Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review of The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle (2017, Cheyne Walk)

Florence, 1937. At the studio of the self-declared Maestro, Isabella meets a young English man, Freddie, who shares her dream of becoming a great artist. Also amongst their group are Oskar, a German Jew, and Fosco who seems enamoured with fascism. Isabella and Freddie fall in love and marry, but the war soon separates them. While Isabella stays in the city, Freddie has returned to England and joined the RAF, flying harrowing bombing sorties over occupied Europe. Oskar, his wife, and daughter, Esme, are in Paris. When the round up of Jews takes place in 1942, Oskar and Esme manage to escape, heading south to Italy. In Florence, Isabella finds herself entangled with the local resistance, the brutal fascist authorities, and the German occupiers, unsure of who to trust, including her old enemy, Fosco. In turn, both Oskar and Freddie make their way back to the city, both via circuitous and dangerous routes.

The Way Back to Florence is a tale of love during war between an Italian woman and English man, and between a father and his young daughter. The characterisation is excellent, both in relation to the three lead characters, but also the supporting cast, with Haybittle creating a deep sense of affinity for Isabella, Freddie and Oskar and their plights. The tale is told as a multi-layered narrative, involving a number of entwined threads, and doesn’t pull any punches with respect to the harrowing experiences of the lead characters – being betrayed, flying over German cities at night, brutal interrogations, surviving concentration camps, being caught in the role of collaborator. Indeed, the tale is loaded with a deep sense of realism, tension and affect, so that just as the characters cycle through a gamut of emotions, so does the reader. And while the story is complex and involves a number of twists and turns, there is no sense of awkward plot devices. The result is a visceral, engaging, thoughtful and at times traumatic story of love, loyalties, compromises, and survival.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Two consecutive mornings of digging stones out of the ground with a crowbar, shifting them to where a new wall will be, preparing foundations, and placing a few in position. I can confirm they are bloody heavy and awkward to move and that the job involves muscles that a desk job has just about fully atrophied. I'm probably going to be as stiff as a board for the next week. Worse still, I've barely made a dent into the job!

My posts this week
Review of The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
New working paper: Smart urbanism and smart citizenship
Review of The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill
We're not all savages

Saturday, March 17, 2018

We're not all savages

Craddock placed his hands on his knees.

‘Jesus, Craddy,’ Kiley said. ‘What’s the rush?’

‘He’s … he’s in Mulligans.’

‘Who is?’


‘Mickey Halligan’s in Mulligans?’ Kiley was already heading for the door.

‘Hold up, Tom,’ Carter said. ‘You want to go charging into Mulligans on Paddy’s day? It’ll be bedlam already. We go in there and it’ll turn into a riot.’

‘So, what do you suggest?’

‘We wait until he leaves, then trail him back to his hidey hole.’

‘Great, hours of boredom as everyone else gets pissed. I’d prefer the riot.’

‘Yeah, but we’re not all savages, Tom.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minatour, 2015)

Esa Khattak of Toronto’s new Community Policing unit is asked to look into the death of Christopher Drayton, a seemingly successful businessman who has emigrated to Canada from Italy. The death looks like an accident, but Khattak’s friend in the Justice Department believes that Drayton might be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps and perpetrator of war crimes in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica massacre. Afraid of a media scandal for allowing a wanted war criminal to legally migrate to the country and failing to act on anonymous tip-offs, Khattak is asked to undertake a low-key investigation until he is sure that it is Krstic that is dead. Along with his sergeant, Rachel Getty, he probes Drayton’s life and seeks information from the local, immigrant Bosnian Muslim community. Muddying the waters of the investigation is Drayton’s gold-digging girlfriend, whose only concern is to make sure she inherits his estate. Khattak is also somewhat blinded by his infatuation with the owner of a museum to which Drayton was thinking of donating a sizable sum and a strained relationship with his former best friend, who is one of Drayton’s neighbours; and Getty has a sideline trying to find her runaway brother.  As it becomes clear that Drayton is Krstic, Khattak and Getty try to work out if Drayton was pushed, and if so who by.

The Unquiet Dead is a police procedural that tells two intertwined stories. The first is the investigation into the death of Christopher Drayton, a businessman who has fallen to his death on some local bluffs. The second is a set of vignettes of war crimes committed in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 1990s and the impotence of the UN forces in protecting Bosnian Muslims from murder and rape. There are three links between the two threads – Christopher Drayton is suspected to be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps, responsible for the Srebrenica and other massacres; Esa Khattak, the investigating police officer was a volunteer civilian in the former Yugoslavia; and there is a small Bosnian Muslim community now living in Toronto. In addition, some of the evidence are bits of written testimony as to the crimes committed during the war. Khan’s intent is clearly to tell the tale of the war crimes, the lack of protection provided by the UN forces at the time, and the subsequent lack of formal justice, through a fictional lens in which the suspicious death of suspected war criminal is investigated. As a strategy it partly works, but the other elements added to the telling in order to create a wider story felt clunky and weak. Khattak’s strained relationship with his former best friend who is a neighbour of the victim, and the backstory of Rachel Getty who is Khattak’s sergeant and still lives with her abusive father, played like character plot devices. Khattak’s former partner and Drayton’s girlfriend are over-the-top caricatures of scheming, bitchy women. The police procedural elements also just did not ring true – Khattak is meant to be head of a new high powered unit, yet he can find time to spend a couple of weeks on a single investigation, with just one supporting officer, and no other cases or pressures or contact with other team members. The result was a read that drew attention to a harrowing modern-day holocaust, but which had a few too many awkward plot devices, one-dimensional characters, and some lack of realism.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review of The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill (2008, Soho Press)

Dr Siri, the reluctant national coroner of Laos in the aftermath of communist victory in 1976, has had to travel to a national congress in a remote district. Afterwards he is commanded to journey through the jungle with his cowardly and hectoring boss, Judge Haeng, where they are attacked by a Hmong family. Haeng disappears into the undergrowth where he is ill-equipped to survive, while Siri is kidnapped. The elder of the family wants Yeh Ming, the thousand year old shaman that inhabits Siri’s body, to exorcise a devil from his daughter before they head to the Thai border to escape persecution on ethnic grounds and for siding with the anti-communists. Meanwhile, back in Vientiane, Nurse Dtui is keeping an eye on the mortuary in Siri’s absence. Her first task is to stop a booby-trap corpse blowing up the building and its occupants. Then, along with Madame Daeng, Siri’s financee, she starts to investigate, soon finding herself chasing a deadly woman known as The Lizard.

The Curse of the Pogo Stick is the fifth book in Dr Siri series set in Laos in the 1970s, which I’ve slowly been working my way through in non-sequential order. In this outing, Siri is kidnapped by a Hmong family who want him to draw on his inner shaman to exorcise a devil from a daughter and lift the curse of a pogo stick sourced from the US military. Meanwhile, Nurse Dtui, Inspector Phosy, Madame Daeng and Civilai take on a Royalist terrorist, The Lizard, who is targeting the coroner’s office. Of the six books I’ve read so far, this is weakest. While it has its moments, my sense was the book was a bridge between entries in the series rather than being a full developed story in its own right (which I also said about the previous book in the series). The issue I think is that story consists of two shorter tales, one underdeveloped and the other also slightly under-cooked, that run in parallel. The thread involving Siri’s usual gang of helpers and The Lizard was particularly weak, largely due to a change in telling of the story. In the first hundred pages or so the thread was told in the present, running side-by-side with Siri’s adventure. It then disappeared, re-emerging near the end as a tale told in retrospect once Siri is back with the gang. That gap and the change in storytelling style simply didn’t work for me and the tale felt weak and lacking in intrigue and twists and turns. Siri’s thread while having more substance felt too static once he gets to the Hmong village and the denouement felt curtailed. My sense was that tale needed more movement and tension, which might have been created if the judge had played a more confrontational role and Siri had gone on the journey towards the Thai border with the family for at least part of the way. What saves the book are the characters, which are a delight, and the world that Coterill has created, which is always interesting to visit.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent the morning rebuilding a dry stone wall that had collapsed. It was a relaxing puzzle fitting it back together. I was also contemplating which book to read next. I think I might go with either Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart or The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham. Seventeenth century China or modern day Wales? I'm still deciding.

My posts this week:
A tribute to Bernadette
Review of Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer
Review of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Before the reckoning

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Before the reckoning

‘Keith?’ The relief was evident in her voice.

‘Everything’s turned to shit, Cass.’

‘You went back to the Galleon?’

‘I was feeling lucky. I could feel it in my bones, Cass. I nearly had it all back again.’

‘And then you lost the lot!’

‘I had a flush; all he had was two pair.'

‘So, you won?’

‘Yes and no. It was Tommy Dolan.’

‘You took Tommy Dolan’s money to pay back Hogg?’

‘And now I’m in deeper shit.’

‘Fuck, Keith.’

‘But I cleared the debt. Look, pack a bag and meet me in Galway. Let’s party before the reckoning.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Abacus, 2009 Swedish, 2012 English)

Allan Karlsson never wanted a hundredth birthday party with the mayor and local press, so an hour before the event he climbs out of the window and wanders into town in his slippers. He finds himself at the bus station where he buys a ticket to get on the first bus. While he waits a young man asks him to mind his suitcase while he goes to the toilet. When the bus comes before the man returns, Allan gets on, taking the suitcase with him. And so his adventure starts, having taken fifty million kroner from a criminal gang. It soon involves a couple of murders and an elephant. But Allan is used to escapades and taking things in his stride.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a comic crime caper meets Forrest Gump told through three strands that eventually meet at the denouement. The first strand follows Allan’s escape from an old people’s home on the day of his hundredth birthday and subsequent adventure involving a suitcase of cash, a career thief, a criminal gang, an eternal student turned hot-dog seller, a reclusive woman and her elephant, and a couple of murders. The second tracks the hunt for Allan by a police detective and prosecutor who are hampered by incompetence and vanity, and a criminal boss who has dim-witted accomplices. The third maps out Allan’s life, which has involved a couple of journey’s around the world, meeting several world leaders, several incarcerations, and key contributions to the nuclear age. The concept is a nice one and the story starts out well, with a strong hook and a lightly comic touch. Comic crime capers are usually held together with plot devices, with the humour, pace and larger-than-life characters papering over the unlikely twists and turns. Allan is a wonderful character that rejects politics and religion and has a devil-may-care attitude to life, however, he cannot quite compensate for the creakiness of the plot, especially towards the end, when unlikely and silly occurrences are substituted for the absurd. Moreover, the humour becomes a bit tedious after a while. The result is a tale that starts well, but cannot sustain the feel-good formula to the conclusion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer (Bantam, 2011)

August 1942 and American forces decide to start the process of pushing back the Japanese on land and sea, landing troops on the island of Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomons in the South West pacific. The marines quickly gain a toehold and control of the only airfield, but do not dislodge the Japanese from much of the island. However, neither navy has control of the sea, nor total superiority in the air. Determined to re-take the island the Japanese fly daily bombing runs from bases in New Britain and also send the Tokyo Express – a convoy of destroyers turned troop and cargo ships – on nightly runs to bolster and resupply their army. They also send larger formations that include battleships and cruisers to bombard marine positions, as well as submarines. Opposing them is a US fleet still adapting to being at war. What follows is a series of seven large night battles between US and Japanese naval forces, mainly between destroyers, cruisers and battleships, but also occasionally aircraft carriers and their aircraft. Both sides claim victories in the savage clashes that at their conclusion leave both with twenty four vessels sunk, however it is the US that retains Guadalcanal, with most Japanese soldiers evacuated through a Dunkirk-style rescue.

Hornfischer tells the story of the Guadalcanal campaign from the US naval perspective, seeking to rebalance accounts that focus more on the actions of the marines on the island. To that end he achieves that aim providing a detailed overview of both the administrative challenges and politics of naval command and the unfolding of each battle based on extensive research. While the command politics is rather dry in its telling, excavating the ins and outs of decision making and responsibility for follies, the battle engagements are more compelling, giving a sense of the chaos and carnage of clashes drawing on first-hand testimony. While Hornfischer does provide some rebalancing in the US account, it still suffers from imbalances. By focusing exclusively on the naval engagements, the battles on land and in the air are backgrounded. Moreover, it is still very much a US account and is laced with American patriotism that verges on jingoism – barely any mention is made of the wider war and political context in the Pacific and the role and action of other Allies, and the Japanese side of the battles are somewhat sketchy. In addition, while the story does provide a somewhat personal perspective of individual actors, they all remained somewhat thin, consisting mainly of descriptions of actions, rather than providing a sense of the person and their fate. As such, while book does largely succeed in its aims, albeit in a rather flat narrative, it would have been useful to read a more holistic account of the campaign. Overall, an interesting if narrow account of the taking and defending of Guadalcanal.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A tribute to Bernadette

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Bernadette Bean who blogged her crime fiction reviews at Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime. Although we never met, I corresponded with her for almost a decade via a Friendfeed group, later the Petrona Crime and Mystery Friends group on Facebook, via comments on blogs, and through email. I was very grateful when she generously took the time to read and comment on a work-in-progress, what was then titled 'Saving Siobhan' which eventually became 'Stumped'.

The great thing about Bernadette's blog and her correspondence was you could trust her to say exactly what she thought and to provide a reasoned rationale to support her views, and do so in an engaging manner. For someone trying to decide what to books to hunt down and read, those kinds of reviews are invaluable. It's also useful advice for an author as long as they're not too thin-skinned to take criticism and learn from the insights. And Bernadette had plenty of insight and I always felt she would have made a great literary editor.

Bernadette was foremost a champion of good reads and listens (see was an avid audio book listener). She was a fan of engaging stories that were well told. Like every reader she had her tastes and interests, but she'd give every book a fair assessment. She was also prepared to take a chance and read books by first-time authors and if she liked what she read she become their champion.

She also had her causes. She was an ardent supporter of female writers, fiction by Australian authors, and libraries (the picture above is from a recent protest to protect Norwood Library in Adelaide). I'd hazard she had the most encyclopedic knowledge of Australian crime fiction and had certainly read more work, by more Australian crime authors, bar her co-blogger on Fair Dinkum Crime, Kerrie Smith. And she was certainly a great ambassador for Australian crime fiction - enough so that I would import books only available in the Australian market (which is surprisingly difficult to do and still drives me crazy).

As a reader I owe her a great debt as the quality of my reading has increased immeasurably by hunting down books she recommended. Several of those books have made it onto my end of year 'best reads' list, including my top read of last year: The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong. Only a couple of weeks ago I ordered a couple of books she'd reviewed and I've shuffled Ausma Zehanat Khan's 'The Unquiet Dead' to the top of my pile and will do the same with Vaseem Khan's 'The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra' once it arrives to read in tribute. I'm going to miss her reviews and recommendations immensely, but will continue to revisit her archive to find new books to try.

If there is a heaven, then I imagine Bernadette has already discovered its extensive library and is holed up in the crime fiction section, working her way through the collection. And she certainly 'will not be shushed' while resident.

May she rest in peace.

Some other tributes can be found at:
Bernadette at A Crime is Afoot
Vale Bernadette at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
A tribute to Bernadette in Oz at Mrs. Peabody Investigates
A Sad Loss at Euro Crime
A Tribute to Bernadette in Oz at Fair Dinkum Crime
RIP Bernadette at Reactions to Reading at Clothes in Books
Why’d You Go, Bernadette? at The Rap Sheet
RIP Bernadette Bean, blogger at Reactions to Reading by Patricia Abbot
A Tip of the Hat to a Revered Blogger at Ah Sweet Mystery Blog

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Ireland has been suffering its worst winter weather for a few years, with record levels of snow in some parts of the country as Storm Emma swept in from the Bay of Biscay and met freezing Siberian winds. Given that we rarely receive snow, we're not really set up for it, with the country grinding to a halt with just a few centimetres. In this case, it's been a fair bit more than that (in some cases six foot drifts in roads and gardens - as per picture right from a newspaper) and the government officially shut the country from 4pm on Wednesday until Saturday morning, with everyone told to stay at home. Many non-primary roads still remain shut. What that's meant for me is more reading and writing time. It's still cold, but we're now into the thaw and flooding phase. Hopefully that'll pass okay and the country will get back to normal next week. Shame my reading time will be as well.

My posts this week:
Cursing is a kind of praying
February reads
Review of The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield
Review of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cursing is a kind of praying

‘What the fuck was that?’ Popowski muttered, wrestling with a jammed door.

‘Probably a gun magazine,’ Hansen replied. ‘Half the ship must be ablaze by now.’

‘Fuck! We’re trapped in a fucking sinking tin can.’

‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be ...’

The two men glanced down at the man praying.

‘Sorry about the cursing, padre,’ Hansen said.

The pastor smiled. ‘Cursing is a kind of praying, son. And all prayers are welcome right now.’

‘Fucking, right,’ Popowski muttered. ‘But you can’t hustle on your knees, padre; but you can pray while pushing a fucking door.’  


‘On three, push.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

February reads

My book of the month was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a historical literary crime tale set in Northern Iceland at the beginning of the 19th century. Would have been a perfect read to accompany the present inclement weather.

My posts this month:
The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield ***
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson ***
Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent ***.5
The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell ***.5
The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski **
Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser ****  
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent *****

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review of The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield (Head of Zeus, 2012)

2009, Ana Maria Galindez, a young forensic investigator, is sent to a disused mine to examine the bodies of fifteen bodies enclosed behind a bricked-up shaft entrance. The bodies appear to be victims of an execution squad related to the Spanish Civil War. 1953, Comandante Guzman is head of the Brigada Especial, a unit answerable directly to General Franco dedicated to tracking down and handing out summary justice to former Republican combatants. Guzman is a brutal policeman used to getting his own way, but General Valverde and a group of Dominican gangsters attached to an American trade delegation are challenging his authority. Galindez’s discovery of the bodies provides a link from the present to Guzman’s handiwork in the past. As she investigates Guzman she attracts the attention of dark forces that seem intent on halting her digging. Perhaps Guzman didn’t disappear in 1953 as the records suggest and Galindez’s prying has raised a monster?

The Sentinel is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the aftermath and legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the exploits of Comandante Guzman. Guzman works to the orders of General Franco and runs the Brigada Especial, which specializes in hunting former Republicans, torturing them for information, and executing them. He’s a cunning and savage policeman who rules by fear and violence, leading his fellow officers from the front as he teases, beats, rapes and kills his victims. There’s really no redeeming side to his character, yet Oldfield manages to make him a fascinating protagonist despite his savagery. The Sentinel is told through three narratives, two of which focus on Guzman directly, and one by proxy. The first is his youth in the civil war, the second his actions in 1953 as he’s caught in a vicious power game within Franco’s court. The third is set in 2009 and tracks the investigation of a young but well-connected forensic investigator, Ana Maria Galindez, as she tries to uncover evidence of Guzman’s post-war activities. I have mixed feelings about the book. While on one level the story is engaging and interesting, on another it is uneven and over-extended. The Galindez storyline is unnecessary and unconvincing with respect to plot, relationships and dialogue and is driven by endless plot devices and for me the book would have been a far better read if it had been absent. For the first third of the book, the Guzman plotline was too much tell and not enough show. The second half of the Guzman story saves the book as the intrigue and tension deepens. My dilemma now is that I’d like to know what happens in the subsequent books, but I don’t want the same frustrating reading experience. Since both are longer than this one, I’m not sure that’ll be the case.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, 2006)

1854, London. Over the course of a couple of weeks Cholera sweeps through a Soho neighbourhood killing hundreds of people and sending others fleeing. Cholera is a relatively recent import from India and like other deadly ailments it is not well understood, thought to spread via foul-smelling vapours. Dr John Snow, a noted physician and anaesthetist, who lives close to the outbreak has a different theory which he has been working on for a number of years. He believes Cholera thrives in polluted water. The most recent outbreak gives him an opportunity to prove his case. One of his key methods is to plot the locations of deaths and the sources of drinking water. What his resulting map reveals is that Cholera victims are concentrated around a single water pump. While few share his conviction that Cholera is spread via drinking contaminated water, the local authorities do close the pump. His findings are confirmed by a local churchman, who determines that the victims did all drink from water collected from the pump and those that sourced their water elsewhere were unharmed. Despite the weight of evidence, some public health officials continued to believe the miasma theory rather than Snow’s conviction, but over time Snow’s map and data changed how cities were managed, with a vast public sewer network being built to separate drinking water from waste.

The Ghost Map tells the story of how Dr John Snow, a London physician, solved the problem of how to tackle Cholera. Johnson starts his historical tale by setting the scene and in particular detailing the filth and stench of the city and the various professions who cleaned and recycled the city’s waste. In the absence of sewers and formalized waste management, human and animal faeces littered streets and basements. It was the foul-smelling stench – the miasma – of such waste that was thought to spread disease. Snow, however, had a different theory – disease was spread via contaminated water – and most of the book concerns Snow’s work. In particular, the narrative focuses on the 1854 cholera epidemic, its catastrophic outcome on a local community, how by plotting ghosts on a map Snow identified the source of the outbreak, changing both the practice of epidemiology and public infrastructure and public health provision of modern cities globally. It’s an interesting tale, but it is a little uneven in its telling, with an overextended focus on some elements that drifted into repetition, and underdeveloped on others, particularly the public health situation and response, and the evolution of thinking and practice in the years proceeding Snow’s work. And the final chapter on the spread of disease and viruses in the present day, as well as urban development, was a potted attempt to convert the lesson from the nineteenth century to the present that felt like an add-on and speculative. In addition, the lack of Snow’s maps and analysis, especially the key Voronoi one, seemed an important oversight. Overall, an okay read about an interesting case.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up a few of my orders from the local bookshop yesterday. I now have the following books to look forward to: The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Night Life by David C Taylor, Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart, The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill, The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle, and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. That should keep me going for about three weeks!

My posts this week:
Review of Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent
Review of The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell
Under fire

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Under fire

Polk hurried along the narrow corridor, sliding past sailors heading in the opposite direction.

Overhead he could hear the thumping of batteries returning fire.

The ship rocked as a second shell sliced through the deck and exploded.

The radioman slammed into a bulkhead and fought to stay upright.

Up ahead a man rounded the corner, his face bloodied.

Polk hurried on, determined to reach the comms room.

The next detonation sent him sprawling.

Then the lights flickered and died.

He hoped someone was sending out an SOS; that he’d make it out before the old lady slid beneath the waves.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent (Penguin, 2016)

Judge Andrew Fitzsimmons and his wife Lydia live in a mansion on a large plot of land in south Dublin with their son, Laurence. It should be an idyllic life but their accountant has mis-invested their savings. To add to their woes they have sought to solve one aspect of their domestic life by taking a risk with a young troubled woman who has turned the tables on them. In a fit of rage the judge strangles the woman, but it is Lydia who finishes her off. They decide to bury the body in an old pond turned flower bed and hope that the police do not connect them to the missing woman. Laurence has an inkling as to what has happened, but his manipulative mother steers him into silent complicity. The police make little effort to find out what happened to Annie and the case is soon shelved. Karen, the dead woman’s sister, is determined however to discover the truth. When the dead woman’s father intersects with Laurence’s life he sees a way to atone for his parent’s sins, but in so doing he places the family secret and all his mother holds dear in jeopardy.

Lying in Wait is an extended family drama and psychological crime tale, plotting the intersections of the well-to-do Fitzsimmons and the working-class O’Tooles. At the heart of the tale is the obsessive, manipulative, sociopath Lydia Fitzsimmons, who cares only about herself, her family home, her son, Laurence, and having more children. The latter brings the family into contact with Annie Doyle, a victim of a Mother and Baby home and heroin addict. A showdown with the young woman leads to her death, with Lydia determined to cover up the murder. Nugent tells the story from the perspective of Lydia, Laurence and Karen, the dead woman's sister, with each chapter switching to another perspective. In this sense, the book is very much character-driven, plotting the unfolding lives and dramas of the lead protagonists, held together by the murder of Annie and Lydia’s determination to keep a secret, Laurence’s desire for atonement, and Karen’s quest to know what happened and justice. Nugent focuses on the intricacies of their lives, thoughts and interactions avoiding melodrama or shifting the register into thriller territory. The result a kind of realistic ordinariness, despite the tragedy at the centre of the tale. At one level, this is what makes the book work, but at another it flattens the storytelling in the sense there is no sense of urgency or pace or tension. The result was a nicely constructed and told tale, which was excellent on its own terms, but one I was never felt absorbed by.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell (Quercus, 2011)

Glasgow, 1955. A body is dredged from the bottom of the River Clyde. The monogrammed cigarette case suggests it is Gentleman Joe Strachan, a pre-war criminal mastermind behind some of the city’s biggest robberies. Strachan had disappeared after a policeman was killed during his final heist. Lennox, a former Canadian commando during the war and journalist, is hired by Strachan’s twin daughters, Isa and Violet, to discover the corpse’s true identity. Since Strachan’s disappearance the twins have received a substantial payment each year which they had assumed was sent by their father. If the body isn’t their father, then they want Lennox to track him down. If it is him, who has been sending them money? Lennox starts to hunt around for clues in the criminal underworld, while also working on a blackmail case involving an American movie star working on a film in the city and surrounds. It seems, however, that someone doesn’t want him to find answers and is prepared to kill to stop his progress.

The Deep Dark Sleep is the third book in the Lennox series set in 1950s Glasgow. Lennox is still haunted by his time as a commando during the war and has wound up in Glasgow, working as a private investigator rather than return to his native Canada. Through guile and favours and he manages to navigate the criminal underworld of the ‘three kings’, while also maintaining friendships with policemen prepared to help him with his cases. As such, he’s the logical choice of PI for those who need difficult cases solved involving some criminal element. In this outing, he’s hired by the twin daughters of the most feared and successful criminal in the city before the war to discover whether a body dredged from the Clyde is their father, and by a solicitor acting on behalf of an American movie star who is being blackmailed over some explicit photographs. While the latter case seems relatively straightforward to resolve, the former soon turns deadly. Someone it seems is prepared to kill to keep the mystery of Gentleman Joe Strachan a mystery. Lennox is an engaging character, 1950s Glasgow is well portrayed, and Russell keeps the tale moving at pace. The twin threads, plus Lennox’s slow romantic pursuit of his landlady, is compelling and entertaining. However, while each thread is interesting, their entwining as the story progressed felt like a somewhat clunky plot device that didn’t ring true. The result was an enjoyable tale that progressed to a seemingly inevitable and staged conclusion.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The first of my ordered non-fiction reads turned up during the week, so I've slid The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson to the top of the to-be-read pile. I was also given a copy of Karin Slaughter's The Kept Woman. For some reason I've not read one of her books before, so I might give it a try in the next month or so as well, though I'm trying to read only one US-set book a month at present to give other places a go.

My posts this week
Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski 
King Canute

Saturday, February 17, 2018

King Canute

‘Just forget it, Gerry. It’s inevitable.’

Gerry glanced at Mary, then across the lawn at the slowing rising water. He thumped the spade into the sodden earth.

He was soaked to the skin, the rain sweeping in from the west as it had been for the past week.

‘You’re going to catch your death.’

‘It’ll drain round to the side, you’ll see.’

‘Drain to where? There’s nowhere for it to drain to.’

‘I’m not giving up. It’s our home.’


‘It’s not beating me this time, Mary.’

‘You’re acting like King Canute. Come and help me move our stuff upstairs.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski (2003, Polish; 2010, Maclehose)

New York, 1960. Eberhard Mock is on his deathbed and wants to confess to his actions during his separation from his first wife in Breslau, 1927. At the time his marriage is imploding in domestic violence, rape and sexual promiscuity, Mock is trying to track down the ‘calender killer’, who is committing horrendous, brutal murders, leaving a page ripped from a diary with the victim. While Mock stews in alcohol and uses his officers to track his wife rather than the killer, his wife is taking revenge on his neglect by exploring her sexuality with her best friend and a baron. Despite his brutish flaws, Mock has a reputation for genius in investigating crimes and he’s soon approaching the murders from an unusual angle that points to mysterious sect.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second book in the Eberhard Mock series set in 1920s Breslau (present day Wroclaw). In this outing, Mock’s first marriage is ending at the same time as he’s trying to track down a serial killer obsessed with the past. At one level the tale is interesting enough as Mock tries to solve the crimes by focusing on the place it was committed rather than the crime or perpetrator. However, the story suffers from a couple of issues. The first is the thorough unpleasantness of Mock. Usually the bad cop is softened by a lighter side or the quest for redemption. Mock is embittered, vindictive and brutal: he beats and rapes his wife, he destroys careers, blackmails his boss, uses public resources as if his own, and tortures suspects. It may well be realistic, in the sense that some cops might be cut from that cloth, but it’s a brave move to have such a lead character as it’s difficult for the reader to find a point of connection. It’s not helped by every other main character in the book being almost as flawed or selfish, and every aspect of the storyline being rooted in immorality, violence and corruption. I appreciate that was probably the intention, but having no points of light in the darkness was wearing after a while. In addition, part of the problem of the storytelling is that is supposedly set out as a confession by Mock. Yet it’s told in the third person and has sections that relate specifically to his wife or colleagues that he could not know the intimate details of; he also claims to have no knowledge as to what happened to her after 1928, yet she became famous, making that unlikely. Moreover, the end became very messy and difficult to follow. All round, not a very satisfying read, though there was enough intrigue to keep my turning pages to find out the resolution of the murders.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been over twenty books since I read a non-fiction tome, but without one on the TBR (other than academic work books) I was stymied. After some browsing online I've just bought a handful. One on the periodic table, one on practices of geology, two medical histories, and five military histories (three naval, one codes, one aerial). The plan is to slot these a bit more consistently into the mix. Of course, I also ordered a handful of novels as well.

My posts this week:
Dreaming of being structurally sound
Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser
Special issue: Data-driven Cities? Digital Urbanism and its Proxies | Tecnoscienza
Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dreaming of being structurally sound

Jimmy sighed. He could stare at the equation until next Thursday and he still wouldn’t understand. If Einstein or Hawking were to explain it to him, it would remain a mystery. He just wasn’t cut out for maths. Yet he dreamed of being an engineer. Of building bridges like Brunel and Telford. Forging great spans of elegant steel and concrete. Or burrowing long, snaking tunnels through mountainsides. He had notebooks full of grand, intricate designs, shelves of balsa models, but no notion as to whether any would be structurally sound. He stared at the page, prayed for insight, and doodled.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser (1936, German; 2004 Bitter Lemon Press)

Sergeant Studer tracks down and arrests a former convict who is suspected of murdering a travelling salesman. After dropping the man off at prison and leaving, Studer returns as something is nagging at his subconscious. He finds his suspect hanging in his cell and manages to revive him. It suggests the man was guilty of the crime, but Studer is not convinced. He returns the village where the victim was shot and starts to hunt around. It’s clear that all is not well among a set of Gerzenstein’s citizens and Studer’s presence is not wanted. When his initial suspect confesses, the case seems to be closed. But the canny sergeant is a master at solving difficult cases.

Published in 1936 Thumbprint was the first in five Sergeant Studer novels written by the troubled Fredrich Glauser, who spent much of his life as an addict and in-and-out of prison or psychiatric wards, plus a couple of years in the French Foreign Legion. His unsettled personal life, however, is not evident in this assured and well-plotted tale of murder and conspiracy. Sergeant Studer used to be a promising inspector until he refused to drop a politically charged case. Now he works in the canton of Bern as an ordinary policeman, but he’s still blessed with good observational and deductive reasoning skills. And he knows how to unsettle people and prompt them into acting rashly – though sometimes they don’t respond as expected, which is almost the undoing of his investigation in this case. In this outing, Studer is investigating what seems like an open-and-shut case involving the death of a travelling salesman from a village. Despite the evidence he has an inkling that something is awry and seeks to find the truth and the real killer. As well as Studer, the strength of the tale is the quite complex puzzle and the show-not-tell voice. An interesting story that has aged well.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador, 2013)

Northern Iceland, 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her master and lover. After months in a local holding the district commissioner sends her to an isolated farm to await execution. The family are mortified to have a murderer amongst them, but rather than keep her under lock and key they put her to work in the house and farm. The landscape and weather are harsh and escape would lead to nowhere except death. Agnes asks for Tóti, a local trainee priest, to be her spiritual guardian and gradually tells him, and her host family, the story of her life and the death of her master.

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland, her head lopped off by an axe wielded by the brother of the man she was accused of murdering. A range of stories still circulate about the case, many portraying Agnes as a monster. Hannah Kent takes a different tack providing an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes from the time she is sent as a prisoner to a local farm to the time of her execution. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. Kent uses both a first person perspective of Agnes and a third person general narrative to chart her last few months and the crime for which she has been convicted. In the main this is done through reminiscences, discussions with her priest, and interactions with the family charged with housing her until she is taken to the site of execution. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised. While the telling drags a little in the middle, as a whole the tale is a first rate literary piece of crime fiction.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

For no particular reason, I haven't read a crime fiction novel set in Switzerland. That changed this week as I read Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser, first published in 1938, a police procedural in the Simenon tradition that charts a canny sergeant's investigation into the death of a salesman. My review will follow later in the week.

My posts this week:

Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
January reviews
I have a confession

Saturday, February 3, 2018

I have a confession

Cally met James at the hospital doors.

‘Come-on, she’s barely holding on.’

‘I came as fast as I could; got a standby flight.’

‘She won’t start until we were all together.’

‘Aidan’s here?’

They sped up the stairs.

‘Yes. There’s been lot of tears.’

They entered a private bedroom.

‘We’re all here now mother – Cally, Aidan, Sally and James.’

The elderly woman opened her eyes. ‘I have a confession, I … I murd ..’

She tailed off.


‘I think she’s gone.’

‘Was she just saying what I thought she …’

‘Get a nurse.’

‘None of us heard anything, okay.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

January reviews

An interesting month of travelling round fictionally in January, visiting the US, Russia, Turkey, New Zealand, Italy, Norway and England. My read of the month was A Gentleman in Moscow, a wonderful tale about an aristocrat indefinitely confined to a hotel post-revolution.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch ****
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn ***
Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni ***
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas ****
Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel ****.5
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles *****
The Sugar House by Laura Lippman ***.5

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2012)

When a man is found stabbed to death on the tracks at Baker Street tube station, the murder squad would prefer it to be a straightforward case, but there’s no indication as to how he got there. Peter Grant is asked to check out the site to see if a trace of vestigia (a whiff of magic) present. His bosses are not best pleased when he reports that the shard of pottery used to kill the victim is somewhat other-worldly. To add pressure to the case it turns out the murdered man is the son of a US senator and a FBI agent has been assigned to shadow the investigation. While his colleagues chase down the usual kind of leads, Grant and his colleague, Lesley, pursue a different line of inquiry. That path leads them underneath the city, into its conduits, sewers and chambers.

Whispers Under Ground is the third book in the Peter Grant urban fantasy/crime series set in contemporary London. In this outing, Grant is investigating the death of an American, stabbed to death on the tracks in the London underground. As well as continuing his sorcerer's apprenticeship in the secret unit that investigates magical and uncanny crimes, he’s running around at the beck-and-call of the murder squad and jousting with a smart and sassy FBI agent who seems to making better progress with the case than the Met. The joy of this series is Aaronovitch’s engaging voice, the sense of place and potted history of the London, the characterisation, the streak of dark humour, and the everydayness of the magical elements. The case is interesting and forms a nice puzzle and the story winds its way to a very nice chase through underground rail and sewers network, the destination of which was telegraphed from the start. After that the tale seemed to fizzle out a little, with the murderer identified and caught in a relatively straightforward manner, and it wasn’t really clear as to the future of what was found underground. An entertaining story, which I picked up at every opportunity given the compelling qualities of the voice and characters.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn (Orenda, 2016, original Norwegian 2013)

After an affair with her boss that ends in scandal, TV presenter Allis Hagtorn flees her job and partner, taking a job as a housekeeper and gardener in a remote fjord. She has little aptitude for either, but her new boss doesn’t seem to mind. Sigurd Bagge is a distant, surly, secretive middle-aged man whose wife is travelling. The pair form an uneasy relationship that gradually evolves into something more romantic but sinister. Allis is unsettled but drawn to Sigurd and has nowhere else to go, Sigurd alternatively pulls her close, then pushes her away. In the background the pair are haunted by Nor, Sigurd’s wife. Despite the tension, neither seems prepared to end their tryst despite the possible consequences.

The Bird Tribunal is a psychological tale of understated passion between two troubled souls set in a remote fjord in Norway. The story charts the unfolding relationship between Allis, a former TV presenter fleeing her past, and Sigurd, her new employer whose wife is travelling. The house and garden Allis has been hired to tend is isolated in a forest and perched above a fjord and boathouse, with the only transport a bike. Allis is unsettled, isolated and vulnerable; Sigurd is guarded and distant. Part of the house is closed off to Allis and initially she only sees Sigurd at meal-times and odd occasions. Ravatn charts the development of their tense relationship, haunted by Sigurd’s absent wife, Nor, and occasionally drawing on old Norse mythology. The strength of the story is the character development, the social interaction between Allis and Sigurd, and the sense of place. However, the narrative is linear and sparse, the psychological tension does not really increase in intensity (being relatively suffocating from the start), and the story works its way to a somewhat inevitable conclusion that didn’t quite deliver on all the foreboding. The result was an interesting and tense, but not quite fulfilling and compelling tale that had a few too many unanswered questions about Allis and Sigurd’s respective lives.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The internet is often a wonderful thing. On Friday evening I posted a one-line moan on Facebook. By Saturday evening I had two dozen offers for short contributions to an edited book on the topic of my moan (city's being run on the ethos/business models of companies), plus an offer of an outlet for publication. From vent to unanticipated, half-organized project in a few hours. Now all I have to do is invent time to slot into existing workload!

My posts this week:
Review of Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni
Review of Death on Demand by Paul Thomas
New paper: Being a ‘citizen’ in the smart city
Review of Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel
Front grill

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Front grill

Kiely double-parked next to a police cruiser, its lights flashing.

As he exited, a uniform yelled. ‘You can’t park there!’ Quickly followed by ‘Sorry, boss!’

The sheriff approached a fireman whose yellow hat was tipped back.

‘How the hell did it get up there?’ He gestured at the car, most of which had penetrated the second story wall above a pizzeria.

‘Good question,’ Jones said. ‘Beats me.’

‘Anyone injured?’

‘Just the driver. Scared a mother and her teenage son half to death. And a man half-killed himself choking on a slice of pizza.’

‘Miracle he wasn’t eating a front grill.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Review of Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni (Europa Editions, 2013)

Naples, 1931, the city is teeming with life, most people living in poverty and trying to scrape by. In the working class district of Sanita an elderly woman has been beaten and kicked to death. Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione are called to the scene, knowing that the locals view them with suspicion and will provide minimal help in finding her killer. Searching her apartment and placing pressure on the building porter they discover that the old lady made a living as a fortune teller and money lender. Dozens of people, both poor and rich, have visited the apartment to receive prophecies or to take or pay back loans, leaving the detectives with many potential suspects, some of them with political connections. As well as trying to identify the murderer, Maione also tries to solve the mystery as to who has slashed a beautiful widow’s face.

Blood Curse is the second book in the Commissario Ricciardi series set in Naples in 1931. Ricciardi is very much a lone detective, shunned by his fellow cops due to his reserved manner and uncanny ability to solve difficult cases, with the exception of Brigadier Maione, who appreciates his boss’ talents and acts as a loyal partner. Ricciardi can see and hear the final seconds in the lives of victims of violent deaths. It helps provide initial clues, but is also a curse, providing emotional attachment to the case and isolating him from others. His affliction and relationship with Maione makes for an interesting and empathetic lead character. In this outing, Ricciardi and Maione investigate the death of an elderly fortune teller and money lender. Due to the woman’s activities there are lots of potential suspects, many of whom de Giovanni introduces to the reader through multiple individual threads. In addition, there is a second case, involving a knife attack on a beautiful woman. These multiple threads makes the narrative quite fragmented and somewhat confusing, especially near the beginning of the book. As the book progresses these various threads are interwoven and the narrative takes shape, the tale becoming increasingly compelling and entertaining, with a good sense of place and portrayal of social relations. The denouement, however, felt somewhat hollow and overly contrived. Nonetheless, an engaging story.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review of Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012)

Maori cop Tito Ihaka was exiled to a rural backwater for assaulting a fellow cop and refusing to drop a case he believed was pre-meditated family murder rather than a random hit-and-run. Five years later and he’s asked to return to Auckland by his old boss to talk to Christopher Lilywhite, whose wife had been mowed down by the speeding car. Lilywhite is terminally-ill with cancer and confesses to hiring a hitman to dispose of his wife, though he has no idea as to the identity of the murderer. Ihaka’s original hunch is finally vindicated, but the following day Lilywhite is dead. When his old rivals, Detective Inspector Tony Charlton and his side-kick, are assigned to the case it seems that Ihaka is heading back to the sticks. But when another murder takes place, he’s asked to run that investigation, also taking an interest in the shooting of an undercover cop a few weeks previously. Gradually he starts to realise that there are linkages between the cases, there’s a hitman actively at work, and something is rotten in the Auckland police force.

Death on Demand is the fourth book in the Tito Ihaka series, published fifteen years after the last outing. After a slow, fragmented start in which Thomas introduces a number of characters and past crimes, the story starts to take shape, with plenty going-on in Ihaka’s return to Auckland – murder, blackmail, prostitution, police corruption, and professional robberies. The principle hook, however, is Ihaka. After five years in a rural backwater for assaulting a fellow police officer, the Maori cop has mellowed somewhat but he’s still very much his own man and conducts police business without diplomacy. And he’s still got a nose for sniffing out leads and unearthing evidence, even if some of his practices fall outside the police manual. In this sense, he sometimes tests the reader’s empathy, for example when he beds a witness. The story itself is reasonably convoluted, with a couple main threads with sub-plots and a diverse set of characters. And there is plenty of intrigue and twists and turns that kept me guessing as to the identity of the hitman and corrupt officer in the police. I’d certainly be interested in going back and reading earlier instalments.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Review of Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel (Headline, 2002)

A young Albanian is found almost decapitated by the banks of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. His family are involved in a blood feud with another immigrant family and it appears he is the latest victim. His death means that it will need to be avenged, continuing on the fis. Inspector Cetin Ikmen’s investigation soon reveals some anomalies, however, such as the victim recently donated his kidney to a young, rich woman. He also discovers that his mother’s half of the family had been involved in a blood feud of their own, which requires the family history to be re-visited. As the tension builds between the feuding Albanian families, Ikmen and his team disrupt their plans and seek to identify the murderer.

Deep Waters is the fourth book in the Inspector Cetin Ikmen series set in Istanbul, Turkey (and the first I've read). This outing has a strong Albanian focus with Ikmen and his team investigating the blood feud between two Albanian families and its latest victim, while also exploring his own Albanian roots and the death of his mother. In addition, one strand of the story focuses on a rich, troubled family that have links to the young victim, and on the relationship between one of Ikmen’s aristocratic colleagues and an Irish/Turkish psychoanalyst. Indeed, as well as charting the murder investigation, the story focuses equally on the domestic lives of Ikmen and his team and the social and cultural aspects of Turkish life. The result is interesting and engaging tale, with a strong sense of cultural context and place. In my view, the storyline relies on too many of convenient relationships between police and non-police characters and there’s no great surprise in the resolution, but nonetheless it’s a captivating read. I’m looking forward to reading some of the other books to follow the characters evolving lives and learn more about the city and its people.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A very slow week of blogging due to block teaching, board and other meetings, and generally running around. I was under time stress, but not a result of digital technologies speeding up, fragmenting and densifying the temporal organization of my life (for once). I did actually manage then to practice some slow computing, which was the focus of Lyric FM's Culture File programme which was based on a workshop I co-organized before Christmas. It's an interesting set of programmes, which you can catch up with on their soundcloud.

My posts this week
Big mouth
Culture File’s Slow Computing Week

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Big mouth

The front door slammed.  Half-a-beat later Katie stormed into the kitchen.

‘Where is he?’



‘I don’t know. His room, maybe the den. Are you okay, dear?’

‘No! And nor will he be soon.’

She stormed up the stairs, throwing open his door without knocking.

He was turning from the screen when she ripped the headphones from his head.

‘What were you thinking, Moron?’

‘What? Those cost sixty euros!’

‘You told Emma about Rory!’

‘I didn’t.’

‘You told James, who told his sister, who’s Emma’s friend!’

‘So yell at James.’

‘You’ve ruined everything!’ She slapped his ear. ‘Big mouth!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Fifty pages from the end of Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel and I leave the book on the other side of the country! Hopefully, I'll track it down this week and get to finish it off as I firmly hooked on the story set in Istanbul. Instead I am now reading Paul Thomas' Death on Demand set in New Zealand. Reviews of both in the coming week - fingers crossed.

My posts this week:
Review of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Rules of thumb for making decisions on requests for academic work
Around the world in 365 days
Queering code/space: special section of GPC
Review of The Sugar House by Laura Lippman
A greater good?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A greater good?

‘I don’t know how you do it, man; just shoot them dead.’

McManus and Smith were sheltering in a bomb crater.

‘Self-preservation. Pre-emptive strike. The way I look at it, if he’s dead he can’t kill me.’

‘But it’s so cold-blooded.’

‘And firing artillery and charging positions isn’t?  What difference does it make – random shell, a ricochet, a sniper’s shot? It’s war.’

‘Which we all hope we’ll survive.’

‘And I’m increasing the odds. Take out the officers the others will surrender. It’s for the greater good.’

‘For us or them?’

‘For all of us.’

‘Except the poor bastards who’re dead.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Windmill, 2016)

While most aristocrats are seeking to leave Russia as it falls to the Bolsheviks, Count Alexander Rostov heads from Paris to his ancestral home, then to Moscow. There he is arrested and put on trial. He is spared the firing squad given his contributions to poetry and instead placed under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel near to the Kremlin and the finest in the city. There is he is forced to give up a number of his possessions and to occupy a small room in the attic. Rostov draws on his well of being a gentleman and his good nature and wit to make friends with all classes staying and working in the hotel. As the years pass by his life passes through a number of phases and several escapades, but there is little sign he is to gain his freedom, something he wishes for his adopted daughter.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an expansive and endearing story of the life of Count Alexander Rostov, placed under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel in Central Moscow in 1922. It is somewhat of an allegorical tale exploring the nature of being confined within borders and hope, friendship, dignity and making-do under political tyranny driven by political ideology; while Count Rostov is restricted to the hotel and compartmentalises his different roles and relationships, all Soviets are denied freedom of passage, suffer numerous hardships, and work out strategies to survive. There are also a number of political philosophical asides comparing the plight of the proletariat in collectivised, socialist Russia with individualised, capitalist United States. While Rostov moves through different phases, much as the unfolding of the revolution and its leaders, a selection of characters intersect with him, some on a more permanent basis, such as the hotel’s chef, concierge, barman, seamstress and manager, others more periodically, such as a film star, an old university friend, and a young girl who loses her innocence and faith in the system as she ages. The characterisation and character development is excellent, as are the social interactions between them. There is a real sense of place as to the Metropole Hotel and all the goings on within its walls. The prose is lovely and the storytelling compelling, full of wonderful little side stories, musings, and reflections on life. And the long arc of the plot, with its somewhat meandering path, is very nicely executed.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Around the world in 365 days

2017 turned out to be a bit of a slow year of fictional travel, visiting twenty six countries, with the bulk of reads set in the UK, US and Ireland. It would be nice to extend this a bit in 2018, I think, especially to Africa, South America and Central America, places I've barely travelled to fictionally (and not all in real-life).

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic ****
The Dry by Jane Harper ****.5
The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong *****

One or The Other by John McFetridge ***.5

Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee **.5

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich ***.5

The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal ****.5

Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between by Liz Evans **.5
Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler ****
Real Tigers by Mick Herron *****
After You Die by Eva Dolan *****
Riptide by John Lawton *****
Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch *****
After the Fire by Jane Casey ****
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor ***.5
The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth ***
A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward ***.5
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott ****
Bulldog Drummond by Sapper **
The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner ****
The Intrusions by Shav Sherez ****.5

Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus **
Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher ***
The Divided City by Luke McCallin ****.5
Stasi Wolf by David Young **.5

The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor ****.5

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jónasson ***.5

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee ****

Sleeping Dogs by Mark O’Sullivan ****.5
The Dust of Death by Paul Charles **.5
The Trespasser by Tana French *****
A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan ***
There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty ***** 
Silence by Anthony Quinn ****
The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell *****

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill ****.5

The Harbour Master by Daniel Pembrey ***

A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart Kaminsky ****.5
The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ***
The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko ****

Whisky in Small Glasses by Denzil Meyrich**.5
Dead Water by Ann Cleeves ****
Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris ****
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid ****
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home ****

South Africa
Present Darkness by Malla Nunn ****
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman ****.5
The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson ****

A Red Death by Walter Mosley ****
A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy ****.5
Solo Hand by Bill Moody ***.5
Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout ****
The Sellout by Paul Beatty *****
Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente ***
A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston ****
Moth by James Sallis ****.5
Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale ***.5
Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen ***
Whiskey River by Loren Estleman ****.5
Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker ****
Kill the Next One by Federico Axat ***.5
Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb***

Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham ****.5
Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham ****.5

More than one country
Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser ***.5 (England, Madagascar, Singapore, Indonesia)
Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr **** (France, Germany)
City of Lies by Michael Russell **** (Ireland, Portugal, France, Germany)
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen **** (Vietnam, United States)
Flight from Berlin by David John *** (Germany, Britain)