Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2015)

The Sellout is the story of how the unnamed narrator – called ‘The Sellout’ by one character, and ‘Bonbon’ by another – becomes infamous through his efforts to place Dickens, a town in South Central Los Angeles, back onto the map and to challenge ideas of race and racism within the black community. Bought up and home-schooled on a small two acre urban farm by his single father, a reasonably well-known psychology/sociology professor, The Sellout has a deep appreciation of the structural violence committed against and by the black community. Drawing on this knowledge his method is to use situationalist-like tactics to unsettle and disrupt deep-rooted thinking and social relations, including painting the old city boundary back onto the landscape, altering road signs, making a city block appear as if an exclusive white school is about to be built there, placing signs on buses to create white-only areas, and generally re-segregating the community, not only between white and black, but also the Mexicans, Asians, etc. Aiding him in the task is Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, a group of black kids who starred in a dozens of short movies from the 1930s-50s playing racist stereotypes, who self-declares himself the narrator’s slave. While his work seems to be having a positive effect on those living in Dickens, through some strange reverse-psychology, his actions land him in hot water and a case that makes its way to the Supreme Court.

I loved The Sellout. It’s smart, sassy, outrageous, knowledgeable, and laugh-out loud funny. It is highly entertaining tale, with a great set of characters and an engaging storyline, yet also makes one reflect and think on a whole bunch of social issues and the history of race relations and places. It might well be the best recent book on race and racism in contemporary United States and I would love to see it taught on the school curriculum. At the same time I’m grateful I don’t belong to a book group as I suspect we’d need a few months to discuss everything going on in the narrative rather than a couple of hours. It’s easy to understand why it has won a number of major awards. Definitely worth reading, and I plan to read Paul Beatty’s other books.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

After a long battle with cancer my father died peacefully on Friday evening. It was a tough old day, but he still found ways to make us all smile at the end as well. I'm going to miss him a lot. The video below was made a couple of months ago to help promote the work of Maggies at Clatterbridge. Both Dad and Mum found Maggies to be a wonderful resource and made some good friends there.

Mervyn Kitchin (19 Nov 1944 - 24 Nov 2017).

My posts this week:
Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley
Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente
New paper: Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things

Saturday, November 25, 2017


‘You want me to do what?’

‘Some of those donut thingys.  Out on the main road.’

‘Granddad, I think …’

‘Everyone knows you nick cars and go joyriding, Tom.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing. I’m eighty three and it’s time I did something stupid.’

‘But …’

‘Just shut the fuck up and drive the bloody car.’

‘Don’t blame me if you have a heart attack.’

Tom revved the engine and dropped the clutch. He handbreaked into the first corner. Out past Jones’ farm he started to spin the car.


‘You mad old bastard.’

‘Where’d you’d think you’re genes came from?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley (2015, Ebury Press)

Codebreakers tells the story of codebreaking by the British in the First World War and how it impacted on the course of the war and specific actions. The book covers a number of themes, such as the art of codebreaking, which often relied as much on dare-doing elsewhere to recover code books; the institutional politics in and between government agencies, and specifically Room 40 and other units; international politics and especially tackling German spying in America, and attempts to bring the US into the war. The tale is told in a loose chronological order and mainly focuses on particular key individuals, their personalities and stories. The strength and the weakness of the book is that it tends towards the large picture and spying in general, rather than specifically on codebreaking. Clearly, codebreaking is a key aspect of spy work and how it functions and used fits into a larger set of practices. At the same time it would have been interesting to get more insight into the actual day-to-day work of the codebreakers and their strategies and work. As the authors note, this was limited by a lack of written archival sources. Nonetheless, Codebreakers is an interesting and informative read, detailing a number of now little-known but important events and the intersection of codebreaking, politics and military action in the First World War.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente (Quirk Books, 2017)

Nine US comedians, who each perform a different form of comedy and are at varying stages of career fortunes, are invited by legendary Hollywood funnyman, Dustin Walker, to spend a week on a Caribbean island. They are accompanied by a naïve event organizer and wannabe comedian, Meredith. The ten arrive on the island to find it deserted, with their host dead. There is no mode of communication with the outside world, food and drink is in short supply, and soon they are being murdered through a variety of means. As the group shrinks, paranoia and strained alliances form. Will any of them be left alive at the end?

Ten Dead Comedians is a modern day take on Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’. Ten comedians and almost strangers (a number know or have met each other) are seduced to a remote Caribbean island to meet Dustin Walker, a legendary funnyman whose career has hit the skids after several flops. The island is deserted and in turn each is killed as they search to identify the murderer and a means to leave the island. Van Lente’s main twist is to make each character a different type of comedian, who’re at varying stages of their career, to infuse the tale with dark humour. The story unfolds in a linear fashion, punctuated by comedy routines by each of the comedians in which their supposed crime takes place. The concept of the story is a nice one and some of the set pieces are nicely inventive; the issue is the execution. While the tale is full of comedians it is not full of comedy, or at least I didn’t find myself laughing out loud. And the characters are all quite shallow and hollow and do not invite any emotional investment. Also, the perpetrator is kind of obvious, though not necessarily how the murders are being orchestrated. The result was an interesting without being spellbinding or side-splitting tale.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Maggie's at Clatterbridge have made a video about the support they provide for those with cancer starring my Mum and Dad available through their facebook page. They've both found the Maggie's centre a wonderful resource and wanted to help promote their work.

My posts this week

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron
Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann
All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Saturday, November 18, 2017

All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Flashing red and blue lights lit up the ceiling.

Kathy risked a glimpse over the counter. The store was a mess. Display stands and fridges were toppled over; food, drink and packaging covered every surface.

The man was pounding a fridge with a shelf.

‘Drop the board! Raise your hands and kneel on the floor!’

The man twirled towards the megaphone.

A single loud retort and his head exploded.

Kathy screamed.

‘Mam, put your hands on your head.’

‘All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel,’ Kathy blubbered.


‘But we don’t sell them.’ She thrust her hands up.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, 2016)

Slough House is where disgraced British spies are put out to pasture; whiling away their hours doing pointless and soul-destroying admin in the hope that they will call it quits and leave the service. Each resident, however, hopes that they might put their career back on track and make it back to Regent’s Park. Catherine Standish, secretary and recovering alcoholic, doesn’t seem a likely candidate to be kidnapped, but when she’s snatched from the street by an ex-soldier, her colleague River Cartwright impetuously leaps into action, which is the reason he’s no longer trusted with operations any longer, and tries to steal a secret file to ensure Standish’s release. Slough House’s misfits play into the ambitions and scheming of the kidnappers, but also into a three-way power play between the home secretary, head of MI5, and one of her deputies. But there’s life in the slow horses yet and their boss, arrogant, bullying Jackson Lamb, is an old hand at department politics and scheming himself.

Real Tigers is the third book in the Slough series that follows the exploits of the slow horses – spies who’ve been put out to grass because of some major blemish in their careers. While the first two books in the series are good, Herron really hits it out of the park with this outing. The two key elements – plot and characterisation – are excellent. The slow horses are pawns in a much larger game between a vengeful ex-army senior officer, a clownish but ruthless politician, the head of MI5 and her internal rival. There’s plenty of scheming, backstabbing, action, and twists and turns, and Herron ratchets up the tension with the slow horses stumbling and fumbling towards a resolution, led by Jackson Lamb, who respects his charges just as little as the rest of the organization but believes the only person who should make their lives a misery is himself. Rather than being a simple linear tale, Herron creates a multi-threaded and layered story with the strands being drawn to a climatic showdown and intriguing fallout. Along with the insufferable, abrasive Lamb, the slow horses are a delight – Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, Shirley has a coke habit, Marcus has a problem with gambling, River acts before thinking, and Roddy is a delusional geek with zero social skills. Added into the mix is a home secretary clearly modelled on Boris Johnson, and two scheming, hard-headed spymasters in the Stella Remington mould. The dialogue and social relations between characters is nicely done as is the storytelling in general. There is also a delicious streak of dark humour running throughout and I laughed out loud at several points. Overall, a wonderful read.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann (Short Books, 2012)

Birds in a Cage tells the story of four keen birdwatchers - Peter Conder, John Buxton, George Waterston and John Barrett - who met in a German prisoner of war camp and spend their days undertaking scientific research on bird migrations and behaviour.  Post-war the four men each became part of Britain’s wildlife conservation movement, maintaining professional and personal relationships for the rest of their lives.  As is often the case with popular history books the subtitle is somewhat misleading – “Four secret birdwatchers, the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation”: (1) their birdwatching was not secret either from other prisoners or guards, many of whom helped, (2) nor was it the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation, which was already underway pre-war, including by the protagonists, and was driven by many more actors than just these four.

Nonetheless, the book is an interesting account of both life as a British prisoner of war in Germany and the practices and comradery of birdwatching. Although isolating, demoralising and full of hardship and danger, prisoners regularly exchanged correspondence and parcels with family and friends at home, meaning that food and books made their way to the camp and poems, drawings, scientific papers went the other way. In addition, the men corresponded with the head of avian zoology at Berlin zoo, receiving homing tags and books from him. Given the long hours with little to do, the four men made pioneering, in-depth studies of certain birds and general counts and migrations. They often enrolled the help of other men, treating the whole enterprise as scientific study. Studying birds also gave them cover to act as lookouts for escape attempts, including participating in the wooden horse scheme. All four endured five years as a prisoner, overlapping in different camps, but often were alone from the others as they were moved about.

Niemann tells the tale with a sympathetic voice, drawing on diaries, letters, drawings and other secondary sources, to tell each man’s story as well as how they intertwine. The result is an engaging tale of how birdwatching suffused each man’s life, particularly during the war.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Having only read/reviewed four books during October, I suddenly find myself with three reviews to write and another book nearly finished. Expect reviews of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann, Real Tigers by Mick Herron, Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente, and Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley shortly. A slight review spoiler - Real Tigers was a cracking read.

My posts this week

The moon is extra bright today
Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
Slow computing: A workshop on resistance in the algorithmic age
October reads

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The moon is extra bright today

‘Here he comes!’

‘He’s cheating! He’s using fans.’

‘And shoes.’

The lumbering, naked figure of John Carter danced around startled shoppers, tracked by several smartphone cameras.

Someone shouted, ‘Go-on Boy!’

He didn’t notice Jane’s presence until the fan was snatched free.

Instinctively he moved the fan covering his arse to his shield his cock.

‘You’re meant to be naked! That was the forfeit.’

‘I am fecking naked!’ He was caught between wanting to argue and flee.

‘Cheat!’ Jane grabbed for the other fan.

John leapt sideways and resumed his run.

‘The moon is extra bright today,’ Jane yelled after him.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (Vintage)

1919, Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, has arrived in India after surviving the trenches of the Great War to return to an empty home, his wife dead from influenza. Only a week in the city and he is asked to investigate the death of a senior British civil servant found stabbed in an alley behind a brothel. He’s partnered by Inspector Digby, a long-time police officer in India, and Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, a Cambridge graduate who has defied his family wishes to join the police. While trying to orientate himself to colonial rule and policing, and local, national and cultural politics, Wyndham makes slow progress, made more difficult by the interference of the military police. To add to his load he’s also asked to investigate a train robbery. The evidence suggests that the murder and robbery are related, the work of Indian separatists, but Wyndham is not convinced.

A Rising Man is the first book in the Captain Wyndham series set in Calcutta just after the First World War. A historical murder mystery, there are a couple of compelling strengths to the story. First, the story is a nicely told crime tale, with the perpetrator and reason for the crime reasonably well covered until the reveal. Second, there is a good sense of place, culture and political context. Mukherjee details the segregated geography of the city, the power-laden architecture of the British Raj, and streetscape of Indian neighbourhoods. He also does a nice job of detailing the inherent racism and expressions of colonial British power, and forms of violent and non-violent resistance of Indians, as well as the complex social relations between British, Indian and Anglo-Indians. Where I struggled a little was with the character of Wyndham, who I couldn’t quite pin down – somehow he seemed both worldly and naïve, resolute but uncertain. This was perhaps personified by being a drug-addict-cum-recreational user – he lost control to the cravings, yet was still in control of his habit. He should have had depth, but somehow seemed a little hollow. The ending was also reliant on a plot device I’m never really comfortable with, which I won't discuss as it'll provide a spoiler. Nonetheless, the positives really outshone my nitpicking and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A Necessary Evil.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

October reads

Another slow month of reading. My read of the month was Moth by James Sallis, the second Lew Griffin book set in New Orleans.

Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser ***.5
A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston ****
Moth by James Sallis ****.5
Whisky in Small Glasses by Denzil Meyrich**.5

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

On my way to Brighton to present at a workshop and to launch a new centre at the University of Brighton. Haven't been visited Brighton for a few years, so looking forward to having a stroll around the town. I didn't have a novel set in the town on my TBR so I've bought Mick Herron's Real Tigers instead.

My posts this week
Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt
Collecting failed dates

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Collecting failed dates

‘Seriously, you go bird watching?’ Tanya said, glancing at her watch.

‘You think it’s a waste of time?’

‘It just seems so …’

‘Boring.’ David said, sensing the change of mood.

‘Well, I wasn’t going to put it like that.’

‘Though that’s what you’d mean. And yes, it can be a bit tedious, but it has its moments.’

‘Such as?’

‘Seeing a rare species, or a bird behaving unusually. Many of them are really quite beautiful.’

‘And would you expect … a partner to watch as well?’

‘Not really. Do you have a hobby?’

‘Does going on failed dates count?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (2010, Granta)

In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by tracing the lives of its key actors – David Watson, William Roy, William Mudge, Thomas Colby and others. Throughout the narrative there are a series of asides, with some context relating to politics, military conflict, scientific advances, philosophy, popular culture, and social relations, some of which aid the tale, some a bit of a distraction. Hewitt’s starting point is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the inability of English soldiers to navigate the Highlands, which led to a government-led mapping survey. Additional surveys were undertaken throughout the late eighteenth century, with the British collaborating with the French to create an accurate triangulation survey to document the precise location of key sites. These trig points became the basis for a national survey starting in 1791, under the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance, to underpin new, accurate maps. The survey first covered South East England leading to the first OS map in 1801 of Kent, and then continued across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century.

While it is evident that there is a substantial body of research underpinning the narrative, and there is a richness of detail, for my liking the account is somewhat an uncritical in charting Ordnance Survey’s history. There are very brief references to a more critical reading of how OS was a political body doing important work to maintain the Union and certainly no attempt at a postcolonial reading of OS’s work, particularly with respect to Ireland and Scotland. Instead the OS is framed as a somewhat neutral, yet civilising and Enlightenment endeavour, with some fairly weak defence of its colonial work. The result is an account that presents people, events and endeavours in a straightforward, face-value way but largely skims over the wider subtext. Overall, an interesting history of the formation of Britain’s national mapping agency, but lacking a critical edge.