Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Review of Bloody January by Alan Parks (2017, Canongate)

Glasgow, 1973. Detective Harry McCoy is told by a violent criminal in the city’s prison that a young woman is to die by the morning. After a drunken night, and with his new partner in tow, McCoy waits at the bus centre for the young woman’s bus to arrive. When it does a teenage boy shoots the woman dead then turns the gun on himself. The boy worked in the grounds of the Dunlops, a rich, well-connected family, one that is well-known to McCoy. He had a run-in with them a couple of years ago, his former police partner now works security for them, and the mother of his dead child lives in their house. After making a hames of his visit the Dunlops, McCoy’s boss constrains his investigation. McCoy is soon trailing round brothels and homeless hangouts trying to find other leads, but he’s sure the Dunlops are involved somehow even if they appear untouchable and few people are willing to help. He also has other problems, namely a psychotic gang leader, Stevie Cooper, who will occasionally help out his boyhood friend, but always at a heavy price.

Detective Harry McCoy is an anti-hero cop cut from a familiar set of tropes – a man who grew up in institutional care, who’s boyhood friend is a major criminal, who’s own child died young, who has a drink and authority problem, is a Catholic in a sectarian institution, and who regularly strays beyond the bounds of acceptable policing practice. He has a moral compass of sorts and believes in justice, even if it’s occasionally rough in nature. In this first book in the series he’s investigating the murder of a young prostitute who seems to have been catering for violent tastes. He suspects a link to a rich family, but has been warned to stay away. But Harry isn’t very good at following orders and his new partner, Wattie, seems prepared to tolerate his unorthodox methods. It seems, however, that he’s straying too far from the path, both professionally and personally, as he mixes with criminals and prostitutes and habitually gets drunk and takes soft drugs, as well as taking regular beatings. It’s a good job he’s got a semi-understanding boss that he respects. Parks spins the tale in a hardboiled style, keeps the story moving at a decent clip, and does a good job of capturing Glasgow in 1973 and the criminal underbelly of the city. There’s no great surprise in the resolution, but that matters little as it’s as much a tale about the journey as destination. Overall, a well told, dark slice of Scottish noir.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week of travel with trips to London and Tilburg in the Netherlands. Arrived home to find an order of books had arrived at the local bookshop. The TBR has crept up in size in recent months, so will splice these into the mix. Looking forward to reading in due course.


My posts this week
Review of Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs
Review of The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason
Most read authors
Falling

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Falling

The world was amazing from this height; spread out like an enormous map.

Conor was diving in, his arms outstretched.

They linked up; smiled at each other.

A minute later they separated and Annie released her parachute.

It deployed but didn’t properly unfurl. The secondary chute failed to appear.

Conor was below her, still falling. Then his chute opened.

She was catching up; screaming his name.

At first she thought he’d missed her, but then felt him snag the collapsed canopy.

She was crying and laughing, hope blossoming.

Then she was falling again.

Knowing now why her chute had failed.




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review of Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs (2002, HarperCollins)

1938. Winston Churchill is in the political wilderness and almost bankrupt. In his wake is a series of political disasters, he’s bet heavily on the stock exchange, and his anti-appeasement rhetoric is deeply unpopular with colleagues and the public. Churchill though has little time for the opinion of others; he can see another war looming and the actions of Chamberlain and Halifax are not going to divert that but rather leave Britain unprepared. Guy Burgess is a journalist for the BBC. He shares Churchill’s view and he wants to help the politician. Burgess has plenty of dodgy contacts, including a barber who cuts the hair of senior politicians and civil servants and is privy to private conversations, as well as access to money to alleviate Churchill’s debts. The two men meet on October 1st 1938. Eighteen months later Britain is at war, Churchill, despite the odds, has succeeded Chamberlain, and Burgess has burned bridges with the new prime minister. The rest is history.

In Winston’s War, Michael Dobbs tells the story of Winston Churchill’s rise to power, concentrating on the eighteen months between his meeting with Guy Burgess, later infamous for being unmasked as a Soviet spy, to when he takes office. Given Churchill’s marginal political position in 1938 and the fact that very few politicians in his own party, let alone the opposition, wanted him to become prime minister even at the point that he does (Halifax was the preferred option), that he gained control was a minor miracle. Or as Michael Dobbs portrays it, a fortuitous set of events and a lot of political skulduggery, aided by the actions of Hitler and Mussolini. Reading the book as the UK political system implodes with Brexit was interesting as there are many parallels – Britain’s relationship with Europe, bitter political infighting in the Tory party, the media throwing shapes. Dobbs’ story blends the historical record with fiction to tell Churchill’s tale, focusing on the underhand actions of both Churchill and Chamberlain as they vie for power, throwing in the role of Guy Burgess, who has been airbrushed from the history of the early years of the war. It’s a very readable and engaging tale, if a little over-long at 690 pages. As with similar books, I’m always a little hesitant about history as fiction, as it’s difficult to know what actually happened and what is pure fantasy, especially when just about every character was a real person. Nonetheless, an entertaining political story about a critical moments in British history.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Review of The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason (2017, Vintage; Icelandic 2013)

1944, Reykjavik. A young woman’s body is discovered behind the new national theatre, currently being used as a store by the occupying allied forces. The murder is investigated by a local detective, Flovent, and a Canadian military policeman with Icelandic roots, Thorsen. Their initial suspects are an American soldier and his Icelandic girlfriend who discovered the body and fled the scene, but their investigation soon moves on. The present day, a ninety year old man is found suffocated in his bed. In the house are newspaper cuttings related to the war time case. A retired detective, Konrad, remembers the case having grown up in the district and his father trying to profit from it. He starts his own investigation with the blessing of the police, tracking the last movements and actions of the dead man and simultaneously trying to piece together the original war-time case.

The Shadow District is the first book in a new series by Arnaldur Indridason charting the cases of Flovent and Thorsen and set in war-time Iceland. Somewhat unusually, this first instalment concerns their last case together before Thorsen moves on with the occupying army to continental Europe then returning to Canada, and also has a second main thread set sixty five years or so later. The story pivots between the two periods tracking the investigation into the murder of young woman in 1944 and the death of an elderly man decades later. The lynch-pin is Konrad, a retired CID detective, who remembers the original case as a child and is intrigued by the man’s suspicious death. As such, there are two police procedural tales being told in parallel, with the chapters alternating between the two periods as Flovent and Thorsen work their investigation and Konrad also re-pieces it together as he tries to work out the connections across time and people between the cases. As usual, Indridason tells the tale in an under-stated way without relying on overly-contrived plot devices or melodrama, letting the two stories unfold in a credible and engaging way. The result is an intriguing story populated with realistic characters, scenarios and police work, with a strong sense of place and time.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Most read authors

Since I've been compiling some stats on reaching a 1000 reviews on the blog I thought I'd also take a look at the distribution of authors read.

Overall, I read books by 697 authors. Of these I read two books by 82 authors, 3 books of 34 authors, 4 books of 20 authors. There were just 18 authors where I read five or more of their books. These were:

10  Adrian McKinty
8    Philip Kerr, Joe Lansdale
7    Arnaldur Indridason, James Sallis
6    Colin Coterill, David Downing, John Lawton, Terry Pratchett,
      Duane Swiercynski
5    Belinda Bauer, Jane Casey, Ann Cleeves, Alan Furst,
     Carlo Lucarelli, Ben Pastor, William Ryan, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

It seems that there's only a 22% chance that if I've read one book by an author that I'll read another. Which somehow doesn't seem quite right as I feel I would read another book by a good proportion of the authors I've read. I guess I'm still veering towards discovering new authors rather than sticking with those I've enjoyed. A difficult balance to achieve given the thousands of authors being published and lure of new discoveries.

A task for this year is scour back through my reviews and then catch-up with books by those I've already discovered. It's pretty certain books by those above will make it on to the to-be-read pile in the future. In fact, there'll be a review of an Arnaldur Indridason book tomorrow and I've Ben Pastor's latest installment on order.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I got a couple of recommendations for books set in countries that I've not yet visited in crime fiction, so I've ordered a handful. If you've suggestions for books set in the grey shaded areas on the map further down the page I'd be grateful to hear them.


My posts this week
Review of Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
Around the world in 1000 books
February reviews
Reaching 1000 reviews
Review of Clinch by Martin Holmen
Lost card

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Lost card

Neil rolled his eyes as John patted his pockets.

‘I can’t find my credit card.’

‘Have you checked your wallet?’

‘It was in my shirt pocket.’

They’d already enacted a pantomime of finding his passport.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Pretty sure.’ John re-started the circuit of his pockets. ‘But, it isn’t there now.’

‘Why don’t you keep it in your wallet?’

‘In case I lose my wallet.’

‘But you have your wallet; not your card.’

‘Which means I’ve only lost one card.’

‘Have you looked inside your passport?’

‘Why would it be there?’

‘Why was your passport hidden inside a sock?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Review of Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (2018, Harvill Secker)

Calcutta, 1921. Police officer Captain Sam Wyndham has a serious opium habit which he feeds by visiting dens in the early hours. When members of the vice squad raid one of his haunts he escapes up onto the roofs and hides. En route he encounters a body, his eyes cut out and stab wounds to his chest. A couple of days later he is assigned to investigate the death of a nurse who exhibits the same wounds. Unable to formally link the two murders, he and his trusted India sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee start to dig for answers, despite the fact that military intelligence would clearly like them to stop. To add to Wyndham’s woes he’s also charged with persuading the local Indian nationalist leader, Chitta Ranjan Das, to drop his non-violent campaign given the impending visit of Prince Edward to the city. With tension rising, a murderer on the loose and the local population being whipped up into a frenzy ahead of the state visit, Wyndham finds himself at the centre of a potential explosive situation.

Smoke and Ashes is the third book in the Wyndham and Banerjee series set in Calcutta in the years after the First World War. In this outing the pair find themselves trying to solve a series of brutal murders, while also trying to suppress the activities of Indian nationalists campaigning for independence. They are under pressure to fulfil both duties before the visit of Prince Edward, the heir to the British crown, on Christmas Eve. To complicate matters, Wyndham’s opium habit is exposed and military intelligence would prefer it if he drops his snooping with regards to the murders. Mukherjee tells the tale utilising real historical events and a couple of real-life characters. While it is an interesting story, it is held together by some coincidence plot devices, such as Wyndham happening to be in an opium den that is raided, and Banerjee being a close family friend of the Indian nationalist leading the local demonstrations. Moreover, while the story does build to some tension points, it is more linear than the previous two outings, and felt more staged. That said, it’s still an engaging and entertaining tale.



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Around the world in 1000 books


The title of this post is a little misleading. It's actually around the world in 865 books, since 117 of my 1000 reads are non-fiction (and I've not kept a record of where these relates to) and 18 are fictional places. As you can see from the above map, I've managed to visit quite a bit of the globe via fiction (most in the crime genre) since starting reviewing on the blog. In total I've visited 75 countries. In 787 cases, the story was set solely (or nearly the entire story) in a single country and in 78 cases the story spanned countries.

The journeying has not been very even, however. 511 of the stories were set in just three countries - the US, England and Ireland. Here's the breakdown of fictional visits to that country and a list of all books/reviews for each country can be found here:

275:    USA
150:    England
86:    Ireland
61:    Germany
42:    Scotland
35:    France
28:    Italy
27:    Australia
19:    Russia/Soviet Union
16:    Iceland
15:    South Africa
14:    Canada, Sweden
12:    Spain
10:    Norway, Poland
9:     Wales
8:     China, Greece, Thailand
7:     India, Turkey
6:     Czech Republic, Cuba, Laos
5:     Egypt, Japan, Mexico, Yugoslavia
4:     Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Netherlands, Palestine
3:     Belgium, Finland, Hungary, South Korea
2:     Botswana, Bulgaria, Burma, Cambodia, Ghana, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, Vietnam, Zimbabwe
1:     Afganistan, Benin, Columbia, Estonia, Faroes, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Krygyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Togo

There's a few notable gaps in the map - the Caribbean, South America, Africa and the Middle East. I'm going to have to work at filling these in.  

Recommendations for books set in countries shaded grey in the map above very welcome!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

February reviews

Difficult to pick a book of the month for February. Some nice reads, but not one that really shone. I think I'll go with Snap by Belinda Bauer.

Snap by Belinda Bauer ****
City Without Stars by Tim Baker ***
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark ***.5
The Defence by Steve Cavanagh ****
The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt ***
Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe ****
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu ****
Moskva by Jack Grimwood ****
Corpus by Rory Clements ***

Monday, March 4, 2019

Reaching 1000 reviews

This morning's review was the 1000th on the blog. I've just spent a little while looking at the stats - which given the day job I'm inclined to do. It's taken 502 weeks to reach 1,000 books (all reviews available here), which is pretty much spot-on averaging two books a week (1.99). The books total some 325,846 pages according to Goodreads (though a couple are missing page counts in their database), or just shy of 93 pages per day. Both of those seem about right, with some fluctuation across weeks and days.

Of the books, 883 were fiction and 117 non-fiction. 128 were by Irish authors. 166 were historical fiction set between 1930-1960. I bought nearly all of them, with a handful being review copies and a dozen or so gifts - I'm happy to make sure authors get some royalties and I don't want to feel obliged with respect to what I'm reading. I'll give a breakdown of location later in the week, but via the fiction I visited 75 countries, and a few more via non-fiction.

Here are some graphs from Goodreads (click to enlarge).

Books per year


Pages per year


Books per month
 

Pages per month

 


Review of Clinch by Martin Holmen (2015, Pushkin Vertigo)

Winter, Stockholm, 1932. Ex-boxer Harry Kvist makes his living as a debt collector, recovering items not yet paid for or the outstanding balance. Violence is his preferred method of persuasion, often hitting first and asking questions after. It’s a marginal existence, but he manages to get by. As the first snow of the season falls he takes a job recovering an outstanding balance of a car sale from a man named Zetterberg. Harry leaves his mark a heap on the floor, but very much alive. The following day he’s arrested by the police for murder. A few hours later he’s released on the basis of witness testimony, though he’s still in a person of interest. A prostitute who he spoke to when he was casing Zetterberg’s apartment building can validate his alibi – that he’d left the before the time the murder was committed – but she has disappeared. Harry sets out to find her in the underbelly of the city, hooking up on the way with an ex-film star intent on slumming it with a brawler.

Harry Kvist is a perfectly cast anti-hero. A sailor turned champion boxer, turned debt collector who sometimes drinks too much to forget the death of his daughter. He has a preference for sex with men, cruising Stockholm’s parks and shady bars, but will settle for a woman. And he has no problem using violence to get answers to his questions, whether woman, child or man, often leading with his fists first and asking afterwards. And he doesn’t mind if there are a couple of collateral deaths along the way. In this opening book in a trilogy, it’s the winter of 1932, and Harry has been framed for murder, with a man he has just visited in order to collect a debt found dead shortly afterwards. Initially arrested, then freed by witness testimony though still a person of interest, Harry sets about trying to clear his name and determine who is setting him up. He goes about this task with grim bloody-mindedness, hooking up with a fading but rich ex-film star and drug addict who seems glad to be slumming it with a once-renowned boxer. With its noir-ish styling, storytelling and atmosphere, aided by the Swedish winter and the contrast of poverty and riches, Holmen charts Harry’s journey. It’s fairly grim in places, and Harry tests the limit of the ‘hero’ part of ‘anti-hero’, but it’s an engaging and compelling read that is nicely plotted. Overall, a taut slice of Swedish noir and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.



Sunday, March 3, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm not quite sure what kind of book I'm in the mood for right now. I've picked up and put down a dozen, but none of them are sparking an interest. It might be time to close my eyes and randomly pick one and just dive in! The problem of too much choice; which is not necessarily a bad thing ...


My posts this week
Review of Snap by Belinda Bauer
Review of City Without Stars by Tim Baker

Saturday, March 2, 2019

You’ll have to jump

‘Just climb back down the way you got up.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Stretch down your leg.’

‘Mum! I’m stuck.’

‘Why did you have climb so high?’

‘I just kept going. It was easy.’

‘You sound like your father. We’ll have to get the fire brigade.’

‘No, no, no; I’ll never hear the end of it.’

‘And you think that’s the case now? Hey, Gary?’

Gary stared at his feet, not wanting to get drawn into the exchange.

‘Gary managed to get down.’

‘He only climbed up halfway.’

‘Then you’ll have to jump.’

‘Mum!’

‘Well, I’m not coming up there after you.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words