Saturday, February 29, 2020

But it's your dream

Katie shrugged off her coat. ‘It’s time to move on.’

‘But it’s your dream,’ Simon said.

‘And dreams don’t always come true. Life isn’t a fairy tale.’

‘Except Cinderella.’

‘Maybe that’s my one tale.’ Katie dropped onto the sofa.


‘But you’d have preferred the glass ceiling to a glass slipper.’

‘I’d have preferred both. I’m blessed with one. Come here.’ She patted the seat. ‘I’ll start looking tomorrow. No point waiting until my contract expires.’

‘But …’

‘It’s okay to fail.’

‘You can’t fail at dreams.’

‘But you can’t live on them either.’

‘Katie.’

‘What? I’m still Cinderella, aren’t I?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Review of Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Henderson (1998, Random House)

Freeze My Margarita was the fourth book in the seven part Sam Jones series that follows the sleuthing of a sassy sculptor who has a habit of finding trouble. In this outing a chance encounter in a BDSM bar leads to a commission to create a set of large mobiles for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such is the scale of the job it demands working on site and mixing with the actors and stage crew. All is not well however within the theatre or amongst the cast, with rivalries and jealousies feeding gossip and sniping. Then a body is discovered in the bowels of the building, and mishaps start to occur during rehearsals. Sam can’t help performing a little amateur detection despite the police investigation. Moreover, given the investment, the show must go on regardless of jealousies, bickering and frayed tempers of cast and crew. The killer, however, has other ideas.


It’s 20 years since I first read the book when I was working my way through what was then described as ‘tart noir’; novels that featured a strong, sassy, independent female lead, usually with an active sex life, though also a slightly chaotic personal life. Sam Jones fits this bill, being fiercely independent and as confident at handling a welding torch as desirable men. Henderson charts Sam’s work in the theatre, her amateur sleuthing, and her new relationship with one of the actors. The setting in the theatre means there is a closed environment, plenty of characters and lots of rivalries between them. The mystery almost seems to take a back seat to the gossipy sniping and career manoeuvrings, and the denouement felt a little bit too contrived, but it’s a fun, entertaining read with never a dull moment. I never did get round to reading the last two books in the series, so if I can get hold of copies I'll probably finish it off.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

A murderous affair?

‘Why would I kill Sarah?’ Tom stared at the inspector.

‘Because she was having an affair.’

‘With who?’

‘Jack Hargreaves.’

‘Seriously?’ Tom shook his head. ‘You think she was having an affair with Jack?’

‘You argued then murdered her.’

‘I didn’t kill her. And she wasn’t having an affair with Jack.’

‘His fingerprints and semen were found in your bedroom,’ the inspector said, triumphantly.

‘Then why aren’t you interrogating him?’

‘Because he was fifteen miles away at a hotel at the time of her death.’

‘Yes, with me.’

‘With you?’

‘We’re the ones having an affair.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, oh, inspector.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review of Auslander by Paul Dowswell (2009, Bloomsbury)

Peter Brock’s family belong to the German community living in Poland pre-war. Having retained their farm after Germany invades Poland, his parents are killed in an accident on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Peter is sent to an orphanage in Warsaw where he is assessed as to his Aryan pedigree. With his strong Nordic features he is selected to be adopted by a leading Berlin-based racial scientist, Professor Kaltenbach. At first, Peter is happy to be in the city and to have a new family, but as he witnesses what is going on at school, in the Hitler Youth, and on the streets, he starts to rebel, forming an alliance with Anna Reiter, whose family have been helping Jews stay hidden and alive. Such an endeavour in Berlin in 1942 is highly risky, not just for them, but their families.

Auslander follows the fortunes of a teenage boy of German heritage but born and raised in Poland during the war. After his parents are killed, Peter Brock is first sent to an orphanage, then adopted by a well-connected family in Berlin. Out of place despite his Aryan ancestry, Peter instinctively reacts against Nazi ideology, seeking to help those that are persecuted despite the risks involved. In charting Peter’s story, Dowswell tells a wider story about racial science and the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and also the resistance of ordinary Germans to the Nazi regime. At times it felt that the story was primarily a vehicle for communicating this information, rather than it being a context for the story itself – and there is an imbalance of show and tell. Moreover, the book very much has the feel of a young adult book in terms of its telling. For my taste’s the story is far too linear and black and white. In particular, the last part of the story felt underdeveloped, with points of tension that lacked depth and intrigue. Overall, an interesting enough read, but a little too linear, straightforward, and too much show.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review of After the Reich by Giles MacDonogh (2007, John Murray)

As the Second World War draws to a close and the Allies advance into the territory of pre-war Germany, and the dominions it had taken prior to conflict - Austria and Czechoslovakia – the retributions and political carve-up starts. Germans, or those with a strong German heritage, found themselves under harsh occupation, with soldiers rounded up into camps and used as forced labour, and residents subject to rape, violence, starvation, and movement as they are forced out of lands that are re-allocated to other nations. Nazi leaders were hunted down to put on trial. The four main Allies – the Americans, British, French and Russians – struggled to find a balance between retribution and restitution, and to find common ground and vision on the future of Germany as the first stirrings of the Cold War began.

MacDonogh seeks to document the monumental scale of the war’s aftermath on Germany and Germanic people and the conduct of the Allies as they deal with the fallout. 16.5 million Germans were displaced, 2.25 million died, and hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped between the end of the war and the Berlin airlift. Nations conquered by Germany sought revenge and repatriations. The victims of concentration camps and German forced labour had to care for. New national boundaries needed to be negotiated and the political system newly constituted. Flattened cities and towns needed to be cleared and rebuilt. Populations had to be fed and ideologically re-educated. What MacDonogh’s analysis reveals is that the Allies practiced rough justice, committing many atrocities in revenge for those undertaken by the Nazi regime, many against ordinary people who’d played little active role other than to be German and who had often opposed or suffered under that regime. While seeking to prosecute and punish leading Nazis for their crimes, the Allies conducted similar practices. For example, tens of thousands of prisoners of war starved or frozen to death while housed in former concentration camps; those being deported sent on death marches or summarily executed.

In so doing, MacDonogh tells a different kind of history to the heroic, triumphant, morally superior and benevolent victors by revealing the revengeful, bloody, messy peace and the path to a divided Germany and the Cold War. He draws extensively on personal testimony from all sides, along with documentary sources. The book itself is quite sprawling and the analysis often quite cursory, which is somewhat inevitable given the broad range of material covered that spans several jurisdictions and issues. The structure is also a little jumbled, especially with respect to the timeline. Some of the final chapters about governance in the immediate aftermath of the war would have been better at the start, for example, as they are important context. MacDonogh clearly has his own views with respect to what occurred and is generally sympathetic to the German’s plight and critical of Allied actions while acknowledging the complex political and logistical mess of the aftermath of total war. The analysis seems largely fair, though it won’t always chime well with all readers – that’ll largely depend on views of collective guilt and an eye-for-eye notions of justice for the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. Overall, a fascinating if harrowing read revealing that the war might have ended in May 1945, but peace did not reign until many years later.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

It's over

‘Don, I … it’s over.’

‘Pardon?’

‘This.’ Stacy waved her arm. ‘It’s over.’

‘What’s over?’ Don glanced down at Stacy’s head resting on his shoulder.

‘This. Us. All of it.’

Don turned down the sound on the television.

‘You’re not making sense, Stace.’

‘Because … Because …’ Stacy started to sob.

‘Hey, what’s wrong?’

‘I’m … I’m an idiot. That’s what’s wrong. You deserve better than me.’ Stacy slid off the sofa, tipped against the coffee table and fell.

Don knelt down beside her. ‘That’s the drink talking.’

‘That’s a two-timing bitch talking.’

‘Stacy?’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘You’re right, it’s over.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

It just slipped out

‘You told them?’ Cassie said, throwing her arms up.

‘Not exactly.’

‘Not exactly?’

‘They guessed,’ David hedged.

‘Guessed? How the hell did they guess?’

‘I might have dropped a hint. Or two.’

‘Jesus, David! It was a secret. You know, something you keep to yourself.’

‘It just slipped out.’

‘At least twice, apparently.’

‘I was drunk.’

‘That’s not an excuse, you cretin. What were you thinking?’

‘I wasn’t thinking. I just told you, I was drunk.’

‘You realise what you’ve done, right?’

‘Yes. But, it can’t be undone and you should have …’

‘Don’t! I’m not to blame for this.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review of Friends and Traitors by John Lawton (2017, Atlantic Monthly)

July 1935, a young Frederick Troy meets Guy Burgess for the first time at a dinner party hosted by his newspaper magnate father. Over the next 16 years they periodically bump into each other as Troy works his way up the Met and Burgess drunkenly pings between jobs and lovers. The last of these happenstance encounters is the night Burgess and Maclean skip the country and defect to the Russians in 1951. Fast forward to 1958 and Chief Superintendent Troy is on a family tour of Europe. He’s lured to Vienna, where Burgess is waiting for him. He wants to come home and Troy to help make it happen. Troy pulls in MI5, but the agent they send is gunned down on the street. Burgess’ hope of returning to Blighty has gone and Troy is suspected of murder and being a Soviet agent. Troy has plenty of skeletons in the closet with respect to Russian agents, but proving he’s not one himself while protecting his secrets is going to be a challenge.

Friends and Traitors is the eighth book in the Inspector Troy series. Like the other books the story spans a number of years and makes occasional reference to events in earlier instalments, though knowledge of them is not required - their use just simply adds to the complex layering of the series. This outing charts Troy’s entanglement with Guy Burgess, the infamous British spy for the Soviets, between 1935 and 1958. A good portion of the book provides the context for the final third and an encounter with Burgess in Vienna in 1958, where the defected spy asks to be allowed to return to Britain. When a MI5 agent is shot dead while walking with Troy after meeting Burgess, Troy is left to clear his name of murder and espionage. Lawton spins a nicely plotted, atmospheric, intriguing tale, weaving real life characters, as well others that have appeared in other books and series, into the storyline. It’s a little far-fetched at times, but nonetheless an engaging and entertaining read, with some nice twists and turns.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Mum? Dad?

Angela glanced up and did a double take. ‘My god, Ruthie, what are you doing here?’

‘I …’

‘I got some Brie,’ David said, emerging from an aisle.

‘David! Wow. It must be twenty years.’

‘We live here,’ Ruthie said. ‘And we’re late. Sorry.’

‘Mum, can we get choc ices?’ Kelly said from a few paces ahead.

‘You have a daughter?’

‘Dad are you okay?’

David had closed his eyes, fingers gripping the trolley.

‘Wait, she’s …’

‘We need to go,’ Ruthie said.

‘But you’re brother and sister!’

Kelly closed the freezer lid. ‘Mum? Dad?’

‘Angela … Kelly, wait. Kelly!’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Review of Seventy Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler (2005, Bantam)

Late 1973. An elderly lawyer is killed by a snake bite, dying in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel. A member of the wealthy, aristocratic Whitstable family is blown up on a train after destroying a painting in the national gallery. His brother is murdered a short time later. Bryant and May, detectives with the Met’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, quickly discover that the lawyer acted for the Whitstables but have few leads and no sense of the motivation behind the deaths. Moreover, they seem powerless to stop other members of the eccentric family being murdered. The posh but troubled receptionist in the Savoy is running her own investigation, despite being warned to leave the detection to the police. Sam is seemingly making progress, but has also attracted potentially fatal attention. Unravelling the mystery of the Whitstables’ assassinations is a tricky task, but gradually, Bryant, May and Sam start to make headway, linking the crimes back to the formation of a secret society 100 years before.

Seventy Seven Clocks is the third book in the Bryant and May series set in London. In this outing, set at the tail end of 1973, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is investigating a set of bizarre deaths linked to the wealthy, aristocratic, haughty Whitstable family and a sub-group of the guild of watchmakers. Everything about the case is peculiar, which suits Bryant and May, though its political ramifications and its coincidence with moving offices is a nuisance. The involvement of a troubled hotel receptionist is also a hindrance, though she is also has the habit of discovering useful clues and is determined to succeed where the police are failing. As the death count rises it seems that there is a group of assassins set on wiping out the entire Whitstable family. Unravelling the reason why is far from straightforward given the conspiracy of silence surrounding the Whitstables. Fowler plots a complex case that has plenty of mystery and intrigue. Given the PCU focuses on the fantastical and unusual, it’s no surprise that it’s a somewhat unbelievable. That’s fine as it’s all consistently realised and often fascinating. However, the role of Sam stretched coincidence to breaking point a few times in terms of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and family connections. While she’s a nice character, she was also too often used as a plot device to move the story forward. Other than that, it’s a fun and absorbing read chocked full of interested historical titbits about London and its institutions.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Stop tickling me

‘Tom.’

Fingers were lightly tickling Jane’s shoulder.

‘Nnnnner.’

‘Tom, I’m sleeping.’

‘Hmmmm.’

‘Pack it in!’

‘I’m not doing anything.’

‘I need to sleep.’

‘I was sleeping.’

‘You’re tickling me.’

‘I’m facing away from you.’

‘Then who’s tickling my back?’

‘Nobody.’

‘Well, something is. Get the light.’

‘Go to sleep.’

‘Just get the bloody light will you.’

 Tom switched on a lamp and turned towards his wife.

‘Oh fuck, don’t move.’

‘What do you mean, oh fuck?’

‘Spider.’

‘Get it off me.’

‘I’m not going anywhere near that thing. It’s huge.’

‘Tom!’

‘It’s a tarantula!’

‘Tom. Get. It. Off. Me. Now.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review of Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale (1994, Indigo)

When Charlie Pine dies, his nephew Leonard Pine, a black manual labourer in East Texas, inherits his house and estate. Leonard moves into the property, asking his white best friend, Hap Collins, to join him. The neighbourhood has gone to seed and the next door property is a crack house. Leonard and Hap get off to a rocky start, tangling with drug dealers, but worse is to come when they discover the skeleton of a boy and child porn under the floorboards. Over the years a number of children have gone missing and the police have Charlie pegged as their abductor and killer. Leonard and Hap are not convinced. They think that Charlie had fulfilled his lifelong ambition to play detective, but had died before he could pin the crimes on the real perpetrator. They start to investigate, swapping information with a black detective who sees an opportunity to put a feather in his cap by apprehending a serial killer. But catching the real killer is not straightforward. And it’s a good job that Leonard and Hap can take care of themselves as this case might otherwise be the death of them.

I first read Mucho Mojo in 1996. I picked it up in a bookshop in Carryduff in Northern Ireland. I read it in a couple of sittings, captivated by the tale of Hap and Leonard turning detectives in an East Texas town, and by Lansdale’s storytelling style. The tale is told from the perspective of Hap Collins, a middle aged, white field worker, who is best friends with Leonard Pine, a tough, queer black man. The style is as a reminiscence, a kind of porch-told recounting of a mystery adventure. The story is infused with dark humour, with a nicely spun plot that has a mix of detection, romance and lost love, violent confrontations, and social commentary on race, religion, family and poverty in the Deep South. Reading it again more than twenty years later it has lost none of it vitality or social relevance, the storytelling and plot are still captivating, and Hap and Leonard are alive on the page; in my view one of the best double acts in contemporary fiction. A wonderful, entertaining read.



Saturday, January 18, 2020

Anti-climax

Kyle smiled. ‘You’ve done it!’

‘Are you kidding me?’ Maeve asked, clutching her hands to her chest. ‘I’ve got the job!’

‘No, not …’

‘I haven’t got the job?’

‘No.’

‘What do you mean, no?’ Maeve let her hands collapse to her sides. ‘Have I got it or not?’

‘Not.’

‘Then why did you say I had, when I hadn’t?’

‘I said, ‘you’ve done it’. Meaning you’re through to the next round. Second set of interviews.’

‘Why didn’t you just say that?’

‘I was congratulating you!’

‘You made a positive into an anti-climax.’

‘I think you’ll find that was you.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

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.