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.