Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review of A Book of Scars by William Shaw (Quercus, 2015)

1969. Helen Tozer has quit the police force and moved from London back to her parent’s farm in Devon. She is trailed there by Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen, who is on sick leave after being shot. The Tozer farm has been a miserable place since the murder of Alexandra Tozer five years previously, though the presence of Hibou, a young, former drug addict rescued by Helen has started to lift the grief. Helen though is unhappy working on the farm again, jealous of Hibou’s relationship with her father, and unsure whether she wants a relationship with Breen. Breen to pass the time starts to investigate Alexandra, opening old wounds as he finds fresh leads. His actions also unsettle some who questioned in the original case and not long after a police sergeant disappears. It seems that the case involves a lot more than the death of a young girl and has its roots in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. As Breen and Tozer dig they uncover a shameful history of violence and revenge, one that is still being played out several years later.

A Book of Scars is the third book in the Cathal Breen and Helen Tozer series set in the 1960s. In this outing, it’s 1969: Tozer has left the police and Breen is recovering from being shot. While recuperating Breen starts to secretly investigate the violent murder of Tozer’s sister five years previously. A carefree teenager, Alexandra had been conducting an affair with a local Lord when she was snatched, tortured and killed. Breen’s sniffing about has unsettled some of those questioned in the original case. But the investigation takes a turn neither he or Tozer was expecting, leading them back to London and the disappearance of a sergeant in the drug’s squad and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Shaw has really hit his stride with this outing. Although a little slow and ponderous at the start, layers are added to the uneasy, complex relationship between Breen and Tozer, the mystery of Alexandra’s death is laid bare, and the story is politically-charged, uncovering the history of the Mau Mau crisis in Kenya and the politics of colonial rule and the violence and torture used to tackle resistance movements. The characterisation is nicely developed and the plot is compelling. The result is an engaging story that works on different levels – personal, institutional, political – moving all the elements of a good police procedural series forward.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Just got confirmation that an order of books is working its way through the post. I've swapped some time ago to using Kennys, and buying from an Irish online store (and owned by an old independent book store in Galway), rather than Amazon. They're somewhat slower at assembling the order, but I'm usually in no rush given there's always something on the TBR. This batch and those from the local book store should keep me going until the autumn.

My posts this week

Review of Straight Man by Richard Russo
Review of Spook Street by Mick Herron


Saturday, July 14, 2018


‘I don’t understand people who get so drunk they end up sleeping in gutters,’ Kate said.

‘What?’ Jim staggered to a halt.

‘Her. Over there.’

‘Is she’s okay?’ Jim stepped off the kerb.

‘She’s just drunk.’

‘Then why’s she covered in blood?’


Jim wandered over.

‘Dead, I reckon.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘What’s it look like I’m doing?’

‘Stealing her handbag.’

‘Give that woman a medal.’


‘She doesn’t need it anymore.’

‘Put it back.’

‘With my fingerprints on it. Not likely. Come-on, let’s scarper.’

‘We need to call the cops.’

‘Ah, Jesus, Kate. They’ll find her soon enough.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review of Straight Man by Richard Russo (Verso, 1997)

William Henry Devereaux, Jr. has lived in the shadow of his famous father, a noted literary critic and philanderer, his whole life. He even followed him into academia and English Literature. There he has languished in a lower-tier university in a small town in the Pennsylvania rust belt, where he has remained faithful to his wife and his mother, and raised two kids. His one notable achievement was a single novel, published twenty years previously. He now finds himself as chair of a divided and divisive department at a time when large cuts in staff are muted. Unable to take himself, his colleagues or the university administration seriously, over the course of a week he careens through everything life can throw at him: suspected kidney stones, an irate set of staff, administrative scheming, strained friendships, the absence of his wife, the dissolution of his daughter’s marriage, and the return of his father, and to top it all off he threatens to kill a campus goose a day on live television unless he’s told the status of the department budget.

Straight Man tells the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr., an English professor and department chair working in a small, lower-tier university, and his mid-life crisis as he tackles a series of work and family issues over the course of a week. Many of these crises are self-made or made worse, for the most part because he acts as a jerk. It’s described on the cover blurb as ‘funny and tender’ and ‘uproarious’ and Devereaux considers himself to be a bit of a wit. At one point Devereaux reflects: “Rourke’s position regarding me never varies. Despite the fact that I try to make everything into a joke, I’m never funny.” I’m afraid I share Rourke’s view, that despite Russo steering Devereaux into a series of what should be comic situations, they failed to raise a smile. For the most part, this is to do with the character of Devereaux, who I found mostly tedious and dull, and the explication around the situation. Rather than being a lovable wise-ass, Devereaux is far too often irritating and tiresome and he would certainly drive me to distraction if he were my department chair. The plot is quite slow to get going, with a number of meanders, but picks up in pace, action and interest in the second half, and there are some nice observations about friendship, family and academic politics at times. Overall, a literary novel of academic life that just about sustains interest to the end.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review of Spook Street by Mick Herron (John Murray, 2017)

It appeared to be a flash mob, hundreds of kids dancing in a shopping mall, but then there was a real flash as a bomb exploded leaving dozens dead. British intelligence has tracked back the bomber to where he was staying, but there the trail goes cold. His first week in the job, and new director, Claude Whelan, is having a baptism of fire. The residents of Slough House, a dumping ground for failed personnel, are having a slower week, doing tedious, trivial work. One of their number, River Cartwright, is concerned about his grandfather, a Service legend, who now has early stage dementia. When an unknown assailant seeks to murder the Old Bastard, River entrusts him to a Slough House friend, not sure if the hit was orchestrated by the Service to maintain secrets, and sets out to discover who wanted his grandfather dead. Emma Flyte, the new head of internal policing at the Service, has a bombing to worry about, and a dead man in David Cartwright’s bathroom is an unwelcome distraction, as is the uncouth head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb. With River seemingly lost in action, Lamb’s charges swing into action with their usual sub-par efforts determined to run their own investigation and protect his grandfather.

Spook Street is the fourth book in the Slough House series following the exploits of the ‘slow horses’ – personnel deemed as liabilities by the British intelligence service, who’ve been shunted sideways into a backwater and given menial work in the hope that they’ll leave of their own accord. In this outing they harbour a former spymaster and tangle with terrorists, trying to clean-up the spymaster’s history and discover what’s happened to his grandson, one of their own. Undoubtedly, the strength of the series is the colourful cast and their interaction. Herron breathes life and personality into all his characters, reveling in all their quirks, failings and back stories. And he’s also not afraid to kill them off and introduce new ones. The dialogue is sparkling, especially conversations involving the irascible, goading Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House. And there is much dark humour throughout. The plotting is nicely done, with a strong opening hook and plenty of intrigue, and Herron keeps the action moving towards a nice denouement. The first half of the book is truly wonderful, and while not quite sustained throughout, the read is very engaging and entertaining. Another fine addition to an excellent series.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The first batch of my latest order have turned up. First up is going to be William Shaw's A Book of Scars, my original copy of which I managed to leave on a train when half way through. This edition (right) has a different cover to my previous copy (left). I think the original gives a better sense of the rural setting of the first third of the book; the new one feels more like a sci-fi novel rather than one set in the 1960s. Anyway, never judge a book by its cover!

My posts this week

Review of Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid
Review of Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar
June reviews
Never tired of the view

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Never tired of the view

Marie poured water onto her marigolds and looked out across the city. She’d never tired of the view from her flat.

She heard him, before she saw him. A war-cry.

He came into view at the balcony above.

Time slowed as he passed.

He smiled and waved, like a passenger from a train as it trundles through a station.

Then he accelerated and disappeared, followed by a thump and the wail of a car alarm.

He was spread-eagled on a bonnet, staring up.

No, she’d never tire of the view. She plucked an orange marigold and let it float down.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Review of Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid (Sphere, 2009)

When teenager, Jennifer Maidment, is found brutally murdered, West Mercia police struggle to find a lead that will direct them to the killer. They reluctantly decide to bring in profiler, Tony Hill. Hill has his own reasons to visit Worcester – his work with Bradford police has dried up due to a new chief constable looking to cut costs and restructure, and the father he never knew has left him a house and narrow boat in the city. DCI Carol Jordan is unhappy at losing access to one of her key assets and friends, especially since someone is murdering teenagers in Bradford in quick succession. Her team have little time to dwell on Hill’s absence as they struggle to work out what links the victims and identify the killer; though Jordan carves out time to investigate the mysterious past of Hill’s father. It seems that Hill and Jordan are investigating similar crimes, but the partitioned nature of British police forces means neither is aware of the potential links. Their loss is the killer’s gain and the murders are increasing in pace and geographic spread.  

Fever of the Bone is the sixth outing in the Tony Hill (profiler) and Carol Jordan (DCI) series. As usual, it focuses on decoding the psychology and catching a driven killer. In this case the murderer is targeting teenagers, but Hill is convinced that the killer is not motivated by the same kind of desires that usually underpin such crimes. Hill is also dealing with some of his own personal issues related to his father, and Jordan is handling a threat from the new chief constable to disband her elite unit. The strength of the story is the engaging narrative, page-turning plot, and characters. The tale quickly hooks the reader in and propels them along, with the attention captivated as much by the personal lives of the police as the crime and its resolution. McDermid nicely elaborates the personal and professional tangles of the Jordan’s whole team, not just her star leads, as well as giving a good sense of the victims and their families. Where the story falters a little is the coincidences that permeate the tale, especially the link across sites through Hill. Also, there’s a side-line cold case mystery that is solved in part using a technology solution that I’m not convinced by (wearing my professional hat) and kind of fizzles along in a very linear way without ever sparking into a more interesting sub-plot. But these are just minor niggles as the story is a compelling and entertaining police procedural.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review of Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar (Osprey Press, 2013)

The three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been fought over and ruled over by other states for centuries. They gained their independence in the wake of the First World War, but were under pressure from the political manoeuvring of Russia, Germany, and Poland in the interwar years. They are rocked by the German-Soviet non-aggression pact prior to World War Two and occupied by Soviet Union in 1939, then by Germany in 1941, and again by the Soviets 1944-45, remaining behind the iron curtain as part of the Soviet Union until 1990. With the exception of Poland, no countries experienced as high a population loss through death and deportation during the war as the Baltic states (over 20 percent). To complicate matters, both belligerent armies included large numbers of combatants from the Baltic states, plus nationalist and pro-Soviet partisans were operating. Prit Buttar seeks to tell the complex story of the battle of the Baltics from all perspectives (each Baltic state, Germany, Russia; politicians, soldiers, partisans, civilians) from a somewhat distant, neutral perspective. To a large degree, he succeeds, starting with a general potted history leading up to independence post WWI, a general overview of the interwar years, then a detailed history of actions during WW2, and a summary of post-war outcomes.

Buttar covers a lot of ground and there is a lot of detail, but the narrative suffers from a couple of issues. First, the coverage is somewhat uneven, with great detail relating to particular military encounters, with less in-depth analysis concerning civilian life, the activities of partisans, the deportations and ghettos, and Baltic state politics. In part, this is probably related to access to archives and sources. Second, much of the history is laundry-list is style, noting which units were moving where and engaging which armies, etc., and while there are maps, they only relate to a few of the events. In part, this is to do with the scale of the encounters, involving hundreds of thousands of military combatants over a large area, but it makes following events almost meaningless beyond giving a sense of the scale. The result is an analysis that is broad in scope, packed with lots of detail, but is dry, a little uneven, and sometimes uninteresting to follow, and would have benefitted from more personal stories (which are included as very limited snippets). Moreover, some of the analysis jarred a little, especially relating to Jews, who are always talked about as a different group to Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Russians, as if one couldn’t be Latvian and Jewish, for example. They were no doubt singled out as an ethnicity, which is not nationality. Overall, an interesting read as to how the Baltic states fare in the early- and mid-twentieth century.

Monday, July 2, 2018

June reviews

A nice month of reading. The two standout reads were by authors who have both managed to keep long-running series fresh and interesting: Ian Rankin and Philip Kerr. My read of the month goes to latter for Greeks Bearing Gifts.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz ****
The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan ****
Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin ****.5
Bone Island Mambo by Tom Corcoran ****
Traitors by Josh Ireland ****
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr ****.5
Without the Moon by Cathi Unsworth **.5

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The to-be-read pile is starting to look a little low, so in the interests of having a good choice in what book to read next, I've spent the weekend order books. The list includes novels by Belinda Bauer, Abir Mukherjee, Harry Bingham, Jordan Harper, Eva Dolan, Joe Clifford, Joe Bazell, John Lawton, Don Winslow, Joseph Knox, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leye Adenle, Lauren Beukes, Charles Stross, Nick Harkaway, Adam Roberts, Joel Dicker, Andrew Bergman and Joseph Kanon. There's a fair bit of diversity in that set of crime fiction in terms of style and setting. I've also, added to my want-to-read list for when I've worked through these, so I'm feeling comfortable that there's a good flow of books on the way.

My posts this week
Review of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Review of The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan
Her last hope

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Her last hope

‘Is it true you were a policeman, Gerry? In Britain.’

He’d known his neighbour had be building up to something, but the question still took him by surprise.

‘That’s right, Bridie.’

‘You were a detective?’

‘Just an ordinary cop. Walking the beat, keeping the peace.’

‘But you worked on missing people cases?’

‘What is it that you’re after, Bridie?’

‘My Mary. She disappeared. Twelve years ago.’

‘I’m not a policeman anymore.’

‘But you know how to find people.’

‘Bridie …’

‘You’re my last hope, Gerry. Her last hope.’

So much for retirement. He thrust his spade into the sodden ground.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Orion, 2016)

Susan Ryeland, Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, spends a weekend reading the latest instalment of Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd series set in post-war Britain. It soon becomes clear that this will be Pünd’s last case, the detective suffering from inoperable brain cancer. Given that Conway’s books are Cloverleaf’s bestselling titles, this is somewhat of an issue for the publisher. Worse though is to follow, when Conway himself is found dead. It seems that he committed suicide, though Ryeland is not convinced, herself becoming an amateur detective to solve the both Pünd’s last case and Conway’s death.

Magpie Murders presents a murder mystery inside a murder mystery. The first half of the book presents the ninth instalment of Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd series, titled ‘Magpie Murders’ as read by Susan Ryeland, a publishing editor. The second half follows Ryeland’s attempt to get to the bottom of Conway’s sudden death a few days after submitting the manuscript. While the first mystery is self-contained, the second one is intricately linked to the first, with parallels from Conway’s real life finding reference in the Pünd novel. Both mysteries, and the novel as a whole, is very much an homage to the Golden Era of English crime fiction, especially the work of Agatha Christie: Pünd is a German refugee version of Hercule Poirot and Ryeland is a modern, younger version of Miss Marple; and the narrative structure and plotting mimics tales from English rural mysteries of Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Nagio Marsh, etc., with intricate puzzles and hidden clues. In many ways, Horowitz has taken the homage to its limit, packing the novel with clever, knowing references to the era’s novels and style, lots of puzzles within puzzles, hidden puns, and the novel within a novel format. If I was judging the book for sheer inventiveness it would be a five star review. The issue, for me at least, is that neither of the two mysteries are particularly compelling in-and-of themselves. They’re both well plotted tales, with lots of suspects and red herrings, but neither particularly sparkles and the denouements of both are relatively straightforward. So, if you want a clever tale about crime fiction, with lots of intertextual references, then this novel is for you (and this was certainly what I most enjoyed about it); it may also be for you if you want a two-in-one, relatively run-of-the-mill, golden age style mysteries.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review of The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan (Sphere, 2018)

As a fresh-faced guard, Cormac Reilly discovered the body of Hilaria Blake in her ruined home, apparently dead from a drugs suicide. He takes the two children, Jack and Maude, to a local hospital where the daughter disappears. Twenty years later Reilly is back in the West, having transferred to Galway to follow his university researcher partner. He arrives to a frosty reception from his new police colleagues and is assigned to cold cases. A few weeks later and Jack Blake is dead, reported as committing suicide by leaping in the Corrib river. His partner, Aisling is devastated, but accepts the guards’ explanation until Jack’s sister, Maude, turns ups, having returned from Australia. She uncovers evidence that there is more to Jack’s death than first assumed. Reilly remembers Jack and Maude from his first fatal case, but is kept from the investigation into Jack’s death. Instead, he is asked to look into their mother’s death and the possibility that Maude killed her mother. Nothing about either case is what it seems and Reilly is swimming against the police tide in his new posting.

The Rúin is Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel, a police procedural set in Galway in the West of Ireland. There’s a kind of play on words in the title, with Rúin meaning secret in Irish, and the first body and anchor to the story being found in a ruin. The story links together an old and new case: the suicide death of a mother and twenty years later, the death of her son. The lead character is Detective Inspector Cormac Reilly, who has transferred from an elite unit in Dublin to the regional city to follow his partner. Reilly connects both cases, having discovered the mother and moved to the same station investigating the son’s death. He has been marginalised in his new role however, relegated to reviewing cold cases, and shunned by his new colleagues. He knows though when something smells off and the inquiry into Jack Blake’s death is being badly handled. McTiernan does a nice job of telling the tale, with a deep sense of foreboding throughout and plenty scheming, tangled histories and station politics that does a good concealing over the many coincidences holding the plot together. I wasn’t convinced by the denouement, but the tale is nonetheless intriguing and entertaining and an assured start to a series.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I visited Dundee a week or so ago. It's changed a bit since I was last there. I gave a talk with a view of RMS Discovery and the new V&A museum. The V&A is a striking building and opens in September. I should have tried harder to find some Dundee based fiction, but settled for Ian Rankin. I'll see if I can track down some Tayside Noir.

My posts this week
Review of Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin
Review of Bone Island Mambo by Tom Corcoran
Red shoes