotting and characterisation in Guards! Guards! is generally excellent, the dialogue natural, and there is a constant presence of good humour, with many chuckle and laugh out loud moments.  The story is a little uneven in places and some of the set pieces a little contrived, but it’s a fun read and it was good to tuck into my dog-eared copy fifteen odd years since I last read it.  Time perhaps to dig out Pratchett’s other Night Watch books. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

August reviews

A fairly varied month of reading.  The two stand out books were Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason and Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty.  Two very different books and difficult to decide which one is book of the month, so I'm going with the pair.  Both worth a read.  Which reminds me, I need to get the next book in the McKinty series.  Flip, should have had that in the last order.

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason *****
Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty *****
Client by Parnell Hall**1/2
The Information Officer by Mark Mills **1/2
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy ****1/2
Point Blank by Richard Stark****
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly ***1/2
Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wlison ***1/2
The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst ***
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block ***

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review of Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell (No Exit Press, 1998)

Sammy Barlach is a loser who's managed to get a job in the dog food factory in West Table, Missouri.  His first Friday payday he ends up in a trailer court getting drunk and high.  Soon its Sunday and trying to impress a girl he breaks into a deserted mansion.  When his companions skedaddle he tucks into a bottle of vodka and settles down for a quick nap in his new found luxury.  He’s woken by the diminutive Jamalee, with her tomato red hair, and beautiful Jason Merridew, a sister and brother dreaming of a better life and practising being rich.  When the police arrive, the three hot foot down to Venus Holler, a ramshackle collection of houses on the wrong side of the tracks.  Next to the place that Jamalee and Jason are housesitting lives their mother, Bev, whose approach to poverty is to turn tricks, look on the bright side of life, and party whenever the opportunity arises.  It’s not a life that Jamalee aspires to and Jason, with his model looks, is her ticket to the American dream.  Having lost his job, Sammy makes himself at home, pursuing the feisty Jamalee whilst taking to the bed of her mother.  When Jason turns up dead in suspicious circumstances, and the cops want to record it as an accident, the three slackers mobilise to seek justice.

Tomato Red reads a bit like a social realist play, with its gritty realism and harsh truths, and small cast of well drawn characters.  The dialogue and interactions between Sammy, Jamalee, Jason and Bev is pitch perfect, and Woodrell does an admirable job of immersing the reader in their world.  As ever, the prose is nicely crafted, and Woodrell has a deft hand for turning expressive phrasing and sharing interesting observations and insights into social relations.  Where the book falls a little short perhaps is with respect to plot, which is quite ponderous at times as if Woodrell is tentatively feeling his way, and the ending felt a little false and rushed.  I’ve become a huge fan of Woodrell’s country noir; Tomato Red didn’t quite match some of his other works, but its still a fine, entertaining read.