Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review of Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (2019, Faber and Faber)

1991, two weeks after the Rodney King beating ignites race riots in Los Angeles, 16 year old Ava Matthews is shot dead in a Korean convenience store after tussling with the pregnant owner who thought she was trying to steal a quart of milk. Jung-Ja Han is subsequently cleared of murder and freed, but by then war has been declared on Korean communities by African-Americans, who loot and burn down their stores. 27 years later, the city is dealing with another unarmed, young black man shot dead by police, and Ava’s cousin, Ray, leaves prison after a ten year sentence for attempted armed robbery. Shawn, Ava’s brother, and his family are waiting for him hoping he can go straight this time. Grace Park is disturbed by the continued racial tensions in the city, but lives a quiet life, residing with her parents and working as a pharmacist in their store. Her world though is about to be turned upside down. When leaving the store together one evening, her mother is shot, and while she is in surgery Grace learns about her past. As the police investigate the shooting, Shawn finds himself grappling with a crime that still haunts his family, and Grace with the attempt on her mother’s life and a past crime she knew nothing about.

Your House Will Pay follows two families still living with the after-effects of a crime committed in the shadow of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The two main characters are Grace Park, who wasn’t yet born at the time teenager Ava Matthews was shot dead by Jung-Ja Han for seemingly stealing a quart of milk, and Shawn Matthews, Ava’s young brother, who was in the store at the time. Shawn was already hanging round the fringes of a gang and his sister’s death tipped him into that life and prison until he found his feet and went straight. Grace grew up not knowing about her mother’s crime and how she walked free from court. Now her mother has been shot and Shawn and Grace find themselves grappling with the consequences. Cha sympathetically charts the pain, hurt and confusion in both families, while nicely contextualising the story in relation to the race riots and police brutality in 1991 and tensions between the African American and Korean communities, and the continued systemic institutional racism and Black Lives Matter in the present day. The character development is excellent, as is the portrayal of both families and their internal tensions and struggles. The plot is well-paced and balanced, with a well-judged thread of tension and intrigue running throughout. The only thing that seemed a little off was the ending, which felt curtailed and somewhat open-ended. Nonetheless, it is a powerful, thoughtful and thought-provoking read about racial tension, policing and justice in contemporary America.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Review of Neuromancer by William Gibson (1995, Harper)

Case used to be a skilled hacker, until an ex-employer compromised his ability to jack into the matrix by crippling his nervous system. Instead, he is left to hustle in the dark economy of Chiba City. Now he’s being given a second chance, recruited by a mentally unstable former military operative, and paired with Molly, a mirror-eyed samurai, and the construct of a former hacker, to make a run against a powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth that serves the Tessier-Ashpool business clan. He finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict between AIs and family members, with little choice but to continue given the poison stored in his body, the antidote held by his employer.

I’ve read Neuromancer a couple of times before and have written about the book in some of my academic work. It’s twenty years though since I last read it. It’s aged remarkably well given the centrality of digital technologies to the storyline. In fact, if it were published today it would hold up on the tech side of things given its precedence. And the storyline does as well; a cyberpunk thriller that pits Case, a has-been hacker, and Molly, a cyborg, street-smart samurai, against a powerful AI that serves a shady business clan. Along with a whip-smart, intriguing and well-paced plot, the prose is evocative and delightful. It’s easy to see why the book won so many awards and how it became so influential in shaping thinking about networked technologies and the worlds they create. It remains an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking read.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

New book: Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives

A BOOK ABOUT TAKING CONTROL OF OUR DIGITAL LIVES

By Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser

Digital technologies should be making life easier. And to a large degree they do, transforming everyday tasks of work, consumption, communication, travel and play. But they are also accelerating and fragmenting our lives affecting our well-being and exposing us to extensive data extraction and profiling that helps determine our life chances.

Is it then possible to experience the joy and benefits of computing, but to do so in a way that asserts individual and collective autonomy over our time and data?

Drawing on the ideas of the ‘slow movement’, Slow Computing sets out numerous practical and political means to take back control and counter the more pernicious effects of living digital lives.

1 Living Digital Lives (PDF)
2 Accelerating Life
3 Monitoring Life
4 Personal Strategies of Slow Computing
5 Slow Computing Collectively
6 An Ethics of Digital Care
7 Towards a More Balanced Digital Society
Coda: Slow Computing During a Pandemic (PDF)

ISBN 978-1529211269

Book website

Bristol University Press, £14.99; 20% discount (£11.99) at: Bristol University Press, or £9.75 if sign up for BUP newsletter

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A foggy night

Mist filled the yard like a giant pool of bubble bath. Only the roofs of the outhouses were visible.

‘Bruno?’

The dog didn’t reply.

‘You okay, boy?’

George stepped away from the door, disappearing into the fog.

Something clattered to the cobbles away to his left.

‘Hello?’

He inched towards the old stables, a faint scrabbling ahead.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Is everything okay, George?’

‘Shut the door and lock it,’ he called back.

‘George?’

Something lay on the ground ahead.

‘Bruno?’

Foam ringed the old dog’s mouth, a foot pawing the handle of a spade.

In the field a cow bawled.

 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Swim with me

 Emma put down her fork.

‘What happened to Jack the joker?’

‘What?’

‘The bloke that I used to flirt but not flirt with?’

‘He’s got stage fright.’

‘There’s only one person in the audience.’

‘That’s making it worse. Along with imposter syndrome.’

‘Imposter …’

‘You were the impossible dream. Now …’

‘We’re on a date.’

‘And my feet can’t touch the bottom of the pool.’

‘Just relax and swim with me.’

Jack snorted a laugh.

‘Think of it as clothed skinny dipping.’

‘What?’

‘Are you seeing me as I’m seeing you?’

‘Err.’

‘Now we’re in the same pool.’ Emma smiled.

 

 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review of East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman (2017, HQ)

Javid – Jay to his friends – has been cruising through life as a small time dealer in West London. He keeps his head down, stays away from trouble, and goes to the mosque on Fridays, doing enough to get by but not attract attention. Just at the point where he’s bought the car of his dreams everything is turned upside down. The mosque is vandalised and Jay gets himself tangled up in a revenge attack while trying to protect a friend. During the fracas his car is stolen and with it the drugs and cash of a major supplier. Now Jay faces a tough choice, work for MI5 and rat on the supplier or be prosecuted for assault and face the consequence for the lost money. All MI5 want him to do is go undercover as a jihadist. Either way, his quiet life is over. 

East of Hounslow is the first book in the Jay Qasim series following the adventures of a small-time dealer turned reluctant MI5 agent. Rahman does a very nice job of flipping the everyday world of Jay from comfortable lad-about-town, who practises his Muslim religion and hustles to get by, to infiltrating an extremist cell who want jihad. It is the everydayness of the Muslim characters and their journey that adds an authenticity to the storytelling, though this feels a bit more paint-by-numbers with respect to the MI5 elements. Rahman portrays the lives of Muslims in Britain and how some become radicalised and many more do not without misbalancing the framing and plot. The dilemma set up provides a nice hook, and the plot unfolds at a nice pace with a couple of intriguing twists to a tense denouement. The ending seemed to unravel a little, with Jay more a bystander than a hero, but it overall the tale had a strong arc. Overall, a good blend of social and political commentary and thriller.


 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Are you going to ask?

Emma watched Jack enter the café.

He glanced around, his gaze briefly staying on her, then took a seat as far away as possible.

She waited five minutes before heading over.

‘Are you avoiding me?’

‘No.’ He continued to stare at his coffee.

‘You’re ignoring me at work as well.’

‘I … I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.’

‘I’d have told you if I were. There’s a difference between flirting and harassment, Jack.’

‘Oh.’

‘So?’

‘What?’

‘Are you going to ask?’

‘Ask?’

‘What you want to ask.’

‘What?’

‘Do I have to spell it out? A date.’

‘Oh.’

‘So?



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review of Austral by Paul McAuley (2017, Gollancz)

Sometime in the near future climate change has led to the thawing and wilding of parts of Antarctica. It’s still a cold, harsh place, but it’s also home to a sizable and growing population attracted by its natural resources. Austral is the daughter of an ecopoet and a husky: a person whose genes have been edited to cope with the climate and environment, though her difference means she is feared and discriminated against by others. She’s had a tough life, first growing up on a remote island where ecopoets, who work with rather than exploiting nature, were isolated, then in an orphanage after her escape fails. After a time in prison, she’s now become a corrections officer in a labour camp and consort to a major criminal. He’s got plans to escape, enrolling her in his scheme to kidnap the daughter of a senior politician, who is related to Austral through her grandfather. Austral has other plans, however, snatching the girl herself and heading out into the wilderness. Her plan is to demand a ransom then use the funds to leave Antarctica. Her first priority though is to make good her escape and keep herself and the girl alive as the authorities and criminal gang try to track her down.

The narrative takes the form of a story being told by Austral to her child, explaining her adventure, her relationship to the girl she has kidnapped, who’s her second cousin, the history of her family and of the populating and wilding of Antarctica, and the decisions that she took. The plot essentially follows her escape journey and its various twists and turns as the pair struggle across a tough, wild landscape and get themselves into scrapes. The world building is very nicely done, with a strong sense of place and landscape. And the tale is infused with thoughtful reflection on climate change, wilding and genetic modifications. Two other threads are woven in to the telling – the history of Austral’s grandparents and her own backstory, and a fantasy adventure that forms the story that the kidnapped girl is reading. The latter seems somewhat out of place and surplus to the main tale. The real strength of the book, however, is Austral and McAuley creates a convincing and interesting character who despite circumstances is determined to escape while acting in good faith to the girl she is forcing along with her.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Idiot boy

 Turning from the bar, Tom almost tipped his drinks over Sarah.

‘Woah!’

‘Is idiot boy ever going to do the honourable thing?’

‘What?’

‘Jack. Is he going to ask Emma on a date?’

‘Not in this lifetime.’

‘He’s been dancing round her for months.’

‘He’s worried he’ll be accused …’

‘Of what? Of being a sap?’

‘Of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.’

‘What? Is he that dumb he can’t tell she wants to be asked?’

Tom nodded. ‘Can she not …’

‘She doesn’t think proper for the lady to make the first move.’

‘Then it’s doomed.’

‘Let’s aim for delayed? What’s the plan?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Review of A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson (2010, Quercus)

Winter, 1950. A young woman and a 14 month old child are found dead in a washhouse behind a terraced slum in London. The husband confesses to the murders, though he proves to be a congenital liar, constantly changing his story. It seems like an open and shut case and John Davies is convicted of the crime, largely on the evidence of another resident of the house, Norman Backhouse, and hanged. A couple of years later, the bodies of four recently disappeared women are found in the house and two more are buried in the garden. The key suspect is the Backhouse. It seems like a terrible miscarriage of justice has occurred, unless two different murderers had been living in the same house at the same time. DI Ted Stratton had misgivings about the first case, and they’ve come back to haunt him. Meanwhile, ex-war time agent, Diana Calthrop, finds her life sliding backwards as two marriages fail leaving her in dire straits, and Stratton’s daughter finds herself struggling to make sense of her sexuality, and neither woman should be wandering London when so vulnerable.  

The third book of the DI Ted Stratton series fictionalises the events at 10 Rillington Place, where two sets of murders occurred in the early 1950s sending two men to the hangman. The first murderer was convicted in part on the evidence of the second one, casting significant doubt on the initial investigation, trial and guilty verdict. The cases subsequently led to two inquiries, though their findings were inconclusive, and influenced the decision to end capital punishment. In Wilson’s telling DI Stratton is the lead officer in both cases. He has misgivings while investigating the death of a young woman and 14 month old child. John Davies is a simpleton with a temper who continually tells lies. Some of the evidence doesn’t quite add up, but most points to Davies, who has also confessed. And everyone involved in the case, including Stratton, think him guilty. When a couple of years later, six more bodies are discovered in the house and garden, Stratton wonders if he’d made a terrible mistake, despite the evidence and confession. Along with the investigation, Wilson spins two other threads through the story, both of which are hooked around women’s sexuality and position in society. The first follows Monica Stratton as she enters the workplace and starts to question her sexual identity. The second focuses on Diana Calthrop, a woman Stratton holds a flame for, and her fall from grace as she divorces her first husband and quickly enters another doomed marriage. In part, these are included to provide a thread through the series, but they do add to rather than detract from the story arc. The result is a very nicely plotted tale that is very strong on exploring the psychological side of investigating emotive cases with criminals who constantly lie and charting character development, in particular, Stratton, Monica and Diana’s lives. The pacing, atmosphere and sense of place and time adds to the telling. Overall, the strongest book in the series, in my view.


 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

August reviews

A good month of reading. My book of the month is The Lost Man by Jane Harper.

Silent City by Alex Segura **.5
The Lost Man by Jane Harper *****
A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr ***
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke ****
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan *****
One For The Money by Janet Evanovich ****
Joe Country by Mick Herron ***.5

 

 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Silent City by Alex Segura (2016, Polis Books)

Dumped by his fiancée and his newspaper career on the skids, each day Pete Fernandez drinks himself into a stupor. When a writer for the paper asks him to look into the disappearance of his daughter, a reporter, Pete reluctantly agrees. It pretty quickly becomes clear that something is awry, though the police don’t seem to want to know. The journalist had been investigating a series of underworld murders committed by a mysterious hitman known as The Silent Death and it seems she might have been on the cusp of revealing his identity. He might be a mess, but Pete used to be a bloodhound reporter, and he’s soon ruffling feathers as he tries to track down the missing journalist. And as he digs deeper, he’s drawn into the world of his father, a homicide detective who’s recently died, and the body count of The Silent Death rises.

Silent City is a journalist turned PI tale set in Miami, following the attempt of a drunken, washed up reporter trying to track down a colleague who’d been working on a big story for the crime desk. It’s one of those tales where just about every character, regardless of their role, is already a part of the lead character’s life, the trajectory and mystery of the story is telegraphed from a very long way out, and the tale is driven forward by plot devices. And the characters were a little too typeset and one-dimensional. The result is a derivative crime thriller, told through workman-like prose, which has a decent pace, intrigue and tension, but is wholly unbelievable yet predictable. It passed the time, but sparked little else. 




Saturday, August 29, 2020

You deserve each other

 ‘I don’t think he’ll ever ask me out.’ 

‘He will. Eventually.’ 

‘I’m just a friend to him.’

‘A friend he wants to do naughty things with.’

‘He’s never even hinted at naughty.’

‘He sees you naked most of the time,’ Sarah said.

‘What? No!’

‘He’s practically drooling.’

‘Stop! He doesn’t see me that way at all.’

‘Well, you see him that way, so what’re you going to do about it?’

‘Nothing. He has to make the first move.’

‘It’s the twenty-first century, Emma.’

‘I’ll die of shame.’

‘You won’t.’

‘I probably will.’

‘Well, one thing’s certain. You deserve each other.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Review of The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2018, Abacus)

Deep in the Australian outback Cameron Bright’s body is discovered by his two brothers at Stockman’s grave, a bleak, isolated spot, having perished in the searing heat. His vehicle being parked some kilometres away suggests foul play, but other circumstantial evidence indicates misadventure or suicide. It’s not uncommon given the rural isolation and Cam seemed off-colour for weeks before his death. Nathan, the eldest of the siblings and social outcast, wants answers but the rest of the Bright family and ranch hands are more concerned with his mental wellbeing, their own problems, and preparing for the funeral and Christmas. And the police are several hours away, busy, and unconvinced that the death was anything more than a tragic incident. Nathan hasn’t spent this much time with others in a decade and he’d sooner retreat to his own failing ranch, but something about Cam’s death has got under his skin. 

Harper’s tale charts Nathan’s faltering investigation into his brother’s death, slowly revealing secrets and dark moments that shadow the Bright homestead. The telling is nicely evocative, with a strong sense of place, realistic rendering of ranch and family life, and tensions and social relations among an isolated, resilient community, and well-painted characters. The real strength of story is the tight crafting of plot, which is free of awkward or contrived plot devices; mixing reminisce and mystery it creates a slow burn sense of unease and intrigue, leading to an understated and satisfying denouement. The result is an engaging tale of a lost man wandering back towards redemption.


 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review of A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr (1992, G.P. Putnam)

London, 2013 (at the time of publication, twenty years in the future). Society has become more uneven and unequal with capitalism devouring the state and prison sentences have been replaced by ‘punitive comas’. The Lombroso project uses brain scans to identify men lacking a Ventro Medial Nucleus, who are more likely to commit violent crimes, and places them in an anonymous programme designed to limit their tendencies. Only someone seems to have accessed the secret database and is murdering the men, focusing in particular on those given philosopher names as pseudonyms. Detective Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz is assigned the case. Jake has her own demons related to violent men and she’s determined to track down the killer. But ‘Wittgenstein’ is a smarter than the average killer and she might have found her match. 

Kerr spins the tale out through two intertwined threads, the first the tracking police investigation, the second reproducing the journal entries written by the killer. The procedural elements are inflected with philosophical musings related to crime and punishment, with Jake increasingly questioning the ethics of the criminal justice system. The second apes Wittgenstein’s style and ideas, setting out the logic and reasoning of the killer and reflecting on the crimes committed. The result is a police procedural thriller that is thoroughly saturated with ethical and normative reflection, sometimes to the point of drowning the procedural side of the story. The issues raised are thought-provoking, but at times they seem forced centre stage, especially through the use of Wittgenstein’s notebook, and the tale feels too clever for its own good. As a result, while I found many of the ideas underpinning the book interesting, and it was quite an engaging read, it seemed a little too contrived and stilted.