Thursday, January 16, 2020

Review of A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015, Black Swan)

Peter Todd has led a full life. At times eventful, much mundane. A God in Ruins charts its path in a non-chronological order, and that of his wife, self-centred daughter and grandchildren. His childhood in the stockbroker belt and wartime exploits as a bomber captain flying over Germany and Occupied Europe haunt his subsequent trials, tribulations, and attempts to live a good life. The hook and strength of the telling is its eloquently realised characterisation and charting of familial relationships. Peter and his family are three dimensional characters with depth and the social situations are freighted with realism, and Peter’s wartime experiences have an insider quality and perspective. There is strong emotional resonance throughout. The to-ing and fro-ing across time added to rather than detracted from the story, though it sometimes felt too much time was spent with Viola, his awful daughter. While it was an interesting and at times captivating read, it lack the novel hook of its companion book, Life After Life, and the ending might make little sense without knowledge of the idea explored in that book. An engaging, well told read.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Fighting fires

‘So, my benefits have been suspended because I haven’t applied for enough jobs?’

‘You haven’t applied for any jobs.’

‘The country’s on fire. I’ve been fighting firestorms every day for the past six weeks. 12 to 14 hours a day.’

‘I know, and personally I’m extremely grateful, but you still need to apply for the requisite number of jobs per week to receive benefits, Mr Kelly.’

‘No exceptions?’

‘I’m afraid not.’

‘Seriously? A state of emergency’s been declared. Twelve million acres have burnt. Let’s hope your house doesn’t face a wall of fire while I’m filling out pointless bloody applications.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Around the world in 365 days

I managed to visit 33 countries through fiction in 2019. As with previous years, the list is dominated by England and United States. I'll try to keep travelling in 2020, despite cutting back on real world trips.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier ***

The First Wave by James R Benn ***

Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth *****

Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan ****
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez ****

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr ***
Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar ****
The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves ****
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson *****
The Smoke by Tony Broadbent *** 
An Empty Death by Laura Wilson ****.5
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson *****
London Rules by Mick Herron ****
Sweetpea by C.J. Skuse ***
Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs ****
Snap by Belinda Bauer ****
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark ***.5
Corpus by Rory Clements ***
From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell ***
Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe *****
Let The Dead Speak by Jane Casey ****.5
Evil Things by Katja Ivar ****

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas ***.5 

The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland **.5 
Metropolis by Philip Kerr ****
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak ***
The Girl Without Skin by Mads Peder Nordbo ***.5

Hong Kong
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei *****

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason ****.5

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey ***.5
Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee ***.5

The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney ***
Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell ***
Kaddish in Dublin by John Brady ****.5
Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe ****

Hiroshima Boy by Naomi Hirahara ***
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace ***.5
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama ***.5
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino *****

City Without Stars by Tim Baker ***

Assembly of the Dead by Saeida Rouass ****

New Zealand
The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman ***.5
Overkill by Vanda Symon ***.5
Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave ***.5
Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum ****.5

Moskva by Jack Grimwood ****

Saudi Arabia
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris *****

Bloody January by Alan Parks ****

The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor ****

Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo  **** 

The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson ****
Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten ****
Clinch by Martin Holmen ****.5

Incensed by Ed Lin **.5

United States
Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones ****
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran *****
The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines ***
Gravesend by William Boyle ****
Black Hornet by James Sallis ****
Last Call by Paula Matter **.5
The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh *****
The Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen ****
August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones ****
Design for Dying by Renee Patrick ****.5
IQ by Joe Ide ****.5
The Defence by Steve Cavanagh ****
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell ***.5
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter ****.5 

Multiple countries
A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott ***** (England, France, Germany)

The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre **** (England, Hong Kong, Italy, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia)
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott **** (Russia, United States, France)
The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty **** (Yemen, Oman, France, England, Switzerland)
Tightrope by Simon Mawer ***** (France, Germany, England)
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk ***** (United States, various Pacific islands, Japan)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr **** (France, Germany, Russia, Austria)

Fictional worlds

The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett ****.5

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Lazy Sunday Service

I've decided I'm going to revisit a book each month that I remember enjoying twenty plus years ago. I've been picking them out. I'll probably start with one of my favourite authors and series - Joe Lansdale's Mucho Mojo, which I bought in Carryduff in Northern Ireland in 1996. I'm surprised I still have it as I've lent to friends a fair few times.

My posts this week
Review of The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney ****
Best reads of 2019
Review of A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott *****
We're screwed

Saturday, January 4, 2020

We're screwed

‘Four days into the new year and my resolution is probably kaput.’

‘Cheer up, Brian, it may never happen.’

‘Oh, it’s going to happen alright. But preferably in twenty years’ time.’

‘What retire?’

‘No, die. Have you been watching the news?’

‘Die? You’re planning your death?’

‘It’s like the apocalypse has started. War, disasters, authoritarianism, conflict, climate change. We’re teetering on the edge.’

‘It was the same in 1938 and 39, 1962 and Cuban missile crisis, 1991, 2002.’

‘My aim now is to just make seventy. Those behind us are screwed.’

‘Have some hope. We’ll muddle through.’

‘Hope? We’re screwed.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Review of The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney (2018, Harper Collins)

Glasgow, 1969. A group of detectives have spent months trying to catch The Quaker, a killer who has raped and murdered three women. Their investigation has ground to a halt and the media have turned on the team. Senior management decide to send in DI Duncan McCormack, a young, quickly rising detective to the team to review the investigation with a view to learning lessons and wrapping it up. He’s met with resentment. The case was meant to be the making of the team members, instead it’s become a blot on their careers. It doesn’t take McCormack long to spot the errors and new potential leads. Then a new murder is committed and the team have a firm suspect. McCormack is convinced they are chasing the wrong the man, but has difficulty persuading others. They need a conviction and closure. Instead, McCormack is left to solve the murders, though gaining justice may come with a heavy price.

Based loosely on the ‘Bible John’ serial killer case in Glasgow in the late 1960s, The Quaker charts the attempts of the police to catch a man who has raped and killed three woman after taking them to a local dance. Despite his public appearances and thousands of posters littering the city, months after the last death he’s still not been caught. The police have hit a wall. With no new deaths or leads senior management are looking to wrap up an expensive investigation. The story follows DI Duncan McCormack’s attempt to assess what went wrong and his slide into conducting his own investigation of the killings as he spots fresh connections. When a new murder is committed and a new suspect emerges, McCormack senses that it’s a setup, again defying the desired outcome and continuing his pursuit of the real Quaker. The story is fairly conventional police procedural that’s tightly plotted, with a couple of nice twists, and unfolds at a steady clip. McCormack is an interesting ‘loner’ character who has his own secrets, and there’s a strong sense of place, charting the social and geographical changes to Glasgow given the mass slum clearances and building of flats and new towns. Overall, a nicely told, engaging tale of vicious crime and internal police politics and rivalries.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Best reads of 2019

I read and reviewed 87 books in 2019, totalling 31,908 pages according to Goodreads. I rated 14 books as five star reads, two of which were non-fiction. That's a pretty good strike rate for excellent reads, which is mostly down to knowing whose recommendations to trust. Difficult to put the books in an order as all first class.

The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei

Linking together six novellas, the stories trace the legendary career of Kwan Chun-dok, a Hong Kong detective, working back from the present day to 1967. While each tale is an intricately plotted police procedural, where the mystery is a difficult puzzle that takes a different form – locked-room, prisoner-dilemma, jail break, siege, kidnapping, terrorist conspiracy) they are also astute social and political commentaries about Hong Kong as it passes from British colony to the sphere of Chinese rule. Kwan is an intriguing character, full of humanity and compassion, but ruthless in pursuing justice. An engaging, intriguing and thought-provoking novel with excellent plotting, strong character development, and a good sense of place and historical context.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

Manda Scott expertly weaves together two inter-related plots that are separated by seventy years. The first concerns a battle of wits between a master Gestapo agent who cleverly turns resistance members and a group of SOE agents and French Marquis that last much of the war. The second charts the present day investigation into the assassination of one of the elderly former SOE agents. Both threads make for compelling stories, but when twisted together the result is a page-turning thriller. The characterisation is very nicely done, there’s good historical contextualisation, and the underlying premise in terms of the post-war era is interesting. Scott peppers the plot with twists and turns, and keeps the reader guessing to the end.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910 and promptly dies. History repeats but she lives, the doctor having made it through the snowstorm. It is a pattern that Ursula is set to repeat dying multiple times in several different ways, sometimes a sense of déjà vu saving her from the same fate in a subsequent life. Mostly her lives follow a very similar trajectory, occasionally they diverge and take a different track. At some point, she realises that she could potentially save the world from the darkness of the Second World War. But can one person stop fate? Atkinson uses the repeating lives idea to explore the notion of history as a palimpsest. The result is an engaging, thoughtful literary novel that asks big questions but not in a highbrow, inaccessible way.

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

The Blinds blends together aspects of a Western with a SF memory loss tale. Caesura, West Texas, is a dusty, isolated town of second chances. Its residents are either criminals or key witnesses who’ve had their memories altered so they cannot remember what led to them being there. A suicide and a murder have them worried. Sternbergh spins-out a compelling yarn in which the past gradually intrudes on the present leading to betrayal, violence, redemption, and desperate fight to survive. The plot is very nicely constructed with plenty of intrigue and tension, the characterization is excellent, and there’s a strong sense of place and context. A wonderful, engaging, fresh tale of corrupted justice.

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran

Claire, a wonderful, flawed, complex, anti-hero character with a self-destructive streak, investigates the murder of an ex-boyfriend. Half debilitated by drugs, grief, and the memories of a past case, she slowly seeks clues. As with all detectives trained in the Silettian tradition, her pursuit is truth rather than justice, and Gran mixes in philosophy, dead-pan and dark humour, and two interesting mysteries. I was hooked from the get-go and my interest never waned. This multifaceted, engaging and quirky tale would be perfect for a movie treatment or a TV series.

Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth

A coming of age tale set in the settled outback of Australia in 1885. when their parents are murdered and their sister left for dead, brothers Tommy and Billy team up with a wealthy landowner and ruthless policeman and head off into the outback to capture the suspected Aboriginal killers. While Billy embraces the bigotry and violence of the landowner and native police, the other starts to regret what they have started and resist rough justice. Howarth creates an engaging story rooted in a credible history of Australian colonialism and the relations between settler and Aborigines without it swamping the story or becoming preachy. There's strong character development, and a good sense of place and time. 

Tightrope by Simon Mawer

Marian Sutro, a SOE agent dropped into France in 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo a short time later and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Post-war she returns to Britain to be debriefed and to convalesce but finds it hard to adjust. She still craves purpose and adventure, so when an opportunity arises to slip back into the intelligence world she takes it. Mawer tells her story via a narrative pieced together by her biographer, Samuel, who’d been obsessed with her ever since he was a boy. It’s an interesting approach as it allows for hesitancy and silences where the biographer has to speculate about motives and what really occurred. The tale is very nicely plotted, with Marian struggling with loyalties and motives, and her past and her future, as she’s drawn into the cold war intelligence and romance.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Nayir Sharqi works as a desert guide and Katya works as a lab technician in the coroner’s office. They are paired together through their shared acquaintance with the brother of Nouf Shawari. Nouf is found dead in the desert having drowned in a flash flood and the brother asks each of them to investigate her death. The sixteen year old girl was due to be married shortly after she disappeared. Ferraris creates a compelling murder mystery tale that is firmly rooted in the culture and place of Saudi Arabia. The contrast and awkward tension between Nayir and Katya nicely unfolds, as does the investigative elements of the plot.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Set in Tokyo, The Devotion of Suspect X is a police procedural with a difference. The reader is presented with the murder at the start of the novel. Yasuko Hanaoka and her daughter murder her abusive former husband. Their neighbour, Ishigami, who is smitten with Yusuko, hears the fight and offers to help them dispose of the body and create a cover-up. A body is subsequently found, quickly identified and the police turn up at Yashuko’s door. Will the police discover the truth given Ishigami’s carefully plotted cover-up? It's a slow burn, but the patient build-up is worth it. Despite having sight of all sides in the game, the pay-off for the reader is the double-twist in the denouement. It’s relatively rare to come across a twist so clever and the ending is just perfect. Overall, an absorbing tale with a nice philosophical spin.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson

A whodunit set in a London debtors prison in 1727. Tom Hawkins, a young man who has dropped out of training for the church, finds himself in the prison as a debtor. He has to adapt quickly, but saviour is promised if a challenge is completed – solve the murder of Captain Roberts that took place a few months before he entered and he'll have his debts cancelled and be set free. Hodgson draws on real testimony about life in Marshalsea prison and the populates the story by a number of real-life historical characters associated with the prison. She spins the tale out with plenty of intrigue and twists and does an admirable job of creating a strong sense of place and history. The result is a well-researched, engaging historical murder mystery full of colourful characters that keeps the reader guessing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

December reads

A nice month of reading. Difficult to pick between A Treachery of Spies and Claire De Witt and the Bohemian Highway for read of the month, but I'll go with the former, a complex, compelling tale of treachery and its aftermath.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott *****
Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones ****
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr ***
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran *****
Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane ****.5

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review of A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott (2018, Corgi)

Present day and an elderly woman is found shot dead in a car park. To Capitaine Inés Picaut it appears to be a professional hit. The only clue is a business card sown into the lining of the victim’s coat. Picaut and her team discover that the victim's name appears to be Sophie Destivelle and a local film company was making a documentary about her involvement with SOE, a British-American Jedburgh team and the French Marquis in the Jura Mountains in the days leading up the D-Day landings and liberation. Other members of that group’s war-time leaders are present in Orleans, as is a special conference attended by high ranking American intelligence officers. When a second killing takes place of the son of one of the Marquis members, Picaut realises she has two mysteries to solve: who is killing Marquis members and their descendants and what happened during the war to prompt the murders so many years later. The remaining Marquis are not talking, determined to complete unfinished business and discover the identity of the suspected spy within their close knit resistance group. What started in the early 1940s is seemingly about to come to a bloody end.

A Treachery of Spies is the second book in the Capitaine Inés Picaut series, but can be read as a standalone. Manda Scott expertly weaves together two inter-related plots that are separated by seventy years. The first concerns a battle of wits between a master Gestapo agent who cleverly turns resistance members and a group of SOE agents and French Marquis that last much of the war. The resistance cell never quite gets the upper hand, even in victory, and the tight core of leaders are unsure if and who might be a spy. The second charts the present day investigation by Picaut into the assassination of one of SOE agents, Sophie Destivelle, herself turned and turned back again and also an assassin of traitors and collaborators during and after the war. Both threads make for compelling stories in and of themselves, with nicely crafted and well told plots, but when twisted together the result is a page-turning thriller. The characterisation is very nicely done, there’s good historical contextualisation, and the underlying premise in terms of the post-war era is interesting. Scott peppers the plot with twists and turns, and keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the Marquis traitor and why the killing has resumed. An excellent read to finish up 2019.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Nobody hears silence



‘Did you say something?’


‘Oh, I thought you …’


‘Okay, sorry.’

‘No, you’re not.’


‘You’re not sorry.’


‘Why say you’re sorry when you’re not.’

‘I was being polite.’

‘You were trying to start a conversation.’

‘I thought you’d said something.’

‘By making no sound?’

‘I heard something.’

‘Probably the voices in your head.’

‘Are you saying I’m crazy?’

‘You said it, not me.’

‘Because you were implying it.’

‘I’m not the one who heard silence as noise.’

‘Nobody hears silence.’

‘Except you, apparently.’

‘For someone who doesn’t want to talk …’

‘Quiet, please.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review of Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones (2012, MP Publishing)

Rural West Texas in the 1980s; generations of farmers making a living from cotton. One harvest the small community smells smoke, over twenty hoppers burning slowly, with no means to put them out. Rushing to one of the sources, Rob King finds the local high school basketball star and beats him half-to-death. The fire had been burning several hours and it was unlikely he was the culprit. Over the next few weeks a series of tragedies unfold, a boy shot on a school bus, a girl aquaplaning to her death. The police struggle to identify who is responsible. The author, a young teenager at the time, revisits the community a quarter of a century later and using his own memories and interviews with others tries to piece together what actually happened, its place in familial and local history, and who was responsible.

Growing Up Dead in Texas casts the author in the role of a detective about an event in his own life. Cast as part memoir, part mystery, the author revisits the place where he grew up to investigate events over a few months in the 1980s that have haunted him, and the rest of the community, ever since. The crux is who started the fires that destroyed the cotton crop, and who is responsible for a subsequent shooting, and the death of a girl. Drawing on memories and conversations with key actors, the author tries to piece together what the police failed to do, though they did secure a conviction, and to place events in historical context. Jones provides a hesitant account with hints of an unreliable witness, sometimes talking directly to the reader. If it is entirely fiction, then the troubled memoir is very nicely constructed; if it is actually partially a real memoir, then it has an air of authenticity. The author reveals secrets, while also protecting others; drags up history without sensationalising it, and paints characters as they are. It’s a fresh, literary take on telling a mystery tale. At times it is tricky to follow and occasionally raises questions that are not answered, but it maintains intrigue and attention.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I started writing a new book on Monday. It was meant to be in three books time, but has jumped the queue. A little unexpected, but I felt like I needed to get some of it down. I'm already 9,000 words in, so it's going reasonably well, and I sense I'll just keep going until it's done. Funny how plans can get up-ended. I guess I'll need to look for a contract soon; though that can wait until I've got a firmer idea of the shape of things. I started with middle chapters, as you do.

My posts this week
Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
Stupid charade

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Stupid charade

The security area was chaos. Too many people, not enough open lines.

‘I’ve had enough of this!’ A middle-aged woman near the front of a queue drops her skirt to the floor and pulls her shirt over her head so she’s standing in her underwear. ‘There, will this speed things up?’

‘Ma’am, can you please put your clothes back on. Ma’am.’

‘I’ve probably missed my flight because of this stupid charade!’

‘Ma’am, please. Calm down and put your clothes back on.’

‘Do I look like a terrorist to you? Do I?’

‘More like insane,’ a girl in the queue mutters.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935, Orion)

A stranger interrupts a conversation between Dr Grimaud and his friends in a London pub. He says he’s an illusionist and that his brother is a more powerful one and will call on Grimaud and take his life. A few days later the brother seemingly performs that feat, entering the room of Grimaud, shooting him, then vanishing. On the same night, the illusionist is also killed, shot at close range in the middle of an empty street, two men just a few steps ahead and a policeman nearby. In both cases, there are no footprints in the snow. The killer seemingly appears, commits murder, and vanishes. Trying to solve the case is Superintendent Hadley and criminologist Dr Fell. Fell is convinced there is a logical solution, the difficulty will be in identifying it.

The Hollow Man was the sixth book in the Dr Gideon Fell series than ran to 23 instalments. In this outing, Fell and Superintendent Hadley seek to solve two puzzles – one a traditional locked room mystery in which a murderer seemingly vanishes from a closed room with only one viable exit, the other a play on the theme, in which a man is shot a close quarters on a street by a seemingly invisible man. In both cases it has been snowing, but there are no footprints in the snow surrounding the house or on the street. It is clear there is a direct link between the murders and the reason for the deaths are rooted in events many years before in Europe. Solving the mystery, however, is far from straightforward. The story is all about the plot and puzzles, and the writing is quite functionary, the characters one dimensional, and the sense of place pretty lifeless. The story is one long plot device and the puzzles convoluted and contrived to the point of parody. Carr is seemingly aware of this, even slotting into the story a chapter long treatise on locked room mysteries. In some ways, that is the most interesting and believable section of the book. The story itself was far from credible, though it is held together and propelled by the fantastical spin of events.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up a copy of Patterson's Roads this morning in the local market. Edition Seventeen, printed in 1824, it provides detailed descriptions of the principle roads across England, Wales and parts of Scotland. The descriptions of places are very detailed and it looks like it'll be a fascinating read. It's in poor condition and on the verge of falling apart, so I'll have to handle with care.

My posts this week
Review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran
Golden goose