Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Service

I've a few books on the to-be-read pile, but none of them particularly took my fancy so I went a little crazy with book orders this past week. I picked up the first three books from the local bookshop on Friday, and also selected another while there. They are Jane Casey's After the Fire, Anthony Quinn's  Silence, Claire McGowan's A Savage Hunter, and Karin Wieland's Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (which I'm presently reading). The others arrive during the week. I'll not be short of reading for a while (thankfully).

My posts this week
Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott
Improvisation and instinct

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Improvisation and instinct

‘What’s taking so long?’

‘Nothing. Just be ready to get out of here.’

The van was parked in front of the bank.

‘I don’t like it. God knows what Lonny’s likely to do.’

‘He knows what he’s doing.’

‘Yeah, right. Lonny’s all improvisation and instinct.’

A large man tumbled through the bank’s doors, dragging a middle-aged woman.  From inside came the sound of gunfire. Two more men exited wearing balaclavas.

The side-door slid open. 

‘Who’s she and where’s the money?’

‘She is the money! Well, bank manager. We’re kidnapping her.’

‘That wasn’t the plan, Lonny.’

‘Well, it is now. Go!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (2009, Pocket Books)

Moscow, 1956. Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, now heads up a homicide division. The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, has denounced the hard-line of Stalin in a secret speech that has been widely circulated and has promised reform.  Millions have been complicit in carrying out Stalin’s purges and millions were executed and sent to gulags.  Leo has personally arrested hundreds of people, many of them guilty of little more than trying to survive a brutal regime.  Khrushchev’s speech threatens to destabilise the Soviet system and someone seems intent on exacting revenge against those in power.  Leo, his wife Raisa, and their two adopted daughters are in the firing line. Leo wishes to atone for his part in wrecking lives, but not at the expense of his family. To save them he must undertake a hazardous mission, first to the gulags of Siberia, then to revolutionary Hungary.

The Secret Speech is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.  After his exploits in Child 44, Demidov is now running a homicide division.  He can’t break free of his MGB days, however.  One of those he arrested and sent to the gulags is using the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, in which the new leader seeks reform and to the hard-line actions of the State, and their early release to target those responsible for their incarceration.  Leo and his new family is top of the list for reprisals.  Smith uses this revenge premise to construct a wider political thriller in which Leo, in order to save his family, becomes an unwilling participant in a larger plot.  There’s certainly a lot going on in the tale, including a potted history of Khrushchev’s failed reforms, the savagery of the gulags, the parallel criminal underworld in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rising, with Leo trying to navigate each to stay alive and rescue his kidnapped daughter.  While there’s plenty of action and tension, the story becomes ever-more unbelievable as the tale progresses. Both the political thread and Leo’s quest become ragged, staged and driven by plot devices.  Leo not only survives the first hundred pages or so, but somehow has ninety-nine lives despite the numerous life-threatening scrapes he finds himself in.  The result is a Hollywood blockbuster that hides a tenuous plot with violence, melodrama, political intrigue, and a series of mini-cliffhangers. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999, Sceptre)

Harry Starks is a fearsome and fearless London gangster in 1960s London who courts a legitimate front through his Soho club, The Stardust, and his friendship with minor celebrities and politicians.  Openly homosexual, he’s always a young man in tow from whom he expects loyalty and affection.  Running the seedier side of the Swinging Sixties – strip clubs, rent boys, porn shops, long firm scams – Harry does deals with bent coppers and terrorises his staff and victims while outwardly projecting charm and generosity.  Arnott reveals Harry’s complex nature through the stories of five people who spend significant time in his company – Terry, a rent boy; Teddy Thursby, a gay politician; Jack the Hat, a drug-addled gang member; Ruby, a failed film star turned strip-club manager; Lenny a sociology lecturer – charting the gangster’s rise and fall from the mid-60s to late 1970s.

The Long Firm was the first instalment in Jake Arnott’s London gangster trilogy that spans forty years.  The story charts the exploits of Harry Starks, a charismatic and violent gang boss who runs a series of rackets fronted by legitimate business interests.  Rather than tell the story from Starks perspective, Arnott provides five snapshots through the eyes of five people who become part of Harry’s world for a time, each manipulated by him for his own ends: a rent boy turned boyfriend; a politician turned company director; a gangster who’s fallen out of favour with the Krays; a failed film star turned strip-club manager; a sociologist turned advocate.  While breaking the tale into five separate accounts that occasionally intersect disrupts the overarching story arc, it’s an effective strategy for revealing Harry’s complex nature.  Each account is well told with a distinct voice and crafted prose, though they vary a little with regards to how compelling each is with the latter three having a stronger hook and thread in my view.  Nonetheless, the attention to detail throughout is excellent, with a keen eye for social and fashion trends, made more realistic through the use of real life characters of the time such as the Kray twins, Tom Driberg and Judy Garland.  The final instalment, with its discussion of sociological theories prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s, is particularly well done.  Overall, an interesting literary, character-driven crime novel, that excels in capturing in the essence of a ruthless, cunning gang boss and the dark underbelly of Swinging London.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

This weekend I have been mostly sleeping and reading.  After a week's trip to Boston, followed by a short hop to Glasgow, it seems the batteries are pretty flat.  Between naps I've been working my way through Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech and working out what books I want to order to replenish the TBR pile.

My posts this week
Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker
Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper

Saturday, April 15, 2017


A siren wailed, approaching at speed. 

Karl tumbled from the bed, scrabbling for shoes.

The curtains lit up blue.

Jackie must have blabbed. 

He bolted for the rear of the house as the car drew to a halt. 

The back door was locked, the old kitchen window was boarded shut. 

Something heavy hit the front door. 

‘Karl!’ Sheriff Jenkins yelled.  ‘Open-up!’

‘Shit!’ Karl tugged at the window board.

‘Karl, we made a deal!’

‘And you double-crossed me!’

‘And you triple-crossed.  You’re a dead man.’

The door splintered at the same time the board tore free.

Karl leapt into the darkness.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (1975, Dell)

Boston PI Spenser has been hired by the Red Sox to investigate whether their star pitcher, Marty Rabb, has been throwing the occasional game.  Posing as a sports writer, Spenser starts to poke his nose into the affairs of the franchise.  He soon starts to suspect that all is not well in the Rabb household. In particular, there’s something a little out-of-kilter with Marty’s wife Linda.  With a little digging it Spenser discovers that Linda has a shady past; enough to attract the attention of a careful blackmailer.  And that blackmailer is not happy to have Spenser nosing around.

Mortal Stakes is the third book in the Spenser series (that ran to 39).  In this outing, Spenser is investigating the possibility that Red Sox baseball games are being fixed.  He quickly hones in on the potential vulnerable point in the life of salt-of-the-Earth, star pitcher, Marty Rabb.  It seems that a manager’s suspicions are correct, but rather than confirm the rumour and close the case Spenser prefers to help Rabb and his wife fix their problem and give them a second-chance.  That brings him into conflict with a ruthless blackmailer.  Parker tells the tale in a no-nonsense fashion.  There are no major twists or misdirection, and limited use of plot devices.  Rather the tale is just a well-told straightforward, linear PI investigation - Spenser spots a clue and then tracks down an answer.  The story moves along at a fair clip, with a series of tension points, and there’s a nice sense of time and place (Boston in the mid-1970s).  Overall, an enjoyable, uncomplicated PI tale.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper (1920, Hodder)

Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond is finding it difficult to adjust to civilian life after the First World War.  Seeking adventure he places an advertisement in a newspaper offering to tackle tasks that would provide excitement.  Among the many responses he receives is one from a young woman who suspects that her father is being blackmailed by a dangerous criminal.  Drummond quickly determines that the woman might be right, but the case is far more complicated involving an international conspiracy.  He also decides that the woman is right for him.  While conducting a world-wind romance, Drummond takes on a motley gang of criminals intent on wrecking Britain politically and economically, masterminded by the enigmatic and ruthless Carl Peterson.

Published in 1920, Bulldog Drummond was the first book in a series of ten books featuring the adventures of Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond and his on-going semi-gentlemanly tussle with criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.  It’s ‘boys adventure’ fare, with Bulldog acting as the chivalrous white knight saving and falling in love with a young woman, rescuing a tortured American millionaire, while tackling a ruthless criminal and his gang.  It is very much a story of its time in two ways.  First, in terms of its telling, with very stilted dialogue and staged scenes.  Second, it is full of the social protocols and class relations of the age.  The story is kind of ridiculous, especially the duelling relationship between Bulldog and Peterson, who rather than simply killing one another when one gets the chance sets a trial and the chance of escape.  It all got a tedious pretty quickly despite the endless japes.  Except for being stuck on a plane with no other book it’s unlikely I’d have completed it otherwise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a long week in Boston.  I've had full days of meetings and conference sessions since getting here. Friday in particular was busy as I was in five concurrent sessions from eight in the morning to seven at night, followed by a work meal.  This is my favourite photo from the event, from a panel late yesterday afternoon.  The 'disinterested Winston Churchill' look is one I might try and cultivate.

My posts this week
Long Black
Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Long Black

‘I’m worried about that bag.’

‘Which bag?’

‘That bag over by the milk.’  Keith snaked out a long arm.

A suitcase was standing by the counter, the nearest person a few feet away.

‘It’s been there ten minutes.’

Keith headed towards the other patrons and started to quiz them.  Nobody claimed ownership.  Most shrugged, unconcerned.  A couple left.

A man appeared and grabbed the handle.

‘Where the fuck were you?’

‘The toilet.’

‘Literally taking the piss, you idiot!’

‘It’s a coffee shop.’

‘In central London.  D’ya really think the only Long Black you’re likely to get here is a coffee?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)

Belfast 1988.  A recent returnee to Northern Ireland, a local drug-dealer, is found dead.  He’s been shot with a bolt from a crossbow in front of the house he shared with his Bulgarian wife.  Detective Sean Duffy returns from a holiday in Donegal to investigate. A few days earlier another man survived a similar attack. It seems as if local paramilitaries are actively policing drug-dealing in their area. Duffy keeps scratching at the case despite being directed to ‘yellow file’ it. Eventually his persistence starts to pay dividends, but it also brings a visit from Internal Affairs and attracts the attention of the IRA. If IA doesn’t push him out of the force, then the IRA might push him out of existence. To add spice to a difficult case, his partner has decided to seek a temporary break in their relationship, taking their young daughter with her. Duffy is not easily phased, but the stakes at work and home have got him worried.

There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is the sixth book in Adrian McKinty’s excellent Sean Duffy series set in Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. In this outing, Duffy has settled down with his partner and has mellowed a little after the birth of their daughter. His work life is just as difficult as ever. Being a Catholic cop and head of Carrickfergus CID at the height of the Troubles is challenging; more so when you have a streak of intransigence and bloody-mindedness and want to solve every crime and have the wits to do so. In this case, Duffy seeks the killer of a local drug-dealer which brings him into the orbit of paramilitaries who ‘police’ local areas. As usual he manages to rub his own colleagues and powerful people up the wrong way, with potentially deadly consequences.  As with the other books, the characterisation, sense of place and time, intertextuality, and prose are excellent.  Duffy and his colleagues are three-dimensional characters and the dialogue throughout the story sparkles.  In addition, the pacing and plotting is very nicely done, with tale working its way to a tense denouement without the need for obvious plot devices.  The result is a wonderful addition to the series.

Monday, April 3, 2017

March reads

Quite a mixed month of reading with two standout books, Redemption Road by John Hart and The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell.  The latter was my read of the month.  An interesting plot, with a telling that made me laugh out loud several times.

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell *****
The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner ****
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea ***
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith ***.5

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I gave talk on Wednesday from a replica of the ballroom stairs on the Titanic in Belfast.  Given that while I was talking Teresa May was announcing the triggering of Article 50 it felt quite apt.

My posts this week

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
Fulbright award for Aoife Delaney
So starts a perfect day 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So starts a perfect day

‘I’m tired, Joe.’

‘Another a minute.’

‘You’ve been saying that for the past half-an-hour.’

‘Here we go.  It’s coming.  Open your eyes, Daisy.’

‘I need to sleep.’

‘You’re missing it.’

Daisy rolled over onto her side.  ‘Big deal.’

‘It’s starting.  Oh, wow.’

‘This better be worth it.’  Daisy pushed herself up.

Peaking above the horizon was a slither of sun.  Its golden light danced across the lake; the leaves on the trees tinged with honey.

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘Worth staying awake for.’

‘Come-on,’ Daisy said, standing, starting to pull off clothes.

‘What are you doing?’


‘So starts a perfect day.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dead Skip by Joe Gores (Mysterious Press, 1972)

Former boxer, Bart Heslip, is working a repo-man for Dan Kearny Associates, a private investigation firm in San Francisco.  After dropping off a car late at night Heslip is attacked from behind, put in a car, and rolled over the side of a hill, leaving him in a coma.  While the police conclude that he was drink driving and lost control, his colleagues disagree.  Heslip’s close friend, Ballard, sets himself the task of running down the attacker within 72 hours.  He suspects it must be related to one of the many cases that Heslip was working on, but working out which one and then locating them is not going to be straightforward.

Dead Skip, first published in 1972, was the first book in the Dan Kearny Associates series that charted the work of a private investigation company in San Francisco.  Gores worked as a PI for twelve years and his knowledge of how to track down people and property is evident in the story.  In this case an employee of DKA is attacked and left in coma, the crime crudely faked as a road traffic accident.  A young investigator, Ballard, hunts for the killer, aided by Kearny himself.  The strength of the book is in the procedural elements and the pacing.  Gores keeps the prose tight and focused on the action.  The result is a story that moves along at a fair clip, but somewhat at the expense of characterisation, which is mainly inferred from behaviour and dialogue.  Moreover, there is little in the way of backstory – in many ways, the storytelling is like a television script.  The plotting is nicely done, with Ballard unearthing new clues and chasing an elusive killer, though I wasn’t quite convinced by the denouement.  That said, it was an enjoyable, quick read.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of Redemption Road by John Hart (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

Elizabeth Black is a tough cop living with a dark secret that draws her to over-protect vulnerable children.  When rescuing a young girl who has been abducted and raped by two black suspects she pumps 18 bullets into the pair, include joints and genitals.  Now she’s being pursued for excessive violence and torture of suspects.  Ex-cop Adrian Wall has been suffering torture at the hands of a prison warden and guards while serving 13 years for the death of a local woman.  He’s always pleaded innocence, but only a handful of people believe him, including Elizabeth.  On the day he’s released, Gideon – another of Elizabeth’s young charges and son of the murdered woman – seeks out Adrian with the intention of shooting him dead. Instead Gideon ends up in hospital. The following day another woman is found dead in the same place and laid out in the same way as the victim Adrian was convicted for.  Attention is quickly focused on the newly released convict, despite Elizabeth’s best efforts to intervene.  And not only does Adrian looked doomed, but it looks likely that she’ll also be heading for prison. 

There’s a heck of a lot going on in Redemption Road.  John Hart has interwoven two main storylines and their various subplots together to create a multi-layered tale.  The pacing is at a quick tempo, with barely a pause for breath, and there are multiple mini-cliffhanger moments that keep the pages turning. Indeed, the story is full of tension and to a certain degree is relentlessly grim – there are very few light moments in the book, in fact it is to a large extent a litany of people being fairly horrid to one another.  At a few points I had to put the book down and go and get some fresh air before inevitably being drawn back to wanting to find out what was going to happen next.  Amazingly, given how much plot is crammed into the 400 odd pages, the story does not feel forced or overly reliant on plot devices.  They’re there, of course, but storytelling is no nicely done that they don’t feel contrived or over-egged.  Perhaps inevitably given how many crime fiction books I’ve read I’d pegged the murderer fairly early in the tale and it was reasonably well telegraphed as to how the story would resolve.  The characterisation is very nicely done, with good interactions between the characters.  And the prose is expressive.  The result is a kind of literary redemption, serial killer tale with a hell of a lot more going on than the average literary tale. Grim but good.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I made a quick trip to Amsterdam during last week. I wasn't sure if the book I was reading was going to last the full trip, so also packed a slim paperback from the TBR - Joe Gores', Dead Skip, first published in 1972.  As it happened, I did finish my present read, so started on the backup.  Dead Skip
was the first in six installments of the Dan Kearney and Associates private investigator series set in San Francisco.  Gores worked for twelve years as a PI and it shows in the story. My review will follow this week, hopefully.

My posts this week
Bones and cartilage
Review of The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bones and cartilage

The car drifted right, the thwack, thwack, thwack of the wheels juddering over cat’s eyes waking Janet.

She rolled her head forward, bones and cartilage clicking softly.

‘Jesus, what time is it Fergal?’

The car lurched into the next lane.

Suddenly Janet was blinking, trying to orientate, on-coming headlights blinding her.

Next to her, Fergal was slumped lifeless across the steering wheel.


She grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to tug him back.

He barely moved.

Next, she tried heaving the steering wheel anti-clockwise.

A horn blared.


She yanked him back, but then bones and cartilage exploded.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell (McFori Ink, 2017)

Summer in Dublin. Activists led by a wayward priest have taken over the headquarters of a failed bank to house homeless people.  A vengeful, new organisation, Puca, wants rough justice for those that led Ireland to bankruptcy.  Three developers of Skylark properties, a property complex riddled with build quality issues that went bust as the bottom fell out of Irish economy, leave court after their trial collapses on a technicality.  A stunning blonde asks MCM Investigations to determine if one of the Skylark developers is cheating on her with his wife.  Paul Mulchrone needs the money, but he’s got problems of his own.  His business partners are not talking to him: Nurse Conroy, his ex-girlfriend is still steaming mad at him for cheating on her; former Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry has disappeared.  And Maggie, the ex-police dog foisted on him has an attitude problem and a thirst for beer. Mulchrone is an amateur investigator at best and the friend he recruits to help him tail Jerome Hartigan is just as hopeless.  As the hapless pair trail round Dublin, Puca start to murder members of the Skylark Three and those associated with them, and the people of Dublin are being whipped up into a bitter frenzy.  Can Mulchrone, his pal, Phil, and Maggie discover who is driving the violent undercurrent and halt the madness?

The Day That Never Comes is the second book in Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin trilogy.  In this outing, the hapless Paul Mulchrone has started a new private investigation company with Nurse Conroy and former Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry.  However, it already appears to be hitting the rocks, with Nurse Conroy refusing to speak to Paul, and McGarry missing in action.  Mulchrone is left to keep the show on the road, but even he’ll admit to being Dublin’s worst private investigator.  His task is trying to trail a property developer involved in large-scale corruption, embezzlement and building control violations.  It should be straightforward but someone is murdering the developer’s colleagues and he may well be on the hit list as well.  Like the first book, the tale is great fun; witty throughout and with a number of laugh out loud moments.  At the same time it’s got all the elements of a decent crime tale.  The characterisation is excellent, especially the no-nonsense Nurse Conroy and the slightly psychotic Bunny McGarry, a man who administers his own brand of justice with a hurley. The plot is well constructed, with McDonnell interweaving a number of strands – including a police investigation line, phone-ins to a radio chat show, and flashbacks to McGarry dealing with an earlier incident of planning corruption – that builds to a nice denouement. And there is a strong sense of place and context; the story set in Dublin, a city still simmering with resentment at the state of the economy and fallen personal fortunes after the financial crash.  Overall, a very nice comic crime caper that delivers both the laughs and decent crime story.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

While looking for something else I discovered Jake Arnott's first novel, The Long Firm.  I bought it a long time ago and misplaced it before I'd had chance to read it.  It's now going to shuffle it's way to near the top of the TBR. I'm also grateful that I didn't get round to buying a second copy. Eventually everything resurfaces in this house.

My posts this week

Review of The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner
New paper: Living Labs, vacancy, and gentrification
Review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea
He was here

Saturday, March 18, 2017

He was here

The door swung open, held by a middle-aged woman.

‘He was here.’

‘Mrs Davies, I …’

‘Why are you persecuting us? Why aren’t you out there, catching real criminals?’

‘I’ve just come to …’

‘You’re always picking on our Darren just for being a kid.  Why can’t you leave us alone!’

She started to close the door.

Carter jammed a foot in the gap.  ‘Mrs Davies, it is about Darren ...’

‘I told you, he was here.’

‘He’s in hospital.’

‘What did you do to him?’

‘Nothing. But a guard dog at White’s didn’t realise he was home all night.’ 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review of The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner (Ebury Press, 2013)

1989. University student Dani Lancing was kidnapped, raped and murdered.  The event shattered lives of Jim and Patty, her parents, and Tom, her best friend who wanted to be more.  2010. Jim and Patty have separated.  Jim still lives in the family home with the ghost of Dani.  Patty has given up her career as an investigative journalist to work for a charity, Lost Souls, who help families who have lost loved ones.  Tom is now a Detective Superintendent, running a specialist unit that hunts for the killers of women.  The legacy of Dani’s death still drives their daily lives.  When Dani’s case is placed on the secondary list for a cold case unit, Patty regains hope of discovering her daughter’s murderer.  Forensic science means that it might be possible to get a DNA match.  Employing a private detective she finds out who the prime suspect was in the case and a way to get the police sample.  All she needs now is a sample of blood.  Her obsession to administer her own form of rough justice initiates a dangerous set of events that neither Jim or Tom are able to halt.

The Last Winter of Dani Lancing tells the story of parents shattered by the loss of their daughter, how they cope in the aftermath, and their pursuit of justice.  Dani disappeared from her University lodgings to be found dead three weeks later.  Nobody was arrested for the murder.  Twenty years later her mother, a former investigative journalist, is driven by a need for answers and revenge – she not only wants to find the killer, but to exact an eye-for-an-eye punishment.  Her husband has retreated into being a recluse, living with the ghost of his daughter, who he interacts with continuously.  Her former best friend, Tom, is a senior police officer known as the ‘Sad Man’ due to his empathy with the dead and their families.  Viner tells the story of each in a sympathetic voice that reveals their hurt and loss, and there is a strong, intense emotional register throughout the tale.  This is heightened by the use of a temporally broken narrative, the storyline jumping back-and-forth from the early 1980s to the present day.  This produces a strong sense of character development and provides glimpses into key moments in each of their lives.  The plot is interesting and engaging, but as it progresses a series of unlikely coincidences and reveals start to appear, with the links and backstory of one character in particular being a series of convenient plot devices.  The result is a tale that spins into a thriller for the denouement, but one that has elements that seem out of kilter with the rest of the tale.  Nonetheless, a good read, especially with respect to the emotional register and character development.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea (Titan Books, 2014)

Five hundred into the future, the planet is effectively run by large corporations who fight for assets and market share.  Ex-corporate mercenary Koko Martsellar runs a bar and brothel on The Sixty Islands, which specialises in satisfying appetites for sex and simulated violence.  Koko was offered the job by one of her old combat mentors, Portia Delacompte, who has risen slowly up the corporate ladder of an entertainment conglomerate.  In order to progress her career, Delacompte has selectively wiped some of her memory and joined a religious cult.  At some point in the past though she wrote a note to herself to eliminate Koko and to that end she sends a squad of security personnel to the bar.  Koko has not lost any of her instincts and skills, however, and after the shootout flees skyward.  In pursuit is an assassin.  If Koko is going to survive she needs her wits about her and to tackle her old boss.

Koko Takes a Holiday is a kind of cyberpunk tale set in the far (500 years hence) rather than near future.  Shea has imagined a world run by corporate conglomerates and puppet governments, where women are very much the equals of men.  Above the planet are ships that provide residences and specialise in different services. Koko is an ex-mercenary turned bar and brothel owner who can look after herself.  She’s a fun-kind of kiss-ass character, who’s lived through dozens of deadly scrapes and doesn’t take any crap.  Her ex-combat partner and current boss, however, wants her dead, though it’s not immediately clear to her why.  After surviving the initial hit, Koko flees on a self-built craft skyward pursued by an assassin.  There’s a good energy and vibe to the opening sequences, hooking the reader in.  After an initial chase, however, the pace slows and becomes more pedestrian as Koko settles in one place and Shea works in another couple of characters, including a security guard on his last day of duty who is about to take part in a mass suicide due to chronic depression.  The tale unfolds in an interesting enough way until near the end.  The reveal concerning why Koko is being pursued is based on a trillion-to-one chance encounter that was hard to believe and the final showdown is overly linear and over too quickly, in my view.  And the final scene felt too contrived.  All of that was a bit of let down after a cracking start, an interesting enough future world, and an engaging lead character.  If you like cyberpunk it might be worth a spin.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I did manage to get to the local bookshop during the week to pick up the latest Adrian McKinty novel.  I also bought John Hart's Redemption Road. Looking forward to reading both.  Presently reading Caimh McDonnell's The Day That Never Comes.

My posts this week:
February reads
Review of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
New paper: Smart cities, urban technocrats, epistemic communities and advocacy coalitions

Review of The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax
Why use a hammer?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Why use a hammer?

‘So you accidentally hit her with a hammer?’

Tyner stared at the table top.  ‘I lashed out with the first thing at hand.’

‘Why not use your fists?’ Carter suggested.  ‘Why use a hammer?’

‘It was there.’

‘Conveniently at hand where you were having an argument with your girlfriend.’

‘She wasn’t my girlfriend.’

‘She was carrying your child.’

‘It wasn’t mine.’

‘But you were sleeping with her.’

Tyner shrugged.  ‘She was threatening me. My family.’

‘So you hit her sixteen times with a hammer as a warning?’

‘I didn’t mean …’

‘Yes, you did, Jack.  We both know you did.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review of The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax (Soho Press, 2012)

1938. Ernst Vogler is employed on the Sonderprojekte, collecting great art from around Europe for display in the Third Reich.  After the incarceration in Dachau of his mentor, a well-known art historian, Vogler is sent to Rome to accompany the famous classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, to the border where it will be handed over to the Gestapo.  The statue is the personal target of the Fuhrer and there is widespread unhappiness that it has been sold and is leaving Italy.  Vogler’s task should be a simple, three-day excursion, but things start to go wrong as soon as he arrives in the Italian capital.  When he does set out to the border he is accompanied by twin brothers.  Almost immediately, the trio leave the agreed route, giving their police escort the slip.  Despite Vogler’s protestations, the brothers seem intent on setting their own schedule, which includes visiting a girlfriend.  At first, Vogler tries to resist the detour, realising that it is putting them all at risk, but soon he is so far implicated that he gives himself up to the adventure hoping that as long as he ultimately delivers the statue in one piece that he’ll survive the inevitable fallout. 

The Detour recounts the tale of Ernst Vogler, a budding art historian who worked on the Third Reich’s Sonderprojekte, collecting great art for the Fuhrer before the Second World War.  It is told as recollection as Vogler arrives back in Italy in 1948 to track down the woman he fell in love with on his last visit, a decade previously.  On that trip, Vogler was sent to Rome to accompany the famous statue, The Discus Thrower, back to Germany.  He is accompanied on his journey to the border by twin brothers, Enzo and Cosimo, who are police officers and speak rudimentary German.  Fearing that the statue is at risk, the brothers lose their escort and take a detour, with Enzo becoming obsessed with seeing his girlfriend.  As the journey progresses a series of mishaps and tragedies befall the trio.  Rather than telling the tale as a straightforward adventure, Romano-Lax nicely blends in a smattering of politics, art and philosophy, as well as thread of romance.  The historical context and Vogler’s backstory is well constructed and there’s a strong sense of place as the trio head north through the back-roads of central Italy.  The result is a bittersweet tale of a sensitive and insecure young man coming of age in difficult circumstances and returning years later to see if he can find lost love.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, 2015)

1869. The Macrae’s lot in life has not been good.  Eeking out a living on a croft on the west coast of Scotland the mother died in child-birth leaving the stoic father to bring up four children and the family are being persecuted by a neighbour who is also the local constable.  Roddy Macrae has always been an outsider child, intelligent, but somewhat naïve and often lost in his own world.  He makes poor decisions and bad luck seems to follow him.  He eventually concludes that the only way to help the rest of his family break the cycle of torment they are suffering is to murder the constable. This is he does with calm indifference, also killing two others.  He admits to the crimes and there is no doubt that he is guilty.  However, his court advocate is convinced that Roddy was delusional when he committed the acts and sets out to convince the jury to acquit his client.  He is a lone voice though and the public is baying for justice.

His Bloody Project follows the life and trial of Roddy Macrae, a young man living in abject poverty on the west coast of Scotland whose family is being persecuted.  Macrae admits to murdering the local constable and two of his family members in cold blood.  Burnet tells the story as a factual account as if put together through historical research.  In the first two thirds, the tale is told from the perspective of Roddy Macrae who at the behest of his court advocate writes down his account as to the events leading up to the murder and the act itself.  The last third swaps to an account of the trial gleaned from court documents, various newspaper articles, and a book published by a criminal anthropologist who examined Macrae.  The style throughout is a somewhat dispassionate narrative, with Macrae’s account being rather dry and unemotive, as is the more historical account of the author.  Beyond the dry style there were a couple of things that niggled. The first was the supposed first person account of Roddy Macrae, which is far too mature and polished for a seventeen-year old crofter who left school early, regardless of how intelligent he is. The second was the silence in the Macrae’s narrative and in particular the court proceedings with regards to his sister.  Overall, an interesting but somewhat flat story.

Monday, March 6, 2017

February reads

My read of the month was Jack Serong's The Rules of Backyard Cricket - a very engaging slice of Australian noir. 

The Intrusions by Shav Sherez ****.5
Flight from Berlin by David John ***
Kill the Next One by Federico Axat ***.5
Stasi Wolf by David Young **.5
Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941–44 by Robert Forczyk ***
The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong *****
The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko ****

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

By March I've usually read the latest Adrian McKinty novel. This year that has slipped. This is an open note to myself to get to the local bookshop to pick up Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, which I see has been picking up great reviews. Looking forward to catching up with DI Sean Duffy.

My posts this week
Review of Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith
Review of The Intrusions by Shav Sherez

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Blind slave

Dan frowned. A veil had been lifted. Suddenly everything seemed clearer.

‘This has all been a game to you.’

‘What?’ Hannah snapped, hands on hips, her face pinched with anger.

‘This.’ Dan gestured at the room. ‘Us. I’m just a …’

‘Just a what? Callous-hearted bastard?’

‘Stop-gap until someone else comes along. Someone with deeper pockets or more power.’

‘So I’m a shallow bitch and you’re a put-upon saint?’

‘Yes. Yes, you are.  And I’m a fool.’

‘I’m the victim, not you!  You’re never here.’

‘And whose fault is that? I’m working to pay off your debts! But not anymore.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review of Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith (2002, Anchor)

Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest female private detective and owner of The No 1. Ladies Detective Agency, has become engaged to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors garage. It appears to be a perfect match, though Mr Matekoni’s maid does not think so. But Precious has little regard for the maid who has been taking advantage of Mr Matekoni’s kindness and blindness, nor for her betrothed’s home. The maid is not the only person to be exploiting Mr Matekoni’s good nature. He is left fretting about an engagement ring, the water pumps at a nearby orphanage, and the future of two orphans. Meanwhile, Precious takes on two cases – the disappearance of a young American at an experimental farm on the edge of the Kalahari ten years previously and tracking the activities of a wayward wife – and deals with ambitions of her talented secretary. She also unexpectedly finds her prospective family is four not two.

Tears of the Giraffe is the second book in the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency series following the exploits of Precious Ramotswe. The tale is written very much in the tradition of a cozy, with a gentle charm and humour, with the storyline as much about the everyday lives of the protagonists as about the solving of crimes. The real strength of the story are the lead characters of Precious and her husband-to-be, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, a garage owner, who leap off the page as engaging, delightful folk. There is some nice, light reflections on moral philosophy stirred in and a dose of intrigue concerning a scheming maid, a wayward wife, and a long-missing American.  The plotlines around the intrigue, however, are somewhat thin and underdeveloped, with Precious solving one through some fairly weak plot devices, one halting abruptly, and the other being quite simple in nature. That said, the charm of the book are the characters, their interactions, and the sense of place. An enjoyable, feel-good read.