Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

My report on smart cities, privacy and data security was launched on Thursday in the Dublin traffic control room by Dara Murphy T.D., Minister for European Affairs and Data Protection (available here). It was commissioned by the Data Protection Unit, Department of the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and is the first publication by the new Government Data Forum, a panel of experts drawn from across industry, civil society, academia and the public sector.  There was some media coverage on the Six One news on RTE1, KFM, the Irish Times, Silicon Republic and Irish Tech News.  I've tried to be as comprehensive as possible in the analysis and to detail lots of examples of good and bad practice, as well as set out a suite of solutions to improve data privacy and security.  Take a glance if you want to see how much data are being generated about you and what happens to it.

My posts this week:

Review of Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst
New report: Getting smarter about smart cities: Improving data privacy and data security
Review of The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal
Review of Peepshow by Leigh Redhead
A singular venture?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A singular venture?

‘What’s his story?’ Joyner asked.

The man was sitting on a veranda, a gun resting in his lap, his gaze a thousand yard stare.

‘He was meant to take a bullet for the President.  Instead he leapt for cover.  They buried another agent three days later.’

‘He looks like a powder keg waiting to go off; go on a spree or blow his own brains.’

‘He couldn’t take a bullet for the President; he can’t take one now.  He’s alive but he can’t live with himself.  Spends all day trying to solve that conundrum.  I figure it’s a singular venture.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst (Sandstone, 2011; Norwegian 2010)

Midsummer in Stavern, Norway, and a severed left foot wearing a running shoe is washed up on the shore. Shortly afterwards another severed left foot is discovered. Chief Inspector William Wisting is placed in charge of the case. His team quickly make a connection between the feet and four elderly people that disappeared months ago, but cannot identify a reason for their disappearance or why their feet are now suddenly appearing. Wisting’s boss has applied for promotion and wants a quick result and plenty of media coverage. In contrast the detective wants a careful examination and surety, but with the pressure rising he tries to quickly discover clues that will reveal why the victims were killed and the identity of the killer.

Dregs is a straightforward police procedural that is very much in the Scandinavian style – a relatively dour detective, an understated narrative with close attention to detail, and realist in its depiction of police work and society. The plot works at the level of carefully revealing the solving of a puzzle rather than being driven by action and tension. Dregs starts at a relatively sedate pace, slowing moving pieces into place, and it’s only as the telling progresses that the extent of the puzzle and intricacies of the plot is revealed. The result is an intriguing tale, with a nice denouement and explanation concerning the discovery of four severed feet that sit at the heart of the story. There is also a strong sub-plot in which the main detective’s journalist daughter is writing a feature about six people who have been released from prison after serving a sentence for murder, which sets out some interesting questions about justifiable homicide and regimes of punishment. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review of The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal (2014, Bloomsbury)

It is 2002 and the effects of 9/11 are being felt across the Middle East as the global war of terror unfolds.  Musab, a former low ranking jihadist and political exile, is lifted from a street in Denmark and renditioned back to Egypt.  After a few months he escapes and disappears.  Makana, a former detective inspector in Sudan and now private investigator in Cairo, has been hired by a suspicious wife to track her husband.  The only woman the lawyer visits is a young girl in a private clinic that dies shortly after.  It turns out that the girl is Musab’s daughter, apparently burned to death in an honour killing.  An old family friend, the lawyer had been helping her and he now asks Makana to track down Musab.  The trail leads to Siwa, a small, isolated desert town from which Musab had fled many years earlier.  Makana arrives shortly after the death of a local magistrate and is enrolled to help in the investigation by the local police sergeant.  The town is full of dark secrets, but finding answers and justice proves difficult when no-one wants to discuss the past and its role in the terror stalking its streets.

The Ghost Runner is the third instalment of the Makana series set in Egypt.  In this outing Makana investigates the murder of a young girl, suspecting her former terrorist father of committing an honour killing.  Travelling to a small town in the desert he tries to piece together the family history and pick up the trail of the father.  His arrival coincides with a series of deaths and it is clear that the legacy of an event many years earlier is unfolding.  The Makana series has a number of appealing strengths that are once again evident in The Ghost Runner, such as its atmospheric sense of place, its contextualisation within Eygpt’s politics and history, and its well-drawn characters.  In particular, Makana is a detective worth spending time with – a clever, taciturn man haunted by the loss of his family in his flight from Sudan who is quietly patient and persistent.  As with the first two books, the tale extends well beyond a straight forward murder investigation, with Parker embedding the story within a wider narrative of local, national and international politics, and exploring themes of family, gender, honour, corruption and terrorism.  As such, there’s an awful lot going on, though it never feels rushed or confused, and indeed the tale sagged a little bit in the middle as Makana makes little progress, before picking up in the last third as the tension and body count rises.  It’s fair to say that there were quite a few plot devices used to make the whole thing hang together and the two denouements were somewhat contrived.  Nonetheless The Ghost Runner is an absorbing read.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Review of Peepshow by Leigh Redhead (Allen and Unwin, 2004)

Simone Kirsch always wanted to join the police force.  The police, however, do not want her given her time working in peepshows and as a stripper.  Undaunted she’s taken an evening class as a private investigator and gained her license.  With her first case she’s dropped in at the deep end, investigating the murder of Frank Parisi, the notorious owner of The Red Room, one of Melbourne’s premier strip clubs.  To provide added motivation, Frank’s older brother has kidnapped her friend Chloe, demanding a result within two weeks or he’ll end her life.  Looking for fast answers Simone heads undercover in The Red Room trying to find clues while baring all.  She’s soon on the trail of a corrupt policeman, is being pursued by another, has fallen in lust with a rockabilly guitarist, and trails round Melbourne’s sex industry, usually with a hangover.  With the clock ticking down, Simone seems out of her depth, but she’s determined to try and shed her water wings and to find the killer and save her friend.

In the late 90s/early 00s I read a whole bunch of tart noir tales involving sassy, smart female PIs who usually got themselves involved in dangerous, madcap adventures with a side-line in romantic/lustful romps.  Peepshow fits neatly into the sub-genre, but with sex/sexy dial turned up to eleven.  Leigh Redhead provides a vivid glimpse in the peepshow and stripping side of the sex industry, and leaves little to the imagination with respect to the sex life of her lead character, Simone Kirsch, a stripper turned private investigator.  Simone’s task is to find the killer of a strip club owner under threat that her friend, Chloe, will die if she fails.  Given that the police have failed to turn up any clues it’s a tall order.  Thrown into the mix is a colourful set of strippers, a corrupt cop, a rockabilly band, two suitors – a guitarist and an undercover cop – and a lot of champagne and drugs.  The result is quickly paced romp laced with plenty of humour.  There’re not too many surprises in the telling, but the story is good explicit fun and sets up the series well.  Simone Kirsch is certainly breaks the usual PI mould and I’m looking forward to her next case.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've already posted about my 2015 reads, but another way of glancing through my reviews can be found at Goodreads, which also provides a few stats.  Apparently the 99 books I read totaled 29,801 pages. 

My posts this week:

Review of Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Review of Parade by Shuichi Yoshida
Review of 7Days by Deon Meyer
If we find her alive, I'll kill her myself

Saturday, January 23, 2016

If we find her alive, I’ll kill her myself

The door banged open. ‘She’s gone!’

‘Who?’ Bobowski asked looking up from a ball game.

‘Who do you think?  Mini-Bitch.’

‘Fuck.  Where …’

‘How the hell do I know!’ Hardy said snatching up a red phone.  ‘She’s gone … I’ve searched the house and grounds … Okay, but she’s not here … I’ll call back.’


‘He wants to know if she’s slipped out to meet a boy or she’s been kidnapped.’

‘Either way we’re fucked,’ Bubowski said.

‘We’ve two minutes until he tells the senator and hits the panic button.’

‘If we find her alive, I’ll kill her myself.’

A story is a drabble of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (Sphere, 2014)

Roy Cady is a bag man for a New Orleans mobster.  On the same day as he’s told his lungs are full of tumours he’s asked to go with a colleague to perform a shakedown.  Only the set-up feels all wrong.  His instinct that he is the potential victim proves true and after a short melee of violence the only two people alive are Roy and a young prostitute.  Realising that Raquel (Rocky) will receive the same treatment as the others if left behind Roy takes her with him, heading for Galveston.  On the way they pick up Rocky’s young sister.  Hiding in a motel by the sea, Roy knows the best way to survive is to ditch the two girls, but somehow he feels compelled to try and keep them out of harm’s way.  However, that’s easier said than done.

Galveston is a story in the classic noir mould – a dangerous man, whose life is immersed in violence and crime, seeks redemption trying to save a young woman and small child knowing that he will probably reap the consequences of his actions.  Despite the well-worn set-up, Pizzolatto provides an entertaining, edgy read that is lifted by very strong characterisation and engaging prose.  The plot revolves around the interaction of Roy Cady, a forty year old bagman who’s just been told his lungs are full of small tumours, and Rocky, a young, naïve prostitute who has little conception of how to make it in the world other than to sell her body.  Both have troubled histories and despite being ill-matched nurture an uneasy friendship.  A key plus in the telling is that Pizzolatto places a strong emphasis on character development and their personal journeys as much as on the plot and their flight from the New Orleans mob.  The result is a thoughtful noir tale that doesn’t pull punches, mixing hope with despair, violence and pathos, and has a nice twist in the denouement.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review of Parade by Shuichi Yoshida (Harvill Secker 2014, Japanese 2002)

Two young men and two young women share an apartment in Tokyo.  Koto barely ventures out into the world, waiting by the phone for her TV star boyfriend to ring.  Ryosuke attends a private college and is having an affair with his friend’s girlfriend.  Mirai manages a shop and spends her spare time either drawing illustrations or partying all night in gay bars.  Naoki works for a film distributor, is a long distance runner, and is frequently drunk.  One day Satoru, a homeless youth, turns up and moves in.  Nobody is quite sure where he came from or what he does, but he’s soon accepted as part of their world.  As they’re lives unfold, they speculate on the strange comings and goings from the apartment next door and the attacks against women in the area.

Parade is somewhat of a curious book.  It is marketed as crime fiction, with a tagline of ‘A masterpiece in tension’, yet crime is almost incidental to the story and there is practically no tension in the story or its telling.  Instead, Parade is a literary novel about alienation and estrangement in modern society; of not quite fitting in, of lacking direction and purpose, of desiring what cannot be obtained.  While the timeline is linear, each of the chapters is told from the perspective of five people sharing an apartment, each of whom has kind of drifted into living there.  Each is told in the first person, with the character reflecting on their own life – their history and ambitions, their relationships with others – and setting out their view of the world.  In this way, a wider narrative about the interactions and friendship between the five is examined, as well as Japanese society more broadly.  It was a sombre rather than tense read, a kind of literary soap opera of urban alienation which, for the most part is a thoughtful reflection on modern life.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of 7Days by Deon Meyer (Hodder, 2012)

Captain Benny Griessel is a recovering alcoholic, so is his friend, Alexa.  After much persuasion she is making a come-back, reviving her singing career.  Benny is to be her rock, helping her regain her confidence.  However, their plans are derailed when Benny is called away from her first public outing to deal with a shooting incident.  A policeman has been shot and an email sent to SAPS states that unless the killer of Hanneke Sloet is arrested a police officer will be targeted each day.  Sloet, a successful and sultry lawyer, had been slain in her apartment a month earlier but the case had quickly gone cold.  Griessel is put in charge of re-investigating the Sloet murder, whilst his colleague, Mbali Kaleni is assigned the task of finding the sniper.  Along with the political and media pressure, adding to Benny’s woes is trying to keep Alexa from sliding all the way off the wagon and to make sure he doesn’t join her.

Deon Meyer might well be the best writer of police procedural thrillers at present.  His stories have all the good hallmarks of a police procedural – an interesting lead cop and supporting cast, a strong sense of place, interesting puzzles, and attention to detail – but they also have the pace and tension of a thriller; the rollercoaster ride of a race against time.  And so it is with 7Days.  Captain Benny Griessel, a man who trails a litany of personal failures in his wake, is given the task of solving a murder while under immense pressure from a sniper shooting police officers and bosses, politicians and media demanding immediate results. Meyer expertly balances character development, plot and pace, producing a highly engaging and entertaining read that not only delivers an intriguing story but nicely advances the longer narrative of the Griessel books.  I was hooked from the first page and picked it up at every opportunity to find out how Benny was getting on at solving the two intertwined cases.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week: meetings, email, repeat ad nauseam.  Ditto next week.  Thank heavens for books.  Between the endless hours of ad nauseam I lost myself in Deon Meyer's 7Days, Shūichi Yoshida's Parade, and Nic Pizzolatto's Galveston.  Reviews coming shortly.

My posts this week
Review of A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre
Review of Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski
Sharing the moment of the damned

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sharing the moment of the damned

There’re times when you think you might die, then there’s that moment when you just know.  Like when one drifts into consciousness to find limbs bound and a noose being slid into place.  There’re only two responses, struggle or acceptance, but the result is still a long drop to hell.  I let my legs collapse under me then thrust up, my shoulder snapping the guy’s mouth shut.  Using the tension in the rope I kicked his legs out from under him, then jumped and landed on his neck.  His snapped, mine choked, and we shared the moment of the damned.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review of Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski (Bitter Lemon Press, 2010; Polish 2007)

Four patients and their psychotherapist gather in a former church in Warsaw for a weekend of family constellation therapy.  The morning after the first night, Henry Talek is found dead having had a skewer jammed through his eye into his brain.  State prosecutor Teo Szachi is given the task of investigating the case, quickly surmising that one of the attendees is the murderer rather than it being committed by a disturbed burglar or suicide.  The problem is that there is no obvious suspect or motive.  Laboriously he sets about his investigation trying to get a sense of the victim, his family, and the other attendees of the therapy.  In the meantime, he struggles with his sense that he’s trapped in a low-paying, high-stress, thankless job and rapidly souring marriage, dallying with starting an affair.  As he slowly makes progress, it starts to become clear that there is more at stake than solving the death of Talek and there is more threatening his family than a fling with a journalist.

This book has been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time and I've made a start on it three or four times, but never made it past the first twenty pages or so.  The story and the lead character just never got me hooked enough to continue.  This time round I pushed through and by a third of the way in I was intrigued enough to finish the book.  That said, I never warmed to the lead character, Teo Szachi, a misogynist state prosecutor who seems to be having his mid-life crisis at thirty five.  I also didn’t buy how he stumbled on the background story, nor the intricate way the case was tied together, the use of family constellation therapy, or the denouement.  It all seemed so improbable. The background story was however interesting as was the procedural elements relating to workings of state prosecutor’s office, the story did gain pace and tension, and Szachi’s boss and police colleague enlivened things.  Overall, an improbable police procedural that has some nice touches.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre (1968, Heinemann)

Leo Harting, second secretary in the British embassy in Bonn, has gone missing and he’s taken forty three top secret files with him.  The embassy is already in a flap given tensions with the German civil service and politicians about negotiations in Brussels for British entry to the European Union and British involvement in post-war German affairs.  An anti-British rally is scheduled and security and tensions are high.  The last thing senior officials need is Alan Turner, a hard-nosed spycatcher who doesn’t care for class-divisions or subtle diplomatic relations.  Turner starts uncovering information that nobody seems to want revealed and resistance to his presence grows.  As his investigation progresses he senses that this is no ordinary defection, but forces are conspiring to deny him the truth.

John Le Carre is in fine form in A Small Town in Germany, a tale charting the hunt for Leo Harting, a pre-war refugee to Britain who has worked his way up through the ranks of the post-war British army and then inveigled his way into a career in British embassy in Bonn before disappearing with forty three top secret files that could cause serious political ructions if they came to light.  Sent to find Harting and the files is Alan Turner, a security officer who is direct, rude, bloody-minded, and working class, who seems to delight in treading on the toes of the senior, upper-class embassy staff.  Le Carre uses Harting’s disappearance and Turner’s investigation to examine a whole series of themes including Britain’s role in post-war Germany, European diplomacy and hypocrisy, the workings of the British foreign services and its classed-riddled structure, German post-war politics, and the thorny relationship between truth, justice, political relations and the ‘greater good’.  The characterisation and the interactions between characters are excellent as Turner slowly forces uncomfortable truths into the open.  In terms of the telling, the tale has a somewhat ponderous start and sometimes drifted into oblique literary asides, however the overall effect is a thoughtful, layered tale, full of subtle digs and twist and turns that has a very nice denouement - it is a thriller with a small t, a battle of wits rather than a swashbuckling, action-adventure.  Overall, a superior spy tale.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up my first new books of the year from the local bookshop, The Reading Room, yesterday.  A nice selection of books.  All from authors I've read previously, with the exception of Nic Pizzolatto and Michael O'Higgins.  Oddly, the four books by female authors - Jane Casey, Eva Dolan, Claire McGowan and Malla Nunn - I'd ordered hadn't yet turned up, so it's a very masculine pile (for now).  Looking forward to reading these in due course.  I'm just making a start on Deon Meyer's 7 Days.

My posts this week

Review of To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu
Around the World in 2015
Review of The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Best reads of 2015
I want to tango

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I want to tango

‘It’s about rhythm,’ Sally explained.  ‘It’s like dancing.  You have to work together; be going in the same direction at the same time.’

‘You’re saying Greg is a better dancer?’ Tom asked, not hiding his frustration.

‘I’m saying we’re more attuned.  Take sex.  With you it’s always like fighting.  Different paces, positions, forces.  Everything’s out of sync.  With Greg …’

‘I don’t believe this!  You’re leaving me for better sex?’

‘You’re not listening.  I’m leaving you because we’re not compatible.’

‘We were compatible enough to get married!’

‘Yes, but now I realise you wanted to foxtrot, I want to tango.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Review of To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu (EuroCrime, 2008; Finnish 1993)

Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää of Helsinki’s violent crimes unit is having a rotten time.  He’s working the understaffed night shift and is constantly tired, he’s managed to get the wrong side of his bosses, a member of the public has put in a conduct complaint, he’s fallen in love with a colleague, and his long-lost, half-senile father has turned up and moved in.  To add to his woes he’s been given the task of tracking down a peeping tom who’s also an expert lock pick who lets himself into women’s apartment in the small hours to watch them sleep.  Every time he’s been spotted he’s managed to get away, leaving the women unnerved and some wondering whether he was every really there.  Tweety is a loner, living somewhere between reality and fantasy.  He’s also part of a criminal family.  He might be naïve about some aspects of the world, but he knows how to remain elusive.  It doesn’t help that the cop in pursuit is constantly distracted and hampered in his task.

To Steal Her Love is a police procedural set in Helsinki, though not a mystery in that the reader knows the culprit from the start.  Indeed, Joensuu’s narrative is divided into two strands.  The first charts the half-real, half-fantasist world of Tweety, a young man obsessed with beautiful women, but who is unable to approach them, instead breaking into their homes in the middle of the night to watch them sleep.  When he’s not doing that he’s hiding from his domineering mother, working as a cobbler, or helping his brothers to rob banks.  The second strand follows the home life and work of Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää of Helsinki’s violent crimes unit.  Harjunpää is a stoic cop who grinds out results, and is torn between two women.  Both strands are very nicely written and interwoven.  Joensuu has an eye for characters and how they’re bound together in awkward relationships and conflicts, as well as the institutional politics and personal power games of the police (he was a serving police officer for many years).  While the narrative seems to drift along and seems quite sedate, there’s actually an awful lot going on within the strands and subplots (some of which are not resolved).  The result is a nicely written, layered tale that tells a compelling and engaging story.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Around the world in 2015

I did a fair bit of travel in 2015, both literally and literary.  I made physical journeys to England (7), Belgium (2), Germany (2), Scotland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Croatia, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States.  Through fiction I travelled to 21 countries:

The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris ***

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto ****.5

Sign of the Cross by Anne Emery ***
Lunenburg by Keith Baker **.5
Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier ***.5

Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal ****

A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw ****
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward ***.5
Princes Gate by Mark Ellis ***.5
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers ***
Easy Streets by Bill James ***
The Detective Branch by Andrew Pepper ****
The Interrogator by Andrew Williams ***
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie ***.5
Vinnie Got Blown Away by Jeremy Cameron ****
The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson ***.5
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer ***.5
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez ****
Angels Passing by Graham Hurley ****.5
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers *****
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene ****
Red Joan by Jennie Rooney *****
The Yard by Alex Grecian ***
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh ***.5

Nazis in the Metro by Didier Daeninckx **.5

Stasi Child by David Young ****
Lehrter Station by David Downing ***.5
Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard ***.5
Rosa by Jonathan Rabb ****.5

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason ****
My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir ***.5

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey ***
Unholy Ground by John Brady ****.5
Border Angels by Anthony Quinn ***.5
Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway ****
Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty ****
The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan ****.5

The Few by Nadia Dalbuono ***
A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor ***.5

Bound by Secrecy by Vamba Sherif ***

Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum ****

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin ***

Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney *****
Lennox by Craig Russell ****
Natural Causes by James Oswald ****
Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves ****
Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre **** 
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves ***.5

South Africa
Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn ****

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo *****

The Getaway by Jim Thompson ***.5
The Music Lovers by Jonathan Valin ***
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith ***.5
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella ****.5
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich ****.5
The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald ****.5
Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott ****
The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis *****
Black Bear by Aly Monroe ***.5
Mangrove Squeeze by Laurence Shames ****
The Exterminators by Bill Fitzhugh ****
Deadlock by Sara Paretsky ***
In The Wind by Barbara Fister ****.5
The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker ****.5
The Long Home by William Gay ***
Stone Cold by CJ Box ***
A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale *****
Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol ****
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher ***
The Circle by Dave Eggers ***.5
California Thriller by Max Byrd ***
Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block *** 
The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim ****
The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman ***
The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen ***
The Vanished by Bill Pronzini ****.5

The Pale House by Luke McCallin *****

More than one country
The Peripheral by William Gibson ***** (USA, England)
The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson *** (England, Germany)
Royal Flash by George Fraser Macdonald ***.5 (England, Germany)
The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr **** (Germany, Yugoslavia, Switzerland)
Runaway by Peter May ***.5 (Scotland, England)The General Danced at Dawn by George Macdonald Fraser *** (India, Eygpt, Palenstine, Scotland)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Review of The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2009, Bloomsbury)

Fascinated by the life of long-time family friend, Sara Guterman, a Jewish German immigrant who fled to Colombia in the late 1930s, Gabriel Santoro writes a book about her experiences of exile and making a new life.  His book, however, is not favourably received by his father, a famous professor of rhetoric and law, who publishes a scathing review in a national newspaper.  The book and review places their relationship under strain and when his father dies not long after Gabriel investigates the source of his father’s wrath, tracing it back to a secret from the Second World War and the treatment of the German community.

The Informers is a reflexive novel that explores a little known period of Colombian history when many Germans living in the country were blacklisted and interned at the insistence of the United States and its subsequent effects.  Using a plot device of a falling out between father and son over the publication of a biography of a family friend – a German Jew who fled to Colombia in the 1930s – Vásquez’s narrative charts three intertwined family histories: a Jewish German family who has fled from Nazi Germany to start a new life in Columbia; a German-Colombian family who is severely affected by internment; and a Colombian family who were initially friends of both German families.  The father and son belong to the latter, with the son keen to understand the history of the families, while the father would prefer the past remains largely forgotten.  While the story is interesting and at times nicely written, Vásquez’s style was not to my taste, with the storytelling being overly reflexive, often to the point of navel gazing, and the pace slowing to almost a standstill at times.  My sense was that it could have done with a good edit and it would have been more engaging if it had included more personal interchanges (the dialogue between characters is by far the best bits in the telling).  Overall: interesting for the history, but fairly hard work to wade through despite the often nice prose and philosophical observations.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read and reviewed 99 books in 2015.  Here are my favourite fiction books read in 2015 (5 star reviews).  For full reviews of each book click on the links and to see all 99 reviews click here.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

In my opinion The Laughing Policeman a masterclass in how to write a realist police procedural novel that does not rely on coincidence or plot devices to move the story along, nor does it concentrate on a non-conformist, lone cop (plus sidekick) who singlehandedly solves the case whilst coping with all kinds of personal issues.  Instead, the case is solved through patient, diligent investigative work by a team of cops, involving a lot of footwork, collaboration, probing, leaning on informers, petty criminals and suspects, and wandering down blind alleys.  The story is completely gripping as the dyspeptic Beck and his team inch towards solving the death of their colleague and eight other passengers shot late at night on a Stockholm bus.

A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale

A coming of age tale set over the summer of 1958 in town of Dewmont, East Texas.  The voice is pitch perfect and Lansdale drops the reader into the world of an innocent thirteen year old boy living in a liberal family in a socially and racially divided society as he learns of the world’s various vices, some of its terrors, and how to survive them.  The characterisation is excellent and there’s a clear sense of character development as the story unfolds.  Where the tale really excels is the sense of place and time, and the plot.  The result is a taut, tense mystery that is vividly told and keeps the reader engaged and guessing until the final page.  I thought it was a wonderful, poignant and riveting read.

The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis

A wonderfully emotive tale underpinned by strong character development and observational philosophy.  Sallis’ narrative subtly explores race and gender in the Deep South, and reflects on the intricate webs of social and political relations and histories people are bound up in. Sallis revels in the question ‘what does this all mean?’, with Griffin looking for answers on the street and the bottom of a glass.  The prose is a joy to read.

Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney

What separates McIlvanney’s crime fiction from most is, I think, its literary sensibilities.  While his stories are very much of the crime genre and are dark and gritty tales, they are crafted with prose and are rich in philosophical reflection.  In Strange Loyalties Laidlaw is trying to come to terms with the untimely death of his brother, picking away at questions that no-one wants answered except him.  While it's not the most cheery of tales it is compelling and haunting with Laidlaw seeking a truth that he knows he does not want to know. 

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

Sayers’ book rightly deserves plaudits for being a classic crime fiction tale, ticking all the key boxes - intriguing and clever plot, a thorny puzzle, excellent contextualisation, nice characterisation and interaction between characters, a strong sense of place, and literary prose.  Essentially the tale is a whodunnit set in a small English village in the fens, centred on a Church and its bells, and the legacy of a robbery some twenty years previously.  The plotting is intricate and well executed with minimal use of plot devices, and while the tale strays a little from social realism at times it nevertheless hangs together coherently and is rounded off with an ingenious but plausible denouement.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney 

An engaging and thought provoking traitor’s tale, Red Joan tells the story of a woman recruited at university by the Soviets who went on to become a leading spy at an atomic research centre and her subsequent interrogation many years later.  The narrative structure works very well, aided expressive prose, nicely crafted characterisation, and a carefully constructed plot.  A particular strength of the story is how Rooney unsettles any straightforward black and white reading of being a traitor, providing a layered, nuanced and poignant account that gradually exposes a long held secret and its consequences, and explores themes of motive, ideology, conscience, guilt, regret, and protection.  

The Pale House by Luke McCallin

Set in the closing stages of the Second World War, McCallin has his German detective, Reinhardt, conduct a murder investigation in Sarajevo.  He weaves a clever, compelling and somewhat complex plot, nicely capturing the fear at work in the city, the tension within the German ranks and between them and their Croatian collaborators.  Reinhardt is a somewhat sombre character, but his principles and role as a flawed but ‘good German’ in a corrupt regime makes him an interesting anti-hero.  I particularly liked the very strong sense of place and historical context.  Overall, an excellent historical crime tale.

The Peripheral by William Gibson 

It’s easy to understand how some readers might get frustrated with William Gibson’s writing style.  In The Peripheral he uses a raft of made-up slang and neologisms, new cultural norms and invented technologies without ever explaining them.  He just plunges the reader into the narrative.  The result however is worth the disorientation.  The plot is ingenious and nicely constructed, with Gibson exploring the unfolding arc of history and the interplay of politics and technology, and speculating on the fate of humanity.

These books all received 4.5 stars and make-up the rest of my 'best of' list for 2015.

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto
In The Wind by Barbara Fister
Angels Passing by Graham Hurley
The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan 
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker
Mort by Terry Pratchett
The Vanished by Bill Pronzini 
Rosa by Jonathan Rabb 
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella 
Unholy Ground by John Brady

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent a chunk of the seasonal break revising the latest novel in progress. I did some fairly major surgery based on a couple of very useful readers' reports, removing 11,500 words, adding 5,500 and revising another chunk.  The edits have certainly improved the story and I think it's in a pretty reasonable form. I guess the next step is to start hawking it around.  I know exactly what I'm doing at this stage for non-fiction work, but how the fiction side of publishing works is still a bit of mystery to me.  Wish me luck - I have a feeling that's a vital part of it!

My posts this week
I was nine when I killed for the first time
December reviews
Review of The Getaway by Jim Thompson
Review of Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason
Review of The Music Lovers by Jonathan Valin
Review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Saturday, January 2, 2016

I was nine when I killed for the first time

I was nine when I killed for the first time.  I stabbed a man in the chest with a kitchen knife while he slept.  An hour earlier he’d beaten my mother unconscious.  I made a full confession, but my mother made a counter-one and was convicted.  I was sent to my grandparents.  Fifteen months later my grandfather died of asphyxiation.  It seems that a belt can be used for more than whipping young boys.  I then disappeared into the night.  The third man I killed thought he could sell my body to a rich man.  I’ve killed five times since.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 1, 2016

December reviews

After a slow month of reading in November, I over-indulged in December reading and reviewing 12 books.  The standout was Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney, the third instalment in his Laidlaw trilogy.

The Getaway by Jim Thompson ***.5
Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason ****
The Music Lovers by Jonathan Valin ***
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith ***.5
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella ****.5
Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney *****
A Song from Dead Lips by William Shaw ****
The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood ***
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich ****.5
Lennox by Craig Russell ****
Future Crimes by Marc Goodman ***.5
The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald ****.5