Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another year over ...

2014 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis.  Due to the ridiculous reporting procedures I presently have to perform, I know precisely all my work related activities and most of my non-work activities as well for the year.  I was going to use that data to do this post as a kind of scorecard but it reads like, well, a scorecard.  Let’s just say it was a very productive year, with a lot of stuff published, many speaking engagements, and plenty of media coverage.  If you read or heard any of them, then many thanks for your attention.  I hope the pieces proved useful and/or entertaining.  The major event was undoubtedly being awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s Gold Medal for the Social Sciences.  I doubt that award will be topped any time soon, if ever.  My new year’s resolution has been consistently the same for the past number of years: to do less of everything and improve the quality of what I do.  No doubt I’ll once again fail at the first part while still striving for the second.  I hope you had a great year and that 2015 will prove to be a happy and fulfilling one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

December reads

A mixed month of reading, with some very good tales offset by some weaker ones.  The standout read was Jane Casey's London-based police procedural, The Stranger You Know, the fourth book in her Maeve Kerrigan series.

The Boy in the Snow by MJ McGrath **.5
The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey *****
The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg ****.5
The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths **
The Formula by Luke Dormehl ***.5
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent ****.5
Southsiders by Nigel Bird ***
A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson ****.5
Keystone by Peter Lovesey ***
The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler ***
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett ***

Review of The Boy in the Snow by MJ McGrath (Pan, 2012)

Edie Kiglatuk, a native of Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic, is visiting Alaska to help support her ex-husband, Sammy, who is taking part in Alaska’s world-famous Iditarod dog-sled race.  Not long after the race starts, Edie discovers the frozen body of an infant, laid to rest in a spirit house on land belonging to the Old Believers, an exiled Russian Orthodox sect.  The Mayor of Anchorage, and candidate for governor of Alaska, wants the case dealt with quickly and the police soon arrest a member of the sect for murder.  Edie, however, is unconvinced of his guilt and starts her own investigation along with Derek Palliser, an Ellesmere Island police sergeant who is the other member of Sammy’s team, that leads into a sordid and sinister web of sex trafficking, property development, political corruption, and religious persecution.  Her snooping soon raises hackles placing her in danger, but also threatens Sammy’s chances of finishing the race alive.  Edie, however, is stubborn, resilient, and determined to achieve justice for the dead infant.

The first Edie Kiglatuk story, White Heat, was one of my reads of 2012 so I was looking forward to reading The Boy in the Snow.  However, the tale did not live up to expectation.  While the premise is an interesting one, focusing on political ambition and corruption, sex trafficking, and property development, the plot was too full of holes and there was a constant stream of plot devices (unlikely coincidences and connections, police incompetence, stupid actions, blind luck) to be convincing.  What saves the book is the character of Edie Kiglatuk, who I think is a marvellous creation, the sense of place and lifestyle, general atmosphere, and the pace and suspense.  The latter meant the narrative rattles along at a fair clip with a series of tension points and intrigue that kind of steam-rolls over the poor plotting.  This produced a tale that was engaging and frustrating in equal measure.  Where the book really took a nose spin, however, was the denouement, which was weak and unconvincing.  Overall, an interesting read as long as one overlooks the weaknesses in the plotting.  Nonetheless I plan on reading the next Edie Kiglatuk tale as I like the character and the settings.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

The last week has been a relaxing one, mostly spent reading, writing a new novel, and playing with the dogs.  I hope that you've also had a nice seasonal break and are looking forward to the new year.

My posts this week:
The last snowman
Review of The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey
Review of The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg
Review of The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The last snowman

Henry compacted the snow then rolled it across the slope, the ball gathering size.  Satisfied it was the right size he hefted it up and placed it on top of a larger ball.  Next he jammed two twigs into the lower ball, two pebbles and a carrot into the top one.  He stood back and admired his work, gasping for breath.  He was too old for this, but he’d been determined to make what he’d always imagined.  He let his eyes unfocus and watched the children and grandchildren he’d never had play in the snow and smiled ruefully to himself.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey (Ebury, 2013)

Three women have been murdered in their homes.  DC Maeve Kerrigan is pulled off another case headed up by her abrasive boss, DCI Josh Derwent, to help with the investigation and is forbidden from talking to him.  Twenty years earlier, when Derwent was a teenager, his fifteen year old girlfriend was brutally murdered.  Despite having an alibi, Derwent was the prime suspect and the taint of suspicion has never left him.  Now someone fitting his description is pursuing and charming vulnerable women then recreating the old murder scene.  Kerrigan doesn’t want to believe the evidence but it all points to Derwent’s guilt and the fact that another woman is undoubtedly at risk.

The Stranger You Know is the fourth book in the DC Maeve Kerrigan series set in London.  In this outing much of Kerrigan’s attention is focused close to home, trained on her immediate boss, the intimidating bully, Josh Derwent, and the connection between the murder of his girlfriend twenty year’s previously and a series of more recent slayings.  Derwent is desperate to be part of the case, but some of his colleagues are unconvinced of his innocence.  Kerrigan is prepared to give him the benefit of doubt, but as usual he doesn’t make it easy for her.  Casey hits all the nails on the head: a well developed set of characters, a nicely constructed plot, a good sense of time and place, well depicted police procedural elements, engaging prose and narrative, and a good pace.  Kerrigan is a complex character, wracked with vulnerabilities, insecurities, and has low self-esteem, but at the same time knows she has talent, is headstrong and risk-taker, charting her own path often in direct contravention of orders.  The other characters are similarly multidimensional.  The tale has plenty of intrigue, tension, twists and turns, feisty interchanges, and engaging subplots.  For me there was one twist too many, and a couple of characters drop out of the story towards the end, but Casey nonetheless keeps the reader guessing to the last few pages as to the culprit.  Overall, a superior and entertaining police procedural.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review of The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg (Harper 2011, Swedish 2007)

True crime writer Erica Falck has finally decided to open the trunk left by her late mother and to sort through its contents.  What she finds is a set of diaries from the early 1940s and a Nazi medal.  She takes the medal to a local history teacher to try and uncover its significance.  A couple of months later the man is found dead, seemingly murdered just a few days after she had visited him.  While the police investigate the death, Erica, intrigued by her mother’s past, also starts to look for answers, aided by her husband, Patrik, a police detective who is on paternity leave to look after their young daughter.  It is clear that the history teacher had been one of her mother’s childhood friends, along with three others.  They are unwilling to talk about the past, but a path to the secret they share has been opened and Erica and the police are determined to chart a route down it.

The Hidden Child is a well plotted story about two connected crimes in the small coastal town of Fjällbacka, Sweden, one committed in 1945, the other in the present day.  The tale has two particular strengths: a fairly intricate plot told from multiple perspectives that has depth, resonance, and attention to detail; and very nice and detailed characterisations, with in-depth back stories and interchanges.  Indeed, the tale is as much a soap opera concerning the families of Erica Falck and Patrik Hedström, the small team of cops at the local police station, and the lives connected to the case as it is a crime tale.  However, whilst a lot of this soap opera drama is interesting and engagingly told, much of it is somewhat surplus to requirements with respect to the main storyline (though I suspect some of it is pretty central to the series).  The ending is a little telegraphed, especially as the number of viable candidate murderers is whittled down, but nonetheless Lackberg manages to spin out intrigue and nice reveals under the end.  The result is a multi-threaded, well paced story that kept this reader turning the pages. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths (Quercus, 2014)

When two thirds of a body are discovered in left luggage at Brighton station in the summer of 1950, DI Edgar Stephens is assigned to the case.  It appears that the woman was the victim of the Zig Zag Girl trick, whereby a magicians appears to slice a woman in three.  Shortly after the mid-section is sent directly to Edgar.  During the Second World War he had been a member of the Magic Men, a group of magicians tasked with inventing ways to deceive the enemy through illusions, until they were disbanded after a tragic accident.  Edgar turns to his friend, Max Mephisto, who was also a member of the group and is still on the variety circuit.  Max is reluctant to get involved until it is discovered that the dead girl is his former assistant.  Then another former member of the Magic Men is found dead, also staged to look like a magic trick gone wrong.  Aware that they and their former colleagues are under threat Edgar and Max try to unravel the identity of the killer before it’s too late.

I loved the title, cover and premise for The Zig Zag Girl, but was disappointed by the story itself.  I’ve liked Elly Griffiths ‘Ruth Galloway’ series and given my taste for fiction set in the 1930s-1950s, interest in police procedurals and tales relating to the Second World War, I had high hopes for the book.  However, the police procedural elements were unrealistic and the war-time aspects full of inaccuracies and fanciful ideas.  For example, the case concerns a high profile set of murders, yet the only people actively investigating them are a bumbling cop and his magician friend rather than a sizable investigative team.  Moreover, the police response to the threats is minimal, there are no meetings with media, and there is little senior management involvement.  A junior WAAF officer who pushes aircraft round a board in a control room is somehow promoted to head up a whole secret service section.  In Inverness the Magic Men build an aircraft carrier (called a battleship): somehow they can work on it to build it, but it is also so flimsy that a man can’t stand on it to send up a flare so they have to put a woman on it do that job (and she’s lowered on from an aircraft at a time when helicopters were extremely rare).  She shoots the flare, it lands on the very long ship (a few hundred feet) and it catches fire and somehow she can’t get off before it burns out as she’s obviously incapable of jumping into the sea.  The timeline of the war is foreshortened: a few months after the Norway campaign (1940) Edgar’s recruited into the secret service and sent to Inverness (p. 126); after two years there the company is disbanded and he works at a desk job for a couple of months waiting for the war to end (p. 271) -- somehow 3 years have disappeared.  I could go on.  Indeed, the plot in general relied on awkward plot devices and unlikely coincidences and the denouement was very weak.  Further, the narrative had minor continuity errors (e.g., on page 44 Edgar watches Charis die, on page 152 he is told two days later she is dead because he wasn’t there).  I don’t mind some fanciful details or logical inconsistencies in a story, but in this case there were just too many and the result was that I simply did not buy into the tale.  Overall, whilst the premise is interesting, the execution and attention to detail is not and my feeling is the book lacked research and it really needed the attention of a critical editor with domain knowledge of policing and the Second World War to remove/amend the most fanciful bits. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up the final book in my pre-xmas splurge yesterday.  It's been a while since I read Malla Nunn's first book, but I've finally got round to getting hold of the sequel, which I plan to read early in the new year.

My posts this week

Spark with a long shadow
Review of The Formula by Luke Dormehl
Review of Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent
Review of Southsiders by Nigel Bird

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Spark with a long shadow

George stood by the window.

‘You can’t hide in here all the time,’ his wife said from the doorway.

‘They think I’m a monster.’

‘You can’t undo the past, George; you just have to get on with life.’

‘Which is more than Chloe Jansen can.  I was one mouthful over the limit, she ran into the road and Pouf!  Both our worlds are destroyed.  One mouthful and I transform from harmless to monster.  A pariah.  A couple of milliliters.’

‘You shouldn’t have been drinking at all.’

‘She ran out.  If I’d been sober ...’

‘You’d still be wracked by guilt.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve all our Problems ... and Create More by Luke Dormehl (WH Allen, 2014)

The Formula provides an overarching account of how algorithms are increasingly being used to mediate, augment and regulate everyday life.  There’s much to like about the book -- it’s an engaging read, full of interesting examples, there’s an attempt to go beyond the hyperbole of many popular books about technology and society, and it draws on the ideas of a range of critical theorists (including Baudrillard, Deleuze, Marx, Virilio, Foucault, Descartes, Sennett, Turkle, etc).  It’s clear that the discussion is based on a number of interviews with algorithm developers and academics.  However, there are also some notable gaps in the analysis and the analysis itself generally lacks depth.  There is no detailed discussion about the nature of algorithms or its formulation into pseudo-code or code, or even a brief potted history of the development of algorithms.  There is a very short discussion concerning the negative side of algorithms and how they are used to socially sort, underpin anticipatory governance, regulate and control, which really needed to be expanded.  The analysis points to various issues and suggests some interesting lines of enquiry but then skims over them, with one or two points from the varied selection of theorists being used to illustrate an idea but often in quite a superficial way.  Given the book is designed to be a popular science text aimed at a lay readership getting the balance between accessibility, depth and critical reflection is tricky.  Dormehl does a better job of balancing the two than some others I’ve read recently, but I would have still have preferred deeper analysis, especially on the nature of algorithms and the effects and consequences of algorithmic governance and automation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review of by Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Penguin, 2014)

Oliver Ryan has snapped.  Married for over thirty years he hits his wife for the first time.  A couple of hours later he batters her into a coma.  Oliver has always had a cold, enigmatic side to him, but he also has charm and charisma.  Combined they have enabled him to become a very successful author whose books have been turned into plays and movies, and to carry-on a series of affairs.  Since early childhood he has also had dark secrets that he has carefully protected, sometimes with deadly consequences.  Now, as Alice lies in a hospital bed, Oliver’s world is unravelling as some of his various secrets are revealed.

Unravelling Oliver recently won the Irish Crime Novel of the year award.  It could have easily won the literary novel award given its prose and style.  Unlike most crime novels, where the central driver is usually a linear plot told from a single perspective and enhanced by strong characters, Unravelling Oliver is an in-depth character study told from multiple perspectives with a non-linear narrative.  The unravelling of the title refers to both Oliver’s snapping and his fall from grace and to revealing the long run up to it that stretches back over his entire life.  In this sense it is very much a form of psychological drama (rather than thriller, though it is full of gripping moments).  The narrative is carefully constructed, each chapter told in the first person by Oliver or by those closest to him, layering in new elements to the story.  And whilst it is clear what is coming next in some instances, their reveal is nonetheless shocking.  I thought the tale was interesting whilst I was reading it, and though I enjoyed the prose and narrative I was not fully captivated, however in the subsequent couple of days it’s been rattling around in my head, kind of maturing after the fact.  Overall, a thoughtful, literary piece of crime fiction, and definitely worth a read for those tiring of the genre’s usual conventions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review of Southsiders by Nigel Bird (Blasted Heath, 2014)

Jesse Spalding dreads going home from school.  He knows he’s walking in a battle zone as his parents fight.  After a particularly aggressive clash Jesse heads home late to find the family apartment in Edinburgh’s Southside empty.  His father has decided to call it quits and has headed to Belfast via hospital to nurse his wounds.  His alcoholic and violent mother has also fled promising to never return.  Already known to social services, Jesse is determined not to end up in care and contrive a pretence until one or both parents return.  Other than fooling the authorities, he knows the main issue is sourcing money.  The rent is due soon and the only solution seems to be to pawn part of his father’s rare record collection -- something Jesse is loathe to do given he’s as much a fan of 1950s and 60s R&B as his dad.  But he needs the money now and he’ll worry about getting them back later.

There’s much to like about Nigel Bird’s Southsiders.  It has a great set-up -- a kid hooked on 50s R&B abandoned by both parents and trying to survive on his own; a nicely drawn set of characters; and engaging prose that manages to be tough and warm-hearted.  I was thoroughly engaged with and entertained by the story and then it just stopped.  If Southsiders is part of a series then I can see the logic of drawing the first instalment to a close.  The issue for me was the point of closure was too early, with only one element closed, admittedly a key one, but all the others left open.  In other words, I didn’t feel we’d got to the end of Act One and moreover I really wanted Act Two there and then as I needed to know how the elements of the first act got resolved - basically Southsiders is a novella that, in my view, would have been more satisfying as a full novel.  Overall, then, a well told but truncated tale.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

For the second weekend in a row I returned from the local bookshop with a bag full of books.  This time I trundled home with nine purchases, including Aly Monroe's 'Black Bear', Belinda Bauer's 'Blacklands', MJ McGrath's 'The Boy in the Snow', Elly Griffiths' 'The Zig Zag Girl' and Ben Pastor's 'A Dark Song of Blood.'   Add the three others that turned up in the post, plus those already on the main and secondary TBR (yes, I've split them into 'those likely to be read some time soon' and 'those that I might read at some point') and I've easily enough reading to keep me going until well into next year.  Since I've already added a couple of other books to my wishlist, I imagine the pile will continue to shuffle. 

My posts this week
Review of A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson
Review of Keystone by Peter Lovesey

Saturday, December 13, 2014


‘Jesus,’ Carter said, pacing up the slope to the white rocks of the passage tomb, ‘she looks like a figurehead; leaning out into the waves.’

The woman was standing guard at the low entrance, gazing out across the landscape towards Benbulben.  Her arms were by her side, her hair dark except for an inch of grey at its roots.

‘Not so much guarding against evil spirits, than the victim of one,’ the pathologist said.

‘How’s she staying upright?’

‘Impaled on a crowbar angled into the ground.’

‘Impaled?  Oh god.’

‘Or gods.  Or fairies.  Níos fearr athnuachan do miotaseolaíocht na hÉireann*.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words. *'Better refresh your Irish mythology'

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review of A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson (Quercus, 2012)

November 1956 and DI Ted Stratton is called to a murder scene in Soho.  Jeremy Lloyd was a quiet young man of no apparent means who was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors, surrounded by hundreds of religious and spiritual texts.  Lloyd had recently left a cultist sect based in Suffolk run by an enigmatic post-war refugee from the continent, disillusioned by his displacement by a young boy, Michael, as the anointed future spiritual leader.  Aware that he was possibly in danger, Lloyd had left a photograph with a neighbour of a beautiful woman.  Following the trail to Suffolk and the Foundation for Spiritual Understanding, Stratton discovers the woman is Mary Milburn, the charismatic mother of Michael, supposedly conceived through immaculate conception.  She has recently disappeared.  As Stratton presses for answers the Foundation closes ranks.  Nonetheless he starts to uncover Mary Milburn’s secret past, one that raises many more questions.  Then the body of a woman is discovered in the woods near to the Foundation and Stratton is dealing with two murders and a secretive sect.

A Willing Victim is the fourth book in Laura Wilson’s historical police procedural series set in and around London the 1940s and 50s.  In this outing, Stratton is investigating the death of a strange young man in a Soho bedsit who is obsessed with spirituality, the trail leading him to a Suffolk village and a secretive, cultist sect.  It’s an engaging story that is nicely contextualised with respect to the religious foundation (drawing on Wilson’s own experiences of being raised in such an environment) and the period, has a strong sense of place, and has well drawn characters, especially DI Stratton, the charismatic Mary Milburn, and author Ambrose Tynan.  The plot is well constructed, with plenty of intrigue, blinds and feints and has a credible and gripping denouement that doesn’t slip into melodrama.  The narrative is a little over-elaborated in places, especially in the sub-plots, but overall it proved an thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review of Keystone by Peter Lovesey (Sphere, 2013; orig pub 1983)

1916 and having worked his way across America to California with his hammy vaudeville act, Warwick Easton decides to audition for a movie career.  He’s hoping for character parts, but the only thing on offer is a role as part of the Keystone Cops.  Given their capers and stunts it’s a dangerous occupation, as the death of one of the cops demonstrates when a stunt goes wrong leaving him dead.  Easton's plan is to build up enough funds then head back to England to join the war, but then he meets and befriends Amber Honeybee, an attractive and ambitious actress.  Despite her obvious lack of talent, Amber jumps from bit parts to leading lady and shortly after her mother is found dead in suspicious circumstances.  Easton is quick to defend her from gossip and accusations, but soon ends up being beaten and his apartment ransacked.  His solution is to turn from Keystone Cop to cop, seeking to exonerate Amber, despite his suspicions that she’s guilty of something, and ensnare whoever seems hell bent on their demise, regardless of how powerful or famous they might be.

Keystone is a historical crime story set in Los Angeles in 1916, specifically focusing on the Keystone Studio.  Whilst firmly a piece of fiction it includes a number of real-life characters including the studio owner, Mack Sennett, and actors Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Mack Swain, and a number of the Keystone Cops.  The two lead fictional characters are Warwick Easton and Amber Honeybee, neither of whom are particularly likeable: Easton being solemn, defensive, snooty, and standoffish; Amber, overly ambitious, lacking in talent, devious and opportunist, and stubborn.  Easton is smitten, but the relationship is mostly platonic, with him trailing round after and defending her.  The tale unfolds at nice pace, the prose is light and breezy, and the plot is interesting without being captivating.  I had a good idea as to the culprits, though not the reason why events were unfolding as they were.  Overall, a good setting and idea, and it help pass a few hours pleasantly enough.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

A quick visit to the local bookshop yesterday added three new books to my to-be-read pile: Liz Nugent's Unravelling Oliver, Jane Casey's The Stranger You Know, and Camilla Lackberg's The Hidden Child.  I also picked up Vidar Sundstol's The Land of Dreams during the week.  I keep telling myself that they only amount to two weeks reading, but the pile nevertheless continues to grow.

My posts this week

Review of The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler
Review of Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Saturday, December 6, 2014


The detective stared at the canal.  The ripples from a passing swan ebbed and the glassy face reappeared just beneath the surface, a pale oval surrounded by a tangle of black hair.

He was joined by a colleague.

‘The divers are on their way.’

‘She looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting.’



‘By Millais.  Daughter of Polonius.’

‘Right.  Except a guy over there thinks she’s, and I quote, “the gobby Australian who was in The Roost last night”.’

‘Who met her Millais.’

‘Who’ll now be shipped ten thousand miles in a box.’

‘First we sent coffin ships, now simply coffins.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2013)

Dick Simnel’s has inherited his father’s fascination for steam and the possibilities of harnessing its power.  Unlike his father, he relies on a slide rule and mathematics to tame and harness it, meaning he doesn’t vaporize himself as he tinkers.  The result is Iron Girder, a train that runs on rails.  Simnel takes his invention to the great city of Ankh-Morpork, seeking the help of self-made man, Harry King, to build a railway network.  The city’s patrician, Lord Vetinari, can see the inherent potential in quick, efficient and comfortable travel, but is also aware that luddites will try to limit progress.  He thus dispatches Moist von Lipwig, master of the Post Office, the Mint, and Royal Bank, to help smooth the way and negotiate routes.  In the meantime, a different kind of revolution is brewing in the Dwarf world, as conservative extremists plot to overthrow the more liberal king and destroy the corrupting influence of new technologies and multiculturalism.

Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld book in Terry Pratchett’s hugely successful fantasy/satire series.  I’ve read all of them bar two.  All of the books are consistently inventive, warmly humorous and satirical, and full of interesting characters and plots.  Raising Steam focuses attention on two main themes and their juxtaposition -- the creation of new technologies and how they can transform societies and produce new issues, and the rise of extremist religious groups that hold highly traditional and conservative views and want to mould society in their vision.  It’s an interesting tension, but in this case the story nonetheless feels like two quite different narratives being jammed together without ever fully blending.  Moreover, while the book is in the fantasy genre, there were inconsistencies or convenient plot devices that felt clunky, some characters felt surplus to requirements, and there are sub-plots that go nowhere.  For example, despite growing up relatively poor, Simnel’s mother just happens to have a fortune in the attic to fund the initial development of an engine.  And when Simnel travels to Ankh-Morpork to demonstrate the engine he has to set up a track to do so; somehow the big, heavy engine made the journey without rails, but now needs them to run.  We’re told of a wedding massacre and a young dwarf visiting his family being attacked, but these then sink without trace.  The result, for me, was one of the weakest books in the series.  Full of nicely penned characters (and there are an awful lot them, many from previous books snuck in for small cameo appearances), and packed with snippets of railway lore, but the plot not quite running on track.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review of The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler (No Exit Press, 2014)

The son of a famous stage actress, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, or ‘Kit’ to his friends, is a war correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express.  After stints reporting from the Balkans and other hot spots he finds himself in Mexico in the spring of 1914.  A civil war is unfolding and the arrest of a handful of American sailors by the Mexican authorities has led to the US seizing the port of Vera Cruz.  The US marines arrive at the same time as a shipment of armaments on a German ship.  The occupation is not entirely peaceful, with a few skirmishes with local forces and a sniper winging collaborators and a marine.  With the help of a young pickpocket Cobb seeks to identify the sniper and the identity and intentions of a man sneaked into the port from the German ship.  He has a nose for a good story and senses he could be onto a major scoop, though the adventure to claim it might cost him his life. 

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer winning literary writer who in The Hot Country turns his talents to historical crime fiction.  The result, for me at least, is a story that has the prose, pace and reflective aspects of literary fiction, but lacks the tightness, edge and intrigue of crime fiction.  The book is billed as a thriller, but the pace is for the most part languid and the tale drawn out with few tension points, especially in the first half where there are some incidents but they lack edge and verve.  Added to this, the historical context is underdeveloped.  I know very little about Mexican history or its relations with the US and having read the story I still know little beyond the two month, narrowly presented slice of the story.  Somewhat ironically given that the lead character is a journalist, the reader is provided with next to no wider context.  The story did not need to be an in-depth history lesson, but it did need to provide a reasonable amount of historical orientation.  Taken together, the pace, lack of context and tension, left me adrift rather than being captivated.  Once the tale left Vera Cruz it picked up pace a little and became more adventurous, with Cobb shifting from reporting history to actively intervening and creating it by adopting the swashbuckling role of an undercover, frontline war correspondent.  It was a shame then that the qualities of the second half of the story did not run throughout.  On the plus side, Cobb is an engaging lead character, I really enjoyed the subplot of his correspondence with his wayward mother, and there is enough potential to suggest an interesting series.  Indeed, despite being a little lukewarm to this outing, I would be interested in reading about Cobb’s next adventure.

Monday, December 1, 2014

November reads

With the exception of the last two reads, November was mainly a month of reading historical fiction and popular history.  My read of the month was The Fires by Joe Flood about New York in the 1970s, an excellent account of how politics and policy can have disastrous effects on cities.

Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 ****
Dataclysm by Christian Rudder **
Potsdam Station by David Downing ****
The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson ****
The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson ***
The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman ***
The Fires by Joe Flood *****
Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser ****

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Another hectic week of running around to meetings, giving talks and trying to catch up on admin.  With regards to the latter, the ultimate irony of neoliberal attempts to undermine, hollow out, and hold to account bureaucracy is that it creates way more bureaucracy through audit and accountability trails.  What that means is a lot of time filling out forms about how I've spent my time filling out forms or attending meetings.  I suspect that we've never had so much bureaucracy and so many bureaucrats as at present.  Is that a good thing?  I guess that depends on whether you're a bureaucrat or not.  Personally, I'd prefer to spend my time doing something more productive, such as delivering on the core mission of the job.  Okay, rant over!  Back to compiling a list of bureaucratic tasks I still need to complete.

My posts this week

After the storm
Review of Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 ****
Review of Dataclysm by Christian Rudder **

Saturday, November 29, 2014

After the storm

As suddenly as the roar of the tornado had been on them, it had vanished, replaced by the staccato of rain on the shelter doors.

Tom Jennings pulled a weak smile and hugged his daughter.  ‘Well that was more exciting than Disneyland.  Come-on, let’s take a look.’

‘Tom,’ his wife warned.

‘I’m just taking a peek.’

He levered open a door and gazed out at the devastation, momentarily lost for words.


‘Well, the bad news is that the house and garage are gone.’


‘The good news is we’re alive and I’ll have plenty of work rebuilding the town.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Review of Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 (Blasted Heath, 2014)

Dean Drayhart is an unlikely candidate for death row.  A paraplegic after a hit and run incident that killed his daughter, Dean turned vigilante, tracking down hit and run drivers and administered lethal justice via the vicious teeth of his helper monkey, Sid.  One of those he dispensed with before being taken into police custody was the son of a Mexican Mafia boss.  Orella Malalinda wants Dean sprung from jail, and Sid and his call-girl girlfriend, Cinda, ensnared.  Then she wants revenge.  And what Orella wants, she is used to getting.

Bite Harder starts pretty much where Hard Bite ended and I think it’s fair to say that the books should be read in sequence.  If you need to catch-up, this is no bad thing as Hard Bite is excellent - original, witty, smart, dark, and hard with a soft-centre (see my review).  Bite Harder has the same traits, though the balance of the plot is more action orientated, with a little less reflection, and told from multiple perspectives as the various characters seek or flee each other, eventually converging on an epic finale.  The pace is high throughout, there’s plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and the narrative is laced with black comedy.  I would have liked the cop thread to be filled out a little, spent a bit more time with the folks in the old people’s home, and also got a little more back story with regards to a couple of characters, but these are minor quibbles.  Bite Harder is a lot of hard hitting fun and hopefully Dean, Sid and Cinda will reunite for a new adventure shortly.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Review of Dataclysm: Who We Are (when we think no one’s looking) by Christian Rudder (Fourth Estate, 2014)

The stated aim of Dataclysm is to introduce lay readers to the era of big data, the possibilities of such data, and the types of analysis used to make sense of them.  The problems with the book start with the title and subtitle, neither of which, I think, make much sense.  Dataclysm, Rudder explains, is a play on cataclysm: the wiping away of one era to be replaced by a new one.  However, big data is set to complement small data, not wipe them away as small data are generated to answer specific questions rather than being a by-product that is then repurposed, and most big data are held by private corporations or government and are not readily open to researchers.  All of the data that Rudder analyzes is from social media; they are data produced precisely because we think someone is looking (for a date, for conversation, for information, to provoke a reaction, etc).  Uploading information to the internet is largely a process of the presentation of the self, as Goffman’s famous theory would frame the activity.  Even if other people cannot see the answers to direct questions, as when filling in questions on a dating site, the answers shape the user profile and the process of matching -- something that users are aware of, consider and present to.

The book then proceeds by discussing social media data and what they might reveal about human behaviour and society.  Crucially, however, there is no systematic discussion of big data per se, its forms and characteristics, no discussion of data analytics, and only a cursory discussion of the many ethical, social and political implications of such data.  There is no discussion of statistics, or statistical tests performed on the data presented, nor data mining, data analytics, machine learning, pattern recognition, profiling, prediction, etc.  The irony here is that Rudder’s company – OkCupid – employs these techniques to be able to process and match potential partners, yet he never explains how this is achieved. 

Instead, the entire analysis is rooted in the empiricist form of data science, rather than data-driven science, and never proceeds beyond description.  As such, the analysis of gender and race he presents are based on a ‘letting the data speak for themself’ approach and constitutes armchair interpretation.  He barely engages with the vast academic literature on quantitative analysis of race and gender that has taken place for several decades using large data sets such as the census or public administration data.  Rudder has access to an enormous set of very interesting data that could be used to conduct some fascinating sociological and psychological analysis.  Instead what we get are a series of descriptive statistics and banal revelations, most of which are already well established. 

The result is a book that hints at the potential of big data and data science but undersells it substantially, and it under-estimates in my view the readership level of its potential audience by never progressing beyond mathematics and data visualisations used in junior school.  In contrast, books such as The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver provide a much wider and deeper discussion.  This is a shame as Rudder is an engaging writer and he has privileged access to an extremely rich social data that could be used to conduct some wonderful and sophisticated social science research.  Such rich research and its policy implications are barely hinted at.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

As regular readers of the blog will be aware, my new novel Stumped was published ten days ago.  I've spotted two reviews, one on Eurocrime by Rich Westwood (of Past Offences) and one on Col's Criminal Library.  I also answered twenty questions on Dana King's blog, One Bite at a Time.  Many thanks to all three.  I also said I would parse out some of the back cover blurbs.  Here's one from Michael Russell, author of the excellent Stefan Gillespie series (for reviews click here and here):

...a unique combination of comedy, both gentle and black, and Grand Guignol murder and mayhem. The story is full of clever and convincing twists at every turn and is packed with characters, especially villains, drawn with an almost Dickensian colour and intensity. Funny, engaging, fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. And the style is all Rob Kitchin’s. Thoroughly recommended.

If those have whetted your apetite then 280Steps have an introductory sales price of $2.99 for e-copies to attract early readers via Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, iBooks.  You can also purchase as a paperback via usual outlets.  If you are a book blogger and you are interested in a review copy then leave a comment or email me and I'll arrange for a copy to be sent to you.

Other posts this week

Review of Potsdam Station by David Downing
Review of The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson
Opening up smart cities: A report on the Smart City Expo World Congress
Dying for a dare

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dying for a dare

‘I say we go back.’

‘Don’t be such a baby.’

‘It’s not safe.’ Jamie gripped the frayed rope and stared down between the slippery, broken slats at the quickly moving river.

‘It’s fine,’ Dan said, clambering ahead.  ‘Just stick to the edges and hold onto the ropes.’

‘I’m going back.’

‘Big baby!’

Jamie ignored the jibe and slowly turned around.  He didn’t mind a dare, but wasn’t going to risk his life for one.

A board snapped behind him, the rope bridge swaying.

‘Jamie!  Help!’

He glanced back.  Dan was dangling beneath the bridge, his feet inches above the river.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review of The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson

October 1960 and an East German charmer, Andreas, has started an affair with Katya Alekseev, wife of the head of the KGB in Berlin.  Sensing a way to make money, Andreas steals a personal letter, one that contains an important secret that will shift the balance of power in the nuclear arms race.  He offers a copy of the letter to Will Catesby, Britain’s leading spy in Berlin. Catesby is a working class agent inside an upper class agency that seems to be playing as many mind and dirty games with their American allies as Eastern bloc opponents.  Given American bravado and Russian nervousness, Britain fears it could be obliterated in a lethal game of nuclear chicken.  What is certain is that the letter Catesby now possesses cannot be allowed to fall into American hands, especially those of a hawkish disposition.  Two years later he is stationed in Cuba and Britain’s fears of the cold war becoming hot are perilously close to being realised.  With the change in the political landscape, Catesby’s role has shifted from spy to back-channel negotiator.  However, not everyone trusts him, especially given his history and the company he keeps, and some positively want him dead; an outcome that might well lead to Armageddon. 

In The Midnight Swimmer Edward Wilson re-imagines the Cuban missile crisis.  Whilst many of the characters, incidents and political stakes are real, Wilson places his working class spy, Will Catesby, into the heart of the tale.  Catesby is an experienced operative with a tarnished history, and the British are still not trusted by their American counterparts given the fallout of the Cambridge ring.  What unfolds is a dangerous and complex game between British, American, French, West and East German, and Russian agencies and operatives, some of whom are trying to follow the party line, others pursuing their own agendas.  Even within the same country, different factions are vying to influence the paths taken.  Catesby is a pawn in this landscape, never quite certain of the game being played.  And neither is the reader until the latter part of the book.  What that means is the first half of the tale is a little oblique and stuttering, but as it continues it becomes surer and more compelling as pieces start to drop into place.   As with the first two books in the Catesby series, the narrative is layered, the characters are complex and nicely drawn, the plot has plenty of intrigue and understated encounters and action, and the historicisation is excellent with careful attention to detail.  Wilson’s spy novels are intricate affairs consisting of a swirling mix of greys and shifting allegiances and unexpected collaborations, rather than black and whites and sharply drawn lines.  The result is a thoughtful, engaging and entertaining spy tale.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Potsdam Station by David Downing (2011, Old Street Publishing)

It’s April 1945 and three and a half years since American journalist, John Russell, fled Berlin to Sweden aided by a communist cell, leaving his partner, actress Effi Koenen, and teenage son, Paul, behind.  Russian troops are poised to take the city and Russell wants enter with them to find and protect Effi and Paul from the marauding victors, assuming they are still alive.  He travels to Moscow to try and persuade the authorities that they would benefit from a Western journalist accompanying them.  They initially decline, arresting him as a spy, but then decide to give Russell his wish as long as he carries out a mission for them - parachuting  into the edge of the devastated city with a scientist, and two NKVD minders, tasked with searching for papers related to the German atomic programme.  After surviving for so long under an assumed identity, Effi and the young orphan she’s been caring for, are hoping to see out the war, but the Gestapo seem intent on annihilating all enemies of the state before they are overthrown.  Meanwhile, Paul is fighting a desperate rear-guard action as part of the chaotic retreat to Berlin.  At eighteen he’s thoroughly disillusioned, but also desperate to avoid pointlessly sacrificing himself for a regime he despises.  Russell is not sure how he is going to locate them, especially given the bargain he’s entered into, but he feels compelled to search through the ruins and risk the desperate fighting.

The fourth book in the John Russell/Effi Koenen series, Potsdam Station is told through three points of view: Russell, Effi and Paul, Russell’s son from his first marriage.  Each new scene switches to focus on one of three.  The result is three different views on the fall of Berlin from the perspective of foreign journalist, surviving citizen, and retreating soldier.  This is one of the strengths of the tale, along with engaging prose, nice characterisation, a very vivid sense of place and geography, interesting historic detail, a cloying atmosphere, and a visceral sense of desperation as a regime collapses under a fierce onslaught.  Nonetheless, the plot is a little far-fetched, particularly the scenario of Russell persuading the Russians to get him into the city ahead of their arrival and Effi failing to maintain her cover to the final fall.  That said, despite having a pretty good sense of how the tale would end, Downing keeps the tension high throughout.  Further, the first two books in the series were set in 1939 and the third in 1941 and in some ways it’s a shame that Downing has decided to jump forward three and a half years to 1945 for the fourth as I’m sure a compelling tale could have been inserted in that timeframe.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining read, with a main plot that’s a little fanciful but a narrative that’s compelling.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

After a bit of a hunt I found my kindle yesterday, gave it a charge, then downloaded four books from Blasted Heath.  Three of their authors have been in my yearly top tens over the past couple of years, and I've been reading the short stories of the other for quite a while, so I thought it was time to catch up with them again.  I'm looking forward to tucking into Anonymous-9's Bite Harder, Gerard Brennan's Undercover, Douglas Lindsay's The Unburied Dead, and Nigel Bird's Southsiders.  I've already made a start on the first and it's living up to expectation.

My posts this week
Review of The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson
Hype, hubris, hope, heads in the sand, and some very cool stuff: A report on the Web Summit
Review of The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman
New paper: From a Single Line of Code to an Entire City
Stumped published
Job: Three year postdoc on the Programmable City project
Book 30
Taking on airs

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Taking on airs

‘It’s the air.’

‘What about it?’

‘It reminds me of home.  It’s damp and fresh, with a hint of salt, loam, smoke and gorse.  Like an autumn evening.’

‘Like a battlefield in Normandy.  All I can smell is fear.’

‘I’m not talking about smell.  It’s more elemental.  It’s the actual air.  The stuff we breathe.  Move through.  That swirls around us.  The atmosphere that creates a certain atmosphere.’

‘You should write a poem.’

‘I’m not trying to be a poet.  I’m telling you why this place seems familiar.’

‘Well, we’re not used to lying in a foxholes in Huddlesfield, Jonesy.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book 30

Somewhat surprisingly it turns out the Stumped is my 30th book.  It's my sixth work of fiction (four novels and two collections of short stories) and I've had 24 academic books published (or 36 depending on how the 12 volumes of the encyclopedia and 2 volumes of the handbook are counted): 12 written and 12 edited.  (The yellow, red and dark blue blocks on the shelves are issues of journals I've edited).  At one level it seems kind of unreal that I've written or edited all these tomes.  On another it seems quite banal - that's what I'm paid to do; think about things and write them down, or edit other people's thoughts - and if you write a little each day it soon stacks up.  Either way, I think reaching 30 is worth a short post and a toast.  I'd say here's to thirty more, but I'm not sure how realistic that is! If you've bought or read any of them, then thanks and I hope they proved useful or entertaining or both.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stumped published

Today marks the officially publication date of Stumped, my new screwball noir novel published by 280Steps. Here's the back cover blurb.

It is election time in Ireland and a lot more is about to change for Grant, a new arrival from England, and his wheelchair-bound friend Mary, than their political representatives.

Their friend, Sinead, has been kidnapped, and her brother, Pat, has disappeared. Charged with tracking them down, Grant and Mary are soon caught between a vicious Dublin gangster seeking the return of a valuable package and an ambitious politician determined to protect a secret that might harm his re-election prospects. To make matters worse, when someone they confront is found floating face down in the River Liffey, Inspector McGerrity Black, Dublin’s finest rockabilly cop, is soon hot on their trail. 

With election day looming and Sinead’s fingers turning up on a regular basis they race through County Kildare suburbia, Dublin’s saunas, Manchester’s gay village and rural Mayo, crossing paths with drag queen farmers, corrupt property developers, and sadistic criminal gang members, as they desperately seek a way to save themselves and their friends while all the time staying ahead of the law. 

I'm really delighted with the cover design and thankful to 280Steps, especially Kjetil Hestvedt, for all their work on the book.  I'm also very grateful to those that read beta-copies and those that provided advance reader quotes.  I'll share some of those over the coming days, but here's one from Gerard Brennan:

"This novel is frantic, fierce and fabulous. Skip the manicure before reading. Stumped is a head-scratching nail-biter that'll leave your fingers chewed down to the nub."

You can read a short extract at 280Steps.

You can pick up a copy at or or other retailers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman (NAL Calibre, 2007)

From 1942 on the Allies started to systematically bomb the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti flying first from North Africa and then Italy.  Given their vital strategic value to the Axis the refineries were heavily defended by flak defences and fighter squadrons and the attrition rate on Allied bombers and crews was high.  Many of the crews bailed out over Yugoslavia, occupied by German and Italian troops and divided by complex internal divisions: the Fascist Ustase, collaborating with the Axis, and the Communist Partisans led by Tito and Royalist Chetniks led by Mihailović.  The latter two had a different approach to fighting the Axis, the Partisans being more pro-active, the Chetniks biding time until an Allied invasion to avoid severe civilian reprisals, and were engaged in a civil war for control of Yugoslavia post war.  From 1943 onwards, the Allies position was to back the more active Partisans and the advice given to airmen was if they bailed out to try and avoid the Chetniks, who were suspected of collaboration. 

The Forgotten 500 tells the story of the airmen who landed into Chetnik hands and were subsequently rescued by a daring mission organised by OSS and the American Air Force.  Despite the warnings given to them, the several hundred airmen who ended up in Chetnik hands were treated as heroes, extended warm hospitality and offered sanctuary.  Nevertheless, many were injured, all were hungry, and their presence threatened the lives of local villagers.  After a lot of in-fighting amongst the Allies, Operation Halyard was formulated by the OSS to extract them.  Three agents were parachuted in and along with the Chetniks and airmen constructed a short runway at Pranjane in the mountains.  On August 9th and 10th 272 men were picked up by C-47 transport planes are flown back to Italy.  Over the next few months more airmen were extracted bringing the total up to 512 rescued.

Freeman’s account of the rescue mission seeks to balance the story of the American airmen in Yugoslavia, with the efforts of the OSS to organize their rescue, and the wider political landscape of Yugoslavia and the Allies relationship to its two main anti-Axis factions: the Partisans and Chetniks.  His telling is heavily weighted towards the first two using extended personal stories of a handful of survivors to tell the tale.  Some of this material whilst interesting is largely extraneous to the story.  On the other hand, the wider framing of the Yugoslav arena and its internal conflicts is quite cursorily dealt with, as is the Communist ring that influenced the Allied position vis-a-vis its engagement with different factions.  The latter part of the book deals with events after the war.  The victorious Partisans put Mihailović on trial for treason.  Those rescued by Operation Halyard petitioned to be able to attend the trial as witnesses for the defence, and even after his execution continued to campaign to clear his name.  However, for political reasons the rescue mission was largely kept a secret and little attempt was made to set the historical record straight.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, but in my view could have done with a bit of an edit to avoid repetition and redundancy and to frame the mission a bit more firmly in the wider political landscape.  The inclusion of some maps (e.g., the flight path to Ploesti, the strongholds of Partisans and Chetniks, a local map of where the rescue took place) would have also been useful.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review of The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson (Little, Brown, 2014)

Kasper Meier has survived the war and now shares a small apartment with his elderly father in the ruined city of Berlin.  The economy is shattered, people struggling to get by on meagre rations, supplemented with scraps traded for on the black market with other locals and the occupying forces.  Meier spends his days horse-trading, swapping household goods and information for food and tobacco, working his various networks.  One day a young woman, Eva Hirsch, shows up at his apartment wanting Meier to find the whereabouts of a British pilot.  When Meier refuses, she resorts to blackmail.  Meier has his own way of dealing with blackmailers but as he tries to short-circuit Eva’s scheme he comes to realise that he’s caught up in something more sinister, as is Eva -- allied soldiers are being murdered on a regular basis.  Feeling sympathy for Eva and wanting to extract himself from the threats and obligations being placed on him by Frau Beckmann, Eva’s landlady and rubble clearing leader, and her feral twin children, Meier tries to work out how to save himself, Eva and his father.

The strength of The Spring of Kasper Meier is the post-war desolate atmosphere of Berlin, the sense of place, and the details concerning how ordinary people seek to survive amongst the rubble on meagre rations.  Kasper Meier is interesting character, complex, brusque, tough, yet compassionate, who has long lived a secret life, managing to survive in Nazi Germany.  Eva is more open and friendly, a little naive, but with an edge hardened survivor mentality.  Their somewhat awkward relationship is nicely portrayed.  The plot, centring round find a British pilot and supposed revenge killings is an interesting idea, but its telling is not always convincing and often a little drawn out.  The plot hinges on a threat of blackmail that, for me at least, didn’t seem strong enough and the fear exerted by two omnipresent twelve year old twins that did not feel credible, regardless of how feral they’re portrayed.  And for someone who has managed to survive, specialises in sourcing information and trading on the black market, and possesses a gun and physical strength, Meier doesn’t always act in line with personality and circumstance.  The result was the story felt a little uneven and contrived at times.  Overall then, an engaging and atmospheric, but sometimes patchy, story of survival and struggle in the ruins of Berlin.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

A big week coming up with the launch of Stumped, my new novel published by 280Steps on Thursday.  It's a screwball noir set in Ireland and here's what Northern Irish novelist Gerard Brennan had to say about it:

"As far as Irish crime fiction goes, Kitchin delivers all the major ingredients: mystery, psychos and a dash of drag queen farmers. This novel is frantic, fierce and fabulous. Skip the manicure before reading. Stumped is a head-scratching nail-biter that'll leave your fingers chewed down to the nub."

So, as long as you're not too attached to your fingernails, Stumped will hopefully be an entertaining read.  I know it was good fun to write.

My posts this week
October reading
Review of The Fires by Joe Flood
Review of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser
Clearing rubble

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clearing rubble

One brick, rubble, two bricks, rubble, rubble, three bricks, rubble, four bricks, rubble, rubble, rubble, five bricks ... ... ... buckets full.

Hannah stood up slowly, stretching her back and thin arms.  With cracked and bloody hands she grabbed hold of the bucket handles and shuffled to the waiting carts -- bricks into one, rubble the other -- then trudged back to her spot.

A dozen scrawny women were clearing the collapsed building by hand.

One brick, rubble, two bricks, child’s foot.  ‘Georg, I’ve another.’

She was joined by an elderly man.  ‘Must have got the whole family.  Poor bastards.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser (HarperCollins, 1969)

When Harry Flashman is expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness he opts for a career in the Army, his rich father buying him an officer’s commission in the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons.  They have just returned from India and are unlikely to posted overseas again in the near future.  However, Flashman is a natural at attracting trouble and he is soon sent to Scotland to cool his heals where he beds a factory owner’s daughter.  Forced into marriage by her family he is drummed out of the Dragoons for marrying a commoner and posted to India.  There his talent for languages lands him a meeting with the Governor-General who makes him an aide to General Elphinstone, who is heading to Afghanistan to take over command of the British Army there.  Flashman arrives just in time to participate in the biggest disaster to befall a British Army, the 1842 Kabul retreat that witnessed the death of 4,500 troops and 12,000 supporting civilians.  But Flashman is a survivor and manages to cover himself in glory, despite the calamity surrounding him.

Flashman was published in 1969, purporting to be the first instalment of the recently discovered reminisces of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE.  The story starts with setting the record straight on his expulsion from Rugby School, as recounted in Tom Brown’s School Days published in 1857 by Thomas Hughes, and then follows his exploits from the time he entered the British Army as teenager to when he returns to Britain two years later having taken part in Kabul retreat.  Flashman is an interesting character.  Six foot two and handsome, he’s a self-acknowledged scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, bully, coward, and toady.  Openly misogynist and racist, he claims only three natural talents: horsemanship, an ear for languages, and fornication.  To that should be added luck and cunning.  He has a habit of getting himself moved into harm’s way, but always somehow manages to survive, usually through someone else’s bravery and then claiming credit and glory.  He would be an easy character to dislike except that he is also self-deprecating, brutally honest, something of an anti-hero, his wife has the measure of him, and his account has a nice dose of wit.  The story is undoubtedly politically incorrect, but knowingly so, and also true to attitudes of the time, and it is full of adventure and scrapes.  It is also chocked full of well researched historical detail, Fraser using Flashman to tell the story of the disastrous retreat from Kabul and the First Anglo-Afghan war.  It’s one of those tales that that anyone familiar with political correctness feels they shouldn’t really like, but it’s telling means that one can’t help but doing so.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review of The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood (Riverhead, 2011)

In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called ‘The War Years’-- 1968-1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires.  This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city’s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to modernize and change organisational structures and working practices, drawing extensively on the systems op analysis of RAND.  Flood, however, does an admirable job of untangling the various forces at play and how they interacted to create a deadly maelstrom.  This is achieved by focusing on the intentions, decisions and actions of a handful of key actors, especially Mayor John Lindsay, Fire Chief John O’Hagan, and the RAND Corporation, contextualising these with respect to particular events and wider economic and political factors.  This analysis draws on extensive archival research and many interviews with key actors, including politicians, public servants, serving firemen, and families. The result is a nuanced and layered story that demonstrates that there is no, and can never be, a magic formula to running a city; that despite good intentions, reams of facts and statistics, and clever models made by very bright people, cities are messy, complex, multi-scalar, open entities that are social, cultural, political and economic in nature, acting and reacting in diverse ways to myriads of factors and competing and conflicting interests.

From the perspective of my own interest in the present drive to create ‘smart cities’, The Fires provides an excellent analysis of one of the first attempts to systematically apply systems analysis underpinned by computer modelling to the management of city services and logic behind using such an approach.  The RAND Corporation were contracted by the city to determine how best to re-organise the fire service to improve its effectiveness whilst saving resources, including identifying what companies to close and where to open new stations.  They were employed with the aim of showing the value of displacing Tammany politics through the introduction of rational, technocratic solutions that employed an impartial scientific method to city governance.  The findings from the models RAND built were implemented in practice altering the management of the fire service and its day to day operations.  Moreover, the models produced earned their developers a host of major international prizes for applied scientific research. 

However, subsequent research has demonstrated that the RAND models suffered from four major problems which had severe knock-on effects on the ability of the NYFD to effectively fight fires, which had knock-on effects to the rate and impact of fires.  The model suffered from poor and gamed data, an information and cultural gap between the modellers and the domain they were modelling, faulty assumptions concerning how to measure company efficiency and effectiveness and poor model building (for example, comparing companies within seven types of areas but not across them so that they were not computing optimization of coverage across the city but within areas it deemed similar), and political influence shaped how the models were constructed, calibrated and used.  In total, 34 of the city’s busiest fire companies were closed, despite warnings from senior fire officers as to the reality of what was going on in neighbourhoods and to the remaining fire companies and suggestions for alternative approaches, and somewhat perplexingly a number of others were opened in sleepy backwaters.  Along with the effects of other social, political and economic forces at work, the result was ‘The War Years’ when ‘hundreds of thousands of people in the Bronx, central Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Harlem neighbourhoods were burned from their homes’ (p. 8).  In the Bronx, seven census tracts lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire or abandonment (in census tract 2 of 836 residential buildings recorded in the 1970 census only 9 remained in 1980), with 44 tracts (out of 289 in the borough) losing more than 50 percent.

Flood concludes the book with a short overview of how such a systems approach has become increasingly adopted by governments, driven by an audit culture, a political reform agenda, and the adoption of business governance practices.  This is the weakest chapter of the book, with the analysis skimming over the rise of new managerialism, neoliberalism, and technocratic approaches to governance.  This is clearly not the central mandate of the book, but it does mean that the legacy of the New York RAND experiment is not elaborated. 

Despite identifying significant flaws in the systems approach to city governance, Floods’ conclusion is not that systems analysis and city modelling research should be avoided by city administrations, but rather that its use needs to be balanced with other forms of knowledge: rather than episteme (scientific knowledge) and teche (practical instrumental knowledge) replacing phronesis (knowledge derived from practice and deliberation) and metis (knowledge based on experience), the insights drawn from all four need to be considered and debated to formulate policy.  In other words, data and algorithms should not be allowed to simply trump reason and experience.  Moreover, cities should not be conceived of as easily knowable and manageable systems that can be steered and controlled in mechanical, linear ways -- input data and then pull levers to get an appropriate response -- but rather cities should be understood as complex, contingent, and relational, that often unfold in unpredictable ways.  In such a view, models might provide valuable insights, but they are not the only insights which should be inherently and slavishly followed.  It’s a conclusion, I think, that holds merit. 

Overall, The Fires is an excellent read -- well written, engaging, and insightful.  It will provide a fascinating story to anyone who is interested in contemporary urban history, and in my view it’s a must read book for all those presently involved in conceiving and building smart city initiatives.