Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (2016, Orbit)

Jack Sparks is the literary equivalent of a shock-jock – a loud, vulgar, offensive sociopath; always scheming and lying, and who lacks care and empathy. What drives him is his ego and its massaging by his fans and followers on every form of social media channel. His latest venture is 'Jack Sparks on the Supernatural' a book in which he sets out to debunk religion, the afterlife and the paranormal. His journey starts with an exorcism in Italy, which he interrupts by laughing at what he sees as an absurd, staged act. What follows is a series of increasingly creepy happenings, including a strange, haunting video with no provenance that appears on his YouTube channel that then disappears. Jack is determined to discover who made the video in order to prove it’s a hoax, using it as a means to gather content for his book as he meets with a combat magician and a group of paranormal investigators. But the more he tries to disprove the supernatural, the more it seems like it might exist, and it all seems to be leading to his inevitable death.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks follows the slow descent of a loutish, egotistical author as he tries to disprove the supernatural in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. The story is told through the book notes of Jack Sparks, collated and edited by his brother, who also intersperses the text with other evidence, such as letters and audio transcript. Sparks is somewhat of an unreliable narrator who is determined to both shock readers and favourably script his own portrayal. He travels from Italy to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, pursued by the consequences of an exorcism he disrupted and prevented. He creates antagonism and resentment, and in his wake leaves a trail of destruction. By mid-way through it’s clear where the story is heading, though there is still plenty of intrigue, twists and gore. While it’s billed as a dark comedy, the humour fell a little flat for me, in part because it is all rooted in the awfulness of Jack Sparks, a character with no redeeming features who is loathsome throughout. The story is well constructed and told, but I can’t say I enjoyed the characters or story very much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of Early One Morning by Robert Ryan (2002, Headline)

The mid-1920s, William Grover-Williams flees Ireland and his life as an IRA get-a-way driver to France. There he gets work as a chauffeur for William Orpen, an Irish artist whose muse and mistress is Eve Aubicq. Williams and Aubicq start an affair and marry, and she seed-finances his foray into racing cars. A natural driver, he is soon driving for Bugatti in grand prixs with his team mate and rival, Robert Benoist, a former First World War fighter ace. Benoist, Williams and Aubicq form a close friendship at and away from race circuits. When the Second World War starts Williams heads for England where he enlists, before being recruited into SOE. He’s then dropped back into France, reuniting with his wife and setting up a resistance network with Benoist and fellow racing driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille. As they build their network and start to undertake actions, the German SD are closing in, determined to put a halt to their work.

Early One Morning is a fictionalised account of the true story of William Grover-Williams, Eve Aubicq and Robert Benoist. Built around Williams, the tale covers from the mid-20s to the end of the war, with a separate thread tracing Williams’ SOE handler still seeking answers many years later. The main focus is the war years, especially Williams’ recruitment and training for SOE, his drop back into France and his work building a network with Benoist, and subsequent capture and internment in France and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As with all such fictionalised accounts of real people and events there is always a question as to the extent to which the author has taken artistic license with history, and undoubtedly Ryan has filled in detail – speculating on dialogue and action, and altering timelines for dramatic effect. But the broad arc seems roughly faithful, detailing the daring lives of two racing drivers and one of their wives. A little bit of a slow burner, the book picks up pace, intrigue and emotional resonance as it progresses. Overall, an interesting and engaging read.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Unusually for me I've started three books in a row where I've got fifty pages in and put the book to one side. I think I'll eventually finish all three, but I'm just not in the right mood for them right now. I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for, but perhaps it's Don Winslow's The Force, as that's next on the list.

My posts this week
Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox
Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
One job

Saturday, November 10, 2018

One job

Clarke hit the wet pavement like a breaching whale.

Miller followed him down, three bullets thwacking into the building entranceway.

His boss was missing the crown of his skull.


A pointless question asked as he scuttled into the lee of a parked car.

Somehow his gun had appeared in his hand, but his instinct was flight not fight.

A smattering of bullets peppered the car.

The most obvious paths to safety were back into the building, or bolt left or right. Instead, he sprinted across the road.

He’d one job, yet the mayor was dead.

So, it was fight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox (2017, Doubleday)

Aidan Waits is a disgraced copper, suspended and unsure if he has a future in the police. His boss though has a possible route back which involves exploiting the situation: Waits can go undercover, trying to enter the inner circle of Zain Carver, a major player in Manchester’s criminal world. A disillusioned, dishonest ex-policeman with a drug and drink problem is liable to drift into Carver’s orbit. The task can double-up with a mission for a government minister whose daughter has become a siren for Carver, a party girl being groomed to collect drug payments. Carver though is no ordinary criminal – he has brains, charm and his own man in the police. And Isabelle Rossiter has no desire to be reunited with her father; in fact, Waits suspects she might have good reason to have run. Carver’s world is no place for a young girl though as women in his harem tend to end up dead. Waits is quickly out of his depth, unable to trust anyone – his boss and fellow police officers, the minister, Carver and his coterie, and himself – and he’s not sure if and whether he wants to survive. Deep-down though he wants justice and he’s prepared to play all sides to try and attain it.

Sirens is a dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget, bought-up in the care system. He has a future that is seemingly going nowhere having badly messed up his police career. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld, persuade a government minister’s daughter to return home, and uncover Zain Carver’s man in the police. It’s a suicide mission, but Waits has nothing to lose. A man on the edge – disgraced, disillusioned, dishonest – he’s out of control and reckless. Aiding and avenging Carver’s sirens – Cath, Sarah-Jane and the newest recruit, Isabelle, the politician’s daughter – seems worth the risks. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along. Full of twists and turns and tension it catapults the reader through the seedy and violent underbelly of the city, the drug-filled hedonism of the night-life, and the criminal gangs and their rivalry that supply the highs and lows. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Waits is the perfect guide to this world, a fallen policeman who fits into the scene but can’t give up the notion of justice, even if it’s his own brand rather than defined by the law. While it could have been a fairly simple plot, Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan (Zaffre, 2018)

Winter, 1917. Lord Highmount, a weapons manufacturer has organized a gathering at Blackwater Abbey, his home on a Devonshire island, to try and make contact with his two sons killed in the trenches. Present are his wife and daughter, two spiritualists, a doctor and his patient who is suffering from shell-shock, his industrialist friend and his wife who have a son missing in action, an officer who works in the Ordnance Dept, and the abbey’s servants. Asked to attend by British intelligence are Captain Donovan, chaser and fixer of spies, and Kate Cartwright, daughter of the guest industrialist and former fiancée to the officer, who works in Naval codes and is also able to see ghosts. They’re job is to try and identify who has been passing on secret military intelligence to the Germans. Not long after the guests arrive a storm closes in cutting the island off and strange and sinister occurrences start to happen leading to murder. Donovan and Kate struggle to make sense of the unfolding events, especially since they seem to be chasing ghosts.

In A House of Ghosts Ryan mashes together elements of a golden age country house crime tale, a ghost story, and an espionage thriller. Using a classic setup, he isolates his characters in a house on an island, using the weather as means to trap them there. The house is an old abbey and is haunted by centuries worth of inhabitants, is riddled with secret passages, and has its upstairs-downstairs politics of servants and owners/guests. Among the guests are two spiritualists, a doctor whose shell-shocked patient can converse with the dead, and a woman who can see ghosts. They are there to conduct a séance and talk to their relatives killed in the trenches. One of the guests is also a German agent and two have been sent to capture the spy. The guests are all friends of the host Lord Highmount and have various interconnections, and the servants have their own agendas and linkages. The two main protagonists are Captain Donovan, an Irishman working for British intelligence, and Kate Cartwright, who is to aid him winkle out the spy. Two likeable characters, they immediately form a bond that extends beyond a working relationship. Ryan uses the set-up to good effect, with skulduggery mixing with ghostly happenings, and friends starting to turn on each other. The result is a story that rattles along, with plenty of intrigue and action. I was expecting it to be a bit more creepy and haunting and the identity of the spy master is no great mystery. However, the other happenings are not quite so clear, keeping the reader guessing about some elements of the tale. I imagine this is opening of a series featuring Donovan and Kate, or at least I’m hoping it is. Overall, an engaging, entertaining tale that harks back to the golden age of crime fiction.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

In anticipation of a trip to Taiwan I've been trying to track down some crime fiction set there. I've managed to order Ghost Month by Ed Lin and Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari. If anyone has any other recommendations for Taiwan-based tales, then I'd be grateful to hear about them.

Posts this week:
Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile
October reads
Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Kathleen drew a key across the bonnet, gouging the paint.

‘Are you crazy?’ Emily tried to pull her away.

‘He’s feckin’ two-timing me.’ Kathleen shrugged off her friend; scratched again.

‘He’ll kill you, you daft bitch.’

‘Fuck him.’ A heel folded under her ankle and she fell to one side.

‘Jesus. You’re wasted.’ Emily tried to drag her up.

‘Fucker!’ The stone thumped into the headlight; the car alarm wailed.


‘Fucker.’ She tried to stand, tears ruining her mascara.

‘Come-on, let’s go.’

They fled arm-in-arm.

Behind them Ryan shouted: ‘Fucking bitch!’

‘Next time I’ll scratch your fucking eyes out!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile (2017, Legend Press)

Rescued by an Irish aid worker, Theo arrived in Ireland from Rwanda aged seven. Aged twenty two and with an engineering degree, the financial crisis means he cannot find suitable work. Instead he takes up a job working in a restaurant kitchen and sells drugs for a criminal gang. At the restaurant he meets Deirdre, a middle-aged woman with three kids, and the pair form an unlikely friendship. Both are struggling to make a place in the world they are happy with. Theo is haunted by his childhood memories and is looking for a way out of the drugs trade. Deirdre wants an end to her domestic abuse but is too afraid and resigned to leave. When Theo’s friend Neville, the boyfriend of Deirdre’s daughter, Grace, is given a punishment beating by the criminal gang that Theo deals for, it provides the catalyst for change. But change comes with a heavy cost that neither is sure they want to pay.

Rain really does fall on everyone in Clár Ni Chonghaile’s tale of identity and belonging in situations of violence. Set in Dublin, the tale focuses on the life of Theo, a young man bought up in Dublin after being rescued from the Rwandan genocide, and his friendship with Deirdre, a middle-aged woman living with domestic abuse. Theo is somewhat of a lost soul who finds solace in the Irish language and poetry and deals drugs for a criminal gang to get by. Deirdre has resigned herself to living with the violence of her husband. Their lives become intricately interwoven through two key events centred on Theo’s best friend, Neville, that forces them both to confront their past and their future. Ni Chonghaile’s tale is a carefully crafted slice of social realism. It is shot through with empathy and pathos, but it is not for the faint-hearted with its scenes and discussion of domestic abuse, genocide, gang violence, suicide, and racism. These are not glorified, but rather form an everyday backdrop to ordinary people living difficult lives. The characterisation, character development across the story, social interactions and sense of place are excellent, and the whole tale has a deep-sense of believability to it. I can’t say it was a joyous or entertaining read, but it was certainly engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October reads

A varied month of reading, with one stand out book: She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper.

The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott ***
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey ****
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier ****.5
Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto ***
The Innocent by Ian McEwan ****
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey ***.5
Code Girls by Liza Mundy ****.5
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper *****
The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness ***
Basin and Range by John McPhee ****
The One Man by Andrew Gross ****.5

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott (Titan Books, 2016)

Winter, 1946. Duncan Forrester has resumed his career as a historian at an Oxford College after spending the war working for SOE in occupied Europe. The wife of his best friend is having an affair with a fellow don. When the don is found dead, supposedly stabbed and thrown from the rooms of the cuckolded husband, he is accused of murder. Forrester is convinced his friend is innocent and is determined to proof it. On the night of the murder, his college was hosting a dinner with a number of guests, including a German professor of literature and a Norwegian scholar of sagas. Forrester is convinced that there might be some connection, and this suspicion is heightened when he is attacked himself. The police, however, are uninterested, convinced they have the right man, leaving Forrester to draw on his war-time skills and contacts, travelling to London, Berlin, Denmark and Norway and tangle with dark forces in order to reveal the real killer.

The Age of Treachery is the first book in the Duncan Forrester series that follows the exploits of ex-SOE agent turned historian. In this initial outing, Forrester has returned to academic life as a junior fellow at an Oxford College. When his best friend is accused of murdering a fellow don who was having an affair with his wife, Forrester sets out to find the real killer, slowly uncovering a war-time conspiracy that some are willing to kill for to keep secret. The story is written as a kind of ‘Boys’ Own’ tale of adventure, with Forrester drawing on his historian skills to uncover evidence and his SOE-skills to stay alive as dark forces try to stop his quest. Dropped into the tale are before-they-were-famous cameos by real-life people such as Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher, and Kenneth Tynan. If one treats the story as a Boys’ Own take it’s reasonably engaging and entertaining, despite being somewhat thin and unbelievable throughout. That said, it would have worked more effectively if the identity of the killer wasn’t telegraphed from a very long way out and the solution to the ‘locked room’ element of the murder – that none of a room’s occupants can easily get to the site of the killing – wasn’t ridiculous.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally got another book in the post this week - The Right to the Smart City - co-edited with Paolo Cardullo and Cesare di Feliciantonio. I also published the intro and conclusion chapters as working papers (links below). I think it's an interesting set of essays and hopefully it'll pass smoothly through the production process. In reading terms, I've slowly been working my way through Rain Falls on Everyone, a socially realist portrayal of the struggles of a young Rwandan man in Dublin.

My posts this week
Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey
New paper: Towards a genuinely humanizing smart urbanism

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
New paper: Citizenship, Justice and the Right to the Smart City
Why won’t they leave me alone?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why won’t they leave me alone?

‘Why won’t they leave me alone?’

‘You know why; that video’s gone viral.’

‘But I never asked for it! I don’t even know who took it.’

‘You were being sexually harassed, Sarah. That creep’s life is hell now.’

‘And so is mine. Have you seen the abuse I’m getting on twitter? I was called a whore by a complete stranger yesterday.’

‘Another creep.’

‘A middle-aged woman. Why can’t people mind their own business?’

‘He was attacking you.’

‘And now it’s a global headline. And they’re judging me as much as him!’

‘It’ll soon be yesterday’s news.’

‘But not for me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey (1979, Simon and Schuster)

Christopher John Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee grew up in wealthy, upper middle-class homes in Southern California in the 1950s and 60s. Friends from an early age, they’d been altar boys together and shared an interest in falconry. Both started to dabble in drugs in high school and both were listless, unsure of what they would do after school, trying and dropping out of college. While Lee gravitated from selling drugs in school to forming his own drugs network, making runs to Mexico and regularly in trouble with the law, Boyce got work in a defence contractor through a contact of his father where, aged twenty one, he quickly graduated to handling highly classified spy satellite plans and international CIA communications. Disillusioned with America’s foreign policy and domestic politics in the early 1970s, Boyce decided to express his discontent by passing on secrets to the Soviets. Lee’s role was to act as a courier, taking copies of documents to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City where he was to sell the information. For Lee, the new line in finance offered the opportunity to expand his drugs enterprise. The two passed highly secret information for a couple of years before being caught, kind of by accident. Tried separately, they were both given long sentences for treason.

Lindsey’s book tells the story of Boyce and Lee’s lives and enterprise from childhood up to the end of the court case, exploring why two boys of privilege, whose fathers’ had served in the military or intelligence services, betrayed their country. Published not long after the court case, it is packed full of detailed information, cobbled together from various sources, including the trial, and extensive interviews with the protagonists. Since both Boyce and Lee were serial liars, and both tried to blame and frame the other for their enterprise, there’s always a sense that the account is Lindsey’s best attempt at untangling a muddled and contradictory set of stories. Nonetheless, it’s a comprehensive and engaging read about two young, opportunistic men who took advantage of circumstance, for different motivations, to commit treason. After finishing the book I decided to see what happened to the two men to find that Lindsey went on to write a second book about Boyce, who managed to escape from prison in 1980 and went on to commit 17 armed robberies before being recaptured; something I would have expected from Lee but not Boyce given their respective portrayals in The Falcon and the Snowman.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Atlantic, 2018)

When she was sixteen years old, Georgina Shaw – known as Geo – dated Calvin James, five years her senior. After a drunken party, Geo’s best friend and leader of the school cheerleading team, Angela Wong, disappeared. Fourteen years later, Angela’s remains are found in woods near to Geo’s old home and she and Calvin are arrested. He for Angela’s murder and the deaths of three other women, Geo for aiding and abetting in the death of her friend. The arresting officer is Kaiser Brody, a close school friend who she subsequently shut out of her life. An executive in a pharmaceutical company and on the verge of marriage, Geo’s live is upended and she’s given a five year prison sentence. Not long after being sent to prison, Calvin escapes and disappears. As Geo nears release, a fresh set of new bodies start to be found. While Kaiser hunts for Calvin, Geo is prepared to take her chances and confront her past.

Jar of Hearts takes place near to Seattle and is a spin on the serial killer genre. The tale centres on Geo (Georgina) Shaw, who at the start of the tale is convicted of aiding and abetting in the death of her best friend, Angela Wong, by her then boyfriend, Calvin James, fourteen years previously. Calvin subsequently went on to murder three other women. Geo, an executive at a major pharmaceuticals company, is sent to prison for five years. The story then tracks both back to Geo’s school days and the time prior to and after Angela’s death, and forward through her time in prison to her release when her past and Calvin seem set to catch-up with her. As such, the focus is very much on Geo, a woman living with the consequences of fateful decisions taken when she was sixteen, when she met and fell in love with a serial killer. Hillier does a very nice job of developing Geo’s character and uncovering the layers and secrets of the events fourteen years previously and their after-effects and subsequent years. Indeed, the tale is well structured, with both the historical and contemporary threads leading towards climatic denouements with twists. The book ended a bit too quickly I felt and I’d have liked to get a bit more post-denouement conclusion, but nonetheless an engaging and compelling read.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The last week has been a West Coast US mix of fiction and non-fiction - Jar of Hearts set near Seattle and The Falcon and the Snowman set in the Los Angeles area and Mexico. In both cases, the thought of how did they get away with it for so long comes up; yet, it makes sense in each case. Luck and bravado can go a long way, thought they're often followed by a big fall. Reviews shortly.

My posts this week
Review of Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto
Review of The Innocent by Ian McEwan
Review of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
I told him it was over

Saturday, October 20, 2018

I told him it was over

Paul’s dream had taken a strange twist. An angry tiger had appeared. It leapt at his neck.

He woke with a start.

His neck really was caught in a vice.

He clawed at the strong hands, his legs scrabbling on the bed.

A knee thumped down on his chest.

Suddenly the pressure was gone.

Claire was standing naked at the end of the bed, clutching a golf club.

It whooshed through the air, passing by his side and made a dull thump.

‘What the …’

‘I told him it was over,’ she said defiantly.

Paul glanced down. ‘It is now.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Review of Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Serpents Tail, 2008; original 1996)

A police inspector is sent to a former Portuguese fort in Mozambique, turned refuge for older people, to investigate the death of its director. When he arrives the inspector’s body is occupied by the ghost of a worker who is buried under the Frangipani tree in the compound. The inspector interviews each of the residents, their nurse, and the wife of the director. Each one confesses to murdering the director and each professes to awaiting death. He only has a week to solve the crime before a helicopter arrives to fly him back to the city, but he cannot locate the body of the director and is struggling to determine who killed him.

Under the Frangipani is a curious book. Set in an old Portuguese fort in post-independence Mozambique the tale is part murder investigation, part allegory that is rooted in magical realism. The fort is the locus of the long troubled history of Mozambique, a site that held slaves, was used in the war for independence, and is a microcosm of post-independence society. Its inhabitants reflect the melting pot of different identities - blacks, mulattos and whites – and classes, and the challenge of trying to maintain old traditions and spirit worlds while shedding its colonial past and the violence of war and becoming part of a wider world. In this sense, Couto’s tale is an allegory for Mozambique, where the old ways are dying but the new ways are not fully accepted either and the legacy of the past lives on. While it was a somewhat interesting read, I was never really captivated by the tale. I’m sure there are lots of layers and subtle hidden meanings, but with little knowledge of Mozambique and its history I probably lacked the referents to make sense of them. As such, much of this literary tale probably passed me by.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Picador, 1990)

Leonard Marnham is a telephone engineer posted to Berlin in 1954 to work on a top-secret project to tunnel under the Soviet sector and tap into the Russia’s communication system. The project is being run by the Americans, but in the spirit of cooperation the British have been allowed to play a part. Somewhat naïve, Marnham is a fish out of water in a city carved up after the war, occupied by personnel from four countries, and still in ruins. On a night out with two American colleagues he meets Maria, a divorcee five years his senior. The two begin a passionate affair, but Marnham’s lack of worldliness and his secret work, and Maria’s past and ex-husband, place a strain on their relationship. In a city on the frontline of the Cold War, nothing can be taken for granted, and the two lovers are about to experience an event that will have consequences well beyond themselves.

The Innocent is a psychological thriller set in Berlin in 1954/55 as the Cold War starts to get warmer in the city. For much of the book, there is no thriller element, with the tale an in-depth character study of a naïve British telephone engineer and a German divorcee who works for the British Army, and the anatomy of their relationship. Leonard and Maria meet and fall in love, but their insecurities and circumstances mean their love affair does not run as a smoothly as it might. McEwan is very good at excavating the psychology of their interactions and how ill-judged words and actions have consequences that can sour their friendship. He also does a nice job of portraying the distrust and paranoia of supposed allies as Leonard works of a top-secret intelligence project shared between the Americans and British. It is only towards the end of the tale that Leonard and Maria find themselves in a very difficult predicament and the thriller part kicks in – some of which is not for the faint-hearted – and they are not just in danger, but also the top-secret work Leonard has been conducting, spying on the Russians via a tunnel dug under their sector (based on a true case undertaken by American and British forces). McEwan wraps up the tale nicely, but it is the fraught love affair and loss of innocence that remains after the story closes. An intense tale of love and disaster, with a strong sense of characters, place and time.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Review of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey (Random House, 2009)

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson works for CID in Accra, Ghana. When a young health worker is found dead in the small town of Ketanu far to the north of the capital, Dawson finds himself assigned to investigate at the behest of a government minister, selected by his boss because he speaks the local language. By coincidence, it is where his aunt lives and the last place his mother was seen alive twenty five years earlier, getting into a minibus to return home. Dawson arrives to find a jumpy and headstrong local inspector and a number of suspects who are rooted in old traditions. His style of policing is at odds with local ways of doing things and he is soon crossing swords with those not used to having their authority challenged. To make matter worse, the local inspector has already decided who the murderer is and can see no reason for Dawson to hang around. The visitor, however, is interested in justice, not simply a conviction.

Wife of the Gods is set in Ghana in West Africa and is a pretty much a straight police procedural. The lead character, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is a man who believes in rational science and evidence and he has little time for old traditions, beliefs and customs. When he is sent to a small town to investigate a murder, his world view is bought into direct conflict with old ways, with the locals suspicious of an outsider, especially one who doesn’t share their values. His task is to investigate the death of a health official who has been promoting protection against AIDS. She too was viewed with suspicion. Quartey uses the premise to explore how Ghana is changing and the clash of new and old values. The story is nicely told and Dawson is an interesting character, prone as he is to mistakes and hot-headedness. The plot is engaging and Quartey does a good job of keeping a number of suspects in the frame. The ending is a little telegraphed, but generally works well, although there are a few loose threads at the conclusion that remain unresolved, which was a little frustrating. Overall, an engaging, traditional police procedural that provides an interesting social commentary on Ghanaian society.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I did a quick trip to Germany last week to Bochum to give a talk and contribute to an autumn school. Although I didn't have anything set in the Ruhr on the TBR, I did have a copy of Ian McEwan's The Innocent set in Berlin in 1954/55, a cold war psychological drama/thriller. I'll probably post a review this week.

My posts this week

Review of Code Girls by Liza Mundy
Review of She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
Jumping on a bus

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Jumping on a bus

The man rounded the corner at a quick trot, his tie flapping over his shoulder.

It was obvious that the bus was going to reach the stop well before the man.

Lauren veered from her path to the shelter and stretched out her arm, thinking she’d hold it up for him.

The bus stopped.

A few seconds later the man dashed past.

Embarrassed, Lauren stepped aboard.

This is the story of my life, she thought to herself: jumping on a bus I don’t need and going in the wrong direction for a man who wasn’t interested in the first place.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Review of Code Girls by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017)

Code Girls charts the work of the 10,000 women recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II to crack the Japanese, German and other nation’s encrypted communications. Many were recruited from elite women’s universities and from the ranks of those who had attended college, particularly those with a maths and linguistics background and were employed in teaching, but also more broadly. By the war’s end the vast majority of code-breakers were women and they were responsible for cracking most of the major ciphers.

Mundy tells the tale of these women, both focusing on individual stories and the wider historical context. So, on the one side she details the lives of Dot and Ruth, two women who met in Washington DC working at Arlington Hall breaking codes and became life-long friends, along with a number of other women working for both the Army and Navy. On the other, she details the longer history of women working in code-breaking in United States, the wider context of the women’s work, and the effects their work had on the wider war. This blending makes for a compelling read, providing personal colour mixed with a grounding in the wider history, and it’s clear that there is a substantial amount of oral history and archival research underpinning the narrative. At times, however, it feels a little bit too much of a Dot biography. Moreover, the timeline gets scrambled quite a bit, jumping back- and-forth, making it tricky to keep a track of the order of events. Overall though, this is a fascinating, engaging account of the work and impact of the women who toiled long, frustrating hours to break enemy codes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review of She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper (2017, Simon and Schuster)

Sentenced to twelve years in prison, Nate McClusky is about to be released on a technicality after six when he tangles with and kills a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood. A death sentence is placed on his head, along with his ex-wife and daughter. Within minutes of leaving prison he has stolen a car and raced to his daughter’s school. Eleven years old, Polly can barely remember her father, but agrees to leave with him. Nate is too late though to save his ex-wife and her new partner. As well as avoiding the Aryan Brotherhood, Nate is now also on the run from the police for kidnap and murder. Unsure who to trust, Nate must teach his daughter how to survive in a deadly world as they seek to not only stay alive but take the fight to his enemies. For Polly, who partly communicates through her ventriloquist teddy bear, it’s a high stakes, violent coming-of-age, but neither McClusky is going down without a fight.

She Rides Shotgun is a noir tale of a father and daughter struggling to take on a major criminal gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, and survive. With his ex-wife dead, Nate collects eleven year old Polly and tries to disappear into Los Angeles’ underbelly. Living by their wits and the occasional armed robbery, and exacting bloody revenge, Nate decides that the only way to make the death sentence placed on the two of them go away is to cause so much destruction and lost income that the Brotherhood call quits. Polly transforms from a relatively innocent, bullied school girl into a mini-Bonnie Parker. Polly and her teddy bear are the undoubted stars of the tale. Polly is a mix of innocence and determined cunning who quickly learns to take care of herself and look out for her father. As their exploits grow more audacious and a cop closes in on them, the stakes are raised to another level. Harper provides a very nice balance of character development and action, telling a fresh, modern-day noir that slowly ratchets up the tension to a dramatic denouement. It’s difficult to see how the story could be improved – an excellent, engaging coming-of-age tale with a twist.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Well, it certainly feels like autumn has arrived. Back to wet and blustery days. Spending Sunday hiding inside and reading Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods and updating blog pages.

My posts this week
Review of The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness
Review of Basin and Range by John McPhee
September reviews
Review of The One Man by Andrew Gross
Cross-eyed and tired

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cross-eyed and tired

‘Will you stop hovering, Mike.’

‘What’s that note there?’

‘An idea I’m working on.’


‘I was seeing if … there was a pattern in the additives between ciphers. A double move.’


‘I might have a way in. Or it might be nonsense. Here.’

She handed him a sheet of scribbles.

After a few minutes he placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’re wasted doing this, Helen. You should be running the war.’

‘All I care about is the war ending.’

‘Well, this is going to help with that. You’re a genius.’

‘What I am is cross-eyed and tired.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review of The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness (2018, The Book Guild)

Marian Rejewski is a gifted Polish mathematician and fluent German speaker. He’s recruited from university and tasked with trying to crack the German Enigma machine. Aided by a commercial enigma machine, a set of user manuals, and some intelligence from a German intelligence officer working for the French he sets to work, eventually devising a mechanical machine to help crack the frequently changing cypher. As war breaks out, Marian and the rest of the Polish Cypher Bureau head for the Romanian border hoping they can continue to provide the intelligence that will eventually free Poland and allow him to return to his wife and two children.  

The Cypher Bureau charts the life of Marian Rejewski, the Polish cryptographer who was the first to break the German Enigma codes before the outbreak of the Second World War. Essentially, it is a biography in novel form. And while it tells the fascinating story of Rejewski’s life from his childhood to his death, concentrating on the period from the early 1930s to late 1940s, this its weakness – it is neither an in-depth biography that is situated within the wide social and political context of the time, or the work of Cypher Bureau pre- and during the war, nor a particularly compelling novel. With respect to the latter, the story is told through a series of scenes from across Rejewski’s lifespan. These scenes are short and there is often months or years between them. Key moments are often dealt with in quite a cursory way, for example, the fleeing of Warsaw, entering Romania, the journey into Spain. And some bits jumped over entirely, such as getting from Spain to England, or how Bertrand got from a prison cell to England. The result is a partial set of scenes that form a loose story arc, rather than creating a compelling narrative. Moreover, the dialogue is wooden and staged. What saves this history as story is finding out about Rejewski’s eventful and impactful life, but I can’t help feeling that the tale would have been better told as a straight biography.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review of Basin and Range by John McPhee (1982, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. In 1978 he started a set of journeys across America with geologists that turned into a series of five books published over twenty years. Basin and Range is the first book in the series and mostly concerns the geological landscape from eastern Utah to eastern California. Rather than produce a straight science narrative about the geology of the region, or a conventional history of the science of geology, McPhee instead travels with geologists to explore and write about the landscape. The result is a rather eclectic set of stories and observations about the science of geology, the rocks visible in the landscape and hidden underground, the nature of time and the history of the geologic time scale, the unfolding of the theory of plate tectonics, and the work of geologists. In this sense, it seeks to create a discussion of geology that might appeal to the non-geologist and geologist alike; to create a kind of geo-prose that ruminates on the long history of the development of the Earth’s surface. For the most part, he creates an interesting set of reminisces and thoughtful reflections, though occasionally it loses focus and seems to drift, lacking a clear direction or purpose. Overall though, it’s an engaging read.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

September reviews

A fairly mixed month of reading. The standout book was This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham, the fourth book in the excellent Fiona Griffiths series.

The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross ***.5
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa ***
The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag ***
Defectors by Joseph Kanon ***
Fletch by Gregory McDonald ***
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore ****
The City in Darkness by Michael Russell ****
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham *****
Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle ***.5

Monday, October 1, 2018

Review of The One Man by Andrew Gross (Minatour 2016)

Nathan Blum has managed to escape from the Krakow ghetto and make his way to America via neutral Sweden. There he enrols in the armed services, being assigned to an intelligence office in Washington DC given his language skills, though he longs for active service. The President is about to give him his wish, though it seems like a suicide mission. He’s asked if would parachute back into Poland, break into Auschwitz, find a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, whose knowledge of gaseous diffusion is vital for the Manhattan Project, then break-back out again and get the professor to safety. The odds are massively stacked against him: hundreds of thousands pass through the camp, but only two have ever escaped. Knowing that his family are dead and that the Allies have deemed the mission critical, Blum agrees to go. He’s fluent in Polish and German and he’s the skills and wits to survive and escape a Nazi ghetto, but getting in and out of a death camp will test him to the limits.

The One Man is a historical thriller set in 1944. The premise is quite straightforward: send a man into Auschwitz to locate another and get him out and to safety. Of course, doing that is far from straightforward. That is Nathan Blum’s challenge. And he has three days to do it; the Polish resistance due to ambush a work detail laying railway tracks outside the camp and then a plane from England will land in a nearby field to pick them up. The target is a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, who is vital to the Manhattan Project but didn’t get out of Europe in time. Blum manages to enter the camp, but then everything starts to unravel as he struggles to find Mendl, survive the guards, navigate camp life, and stay ahead of a German intelligence officer who’s hunting for him. Gross does a very nice job of using Auschwitz as a setting for a page-turning thriller without denigrating what happened there. In fact, he gives a good insight into the workings of the camp and life inside, populating it with believable characters and situations, and is respectful to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, he doesn’t forget he’s telling a thriller. The three day time limit and the chase by the Abwehr officer repeatedly ratchets up the tension, plus there are some nice twists that create a strong affective response. Indeed, the plot is for the most part very well put together, the only weak spots for me being how the Abwehr officer picked up Blum’s trail and the intro/outro which felt a little stilted. This is more than made up for by the rest of the story, particularly the denouement and the final twist, which were excellent. The result was a thriller with first-rate historicisation, sense of place, characterisation, and a compelling plot.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A slow trickle of books arrived during the week: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum, The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness, and Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt. I've already finished the last two - reviews soon. The others have joined the TBR pile and hopefully I'll get to them soon.

My posts this week
Review of The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross
Review of Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
Review of The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag
He'll walk again?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

He'll walk again?

‘Look, before we go in, there’s been a complication.’

‘A complication?’

‘We couldn’t save the leg. We tried but it was too damaged.’

‘He’s lost his leg?’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Oh, god, poor Ben.’

‘He’d been shot.’

‘Shot? Not run over?’

‘Only if the car was shooting .22 bullets.’

‘Who’d want to shoot Ben?’

‘I think that’s a question for the police, Mrs Larkin.’

‘He’ll walk again?’

‘With a bit of recuperation. Come through, I bet he’ll be pleased to see you.’

The collie barked as she entered, his tail thumping the mat.

‘Ben! We’ll soon have you running in circles!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Review of The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross (Ace, 2004)

Bob Howard works for The Laundry, a super-secret government agency that deals with incursions from alternative universes. Bob usually works as a low-level techie, keeping the agency’s computers functioning, but he has an interest in mathematics, philosophy and computing, and a proficiency to react well to odd happenings. After one such incident on a training course he is upgraded to the field and sent to the US to talk to a professor who wants to come home but the authorities will not let travel. While in California, the professor is kidnapped and there’s a serious breach that seems to involve dimension-hopping terrorists. Barely surviving, Bob heads home to serious amounts of bureaucracy, before continuing on to the atrocity archives in Amsterdam, where he’ll face his biggest challenge to date.

The Atrocity Archive is the first book in the Laundry Files series that follows the exploits of Bob Howard, a techie turned field agent for a top-secret government agency charged with stopping the Earth being obliterated by demons and assorted entities from alternative universes. In this outing, Bob is transformed from an office-bound employee to an active agent and is dropped in the deep-end to tackle the kidnapping of an attractive philosophy professor. Bob thinks that the professor is a goat to attract a malicious predator, but what’s actually at stake is the survival of the planet. The tale is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek SF tale of keeping Earth safe from incursions from other realms and British bureaucracy and institutional politics at its most excessive. There’s a fair amount of clever-sounding philosophy and science and humour in the vein of The Big Bang Theory meets James Bond, which makes for some good fun. Overall it’s an engaging read, though the story is a little uneven in its telling, and it wraps up rapidly in the aftermath of the denouement.  I suspect it might be a series that gains depth and strength as it unfolds. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping, as I intend to give the next instalment a read.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review of Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998; original 1986)

Palomino Molero is found horrifically murdered in the Peruvian desert, near to an air force base in the 1950s. Two local cops, Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma investigate. They discover that Molero was stationed at the base, but the commanding officer there refuses them permission to question other personnel as it is outside their jurisdiction. Undeterred they continue to pick away at the case. Besides solving the mystery, Silva is obsessed with bedding a local woman, and he has vowed to do both.

Llosa won the novel prize for literature in 2010. Having read this short novel by him, I’m mystified as to why. Maybe it was an issue with translation, as the prose was mundane and flat, the plot was straightforward, with no real surprises or twists, and the tale has little in the way of literary subtext, other than being an honest kid or cop in a corrupt society brings few rewards. The kid in this case is Palomino Molero, a musician who volunteers for the air service, who is murdered and haunts the story. The cops are two officers, one somewhat naïve, the other more canny. Rather than ignore the murder, as their senior officers and the commander of a local air base want, the two cops keep working away it, slowly making progress, though they’re aware that if they do succeed, nobody is likely to thank them. Overall, an interesting enough police procedural tale set in 1950s Peru.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Review of The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag (Bantam, 2006)

Irina Markova worked as a groom at horse stud by day and partied with the rich men of the Florida polo set at night. When Elena Estes finds her murdered colleague’s body in a canal, ravaged by alligators, she’s determined to seek justice. A former cop, Estes knows how to conduct an investigation, but this one is going to be personal: she know the victim, the lead cop is the man she split up with a couple of days before, one of the suspects is her former fiancé, and the lawyer hired by the rich set to damp any investigation is her estranged father who defended her fiancé from a charge of rape. To add spice to the mix, Irina’s uncle is head of the local Russian mob and he wants revenge, and Elena is attracted to a Spanish polo player who runs with the self-styled alibi club that seems to protecting a group of men who were partying with Irina the night she died. Nothing though is going to stop her discovering the truth.

The Alibi Man is the second book in the Elena Estes series. Estes used to be a cop, but now works on a stud farm owned by a friend and moves around the fringes of the rich polo community. When she finds one of her co-workers dead, rather than leave the investigation to the cops, Elena starts to her own manhunt. At one level, the setup and the unfolding of the investigation works fine. Elena is a feisty, headstrong woman who knows how to handle herself, and the elitism and sense of entitlement of the polo set creates a nice foil. On another level, the tale is riddled with coincidence and personal ties between characters: Elena knows the victim, was recently dating the lead cop, was the fiancé of the lead suspect, and her estranged father represents the members of the self-titled ‘alibi club’. That much personal baggage adds a certain frisson to the story, but also leadens it, making it difficult to feel the tale has much credibility. Added to that, most of the characters are one dimensional caricatures, though that is made up for by sparring between the two lead cops. The result is a story that has a good pace, tension and entertainment, but has a little too much melodrama, too many plot devices, and feels like a Hollywood movie script where the pizzazz overrides realism.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A copy of William Ryan's new book A House of Ghosts arrived in the post last week. I can't think of a recent book which has such high production values - embossed hardback with gold colouring, like one might find in nineteenth century library. It seems the tale is a take on the golden age of crime's country house mystery set on a Devon island in 1917.

My posts this week
Review of Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Review of Fletch by Gregory McDonald
Review of The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
It didn't mean anything

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It didn't mean anything

Kirsty bounded into the kitchen.

‘Where have you been?’ Gary asked.

‘I was at Tracey’s.’

‘I rang Tracey. You left around midnight.’

‘I went clubbing.’


‘I went to a party.’

‘I’ll move my things out later.’

Gary got up from the table and left the room.

‘Gary!’ Kirsty bustled after him.

‘We were meant to be engaged.’

‘We are!’

‘No, we’re not. Who was he this time?’

‘He was; it was just …’

‘It obviously meant more to me than it did to you.’

‘It didn’t mean anything.’

‘Yes, it did.’


‘Don’t try to blame this on me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of Defectors by Joseph Kanon (Atria, 2017)

Simon Weeks used to work for the State Department, but after the defection of his brother, Frank, to the Soviets in 1949 he’s been working in publishing. It’s now 1961 and Frank wants Simon’s company to publish his memoirs of his time as a spy. As the first account by a defector, one approved KGB, it would should be a welcome financial boost. The CIA are less keen for the Weeks brothers to be profiting from Frank’s treachery. Simon travels to Moscow to work on editing the manuscript with his brother, who quickly springs a surprise on him – he wants to counter-defect back to the US, taking his wife with him. Simon unwittingly finds himself playing a dangerous game in a country he doesn’t know, with two intelligence agencies and brother he doesn’t trust. But once he’s stepped over the line, the only thing to do is play the game to its conclusion.

Joseph Kanon’s stand-alone novel, The Defectors, is set in Russia in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and focuses on the relationship between two brothers – Frank, a Soviet spy who has defected to Moscow and still works for The Service (KGB), and Simon, a former State Department analyst turned publisher. Simon’s company is going to publish Frank’s memoirs, and Simon has travelled on a special visa to discuss and edit the manuscript. That means meeting for the first time in twelve years and raking over old ground, all under the watchful eye of Boris, a colonel in the KGB, plus other Service agents, and a handful of other defectors who form a loose social circle. The key hook of the story is the proposal by his brother to counter-defect, drawing the two brothers into a dangerous exit game. The strength of the story is that Kanon plays the tale in an under-stated way, focusing on the relationships between characters, the monotony and paranoia of life in the Soviet Union, the disconnected lives of defectors, and the stress of playing a duplicitous game, rather than it being an adrenaline-rushed thriller. This also works against the story at times, with the pace slowing to a crawl. There are also some jarring moments that felt like awkward plot devices and the denouement felt somewhat rushed and a little flat despite the couple of twists. Overall, an interesting spy tale that seemed to be missing a bit of intrigue and tension.