Friday, May 31, 2013

Once in Another World by Brendan John Sweeney

A new book from New Island turned up in the post this morning - Once in Another World by Brendan John Sweeney.  It's a historical crime thriller set in Ireland and England in 1937 and the blurb is below.  I've already zipped through the first four chapters and it's excellent so far. 

Dublin, March 1937. Holland, an idealistic young IRA recruit, is offered a strange assignment. He is told to guard and spy on a sinister Hungarian businessman and Sabine his secretary – a Jewish refugee.

The mission tests Holland’s loyalties and his idealism to the utmost and ends with a sordid shooting match in a field in England. Holland finds himself fleeing with Sabine into the depths of the Irish countryside, where treacherous swamps and dense woods protect them from their pursuers. An intense love affair between two young people from vastly different worlds suddenly becomes possible. 

But Holland’s closest friend in the Movement knows his mind too well, and seeks him out, leading to a confrontation as fateful and tragic as any Irish myth.

My review is here

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review of Death of a Nationalist by Rachel Pawel (Soho Press, 2003)

The civil war in Spain has just drawn to a close with Franco's Nationalists taking Madrid.  A young school girl walking home witnesses the death of a Guardia Civil and drops her school book.  Her aunt, a communist now in hiding, offers to retrieve it for her since paper is rationed.  At the body she is disturbed by two Guardia Civil officers and summarily executed for killing the nationalist policeman.  Sergeant Carlos Tejada, a hero of the siege of Toledo, feels no shame or guilt for killing the young woman; as a Red she deserved what was coming to her, but he is distressed to find that the dead man is his best friend, Paco Lopez, who he has not seen for some time.  Something about the crime does not add up and Tejada starts to suspect that the killing of his friend is not as straightforward as he first suspected.  He starts to investigate the case and discovers his friend was connected to the black market.  He’s not the only one investigating a death, however.  Gonzalo Llorente is searching for the sergeant who murdered his lover whilst she was trying to retrieve his niece’s school book.

The strengths of Death of a Nationalist are the atmosphere and sense of place.  Pawel captures the general paranoia and landscape of Madrid at the end of a civil war, where neighbours are not sure who they can trust and sections of the population are being hunted and arrested, people are starving and either hardened or broken, and the buildings and streets are damaged from bullets and bombs.  Sergeant Carlos Tejada is a complex lead character, a learned and cultured man but also a battle hardened veteran.  He is capable of torturing prisoners and killing in cold blood, and is generally standoffish, but can also be empathetic and romantic.  It’s an interesting mix, creating an anti-hero that is at the limits of reader sympathy.  The other characters are reasonably well penned, but there is little in the way of back story with regards to the Llorente family with whom Tejada finds himself tangling.  Moreover, the plot is a little convoluted and thin at times, and the ending is mostly told through an epilogue.  Nevertheless, this first book in the series shows promise given its historical setting and lead character and I’d be interested to give the second a read.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review of Behind the Battle: Intelligence in the War with Germany 1939-1945 by Ralph Bennett (Pimlico, 1999)

The back cover blurb for Behind the Battle states: “Many recent studies have covered aspects of the military intelligence available to Britain and her allies during the Second World War, but until now no succinct and authoritative survey of the whole field has existed.”  Unfortunately, this book does not provide a survey of the whole field and neither does it seem authoritative.  Rather, it principally focuses on Ultra and the use and misuse of intelligence gleaned from decrypting German enigma encoded radio traffic in various theatres throughout the war.  All other forms of intelligence gathering including aerial photography, the use of agents, interrogating and eavesdropping on prisoners, and Y traffic (the interception of localised radio traffic along the front line) are largely ignored and dealt with in a very cursory way.  Further, how intelligence was implemented in the field is also largely restricted to how Ultra was used tactically.  To be sure, Ultra proved highly useful for revealing strategic intelligence and shaping the Allied response.  However, it would have been very interesting to get an overview of all forms of intelligence employed, with some detailed vignettes of particular cases and personalities.  Even with respect to the analysis of Ultra the discussion tends to provide a broad brushstroke overview, rather than providing some in-depth illustrations.  The focus on Ultra should not perhaps be a surprise given that Bennett worked at Bletchley, where enigma traffic was decoded during the war.  That Bennett pushes the argument that the only meaningful intelligence came via Ultra, often in a very tiresome fashion, however is less forgivable, providing an overly narrow view of the many ways in which intelligence was gathered and used.  If you are interested in Ultra, then you might find this book of interest; if you want a broader overview of British intelligence operations during the war then you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Last September I decided to write a new academic book about data.  For some unfathomable reason I thought I would have it written by January/February time.  It's now the end of May.  I've managed to work out a chapter structure and have populated each chapter file with masses of notes.  However, I've only cobbled together three just about complete chapters (out of eleven).  I also said I'd finish the book then seek a publisher.  Instead, I received and signed a contract on Friday to publish the book with Sage, who have published a couple of my previous books and for whom I edit two academic journals.  The submission date is January 2014 and I'm now worried whether I'll achieve that deadline given the pace at which I've managed to progress the text so far.  Hopefully I'll make up ground over the summer months as I'd really like the book to be published next year.  The good thing is that I'm enjoying the process of researching and writing it, and I'm learning a lot.

My posts this week
Smiley's People
Review of The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home
Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy
Exit strategy

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Exit strategy

‘Don’t move.’

‘We’re not moving,’ Brady answered, quickly crossing an aisle and hiding behind shelves stacked with tins.

‘I said, don’t move.’

‘We’re not moving.  Just let the woman go.  This has got nothing to do with her.’

‘I’ll let her go once I’m safely away from here.’

‘That’s not going to happen.’  Brady peaked round the corner and signalled for his partner to creep up an aisle. 

‘I’ll shoot her if you don’t let me leave.’

‘You do and you’ll be leaving in a body bag.’

‘I’ll fucking do it, man.’

‘Please, just let him leave,’ the woman pleaded.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy

Back in January 2011 I reviewed Peeler, Kevin McCarthy's Peeler set in West Cork in 1920, featuring Sergeant Sean O’Keefe of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  This month, New Island release the second book in the series, Irregulars, this time set in Dublin a couple of years later.  The blurb runs thus:

Dublin, 1922, as civil war sets brother against brother and Free State and Republican death squads stalk the streets and back lanes of Dublin, demobbed RIC-man, Sean O’Keefe, takes a break from life as a whiskey-soaked waster to search for the missing son of one of Monto's most powerful brothel owners.

Hired to find the boy amid the tumult and terror of a country at war with itself O’Keefe soon finds that the story is not as simple as it first seemed and that the truth can be hard to pin down.

The second book in the O’Keefe series, Irregulars explores a fascinating and complex period of Irish history.

Another Irish crime novel I'm really looking forward to reading.  Along with Mark O'Sullivan's Crocodile Tears, Eoin Colfer's Screwed, and Alan Glynn's Graveland, the next couple of weeks is set to be a bit of an Irish crimefest.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review of The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home (Sandstone Press, 2013)

When just a few hours old Anna Wells was dropped at a hospital in Inverness, anonymous except for a broach left with her.  Twenty six years later, events in the coastal village she was born in lead to her being informed as to the identity of her mother.  Leaving her young daughter with a friend she travels to Poltown to discover why she was abandoned, lodging in her mother’s old house.  What she discovers is that the night she was born her mother walked into the sea, her hat and bag being found in the next bay.  As Anna comes to terms with her history and tries to discover the reasons for her mother’s apparent suicide, her presence unsettles a community that is already divided between those wanting the place to stay as it is and those who favour allowing a large electricity company to build an offshore windfarm and onshore facility.  She’s also being used as a pawn in a bitter personal rivalry.  Coming to her aid is Cal McGill, a young oceanographer who runs a detective agency tracing how bodies and objects move with the wind and currents, who is in Poltown to talk to a local beachcomber about his finds.  As Anna pushes on with her quest, those with secrets to hide move against her.

The first Cal McGill book, The Sea Detective, was one of my reads of the year so far.  I therefore had high expectations for The Woman Who Walked into the Sea.  In many ways it is quite a different kind of book.  The pace is much slower, the narrative is dominated by long descriptive passages that, for my tastes, are too much show and not enough tell, and nearly the entire story takes place in and around one village.  Whereas the first book had a set of intersecting storylines and a relatively large cast of characters and rivalries, this book is more circumscribed and the focus is for the most part follows Anna, the daughter of the woman who walked into the sea, rather than Cal.  In fact, there is very little sea detection in the story.  Given the amount of work that Douglas-Home does in providing the back story to the tale and setting up the end play to the book it concludes quite quickly and linearly, reliant on a couple of coincidences and underplays the possibilities for dramatic tension or twists and turns.  Personally, I would like the next book in the series to focus more on Cal McGill and his sea detection and to have the same faster-paced storytelling style as the first book.  Overall, a solid, okay read, but in my view not in the same class as the excellent first book in the series.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Smiley's People

Having watched the excellent, Original BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few weeks ago, I've just finished viewing the sequel, Smiley's People.  If anything, Alec Guinness' Smiley has become even more dour and withdrawn, and the pace of the storytelling is positively glacial compared with present-day television dramas.  Nevertheless, it is completely compelling, hooking the viewer in early on then slowly spinning out its yarn in a very understated fashion.  This is spy drama as it's played out in reality - a chess game of patient, minor moves within a larger strategy, with many pawns of weak insights and powers and a grandmaster in the background pulling the strings - rather than the whizz-bang of Bond, Bourne, etc.  If you want to watch a pair of clever, thoughtful and layered drama's then these BBC adaptions of John Le Carre's novels are worth a viewing.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

You know when you have a book problem when you go away for two nights - knowing that you will be busy all day and in the evenings - yet you take four books with you.  Just in case there's some weird re-arrangement of time and space that will free up a couple of dozen hours.  I was thirty pages into Death of a Nationalist when I left for Galway.  I am presently at page fifty. 

My posts this week:
Review of The Third Pig Detective Agency by Bob Burke
New Irish crime fiction releases
Review of Black Irish by Stephan Talty
Review of The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri
The morning after

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The next morning

Kevin’s arm flopped out of the bed.  He slipped into consciousness through the thick fog of a hangover.

‘Oh, feck,’ he muttered and wished he hadn’t. 

He lay motionless, his eyes closed, stomach queasy, memories of the previous evening flitting across his mind’s eye like the flipping of television channels.

A street, a bar, a crowd of people, then an altercation -- a flash of auburn hair, a slither of white skin, an angry voice, raised hands -- a street again, another bar.

He tried to flip back, already sensing shame and regret, wanting but dreading the moment of recall.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review of The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (Penguin, 2013; Italian 2009)

Inspector Montalbano is just about to head away for a few days holiday with Livia when he witnesses a seagull plummet from the sky, hitting the ground hard.  It staggers to its feet, does a strange dance then drops dead.  Disturbed by the bird’s demise he heads into work to sign some forms before departing on his break.  There he learns that his trusted right-hand man, Fazio, has disappeared having gone to the docks to investigate an allegation of drugs smuggling.  Forgetting his trip, Montalbano starts to hunt for Fazio, fearing the seagull was a portent sign.  As he follows the trail, he is soon drawn into a conspiracy of smuggling, blackmail and murder.
The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book in the Montalbano series.  Whilst Montalbano is a reasonably serious character, the books are light-hearted and witty, as much as about Sicilian life and culture, especially its food, as about solving the crime.  The atmosphere and sense of place are nicely realised.  The characterisation is well observed and some of the dialogue exchanges are wonderful.  As were the internal dialogues between Montalbano 1 and 2, sitting on each of his shoulders.  The plot for the most part worked okay, though the resolution felt a little clunky, as if Camilleri wasn’t quite sure how it was going to end then somehow muddled through.  Moreover, as with the other books, time and space seemed a little elastic -- the investigation takes place at a leisurely pace and everywhere seemed to take a long time to get to and was far away, yet it is meant to be a local police force and Montalbano had an intimate knowledge of the local geography.  Overall, a fairly dark story told through witty and light storytelling. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review of Black Irish by Stephan Talty (Headline, 2013)

Absolam (Abbie) Kearney grew up in The County, the close-knit, clannish south Buffalo district dominated by an Irish working class community.  As a non-Irish orphan with gypsy looks adopted by an Irish cop she had never quite fitted-in despite her efforts.  Headstrong and determined to prove she’s her father’s daughter, she has followed him into the police, but after a disastrous stint in Miami she’s ended up back in Buffalo as a detective and caring for her father who has early-stage Alzheimers.  When a call comes in from the County about a missing man, Abbie heads there to investigate.  Shortly afterwards he is found, brutally murdered.  As Abbie and her partner, Zangara, start to investigate it’s clear that the County is turning inward, refusing to offer up what it knows, and that Jimmy Ryan is the first victim in a set.  Moreover, the killer is taunting her.  Under pressure from her boss, Abbie manages to unearth a trail and tries to get the County to give up its secrets, but there seems little chance of catching the killer before he completes his task and Abbie is clearly part of his plans.

Black Irish is a police procedural thriller that rattles along a quick clip.  The strength of the novel is its characterisation and sense of place.  Absolam Kearney is a strong, proud and feisty cop with a sizable chip on her shoulder who makes for a compelling lead character.  The other characters are well-penned and Talty captures well the close relations of a clannish community.  He also creates a vivid sense of the County and Buffalo in general as a rust-belt city down on its heels.  The plot for the most part works well, revealing the Irish republican history of the community and its legacy, and the tension builds throughout.  However, the tale falters somewhat towards the end, with what for me was one twist too far that felt too implausible and contrived.  Nonetheless, this was an enjoyable start to a series, with a lead character and setting I look forward to following.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Irish crime fiction releases

Over the past few days I've ordered three new Irish crime novels: Mark O'Sullivan's Crocodile Tears, Eoin Colfer's Screwed, and Alan Glynn's Graveland.  They're coming thick and fast at present, and if the initial reviews are anything to go by, they're all pretty damn good.   Also out this month is William Ryan's The Twelfth Department, which I've already read and reviewed.  Some good reading ahead, I sense.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review of The Third Pig Detective Agency by Bob Burke (2009, The Friday Project)

Having survived the Big Bad Wolf attack, Harry Pigg operates a down-at-heel private investigations agency in Grimmtown.  Barely making ends meet he’s approached by the super wealthy, Aladdin, who wants him to recover a stolen lamp.  Pigg knows the case reeks of trouble and takes it on under duress.  Sure enough he’s soon piggy-in-the-middle of a deadly, three-way pursuit for the lamp.  What he needs is a clever solution that’ll save his bacon.

The premise for The Third Pig Detective Agency is a good one -- take the characters and fables from fairytales and fashion them into detective stories with a noir framing and a dollop of black humour.  Jasper Fforde has used the same premise in his Nursery Crimes series.  For the most part, the book is a fun read.  The story is cleverly structured, with a well worked resolution.  The plot, however, is a little thin in places, with some elements under-played.  For example, Edna, the Wicked Witch of the West, is largely reduced to a bit part and the sequence in her domain very linear and too quickly and easily resolved.  Moreover, the writing, whilst capturing some of the style of noir fiction, was too often flat and clunky.  Nevertheless, it’s a fast-paced, light-hearted, enjoyable story suitable for kids and up and on this outing I’d give the other books a try.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

So, Stiffed was released on Tuesday and has made its way off into the world.  A short extract can be found on the Spinetingler Mag website.  A post on the origins of the story is up on Patti Abbott's blog.  Margot Kinberg discusses the book and screwball crime fiction in general on her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.  Thanks also to Peggy Ann at Peggy Ann's Post and Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays for the shoutouts.

I picked up two historical crime novels written by Irish authors for the bargain price of five euro yesterday, Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett and Elegy for April by Benjamin Black.  Unfortunately they were bought from a bookstore closing down and selling off its last stock.  A bitter sweet purchase, but I'm looking forward to reading both books in the coming weeks.

I'm still a little bit behind on my reviewing.  Expect reviews of Bob Burke's The Third Pig Detective Agency, Stephan Talty's Black Irish and Andrea Camilleri's The Dance of the Seagull in the next few days. 

My posts this week
Laying in wait
Review of Bogmail by Patrick McGinley
Stiffed published
Review of The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel
Review of The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Laying in wait

Henry shifted his weight, tensed then stretched his legs.  The ground was cold and damp beneath the canvas sheet.  He rolled his neck and placed his right eye back to the viewer.  A scraggly bush at the base of a tree fifty metres away filled his field of vision as if it were in touching distance.

‘Come-on,’ he muttered, frustrated by the wait.

Five minutes later a fat bird launched skyward.  Henry squeezed the trigger three times before the bird dropped suddenly to the ground.


He smiled and clambered to his feet, looping the camera strap round his neck.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review of Bogmail by Patrick McGinley (1978, reissued 2013, New Island)

Roarty, a widower, runs a pub in the small Donegal village of Glenkeel, aided by Eales, his womanising barman.  There they serve drink to Old Crubog who has land Roarty desires, Rory Rua, a fisherman after same land, the Englishman Potter who works for an American mining company, Cor Mogaill Maloney, the young, village intellectual and Marxist, and the local journalist, Gimp Gillespie, watched over the pious local canon and Sergeant McGing.  Enraged by Eales’ fledgling relationship with his daughter, who has recently moved to London, Roarty decides to do-away with the feckless Romeo.  After initially failing to fell Eales, Roarty succeeds, burying the body in a bog in the middle of the night.  Shortly after he receives a note from the bogmailer seeking a regular cash payment into a Dublin bank account for ongoing silence.  Rather than complying, Roarty decides to identify his tormentor from amongst the village inhabitants.  In the meantime, McGing has decided that solving the disappearance of Eales will be the crowning glory of his long career, and Potter has decided to challenge the canon’s authority. 

Bogmail was original published in 1978 and made into a BBC series titled ‘Murder in Eden’ in 1991.  It has been reissued this year, coinciding with a re-run of the series on TG4.  On its initial publication by Donegal Democrat review ran thus: ‘a horrific concoction of filth ... a picture of life in Donegal that is revolting in the extreme ... virtually pornography veneered with an assumption of literary value ... a shocking libel on the people of Donegal.’  The definition of filth and pornography in late 1970s Ireland, a country then still firmly under the thumb of the Catholic Church, was clearly anything that might hint at blasphemy and sex as whilst Bogmail reveals the petty power struggles between the Church and its flock and the sexual goings on in an isolated village, it’s hardly filth or pornography in a twenty first century sense.  That said, McGinley does not portray the isolated villagers of Glenkeel in a favourable light.  Each is self-possessed and flawed by desire, greed or jealousy, seeking something that they can’t obtain, whether that be love, land or belonging.  McGinley uses the plot of a murder and blackmail as device to explore these relationships and the stifling social order and expectations in an Irish village.  In so doing he produces a very literary form of crime fiction that has the feel of a stage play.  The strength of the book is its characterisation, the vivid prose, the sense of place and atmosphere, the intricate dynamics between the handful of characters, and its social commentary on rural Ireland.  The plot itself, however, does not really go anywhere, with the actions of the bogmailer largely fading from view, and the resolution is weak, not because it’s ambiguous but rather that it just sort of peters out.  Overall, an interesting literary read about foiled and limited ambitions and small village tensions.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Stiffed published

My new novel, Stiffed, was published yesterday by Snubnose Press.  It's a screwball noir set in New England about a group of friends trying to get rid of a body and, in so doing, plunge themselves into more and more trouble.  The tagline is: 'Friends help you move, true friends help you move bodies', and the backcover blurb is below.  I'd like to give my heartfelt thanks to Brian Lindenmuth and R Thomas Brown at Snubnose for publishing the book, the latter in particular did a great job at guiding the book through editing and production and into reader's hands.  The fantastic cover was designed by Eric Beetner.  If you're looking for a couple of great noir reads then check out Ron and Eric's novels - Hill Country and The Devil Doesn't Want Me

You can buy Stiffed as:

an ebook: Amazon US and Amazon UK
a paperback: Amazon US and Amazon UK

Tadhg Maguire wakes to find himself spooning a dead man.  The stiff is Tony Marino, lieutenant to mobster Aldo Pirelli.  It doesn't matter how the local enforcer ended up between Tadhg’s sheets, Pirelli is liable to leap to the wrong conclusion and demand rough justice.

The right thing to do would be to call the cops.

The sensible thing to do would be to disappear.  Forever.

The only other option is to get rid of the body and pretend it was never there.  No body, no crime.

What he needs is a couple of friends to help dispose of the heavy corpse.  Little do Tadhg’s friends know what kind of reward they’ll receive for their selfless act – threatened, chased, shot at, and kidnapped with demands to return a million dollars they don’t possess.

By mid-afternoon Tadhg is the most wanted man in America.  Not bad for someone who’d never previously had so much as parking ticket.

If he survives the day he’s resigned to serving time, but not before he saves his friends from the same fate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review of The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (2006, English translation 2008, Quercus)

Ten years after the end of the Second World War and a small village in Germany is devastated by the murder of an entire family and their maid on a remote farm.  They have been clubbed to death with a pick-axe by an apparent mad-man.  The family largely kept to themselves, using transient men as cheap labour, and were plagued by rumours of incest.  The police and locals are baffled by the murders and there are few leads to follow.  Intrigued by the case, a former resident returns to see if they can make sense of what the press have dubbed ‘the murder farm’.

The intrigue of The Murder Farm is created through the whodunit storyline and its telling. Taking a relatively novel approach, Schenkel tells the story through the voices of a number of people connected to the farm - the classmate of one of the children, the sister and former employer of the maid, local farmers, the shopkeeper, the local priest, and so on.  Each has a distinct voice, with the text being a transcript of their account given to the faceless narrator.  In tandem is the account in a distant third voice, including the incantation of prayers.  The technique works well, and each voice is well crafted, the translator Anthea Bell doing a good job of translation.  The story itself, however, is quite short and linear.  Each person only speaks once and, as a result, the tale seemed a little underdeveloped, with little in the way of suspense.  At no point is there a sense of what the narrator thinks happened and how this aligns or diverges from the third person account of what actually occurred.  Overall, a story more noted for its telling and prose, than the tale itself.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley (Pan, 2012)

Krystyna Sarbeck was born in Warsaw in 1908, the daughter of a Polish aristocrat and his Jewish wife.  She had a privileged upbringing, but her aristocratic and Jewish heritage simultaneously positioned her as part of the elite and an outsider.  It was a position she occupied her whole life, first in pre-Second World War Poland, then as a British agent in the Europe and the Middle East, and then in the post-war years before her untimely death in 1952, as Clare Mulley’s fascinating biography details. 

Krystyna’s two great qualities were charisma and adventurous spirit, which were accompanied by a fierce independence and a subtle beauty.  In her twenties she flitted between parties, skiing and horse-riding, marrying a businessman but separating shortly after.  Moving in high society, she then met and married a rich diplomat.  At the start of the war they were driving across South Africa, but on hearing that Poland had been invaded they immediately travelled to Britain.  Within a few weeks Krystyna had used her charisma to secure a position in British intelligence. 

With her husband posted to Paris, now named Christine Glanville, she moved to Budapest where she started to gather intelligence and aid escapees from Poland, later crossing the mountains into Poland, travelling round the country and establishing contact with resistance groups.  Along with her lover, Andrzej Kowerski, she helped exfiltrate thousands of Polish servicemen, escaping arrest a number of times, and send on important information about German plans to invade Russia. 

In May 1941, Christine and Andrezj drove from Budapest to Cairo via Istanbul.  There she languished for a couple of years, undertaking training, attending parties, taking a string of well connected lovers, and demanding to see action.  After a brief stint in Syria, she was eventually dropped into southern France prior to the Allied invasion.  There she helped run a large resistance network, undertook a number of dangerous missions, and single-handed rescued three SOE agents from a prison three hours before their execution through guile and bluff. 

As Mulley details, Christine Glanville was the first British female agent to serve in the field, was the longest serving female agent of the war, and she won the George Medal, OBE, Croix de Guerre and a host of medals.  However, after the war she was quickly cut lose by the British, initially refused British citizenship and drifted rather aimlessly, unable to settle or find suitable work, despite having a network of highly influential friends.  She took up a job as a steward on a cruise liner where she met a new lover who became obsessed with their relationship.  When she ended the affair he fatally stabbed her in a hotel lobby.

Mulley does a generally excellent job at placing a coherent narrative on Christine’s story.  This is no easy task as Christine herself told countless different versions and her friends and lovers also sought to mask or police her story, especially after her death.  Nevertheless, and perhaps fittingly, Christine remains somewhat of an enigma, in part because she was highly complex and chameleon-like.  She thrived on adventure and danger and excelled at playing parts, using her charisma to manipulate situations.  Yet she could be difficult and seemed to exasperate as many people as she charmed.  Mulley manages to provide an empathetic account that highlights her many positive qualities but does not gloss over her faults.  Given the scope of her journey and the lack of sources relating to elements of it, at times some of the story is a little sketchy, but nonetheless it is an absorbing read about a fearless, driven woman who packed more into her short life than most do who lived to be twice her age.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday I received a very nice two sentence review from a referee for an academic paper under review: "Fine to publish. Depressingly astute, a forensic examination of a lost future and ruins memorialising a bubble."  The paper is about unfinished estates in Ireland and a working paper version can be found here.  If you're interested in the crisis in Ireland and it's roots in the property bubble and subsequent housing bust, I also gave a talk recently at the Royal Irish Academy giving an overview, presenting a load of facts, figures, maps and explanation within a framework of spatial justice, the slides of which are below.


My posts this week
April's reading
The woman who walked into the sea
Review of Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier
The awful smell the accompanies pimping a book
Cutting turf

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cutting turf

George pushed up his shirt sleeves and rolled his shoulders, staring across the flat, desolate bog to the low hills beyond.  Taking hold of his sleán, a two-sided turf spade, he sliced down into the face of the dark, moist peat and lifted a slither free, tossing it sideways onto uncut scrub.  He repeated the action a dozen times, paused, mopped his brow, scanned the horizon, then continued his work, finding his rhythm.  It was a fine, dry day and by twilight he’d have next year’s supply cut, an aching back and a tumbler of whiskey held in calloused hands.


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The awful smell that accompanies pimping a book

As a publication date nears, the anticipation of welcoming a new book into the world builds.  Unfortunately it is accompanied by a dread of having to do the promotion work that goes with it.  It is by far the thing I like least about being an author.  An indication of this is that of the last 26 books I've had published, I think I've only done 5 book launches.  I'm just not very comfortable with pushing the book into other people's faces.  That's not to say that I don't do the promo work.  I normally send round an email to folk I know, put up a couple of blog posts, do a few tweets and Facebook posts, tell people I meet about it, and occassionally have a book launch.  But I'm a reluctant self-publicist.  I'm in the process of sending out emails to other crime fiction bloggers offering a copy of Stiffed, the new novel published next Tuesday.  I'm trying to do it in a way that makes it clear there are no strings attached with the offer -- these are after all my online friends and I don't want them to feel obligated in any way, but nevertheless there is this awful smell of pimping a book hanging around the email.  I guess I'll just have live with it for a little while and get on with it.  After all, it's only fair to the publisher who has taken a punt on the book that I try to attract as many readers as possible.  I apologize in advance if you get cheesed off with the self-promo in the next couple of weeks, but be gladened by the fact that I'm living with a distinctly cheesy smell.  I'll make sure that normal business re. book reviews, etc continues.  Oh, and did I mention, my new novel, Stiffed, is published next week (can you smell that Stilton?)

Review of Big Data: A Revolution that will Change How We Live, Work and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (2013, John Murray).

In 2008 the term ‘big data’ was barely in use.  Five years later and it has become latest ICT-related buzzword, used to refer to the recent surge in the generation of huge quantities of diverse and dynamic data produced by social media, transactions and interactions across the internet, sensor and camera networks, a myriad software-enabled devices, scientific equipment, etc.  Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier’s book aims to provide an initial survey and analysis of the big data phenomena and what they call datafication; the process of transforming all things under the sun into data from which value can be extracted.  They argue that a data revolution is underway, with the nature of data production and analysis undergoing a paradigm shift in three ways.  First, the volume of data being produced is being radically transformed, with a move away from sampling to try and capture entire populations (n=all).  Second, by being exhaustive in scope, it is possible to embrace the messiness of data rather than seeking exactitude (as required, along with randomness, in sampling); as they put it “more trumps better”.  Third, that the types of questions asked changes from why (causation) to what (correlation): “We don’t always need to know the cause of a phenomena; rather, we can let the data speak for itself.”  In other words, the traditional deductive, hypothesis-led mode of analysis is replaced by an inductive approach wherein analytics examine the data for all meaningful patterns, rather than testing for particular relationships.  This third shift, they argue, also means that there is no longer the need for domain-specific expertise.  As such, the era of big data is producing massive, exhaustive, messy datasets that can be mined for insightful information that can be used to identify relationships within the data that can be capitalised upon, such as using the vast quantities of data produced by a supermarket chain about consumers and their transactions to identify patterns of purchases which can then be used to tailor marketing strategies and increase turn-over. 

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier are right that there is a data revolution underway and they provide an initial overview of the big data phenomena.  However, their analysis is weak in a number of respects.  First, it ignores completely emerging debates about the kind of empiricism and data dredging they describe, which are deeply problematic in all kinds of ways, and the data-driven science being advocated by scientists.  No scientist or analyst worth their salt believes that data simply speak for themselves free of theory.  Second, the account is quite sketchy as to how analysts can make sense of big data and the new analytical techniques that are being developed.  There is a science to big data in terms of devising the algorithms employed within machine learning and other big data analytics, yet the reader gets no real insight into how these work.  Third, the book avoids tackling the deep and difficult epistemological questions that arise when a paradigm shift occurs.  The book is clearly targeted at a non-academic audience, but nevertheless a grounded discussion of the philosophy of data and science in the era of big data is merited when such grandiose claims are being made.  Fourth, they rightly acknowledge that big data raises all kinds of ethical issues, but their analysis lacks depth and critique and pushes a business-friendly, market-orientated line about self-regulation without adequately setting out the pros and cons of such a strategy.  Finally, the text suffers from being overly repetitious and the referencing is dreadful: it would be possible to condense the entire book into just a couple of chapters and not lose any of the argument, and whilst there are notes in back of book there are no numbers in the text to link to them.  Overall then, whilst the book provides an initial text about big data and does include some interesting and useful nuggets, the analysis in general is narrow and weak, and it seems more about championing an emerging ICT market than providing a thorough, critical overview of the nature of big data and its implications and consequences.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The woman who walked into the sea

At the weekend I ordered Mark Douglas-Home's, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea.  The first book in the series, The Sea Detective, was excellent and one of my reads of the year so far.  Early reviews of the new book suggest it is even better, which has really whetted my apetite to get my hands on it.  Hopefully it will arrive in the local bookstore shortly.  If it does, expect a review later this month.