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 ****