Saturday, May 18, 2019

No pleasing some humans

‘Finn, no!’

Sally started to chase the tall dog across the field.


The chickens scattered, half-running, half-flying.

‘Finn! No!’

The dog span right, snatching up a hen.

‘Finn! Drop! Drop!’

Sally lost her footing, pitching forward.

‘Shit! Finn!’

She scrabbled to her feet, her knees stained green.

The hen was squawking, one of its wings flapping.

Finn started to trot towards her.

‘Drop the chicken, Finn! Bad dog!’

She grabbed his collar and slapped his nose.

The chicken hit the ground running.

Finn looked up confused – the bird had been a perfect present. There was no pleasing some humans.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review of The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (2016, Allen & Busby)

It was meant to be an evening celebrating her wedding anniversary to her husband, Kevin, attended by her grown son, Jack. Instead, Carla Reid comes round the following morning having been raped and beaten to find her husband in a coma and her son dead. The two young gang members who committed the crime are caught shortly afterwards and sent to prison. As Ben Toroa begins life behind bars, Carla is left to come to terms with losing her son and farm, and caring for her brain-damaged husband. She needs answers from Ben, but he’s reluctant to engage, wary of motives, and focused on surviving inside prison. As the years pass, their lives remain entwined, neither able to move much past the outcome of that fateful night.

Set in New Zealand, Fiona Sussman’s The Last Time We Spoke explores the aftermath of a crime on both the victim and perpetrator. Former teacher, Carla Reid, has been beaten and raped, her husband left a shadow of his former self, and her son murdered. She has to sell their farm to pay for her husband’s care. Ben Toroa, one of the two perpetrators, is a Mauri teenager from a broken home, his mother a mess and her boyfriend a violent thug; his membership of a street gang providing friendship and an outlet for his frustrations. He’s sent to maximum security prison where he struggles to survive unscathed. Sussman plots the years following that night and the tentative relationship between Carla and Ben as each struggles to come to terms with life’s hardships and transform themselves in the aftermath of grief and regret. There’s also a kind of postcolonial line running throughout that tries to set Ben’s Mauri heritage in the context of colonialism that gave the story a bit of a literary twist. The plotting and character development is nicely executed, though the narrative felt a little bit shallow at times, describing events rather than diving deep into thoughts and emotions, and the second criminal disappears entirely from view. And the end just sort of petered out. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging and thoughtful read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (1951, Doubleday)

Willie Sewell Keith is a rich kid fooling around as a nightclub pianist after getting a degree from Princeton. Shortly before being drafted into the Navy he meets and falls in love with May Wynn, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Keith struggles through Navy school, in part through folly, in part distracted by May, before being shipped out West. He misses the connection to his ship the USS Caine, a destroyer minesweeper, and spends six months on admin duties in Pearl Harbour, playing piano at an Admiral’s parties. When the USS Caine does arrive he discovers it’s a rusty, dilapidated wreck with a lacklustre crew and a cranky captain. Worse follows, with the skipper replaced by Captain Queeg, a cowardly, incompetent, disciplinarian with an inferiority complex and a vindictive streak. So begins fifteen months of hell for the officers and sailors of USS Caine as Queeg becomes increasingly paranoid, persecutes his crew, and blames everyone but himself for various mishaps. Things come to a head in a typhoon, with the ship at risk of capsizing, when the executive officer, backed-up by Keith, relieves Queeg of his command. The act of mutiny leads to a court-martial hearing, just at the point where Keith’s relationship with May is floundering. The officer’s futures are on the line, but there’s a difference between seizing control because a captain is believed to be mentally ill and because he’s sane but deeply unpopular, spiteful and inept.

Published in 1951, just six years after the end of the Second World War, Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is considered one of the best expositions of the moral complexities of wartime service. The tale is a coming of age tale of Willie Sewell Keith, a rich, Princeton-educated, young man who is drafted into the Navy and sent to serve on the USS Caine, a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific. Keith is confronted with a number of moral issues during his three years of service, principally centred on his relationship to May Wynn, a nightclub singer from a different social class and religion, and dealing with his scheming, malicious boss, Captain Queeg who makes the lives of everyone serving under him hell. Wouk’s novel excels at both character development and plot. He creates rich, multi-layered portraits of Keith, May Wynn, Queeg, and the crew of the USS Caine, and the evolving relationships between characters. While the opening is somewhat drawn out, once Keith is at sea the plot is very nicely constructed with a series of incidents that builds tension and momentum to the critical showdown, the Caine mutiny. What follows is an excellent set of court scenes. Rather than wrap things up neatly at this point, Wouk spins out the tale to the end of the war, nicely rounding out the tale. The prose and dialogue is excellent. The result is an engaging, thought-provoking story that provides a real sense of life in the navy (clearly informed by Wouk’s own time serving on destroyer minesweepers in the Pacific) and the characters who populate the story.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Another delivery of books turned up during the week - mostly history, with a couple of novels: The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth. In other news, we had a new addition to the household yesterday. A German Shepherd/Collie cross from a local rescue. The other three dogs seem happy enough to welcome him in despite his size. The chickens are reserving judgement.

My posts this week
Review of August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones
Smart spaces and smart citizens?
Review of Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten

Saturday, May 11, 2019


‘Hey, son, are you okay?’

Paddy dropped down to his haunches.

The boy was curled up under a privet hedge.

‘You alive?’

A leg started to stretch.

‘Well, at least you’re breathing. You need help?’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘You can’t lie there, son. You’ll catch your death with cold.’

‘I’ll be gone in a minute.’

‘Here, let me help you up.’

‘I’m fine.’ The boy shuffled out onto the pavement.

‘Jesus, you don’t look fine.’

The boy’s face was badly bruised.

‘You need to see a doctor.’

‘I need you to leave me alone.’

‘No-one wants to be alone, son.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review of August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones (2017, Soho Crime)

August Snow has returned to Detroit after a year of travel in the wake of winning an unfair dismissal case against the police, bringing down a corrupt mayor and several officers in the process. He’s now back living in Mexicantown in the house he grew-up in with his Mexican mother and black father and investing his $12 million pay out in revitalising his street. Shortly after arriving he’s summoned to the home of Eleanore Paget, the prickly oligarch of a wealth management bank. When he was a cop, Snow investigated the murder-suicide of her husband and a young woman. Now she wants him to look into the strange happenings in her bank. Snow declines and three days later Paget is dead, supposedly by suicide. Despite warnings not to look into Paget’s death, Snow finds himself drawn to the case, quickly discovering an international criminal conspiracy and tangling with the FBI. Despite the obvious dangers, he’s never been one to back out of a challenge and he wants justice whatever the cost.

August Snow is the first book in a new series featuring an ex-marine sniper, ex-Detroit cop turned vigilante. Independently wealthy from a large pay-out from a wrongful dismal case, Snow is trying to rebuild his life and his neighbourhood. In this outing he starts an investigation into the death of Eleanore Paget, the owner of a wealth management bank, who dies three days after he was summoned by her to look into what was happening in the bank. It’s clear that strange forces are at work inside the bank and that the perpetrators have no problem protecting their interests through violence, and that the FBI also has the bank in its sights. So starts Snow’s quest to take-on the bad guys, tangle with the FBI, and further piss-off his former colleagues, all the while eating gourmet meals and building a local community in Mexicantown. The result is a vigilante tale of a compassionate man waging a mini-war on an international criminal gang, aided by Paget’s ex-Army security guard, a local ex-Robin Hood, a shadowy master-hacker, and an ambitious FBI agent. By the end, a lot of weaponry has been used and the body-count for the baddies is high despite the odds being in their favour. Taken within that frame – a kind-of blockbuster crime thriller where the good guy has a bunch of specialist skills, knows ‘good criminals’ that will use their skills for the greater good, and the baddies badly underestimate their foe – its an entertaining read, with a nicely constructed plot and plenty of action. August Snow is a strong lead character, as is the city of Detroit, with Jones creating a strong sense of place. Overall, an engaging tale of compassion and vengeance.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Review of Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten (1998, Swedish; 2003, English; Soho Crime)

Richard von Hecht, a rich businessman, falls to his death from his apartment balcony, landing a few yards away from his wife and son. The Göteborg police are called, but the initial prognosis is suicide. The preliminary investigation though indicates foul play and the police start the process of discovering the identity of the killer. Inspector Irene Huss is part of the team, a former national judo champion who is happily married with twin teenage daughters. Her instinct is that it's a family matter and the police’s probing reveals some skeletons in the closet, but a bombing exploding at the man’s office suggests that there might be more to the case. Attention is soon focused on a well-known local criminal and a chapter of Hells Angels, but their relationship to the family is not clear and everyone seems to have something to hide.

Detective Inspector Huss is the first in a ten book police procedural series set in Göteborg, Sweden. While the title focuses attention on Huss, the investigation into the death of a rich businessman is very much a team affair conducted by a set of inspectors under the guidance of a superintendent.  The story then is as much about the dynamics of the team and general police work as it is about solving the murder of Richard von Hecht. The case itself is a little bit of slow burner, gaining pace and tension as it unfolds as various elements are uncovered and those connected to the case manoeuvre to try and protect their interests. Tursten does a nice job of spinning in blinds and feints and keeping a number of potential suspects in the frame, revealing family secrets and adding in an intriguing connection to organized crime. The team-driven investigation and the realism and mundanity of the procedural elements and cop’s lives reminded me of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Detective Martin Beck series. One thing that seemed a little odd is that the team seems to consist entirely of inspectors that are all frontline investigators with no lower ranked personnel seemingly involved; that jarred with the seeming realism otherwise. Also at times the prose was somewhat clunky; I’m not sure if that was a translation issue or a feature of the original text. Otherwise, this was an engaging and entertaining read and I intend to try the second in the series.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Stories we live by

‘Jack, just stop.’

‘Stop what?’

‘Your performance. Just be yourself.’

‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘You’re playing a role; acting as you think others expect you to.’

‘Stop talking rot.’

‘Then it’s to your own hackneyed script.’

‘Seriously, Jane, what the fuck are you talking about?’

‘Now that’s more like it! There’s the real Jack.’

‘Fuck-off, bitch.’

‘You’re living your life through stories rather than just being who you are.’

‘So are you. So are all of us. We're all character actors.’

‘But is it worth it? Always compromising?’

‘Chloe isn’t a compromise.’

‘When you really want Tom?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 3, 2019

April reviews

A relatively slow month of reading, but a good mix of entertaining tails. My read of the month was Renee Patrick's Design for Dying.

Design for Dying by Renee Patrick ****.5
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier ***
Evil Things by Katja Ivar ****
IQ by Joe Ide ****.5
Overkill by Vanda Symon ***.5
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama ***.5

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (2018, Viking)

Oleg Gordievsky’s life was defined by the KGB. He was born into a KGB family. His father was a KGB officer active in the Stalin purges. His older brother was a KGB agent. His first wife was a KGB agent, his second one the daughter of a KGB general. He was guided into the KGB, recruited while at university. With his skill in languages he progressed through the ranks of foreign intelligence serving in Germany at the time the Berlin wall was erected and in the Soviet embassy in Denmark. Despite outward appearances he was also deeply unhappy with the Soviet regime and the oppression of its people. He was recruited by British intelligence in the early 1970s while in Denmark and quickly proved to be an adept and valuable spy. Playing the long game, the British refrained from contact when he rotated back to Moscow, and were delighted when his next posting was to the embassy in London. Conspiring with their most important spy, MI6 removed Gordievsky’s opponents in the embassy by getting them ejected back home. In turn, he was appointed as the head of UK KGB operations, but was suddenly recalled back to Moscow ahead of formally taking up the role. Despite the faint tinkle of alarm bells, rather than defect Gordievsky returned and was placed under investigation. The spy raised the alarm, holding a Safeway’s plastic bag outside a Moscow bakery. The British sprung their escape plan into operation aware that that they’d never previously smuggled a Russian out of the country and their charge would the most wanted man on the run in the state. The British plan was both relatively simple in conception and dangerous – two couples would head for the Finnish border, picking up the spy on the way, and cross with him in the trunk. They even bought a baby with them. The problem was that they had a KGB escort the whole way.

Ben Macintyre tells Oleg Gordievsky’s life story, focusing in particular on his years as a British spy in the 1970s and 80s, and his defection to the West. As the account reveals, Gordievsky was as important to the British as Adolf Tolkachev (The Billion Dollar Spy) was to the US. Both spies were betrayed by US citizens working as Soviet spies, although Gordievsky managed to escape Moscow and flee to the West. As a member of the KGB foreign intelligence service Gordievsky had access to key internal intelligence and overseas operations and at the time of his defection was a colonel about to take up the job of KGB resident in London. Macintyre charts in detail his recruitment in the early 1970s, his eleven years of spying, through to his daring escape from the Soviet Union, and the important effects of his intelligence gathering and personal insights. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were strong admirers of his diplomatic and political suggestions for guiding how they handled the Soviet leadership. For research Macintyre interviewed Gordievsky multiple times, as well as former colleagues, his MI6 handlers, those involved in his escape, and others involved in his life. He then spins his evidence into a compelling narrative, detailing Gordievsky’s motivations and actions, how he was handled, and the value of his spying to the West. The result is an engaging account of a man driven by a desire to see the fall of a regime despite the personal cost.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I had a long read article published on RTE Brainstorm (the Irish national broadcaster) on Friday about ethics-washing and smart cities. Basically it argues that initiatives designed to address issues raised by using technologies to run cities can be virtue signalling and little more than smokescreens designed to head-off more formal regulation and oversight. If you're interested in how tech and companies are shaping city governance and everyday live then take a quick read.

My posts this week
Review of Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Review of The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Three types of people

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Three types of people

‘They say that there’re three types of people in this world, Harry. Those that’ll help you when everything goes to shit. Those that disappear at the first sign of trouble. And those that create the trouble in the first place. But you, Harry, you are all three.’

‘Bill, I …’

‘You thought you’d double-cross me, then you had a change of heart. You secretly wrecked a deal, vanished when I needed you, then sneaked back offering to fix things.

‘Bill …’

‘So, time to reciprocate. Only this is going to involve your legs, a sledgehammer, and a delay before A&E.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Review of Design for Dying by Renee Patrick (2016, Forge)

1937, Los Angeles. Lillian Frost has given up on becoming a Hollywood star and is working in a department store. Her former room-mate, Ruby, never gave up on the dream. When Ruby is found shot dead in alley wearing clothes stolen from Paramount Pictures, Lillian is questioned by the police. In Ruby’s possession is a brooch gifted to Lillian by her late mother which had disappeared months earlier. Determined not to lose the brooch again Lillian insists on visiting Paramount with the cops hoping their Wardrobe Department will back up her claim. At the studio she meets Edith Head, a designer of clothes for the stars. The two women quickly form a bond and are soon following their own leads, passing them on to the police at their discretion. Their dabbling soon reveals that Ruby had been tangling with a dodgy nightclub owner, a Hungarian princess, an Argentinian playboy, a crooked private investigator, a lecherous director, and an organizer of Hollywood parties, and had plenty of secrets. It also places them in danger as the foci of their attention act to protect their interests. Lillian and Edith though are well able to keep their cool, while always managing to look fabulous.

Design for Dying is the first book in the Lillian Frost and Edith Head series set in and around Hollywood and featuring a slew of film stars, directors, and others associated with the movie business. Edith Head was a famous real-life costume designer who was nominated for 35 Oscars, winning 8. Renee Patrick has her also turning her hand to solving mysteries, in this outing the death of a budding actress determined to make it big in Hollywood, her dream ending with a bullet in an alley. Lillian Frost was Ruby’s former room-mate who joins forces with Edith to conduct their own investigation, while also helping the police. Lillian does most of the legwork, tracking down clues via her shared friends with Ruby while trying to hold down her department store job. The story has the feel of a Hollywood movie itself, with a rum cast of interesting characters, plenty of action and intrigue, a couple of nourish touches offset by a touch of frothiness, a zing of humour, and some cameos from well-known stars such as Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck. And if you're into fashion, then the book is full of 1930s style tips. The story is engaging and entertaining, and several suspects are kept in the frame right to the denouement. I’m looking forward to reading the second in the series.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review of The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (Vintage)

The City is a vast, sprawling place of many districts populated by the dead who are still remembered by the living. Once the last person to have memories of the deceased also dies then they vanish from The City. As a killer virus quickly spreads across the globe, the turnover of people in The City speeds up and then starts to contract. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is stranded in an Antarctic research station. Her only hope of rescue is to trek across the ice to another larger station. Quickly the population of The City shrinks to the point where many of those remaining realise that the only link between them is that they know Laura. She might have escaped the virus, but she is faced with plenty of icy challenges.

The premise of the book is a nice one, enabling an exploration of life, death and memory. The tale is told in an engaging voice, with chapters alternating between life in The City and Laura’s journey across the ice. While it is thought-provoking, ultimately the story kind of fizzles out and there are a lot of unanswered questions – related to the virus, but more particularly The City, which seemed a moribund kind of place. It is a kind of mirror of the real world, with people frequenting cafes and plays and undertaking work; yet, nothing much seems to happen. People stay the same age for the rest of their existence; social relations are kind of sterile, with people congregating with family and friends from their former lives; there’s little crime or violence or exploitation or social experimentation, or excitement. Presumably people who have lived rural lives just become city dwellers when they die. It seemed a lost opportunity not to do more with The City other than it being a setting for the deceased to live. As it is, the story is somewhat underwhelming despite the nice hook.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dead every which way

‘Where’s the beach?’

‘In front of us.  Keep rowing.’

‘Bloody fog.’

‘It’s keeping us hidden.’

‘We could be rowing out to sea for all we know.’

‘We’re heading the same way as the waves.’

‘And we’re going to surf in, are we?’

‘That’s the plan. Do you hear that?’


‘Waves breaking.’

The two brothers kept rowing.

The cliff loomed out of the fog.

‘Oh shit. We need to turn round.’

‘We’ll be side-on to the waves; we’ll capsize.’

‘If we don’t turn, we’ll hit the rocks.’

‘If we lose this consignment we’re dead.’

‘We’re dead every which way. Great.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Review of Evil Things by Katja Ivar (2019, Bitter Lemon Press)

East Finland, 1952. The first female member of the Helsinki murder squad, Hella Mauzer, has been transferred to Lapland for being ‘too emotional’ (shorthand for ‘being a woman’). Her new boss is also a chauvinist, and the inspector is lazy and likes to borrow things from her office. When a village reports an elderly resident missing Hella wants to investigate but her boss is reluctant to let her, arguing that he probably just got lost in the forest. Getting her way, she travels on a logging truck the forty miles into the forest, taking up residence with an Orthodox priest, his wife, and the grandson of the missing man. Some of the villagers are reluctant to help, but others aid the search, turning up the head and ribs of a blond woman, killed by a shot to the temple. Hella continues to work away at the case, but makes little progress. In the meantime her boss has stepped up his efforts to recall her to base. Hella, however, is stubborn, abrasive and determined to discover the truth.

Evil Things is a police procedural set in Lapland in 1952, close to the Soviet border. The story very much focuses on Hella Mauzer, a sharp-tongued, tough, smart woman who is prepared to tackle patriarchy in the police and the misogynistic behaviour of her colleagues and public. Regardless, it’s a difficult job being the first female detective in a country where the woman’s place is considered the home. She’s been transferred from the Helinski murder squad to a small regional police station. When an elderly man disappears in the forest surrounding his village she insists on investigating, despite the wishes of her boss. She quickly uncovers the remains of a middle-aged woman. The locals are clearly holding back information and she has to work hard to unearth clues. Ivar does a nice job at recreating the claustrophobic conditions of the small village heading into winter. There's a relatively small cast, with the local priest’s wife cast as Hella’s opposite: the dutiful, loyal housewife. The star of the book is undoubtedly, Hella, a feisty, uncompromising character, who rubs people up the wrong way even when she’s trying to be careful. She a wonderful creation. The story itself unfolds at a sedate pace, but has enough intrigue to keep the pages turning. It starts to unravel a bit towards the end, changing tempo and style, skipping forward and becoming more sketchy, whereas the majority is meticulously plotted and paced. And the denouement is a little far-fetched, not in the conspiracy but the unfolding. Nonetheless, Evil Things is an enjoyable read, elevated by a strong lead character.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review of IQ by Joe Ide (2016, Mulholland)

Growing up in a poor L.A. neighbourhood Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) was on track for a university scholarship when his brother Marcus was killed in a hit-and-run. Isaiah starts spinning stories to keep social services at bay and working jobs and taking in a lodger, a hustler and drug-dealer he meets at school, Dodson, to pay the rent. His grades takes a nose-dive as he obsesses with tracking down his brother’s killer. Several years later and Isaiah is the go-to neighbourhood detective who’ll solve cases for whatever clients can pay. He still hasn’t shed Dodson, who brings him a new case – a rap star who fears his life is in danger. The star is paranoid, surrounded by sycophants, haunted by his ex-wife, and hassled by the record company boss for a new album. He’s everybody’s meal ticket, but he might be worth more to them dead than alive. And it seems that someone has hired a lunatic assassin who when he can’t use his gun employs his one hundred and thirty-five pit bull as a weapon. IQ’s job is to identify and stop the assassin, regardless of the dangers, though only the rapper seems to care as to whether he’ll succeed.

IQ is the first book in the Isaiah Quintabe series that charts the cases of a L.A.-based, unlicensed private investigator. Isaiah is not the usual PI. He works out of his house and car and his jobs are all sourced through word-of-mouth, are nearly all neighbourhood-based, and his payment is whatever his clients can afford – food, goods, cash. Bought up in a poor part of the city dominated by drugs and gangs, Isaiah was on the path to escape poverty through his intellect before fate intervened. Now he is trying to atone for past sins. In this opening book Ide tells two tales. The first is set in 2005 and is IQs origin story and his transition from star pupil to dropout detective. The second is set in 2013 and is his present case, investigating a possible assassination attempt on a star rapper. There’s a lot to like about IQ. In a marketplace of derivative detectives Isaiah manages to find a niche – black, reserved, complex, conflicted, smart, principled but with a closet full of secrets and regrets, rooted in his neighbourhood yet somehow still apart. And Dodson, his loud-mouthed, hustler partner acts a good sidekick foil. The characters and the second storyline play as a kind of homage to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and in this outing, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, but have their own distinct take. The double story line works well, balancing back story with present case, and provides a strong sense of place and also a view of gang culture, crime, community and the music biz. Ide spins the stories out with an undercurrent of humour, and a nice mix of pathos and action. Overall, an engaging and entertaining read and very nice opening to what promises to be a good series.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A quiet week of reading and buying books. The only new book into the house was a gifted copy of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre - the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB double agent who was a British spy during the cold war. I haven't read any non-fiction for a while, so it's gone near to the top of the TBR pile.

My posts this week
Review of Overkill by Vanda Symon
Lose the anger

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Lose the anger

‘Why are you so god-damn angry all the time?’

‘Because I work with idiots! The only way Kelly could track down a suspect is if he handed himself in.’

‘But you treat everyone like Kelly.’

‘Draw your own conclusions.’

‘This can’t carry on, Stephanie. People don’t like working with you.’

‘I don’t like working with them.’

‘You can’t solve every case on your own.’

‘That’s not what the stats say.’

‘They also say that you’re pissing everyone off.’

‘They deserve it.’

‘And maybe Traffic deserves you.’

‘I’m the best detective in Homicide.’

‘Then act like it. And lose the anger.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review of Overkill by Vanda Symon (2007, Orenda Books)

A young mother is forced into an assisted suicide in the small New Zealand town of Matuara. Sam Shephard, the sole-charge police constable in the town, is called to the home. She has mixed feelings about the woman’s disappearance given that she used to be in a relationship with her husband before he ended it. When the woman's body is found in the river the signs are that it was suicide, although Sam has her doubts. A short while later her suspicions have been confirmed and a murder team are bought in to investigate. Sam’s excitement at being part of the team is short-lived when her status moves from police officer to suspect and she’s suspended from duty. Unhappy with her bosses and unwilling to stand-down she continues to investigate, placing her relationship with her senior officers under strain and putting herself in danger.

Overkill is the first in the Sam Shephard police procedural series set in New Zealand. Originally published in 2007 in NZ, it was difficult to get hold of but now has an outlet globally through Orenda Books. The story is set in the small rural town of Matuara, where Sam is a young sole-charge police constable. When a young mother is found dead, it at first appears to be suicide, but then evidence emerges that it could have been murder. It’s Sam’s first murder case, but there’s an added complication: the mother just happens to be the wife of a man Sam dated for a couple of years. That’s not going to stop Sam getting the woman justice, however. Small in stature, Sam is feisty in personality, and when she is deemed a suspect by a visiting murder team and is suspended she vows to solve the case regardless. Despite warnings from her bosses she keeps poking around and to annoy them further she makes better headway than them, though it is also making her a target. The tale is a pretty standard rural police procedural with a head-strong lead character who doesn’t mind bending rules to get results but has her vulnerabilities. Symon does a nice job spins the story out, providing a couple of viable lines of enquiry and suspects, and Sam is an interesting enough character with whom to spend some time. The conspiracy at the heart of the story was viable, but the wall of silence around it felt a little unrealistic. Overall, an enjoyable procedural tale.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Last Sunday was my final day as Managing Editor of Dialogues in Human Geography. After 10 years at the helm it was time to step down and let someone else inject some fresh enthusiasm and ideas. I first had the idea for the journal as a graduate student. I pitched it to a commissioning editor at Carfax (now T&F) in 1998, they said no but went for the idea for Social and Cultural Geography instead (which I also edited for ten years). I pitched the idea again to Sage in 2003. They passed but came back to me in 2008 having reconsidered. We signed the contract and started to initiate things, setting up an editorial board in mid-2009 and working on getting the journal in train. The first issue was in March 2011. Thankfully Sage have stuck with it, despite it losing them money every year; and so have the Geography community. Hopefully, with the ISI ranking (1/84 for Geography) the circulation and readership will increase in the coming years.  Many thanks to everyone who has worked on the journal: Sage staff, reviewers, authors, commentators, and in particular the various editors: Lily Kong, John Paul Jones, Richard LeHeron, Reuben Rose-Redwood, Ayona Datta, Jeremy Crampton, Ugo Rossi, Lauren Rickards and Barney Warf.
 My posts this week
Review of Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Make the best of it

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Make the best of it

‘I’ve no regrets.’


‘Well, not too many.’

George squeezed Janice’s hand.

‘We’ll get through this.’

‘Well, one of us will.’

‘Don’t. We have to hope. The treatment …’

‘Might delay things. Its stage four, love. It’s alright, it’s been a good life.’


‘There’s no point denying things. It is what it is. Let’s just try and make the best of it.’

‘The best of it?’

‘What time we have left.’

‘George, don’t. Be positive. For me.’

‘I am, love. But I’m also being realistic.’

‘Well, I prefer hope.’

‘Either way, let’s live every day like it’s our last.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Review of Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (2016, Riverrun; 2012, Japanese)

1989, a seven-year-old girl is kidnapped. The police botch the investigation and the kidnapper retrieves the ransom money and the girl is found dead. Yoshinobu Mikami was a young detective working on the Six Four case, as was his wife. 2002, Mikami has just been transferred from the Criminal Investigations to Administrative Affairs to take up the role of Press Director. It’s a bureaucratic and political role, caught between his police colleagues and demanding journalists. To add to his woes, his home life is in turmoil, his teenage daughter having run away and his wife refusing to leave the house in case she calls. The press are making his and his team’s life hell over a case in which the police are unwilling to share information, and there is clearly a major battle going on between Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations, the details of which he’s not privy to. Given his career to date, Mikami has split loyalties and is determined to try and discover what is underway. Then a bomb-shell lands on his desk. The police commissioner general is going to pay the prefecture a visit and he wants to meet the Six Four family. Mikami is to arrange the visit and the press coverage. Only the father is not interested, the press want his head, and the internal battle is threatening to turn into all out war. Determined not to pick sides and for his team to survive, Mikami tries to try and find out the truth about the Six Four case and act as peace-maker.

Six Four is a police procedural tale set in Japan in 2002, with flash-backs to 1989. It’s a long read (635 pages), somewhat of a slow burner, and is more akin to a multi-part television series than a two hour movie. It has a large cast of characters and focuses a lot on the internal politics between fiefdoms inside of a prefecture, particularly the battles between the press and administrative affairs, and criminal investigations and administrative affairs. The lynch-pin to the story is Mikami, a former detective who has become the press director against his wishes, and the Six Four investigation, a fourteen year old kidnapping case that the police botched leading to the death of a seven-year-old girl. The Six Four case has resurfaced and it seems as if it’s being used for internal political leverage, with Mikami trying to get to the bottom of the conspiracy as well as battle the media. The strength of the story is portrayal of institutional politics and conflict as inflected by Japanese culture, and the stoic and embattled character of Mikami. There’s a lot of moving parts, but Hideo Yokoyama keeps it all ordered. However, it did feel overly long and drawn-out at times, especially the first 150 pages, and the plot devices around the timing of events and the denouement felt forced and unlikely. Overall, though an interesting and engaging read and if you like really detailed police procedurals with a strong dose of institutional politics you’ll probably enjoy.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

For some time I've been meaning to get some bat boxes and put them up, but never quite got round to it. I finally decided to make some rather than buy and spent a chunk of the weekend making four different designs - two crevice and two cavity boxes. Hopefully, once I've put them up, they will create some roosts for local populations. On the reading front, I'm slowly working my way through Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, a fairly lengthy (640 pages) and dense police procedural

My posts this week
Review of The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo
Review of Sweetpea by C.J. Skuse
She probably doesn’t want to be found

Saturday, March 30, 2019

She probably doesn’t want to be found

‘I’m retired.’

‘I was hoping you’d …’

‘There’s a police station in town. By the library.’

‘They’ve given up,’ the woman said. ‘They’ve found no trace of her.’

Jack sighed and thrust the spade into the ground.

‘How long’s she been missing?’

‘Just over four months.’

‘And you’ve not heard anything since?’


‘How old is she?’


‘And there was no note?’


 ‘She probably doesn’t want to be found.’

‘Or she’s …’

‘Madness lies there.’

‘There’s madness either way. I just need to know.’

‘I can’t help.’

‘You were a police officer.’



‘I can’t promise anything.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Review of The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo (2018, Text Publishing)

Matthew Cave is a journalist in the small town of Nuuk in Greenland. Although born in Greenland he grew up in Denmark and has only recently moved there after the death of his pregnant girlfriend in a car accident. When a mummified body is discovered in a crevasse on an ice sheet he is sent to cover the story as it appears that it is a 400 year old Viking. The next day the mummy is gone and the policeman guarding it has been found dead. The policeman’s death is strangely similar to a series of murders in the 1970s when four fathers suspected of committing child abuse were found flayed and their stomachs cut open and entrails pulled out. Matt starts to investigate the historical deaths, but soon realises that his actions have unearthed secrets others would prefer kept suppressed. Joining forces with a young Inuit woman, Tupaarnaq, recently released from prison for manslaughter, having been convicted for killing her parents and two sisters, he keeps digging despite the risks.

Set in Greenland, The Girl Without Skin is the first book in a new series by Greenland-based, Danish writer Mads Peder Nordbo. The lead character is Matthew Cave, a journalist mourning the death of his pregnant wife who finds himself investigating two murder inquiries that spans two periods, 1973 and 2014. The story is told through two parallel threads. One follows the original police investigation in 1973, the other Cave’s contemporary investigation which is guided by the notebook of one of the policeman from the earlier period. The common links are men being brutally murdered and the discovery of a mummified body. The mummified body and Cave’s actions resurfaces old secrets and a political conspiracy that some want to remain hidden, placing Cave in danger, his fate eerily echoing that of the policemen in 1973. He is aided by the girl without skin, a local Inuit woman recently released from prison who’s body is entirely covered with tattoos. The start of the book feels a little clunky, which I initially felt was a translation issue but probably wasn’t; rather it was a handful of obvious plot devices to set up premises and plot trajectory. After that, it seemed to work fine, providing a social commentary on Greenland’s patriarchal society and political commentary on its relationship to Denmark. There’s a good sense of place and the twin narratives work well together, spinning out an interesting tale and creating some tension and mystery, with a nice twist near the end.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Review of Sweetpea by C.J. Skuse (2017, HQ)

Rhiannon Lewis is 27 and living her life as an act. As a child she survived a mass killing and became something of a celebrity. As an adult she works at a local newspaper, dates Craig, a builder who is cheating on her, and hangs around with her bitchy friends from school. While she plays nice, she’d like to kill them all. In fact, she’d like to kill everyone who annoys her. And she likes to kill. After a three year hiatus, she murders a would-be rapist. A few weeks later she kills another. Nobody suspects the violent deaths could be performed by a woman, which emboldens her further. The local paper calls the killer, ‘The Reaper’, but she calls herself ‘Sweetpea’.

Sweetpea is a fresh-take on the serial killer genre. A macabre, black comedy that is styled as Bridget Jones meets Hannibal Lecter. Rhiannon Lewis keeps a diary. Each day she lists all the people she would like to kill and how her day unfolds. She charts the progress of her Act – the charades she plays out to persuade people that she’s a normal, 27 year old woman – and her real thoughts, which are a tirade of sarcastic, funny and hateful observations and actions. On wandering home from a night out she kills a would-be rapist. She hasn’t killed for three years, but the event re-ignites her passion for extinguishing lives, especially those that abuse women and children. So starts a murderous spree. Initially I was taken with the voice and style, which is over-the-top bawdy, alternative, dark, and challenges political correctness (think Men Behaving Badly, Bottom, Black Books), and made me laugh out loud several times. Rhiannon is an interesting character, consciously playing a role while living a double life. She’s pitched somewhat as an anti-heroine, fighting sex offenders. The problem for me is that she’s actually just a killer with a very wonky moral compass and as the book progressed the humour, her story, her friends and work colleagues became increasingly tedious, despite there still being some laugh-out loud moments. The narrative simply felt too stretched out, with the story not really progressing much for a couple of hundred pages, and the ending was somewhat anti-climactic, ending mid-denouement (obviously to try and pull the reader to the next instalment – I don’t mind ambiguous endings, but just stopping mid-scene is annoying). By this stage, it was clear that Rhiannon had little heroine qualities; and in some ways that was the most interesting thing as a reader – the way that Skuse uses black comedy to try and create a bond between reader and a psychopathic woman. And it kind of works for a while, but then ran out of steam.