Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005, Random House)

Liesel is nine years old when her mother journeys south to near Munich to leave her with her new foster parents. On the way her brother dies, which is the first time Death sees her. At the funeral she steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook from one of the attendees, despite the fact that she cannot read. Her new papa is a kindly accordion player and her new mother a bit of a battle-axe. She quickly makes friends with the other children on Himmel Street, especially Rudy, though her time at school is a bit more fraught. Each night she has nightmares and when she wakes her new papa helps her learn how to read. She steals a book from a pile being burned by the local Nazis and from the library of the mayor’s wife. As the Second World War progresses her new family hides a Jew, Max, in the basement and he creates a new book for her. Sworn to secrecy, Liesel helps to keep Max alive. She steals food from local farms, shelters from bombs in a neighbours shelter, and watches Jews be marched to the local concentration camp. She hopes the war will end soon, but Death will see Liesel two more times.

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a child growing up in Nazi Germany and her experiences throughout the war, as narrated by Death who has taken the book she wrote during the period and is fascinated by it. Her communist parents have been sent to a concentration camp and she taken in by foster parents. She’s illiterate but decides she wants to learn to read and is helped by her kindly new father, sourcing new books by stealing them. As the war progresses she helps to shelter a Jew and resists the regime in quiet and sometimes open ways along with her friend, Rudy. Zuzak tells the story almost as a fairy tale, with Liesel traversing ups and downs, adventure and danger, punctuated by facts and observations by Death. However, while the punctuations add a bit of liveliness to story, the telling otherwise felt a little flat and even. And while the story is interesting enough, there is no sense of mystery and the edges are shorn from the danger moments as the narrator consistently telegraphs to the reader how the story will unfold. The result is a story that, for me at least, didn’t quite achieve the emotional resonance it might have, but is nonetheless a thoughtful read.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up two book one's in long running series this week. Patricia Cornwell's Postmortem (no. 1 in the so-far 25 book Kay Scarpetta series) and Ruth Rendell's From Doon With Death (no. 1 in the 24 book Inspector Wexford series). I've read a couple of the Rendell series years ago, but this will be my first Cornwell. Looking forward to it.


My posts this week

Review of Let The Dead Speak by Jane Casey
Review of Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave
Buried

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Buried

The world swam back into existence.

Carrie cursed, then coughed. The air was thick with dust.

She opened her eyes to blackness.

Not a speck of light.

Spluttering she tried to move, sitting up. Then spread her arms and rotated.

The ceiling seemed to be just above her head.

A panic started to rise. ‘Hello?’

She started to explore, stumbling over debris.

The room had shrunk to a couple of metres squared. The door had disappeared.

She wondered how much air she had. Would yelling or digging use it up more quickly?

Was anyone hunting for her?

She cursed again.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review of Let The Dead Speak by Jane Casey (HarperCollins, 2017)

Chloe Emery flees her father’s home earlier than expected and returns to her mother’s house in West London. She finds the house deserted but covered in blood. Newly promoted DS Maeve Kerrigan and her team start to investigate. All the signs are that Kate Emery was brutally murdered, then disposed of. Kerrigan’s investigation quickly uncovers that Emery was manipulative and deceitful, but there are no obvious suspects. Her attention is focused on three households: Emery’s neighbours, the Norrises who have taken Chloe in and are acting suspiciously; the Turner’s whose son was investigated for stabbing a schoolmate; and Emery’s former husband and his two teenage boys. All seem to have something to hide and are partial with the truth, but with little forensic evidence she and her team have little else to work with. And Kerrigan has the sense that the bloodbath in the Kate’s house might not be the closing act.

Let The Dead Speak is the seventh book in the Maeve Kerrigan series. In this outing Kerrigan has been promoted to detective sergeant, gaining responsibility for running investigations. Her first case is a murder without a body after a house is discovered covered in too much blood for the victim to have survived. As usual she is aided by the abrasive DI Josh Derwent, but also has to contend with a new recruit, an ambitious fast-track detective constable that wants to skip routine work and be at the heart of the case. Without a body and conclusive forensic evidence the Kerrigan struggles to make headway and none of the victim’s neighbours or family are being very helpful. This outing is a straight-up police procedural focusing on the intricacies of the case and the relations within the investigative team, with Kerrigan’s personal life moved into the background. Casey does a very nice job of spinning the tale out, especially related to the difficulties of dealing with awkward witnesses and suspects. While the case is very tightly focused, there’s plenty of intrigue and forward movement as Kerrigan tries to sift the truth out from amongst all the lies. And as the story reaches its denouement there’s plenty of twists, turns and feints, shifting the reader from one suspect to another. Overall, an engaging and nicely told addition to the series.



Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review of Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave (2008, Arrow)

Theodore Tate used to be a police detective, but after the death of his daughter and injuring of his wife at the hands of drunk driver, he left the force. At the same time, the perpetrator of his family tragedy disappeared. Two years later he is working as a private investigator. His latest case has him visiting a cemetery for the exhumation of a suspected murder victim. As the coffin is unearthed, three bodies rise in the bordering lake. In the coffin is a young woman rather than a middle-aged bank manager. Rather than simply let his former colleagues investigate, Tate decides to steal evidence and run his own inquiry. His hunch is that there are other women occupying other peoples' final resting places and others might be destined to join them. Defying just about everybody connected to the case, and making a series of poor choices, Tate carries on regardless convinced that he can catch the killer before anyone else can.

Cemetery Lake is a serial killer/private investigator tale set in Christchurch in New Zealand. As is the common trope for PIs, Tate is down on his luck, a former policeman whose wife was left in a vegetative state and daughter killed by a drunk driver. He stumbles onto the work of a serial killer at an exhumation when the wrong body is in the coffin and people formerly buried are found in a lake. His need for justice sets him off in pursuit even though his former police colleagues want him to stand down. Cleave's tale charts his dogged, destructive track. Told in the first person, the narrative is engaging and compelling, even while the tale itself is somewhat of a stretch to believe. Cleave keeps the pace high, with plenty of action, intrigue, and twists and turns. It barrels along to a climatic denouement, but ends somewhat on a cliff-edge rather than rounding things out. Overall, a break-neck serial killer tale full of the usual tropes and sliding towards outlandish at times, held together by being a page-turner with an interesting enough lead character


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I finished the first draft of a new non-fiction book on Friday. Now have to read through it and tidy-up and send it back to my co-author. Then try to work out what to do with it. It's the first time I've written a non-fiction book without having a contract in hand. It's aimed at a general audience rather than an academic one and I think we'll probably need to find an agent to get it placed. Fun times ahead.

My posts this week
Review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
New to me authors in 2018
There’s no what if, if he gets hold of her

Saturday, January 12, 2019

There’s no what if, if he gets hold of her

‘Where is she?’ Farrell asked wearily.

‘Why can’t you leave her alone?’

‘She doesn’t have her medication, Mrs Kelly. We need to find her.’

‘She doesn’t want to be found. She’s scared of him.’

‘She doesn’t have to go back. But we do need to find her. For her own safety.’

‘I’m her mother; I’ll judge what’s best for her.’

‘You know where she is.’

‘No. And I don’t want to know. I just want her safe.’

‘She’s no medication.’

‘She knows I’ll help if needed.’

‘But what if …’

‘There’s no what if, if he gets hold of her.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, January 11, 2019

Review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014, 4th Estate)

Marie-Laure became blind at a young age. As war breaks out she flees Paris with her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Their flight takes them to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo in Brittany where they take refuge with a great-uncle and his housekeeper. In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig lives with his younger sister in an orphanage. He is intrigued by radios and science and becomes an expert at building and repairing them. At the start of the war his endeavours secure him a place at an elite Nazi school, where he helps invent a radio direction finding device. As Marie-Laure gets drawn into aiding the resistance and her uncle broadcasts messages, Walter is drafted into the army tracking down enemy transmitters. Their paths seem destined to cross as the war draws to a close.

Set mostly in the lead up to and during the Second World War, All The Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of two children, Marie-Laure Leblanc a blind French girl, and Walter Pfenning a German orphan obsessed with radio. As the war starts, Marie-Laure flees Paris to Saint-Malo, while Walter is escapes work in the local mine to enrol in a military school. As Marie-Laure becomes a courier for the resistance, Walter joins a radio-direction unit tracking down resistance members in Russia, Austria, then France. Doerr tells their two stories through parallel threads, along with a third thread related to a Nazi treasure hunter trying to trace the location of a precious diamond removed from the museum Marie-Laure’s father worked at. The story is not told chronologically but rather jumps back and forth, with the Allied siege of Saint-Malo acting as a fulcrum point. The story is essentially about two good people trying to get by during a war. It is beautifully told, with some evocative prose and enchanting scenes. The first half was a wonderful read. Then the sections became progressively shorter and the timeline more choppy and it loses some of its charm. The denouement is nicely done, avoiding a saccharine conclusion, but rather than finish at the war’s end, it’s natural end point in my view, it stutters to a halt by jumping forward over time. The result was the second half of the story lost some of its compelling nature.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow, 2016)

During the Second World War, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) expanded its research operations at its Langley base in Virginia. The flight engineering advances being made required a huge amount of calculations, all of which were undertaken by human computers. As part of its recruitment drive the NACA started to hire black women as computers, most of whom had college degrees in mathematics and often worked as school teachers. Segregated into the West Computing pool, the women worked diligently for the engineers. While the site had separate seating in the cafeteria and segregated toilets, the women started to break down the race barrier and advance into management and engineering roles, particularly in the late 1950s and 60s as the wider civil rights campaigns were underway and the NACA got subsumed into NASA, though they continued to be hampered by a race and gender glass ceiling. Nonetheless, they all made a valuable contribution to the work at Langley, with a number making significant contributions to aerospace research and the space race.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the black women at NACA and later NASA from the mid-1940s through to the early 1970s. While Shetterly provides the broad scope of the women’s lives and work at the Langley site, and discusses a number of women, she focuses in particular on the four lives to tell her history: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden. To provide wider context, she frames the these biographies in relation to both their non-work lives, the development of the local community around Langley, and the wider treatment of black people and the civil rights movement. The result is an interesting uncovering of the important work of the women, not only in NACA/NASA, but also the local community and in encouraging other black women to pursue careers in science. Shetterly does a nice job of constructing the social history and of balancing the various strands to create an informative narrative. She tells a story of resilience, willpower, dignity, pride, intellect, and a fierce commitment to family, community and science. However, in her desire to promote and celebrate the work of the women the book lacks a critical edge, is full of platitudes, and becomes a little too repetitive.  Overall, an engaging and important social history.


Monday, January 7, 2019

New to me authors in 2018

Of the 101 books I read this year 65 were by authors new to me. It's always a balance between returning to old favourites and discovering new writers. I might shift the balance back slightly towards catching up with writers I've read before in the coming year and I hope to read books by some of the authors below.

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan 
The Death Season by Kate Ellis
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter 
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut 
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
African Sky by Tony Park
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari
Ghost Month by Ed Lin
The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
Sirens by Joseph Knox
Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile
The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto
The Innocent by Ian McEwan
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
Code Girls by Liza Mundy
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness
Basin and Range by John McPhee
The One Man by Andrew Gross
The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag
Fletch by Gregory McDonald
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle  
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman
Lamentation by Joe Clifford
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
The Confession by Jo Spain
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan
Bone Island Mambo by Tom Corcoran
Traitors by Josh Ireland
Night Life by David C Taylor
The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
The Bombers and The Bombed by Richard Overy
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan
A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner
Dark Town by Thomas Mullen
The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt
The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Sugar House by Laura Lippman 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A belated happy new year. I hope 2019 turns out to be a wonderful reading year for you. I've kind of given up on new years resolutions and reading aims. My plan is simply to trundle on as usual and hope for some pleasurable reads. If I'm lucky they'll all be as compelling as Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, which I'm now most of the way through.

My posts this week
Around the world in 365 days
Pushing pennies
Review of Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
Best reads of 2018
Review of The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan
Righteous

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Righteous

‘So, when we die we go to heaven?’ Calvin asked.

‘Yes,’ his grandfather replied wearily.

‘And it’s better than here?’

‘It’s paradise.’

‘Then why don’t we all just kill ourselves?’

‘You can’t enter if you commit suicide.’

‘But you can if you’re killed in a war?’

‘As long as you were on the righteous side.’

‘Which side’s that?’

‘The one fighting for what’s right.’

‘But what if both sides believe that?’

‘You have a lot of questions.’

‘I guess heaven must be filled with gazillions of insects.’

‘There’s not many righteous insects.’

‘There’s not many righteous people.’

‘Amen to that.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Around the world in 365 days

I managed to visit 36 countries through fiction in 2018, plus a handful of others through non-fiction. The list is still dominated by the United States, England and Ireland though, despite my best intentions to wander geographically a bit more.

Canada
Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs ***
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan ***

China
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart ****.5

England
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway **** 
The Death Season by Kate Ellis ***
Sirens by Joseph Knox *****
A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan ****
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts ****.5
Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan *****
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer ****.5
A Book of Scars by William Shaw ****.5
Spook Street by Mick Herron ****.5
Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid ****.5
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz ****
Without the Moon by Cathi Unsworth **.5
Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch ****

Germany
Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian ***.5
The Innocent by Ian McEwan ****
Slumberland by Paul Beatty ****

Ghana
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey ***.5

Iceland
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent *****

India
A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee *****
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan ***

Ireland
The Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter ***.5
Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile *****
Echobeat by Joe Joyce ****.5
The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan ****
The Confession by Jo Spain ***.5
Angels in the Moonlight by Caimh McDonnell ****
Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent ***.5

Italy
Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni ***

Japan
Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith ****

Laos
The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill ***

Mozambique
Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto ***

New Zealand
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas ****

Nigeria
Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle ***.5

Norway
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn ***

Peru
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa ***

Poland
The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski ** 

Rhodesia/Zimbabwe
African Sky by Tony Park ***

Russia
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford *****
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles *****

Scotland
Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin ****.5
The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell ***.5

South Africa
Capture by Roger Smith ***.5

Spain
The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield ***

Sweden
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson ***

Switzerland
Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser ****

Taiwan
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari ***.5
Ghost Month by Ed Lin **

Turkey
Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel ****.5

USA
Cop Hater by Ed McBain ***.5
City of the Dead by Sara Gran ***.5
The Force by Don Winslow *****
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier ****.5
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper *****
The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag ***
Fletch by Gregory McDonald ***
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore ****
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes ****
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard ***
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman ****.5
Lamentation by Joe Clifford ***.5
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell ****.5
Straight Man by Richard Russo ***
Bone Island Mambo by Tom Corcoran ****
Night Life by David C Taylor ****.5
The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter ***
White Butterfly by Walter Mosley ****.5
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter ***.5
A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner ***.5
Dark Town by Thomas Mullen ****.5
The Sugar House by Laura Lippman ***.5

Wales
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham *****
The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham *****

More than one country
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje **** (Italy, Egypt, Libya)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut *** (Germany, United States)
The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp *** (Italy, England, Hong Kong, United States)
Early One Morning by Robert Ryan **** (Ireland, France, England, Germany)
The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott *** (England, Germany, Denmark, Norway)
The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness *** (Poland, France, Spain, England)
The One Man by Andrew Gross ****.5 (Poland, United States)
The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross ***.5 (England, United States, Netherlands)
Defectors by Joseph Kanon *** (United States, Russia)
The City in Darkness by Michael Russell **** (Ireland, Spain, UK)
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson **** (England, Russia, United States)
A Little White Death by John Lawton **** (England, Lebanon, Russia)
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr ****.5 (Germany, Greece)
The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle ***** (Italy, England) 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Pushing pennies

Several times a year I’m asked: ‘how do you get it all done?’, ‘Are there two of you?’, ‘Do you sleep?’ and similar variations concerning productivity.  I always find the questions awkward and embarrassing to answer. In part, because from my perspective I don’t particularly feel overly productive, though I’m fully aware my output profile is different to most. In part, because some of the answers are not really what people want to hear: I think they’d prefer it if I said I worked all-hours and didn’t sleep, whereas I probably work no more hours or maybe less than they do. Anyway, I thought I’d write a post I can refer people to, which elucidates how I work and why I manage to get things done relatively efficiently. They are certainly not my ‘rules’ for others to follow or aspire to, nor an attempt to promote a way of working. They are simply an explanation. They are not in any particular order, though I think the first, second, and the last are key.

1.    Structured rest
In some ways, this is the factor that most people have trouble believing. I’ve only recently discovered the term ‘structured rest’, and that many other productive people also practise it (as detailed in the book ‘Rest’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang). Basically, it means balancing and structuring rest and work in a strategic way: on the one hand, taking plenty of rest (do not work evenings or weekends; always take coffee breaks and lunches; always get a full night’s sleep); and on the other hand, finding a work pattern that enables efficient and productive working (for example, blocking time, even if for relatively short periods, and working in a concentrated way during them). I know from early on in my career that if I don’t get plenty of rest and 8-10 hours sleep a night my productivity nose-dives and working more hours to try and meet deadlines is counter-productive (Pang’s book spells out a range of benefits from structured rest). I’ve long practiced structured rest, though sometimes not always for rest reasons – I take coffee breaks and lunch as much for social reasons, so they have a double benefit. That’s not to say that I don’t end up straying – instead of working 9am to 5pm sometimes that can slip to 6pm or 7pm to catch up if I’ve taken on too much or spent time chatting in the corridor or in meetings; occasionally I can spend half-an-hour later in the evening to check-in on email, or mess about on social media. But generally, after a day of concentrated work, I’m pretty tired and don’t feel like working. If I have over-stretched and have multiple competing tasks/deadlines, I try and rejig the prioritization rather than working extended hours. While I might occasionally stray into early evenings, I always try and protect the weekend. My worst slippage is vacations and taking longer work-free breaks, but I’ve been working on that. Importantly, structured rest means doing something other than work, not using the time for work-related activities such as reading an academic book.

2.    No procrastination and pushing pennies
The other key aspect and counterpoint to structured rest is structured work. In fact, without it, the rest part will have little effect (and vice versa). In the blocks outside of coffee and lunch, I tend to work in a very concentrated way. That means I have a list of tasks that I know needs to be completed and I get on with them with the aim of getting them completed that day. I describe it as pushing pennies: each day I nudge several tasks forward until they eventually fall off my desk. I always try to factor in some time to deal with matters arising and to leave some time to write something more substantial than email or administration. I don’t procrastinate. If there is five minutes between meetings, I’ll write a few sentences or attend to email. The only way things get done is if I do them, so I work at them. And I take my breaks to recharge. I should also point out that there is fluctuation in the workload and nature of tasks that have an effect: there’s a noticeable dip in my outputs in the eleven years I was director of a research institute, for example. Nonetheless, when I’m at work, I work.

3.    First draft and practice
In the ‘Rest’ book, Pang discusses the notion that you need to have undertaken 10,000 hours of structured practice to become highly proficient at something, such as playing a musical instrument. I have long since put in my 10,000 hours of writing practice. The result is I can write quickly and my first draft is normally pretty close to final draft. I also write non-linearly (e.g., two sentences in Section 1, then three in the Conclusion, then two in Section 2, etc.), so I don’t need to have pre-constructed the narrative order, and I write and edit simultaneously (constantly moving text around and refining as I write). I can pretty happily write a 700 word blog post and publish it within an hour. In that sense, I can write like a journalist rather than needing longer gestation periods. This is partly good fortune on my behalf, but also due to practice and confidence rooted in experience (that confidence has been hard won: like a lot academics I had imposter syndrome for quite a while).

4.    Last 10 percent
Early in my career someone said to me that ‘the last 10 percent takes 90 percent of the time.’ My means of addressing this has been to largely avoid the last 10 percent on submitted pieces of work. I am not a perfectionist. I also know that close to zero papers are accepted as is and require some level of revisions. So my aim has been to submit a paper when I think it makes a substantive contribution and meets the standard required, hopefully with minor revisions. I let the reviewers guide me on the last 10 percent polishing. Similarly, with teaching I get the lecture or class to the point where I think it effectively gets over the key points and necessary material (though see point 8). Avoiding the last 10 percent saves a chunk of time and effort and frees up space for doing other things (this is, at its heart, a time management strategy). I’m not compromising on quality here. I want my papers to be as good as I can make them, but I sidestep procrastination and a false search for a perfect paper, and let the reviewing process work for me. I want my teaching to be effective, but over-preparation of materials has a marginal payoff (how classes are taught is just as, or more, important) (though again see point 8).

5.    Don’t wait for the hook
In general, when I start to write a paper I have a feeling that something is interesting and worthy of attention but I’m not always sure of the reason for that feeling. I might have no strong sense of the hook or argument. I start to draft the paper with no clear idea of what I am going to say and simply trust that the process of writing about it will reveal the hook. I think through writing. If I listen to a paper at a conference, or read a written version, and then go for a walk it will do little for my thinking. But translating the ideas of others or the analysis of my data into a written narrative makes fireworks go off in my mind. My own thinking emerges and erupts as I write. I just trust that something good will emerge as I work away. What this means is that I’m never hanging around waiting for inspiration and I don’t suffer from writer’s block.

6.    Saying no
Even with a structured rest/work regime occasionally things can get a little out of hand. Deadlines can converge or I can take on too many things. I am always busy, but it can slip towards being harried and stressed. Over time I have had to get much better at saying no to additional work. This is never easy to do, in part because academics take part in an informal exchange economy of reviewing each other’s work and collaboration. I am now much more strategic about what work I take on, though I still say yes more often than I should. If this is a particular concern for you, I have written a separate blog post ‘Rules of thumb for making decisions on requests for academic work’ which sets out some advice. 

7.    Collaboration
Collaboration certainly helps, but it also a double-edged sword. More workers make light of the work, but there can also be too many cooks. I collaborate a lot. Most of my papers and books involve one to three other authors. In my experience, writing collaboratively – especially in small groups (as opposed to being name-checked as a one of thirty co-authors on a paper) – can be just as time consuming as working by oneself. Any time supposedly saved by each person writing a half/third/quarter is countered by time spent discussing, arguing over, or editing the work to form a coherent argument and narrative. Where collaboration generally pays off is in improving the quality of the argument; all of my collaborative papers are, I think, better than if I had written them alone. I only claim authorship if I’ve made some kind of substantive contribution, and I forego being named on papers where I’ve only done development edits or am simply the PI.

8.    Doubling up
Where I can I try and double up work. For example, if I am going to research and deliver a new course then I might as well write or edit the accompanying textbook, or use the research for the basis of a new paper. And I will use some of my previous research to inform the textbook. As well as producing a book, it means the course is pretty thoroughly prepared which has a payoff for the students. I might also use blog posts to form the basis for a research paper, or for a newspaper op ed, and so on. 

9.    Rules of the game
After 20 years as a journal and book editor, reviewing papers and grant applications, and sitting on evaluation committees and boards, I have a pretty good idea as to what is required to get by in academia. I use that knowledge to play the game strategically in terms of selecting journals and pressing the right buttons to get a grant. I also have a reasonable idea as to what I think will achieve some level of impact, which I detail in this blog post.

10.    The joy of it
While obligation is certainly a factor that drives part of my work ethic (I want to makes sure I do my fair share and deliver on-time), by far the biggest motivation for writing is the sheer joy of it. To think through and learn new things; to make sense of data and develop an argument; to have new ideas that demand exploration; to stitch together an entire thesis. Writing begets reading, one of my other passions. And reading and editing other people’s work keeps me relatively up to date with current debates and provides fresh inspiration. Writing is invigorating. I’d do it even if I couldn’t get any of the work published; just for the pleasure of spinning words and ideas.

To repeat: This is not a set of rules to follow or aspire to. It is an explanation as to how I get things done. I’ve written it purely to provide a reasonably detailed answer to a question I’m commonly asked, not to promote a particular way of working.

Review of Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter (2018, HarperCollins)

Andrea Oliver is 31 years old and living at home in the small coastal town of Belle Isle with her divorced mother, Laura, a speech therapist. She’s drifting in life, unsure and unwilling to find a direction. All that is about to change with a trip to the mall. A young man is goes on a killing spree and Andy is in the firing line until her mother turns Rambo. It seems that Laura has a hidden past and the wall-to-wall television coverage of a video shot on a phone is about to unearth it. Andrea soon finds herself on the run using an escape line her mother set up years before. Her world turned upside down, Andy starts to hunt for answers, though she’s not sure she wants to know the truth.

Pieces of Her is a standalone thriller about the relationship and secrets between a mother and her daughter and a past that is about to catch up with them both. Slaughter tells the story as two separate narratives. One taking place in the 1980s focusing on the past life of the mother, Laura, which she has kept secret. The second is in the present and tracks the life of Andrea, the 31 year old daughter. A shooting at a mall triggers the events in the first to rupture the second. Everything Andrea believed about her mother’s past, about her family lineage, is false. And now her world is upside down and she’s on the run and looking for answers. Slaughter keeps both lines moving at a clip, with plenty of intrigue, tension and action in both. The first fifty pages or so are excellent, creating a strong hook that tugs the reader through to a well executed double denouement. In the middle, the book slows a little with a bit too much exposition at times, but never loses interest or forward momentum. The key strength of the story is, however, the character development of both Laura and Andy and their mother/daughter relationship, which is very nicely done, adding to the thriller nature of the tale. Overall, an entertaining thriller that would make for a good movie. 


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best reads of 2018

I was a little surprised to find I'd read 101 books in 2018. Every year I think the number will drop to 80 or so, but it sticks pretty resiliently at c.100. According to Goodreads, the books totalled 34,435 pages, the third highest year over the past ten. I guess it's a mark of the books I read that the pages just flew by. In the end I read 12 books I rated at five stars and here is my best reads selection. Difficult to put in an order as all were excellent.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

An expansive and endearing story of the life of Count Alexander Rostov, placed under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel in Central Moscow in 1922. It is somewhat of an allegorical tale exploring the nature of being confined within borders and hope, friendship, dignity and making-do under political tyranny driven by political ideology. The characterisation and character development is excellent, as are the social interactions between them. There is a real sense of place as to the Metropole Hotel and all the goings on within its walls. The prose is lovely and the storytelling compelling, full of wonderful little side stories, musings, and reflections on life. And the long arc of the plot, with its somewhat meandering path, is very nicely executed.




The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle

The Way Back to Florence is a tale of love during war between an Italian woman and English man, and between a father and his young daughter. The tale is told as a multi-layered narrative, involving a number of entwined threads, and doesn’t pull any punches with respect to the harrowing experiences of the lead characters. The story is loaded with a deep sense of realism, tension and affect, so that just as the characters cycle through a gamut of emotions, so does the reader. The result is a visceral, engaging, thoughtful and at times traumatic story of love, loyalties, compromises, and survival.


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland. Hannah Kent provides an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised.

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

A noir tale of a father and daughter struggling to take on a major criminal gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, and survive. 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. 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.

The Force by Don Winslow

The Force is a tour-de-force police procedural, with well-drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a complex, multi-layered, intricate plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. What elevates the book is its wider political and social reflections. Most crime fiction is also usually a slice of social realism that provides a commentary on society and its ills. That commentary is often incidental, but in The Force, it’s front and centre. Winslow’s ambitious tale of cops on the take in New York is not simply an engaging, compelling tale, but a searing exploration of law and justice in the US.

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan

The fourth book Zigic and Ferreira series focuses on violent attacks against trans women, while also developing the personal lives of the lead characters, and the institutional politics of their police station. Dolan does a very nice job of exploring the often complex family situations of trans women, as well as the hateful ways they are often treated by society. She never loses sight, however, that she is telling a police procedural and does a very good job of keeping the reader guessing as to the guilty party. A very good police procedural, with engaging characters and a compelling plot.


Sirens by Joseph Knox

A dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget and a future that is seemingly going nowhere. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along, full of twists and turns and tension. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.


The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

Fiona Griffiths is a wonderful literary creation, an engaging, complex, multidimensional, and often surprising character. In this outing, she trains to go undercover and then penetrates a sophisticated, careful and ruthless criminal gang who are perpetrating an enormous accounting fraud. The plotting is excellent, with Bingham spinning a multi-layered tale that also twists and turns and creates plenty of tension. The police procedural elements are very nicely done and the whole book feels steeped in realism.



Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile

Rain really does fall on everyone in Clár Ni Chonghaile’s tale of identity and belonging in situations of violence in Dublin. 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. The characterisation, character development across the story, social interactions and sense of place are excellent. Engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.


A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

Set in 1920s India, detectives Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee travel from Calcutta to Sampalpore, an Indian state rich from trading diamonds and run by an aging Maharajah, to investigate the assassination of a Prince. The tale has all the hallmarks of a very good police procedural: an interesting puzzle, well-drawn and engaging characters, a balance of investigation with character development and back story, strong sense of place, nice pacing, plenty of intrigue and twists and turns, and interesting framing and contextualisation. Does a very nice job in detailing the complexities of Indian society, politics, and pre- and colonial history. The result is a thoughtful, entertaining and colourful tale.