Sunday, October 20, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Somewhat coincidentally I ended up reading two books set in Japan last week - one immediately after the end of the war (Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace), and one set in present day but in the long shadow of the dropping of the atomic bomb (Hiroshima Boy by Naomi Hirahara). A huge contrast in styles: hardboiled literary noir and cozy mystery.

My posts this week

Review of Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar
It was a bust!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

It was a bust!

‘Go, go, go, go, go!’

Kenny slammed the passenger door shut.

Another thumped closed in the back.

‘Where’s Tommy?’ Connor asked.

‘He’s down. Just drive!’

‘And the money?’

‘It was a bust! They knew we were coming.’

‘And we’re just going to leave Tommy?’

‘Connor,’ the man in the rear said, ‘just fuckin’ drive.’


The back wheels squealed as they shot forward.

Ahead flashing blue lights appeared.

‘Take the next right,’ Kenny instructed.

‘But …’

‘Just fuckin’ do it!’

The car turned tightly, still accelerating, then shrieked to a stop.

‘I tried …’

‘Fuckin’ roadworks. Everyone for themselves. Run.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review of Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar (2018, Dialogue Books)

Having served five years in prison for manslaughter, Zaq Khan is working in a builders’ yard run by a Sikh family. When the owner’s daughter goes missing, supposedly run off with a Muslim, Zaq is blackmailed into searching for her. The pressure is turned up a notch by her bullying brothers, who are keen to find Rita before her father. Zak begins his hunt for Rita, starting with her workplace and friends, but he soon realises that there is more to her disappearance than first appears. To make matters worse he’s set upon by two groups of young men, the fighting skills he learned in prison keeping him in one piece. What seemed like a relatively straightforward task becomes increasingly fraught with danger. Moreover, finding Rita is unlikely to lead to safety.

Brothers in Blood is set in and around Southall in West London, its cast the area’s Asian community. Zaq Khan is a young Muslim trying to put his life back together again after serving five years for manslaughter. When the daughter of the Sikh owner of the builders’ yard where he works goes missing, Zak is blackmailed into trying to find her. Refusing an arranged marriage, Rita Brar has supposedly run off with a Muslim; a cardinal sin in the eyes of her patriarch father. Her brothers seem particularly keen to find her. Reluctantly, Zaq sets about the task, using the help of his best friend, Jags, and a local gang of car thieves. It’s soon clear there’s more going on than a young woman trying to avoid a marriage not of her choosing, and Zak’s got bruises from two brawls. Anwar charts Zaq’s quest to find Rita and deal with the wider drama surrounding her disappearance. The writing is a bit flat at times, there’s bit too much tell vis-à-vis show, and a couple of the plot devices felt a bit strained (the blackmail hook and Zaq’s ability to take a beating and also give one). However, this offset by a well-charted plot with some nice intersecting threads leading to a decent denouement, a lot of forward momentum, and nice characterisation. It’s also refreshing to read some England-based crime fiction that’s ethnically diverse. Overall, an enjoyable read with an engaging plot.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Making some progress on books. Just completing edits on one after reviews and nudging another towards a first draft, though there's still two or three months of work to be done. After a run of edited books, the plan is to switch back to authored ones for a while. I've a stack I'd like to write - the issue will be time!

My posts this week
Review of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Review of The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
September reviews

Saturday, October 12, 2019


Kevin lost his footing as the boat unexpectedly shift out from under him.

The cold emptied his lungs of air.

He was sinking in an ice bath.

Then he was rising, his legs kicking.

The hull of the boat was dancing on the waves several feet away.

There was no sign of his shipmate.


‘I’m okay! Get to the boat!’

He started to swim, his clothes and limbs leaden.

The boat bobbed further away.

John’s head appeared above the keel.


It was no use, the distance was widening.


Shivering, he waved and watched the boat drift away.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (2019, Knopf)

Post World War Two and Boris Pasternak is writing Doctor Zhivago. A famous poet and writer he has so far been spared Stalin’s purges, but his new novel is likely to get him branded as anti-Soviet and open him up to the associated persecution. Instead, his lover and muse, Olga Ivinskaya is sent to the gulags to suppress his ambitions to publish the book. In the US, the OSS has been disbanded to be replaced by the CIA, intent on spying on and destabilising the Soviets. Irina Drozdov, the daughter of a Russian émigré, lands a job in the CIA typing pool and is also pulled into training for field ops. Ex-OSS swallow Sally Forrester is re-hired as a receptionist and to help train Irina. Against the wishes of the recently released Olga, Pasternak gives permission to an Italian publisher to smuggle his novel outside of Russia and to translate and distribute it worldwide. Olga is fearful he has signed his own and her death warrant. The CIA see the novel as a way to sow unrest in the Soviet Union by smuggling multiple copies back behind the iron curtain. Irina’s role is help distribute the book to Soviets visiting Europe. While Doctor Zhivago is a hit, touching the lives of millions of readers, becoming a much loved movie, and helping Pasternak win the Nobel Prize, it has consequences for those associated with the writer and Irina and Sally.

The Secrets We Kept is the story of the writing and publication of Doctor Zhivago. Prescott tells the tale from multiple perspectives, shuttling back-and-forth between the USSR and its author Boris Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, and the members of the typing pool in the Soviet section of the CIA, and in particular an unnamed narrator, Irina Drozdov, a typist recruited to also become a field agent, and Sally Forrester, a glamourous ex-OSS swallow hired to help train Irina. The result is a multi-layered story told in multiple voices that tells the story behind the novel in a way that mimics the tale: two doomed love affairs, one in the East, one in the West, caught up in an on-going internal ideological battle and a wider war. The opening couple of chapters are fabulous: lively, engaging prose and strong hooks. After that the story holds attention, but the shuttling back and forth and multiple voices fragments the story a little and the pace slows, and the espionage angle firmly takes a back seat. The threads are never really pulled tightly back together again, and while the characterisation remains compelling, the tale kind of fizzled at the end, especially with respect to Irina and Sally. As a sidebar, the back cover blurb was clearly written by someone who did not read the book. Two secretaries are not pulled out of the typing pool to smuggle the book out of the USSR – one of them is placed into the pool to train the other, and one has the job of helping to smuggle it back in by distributing it to Soviets visiting the West. Overall, a thoughtful, interesting tale that at times sparkles but is a little uneven and lacked intrigue and tension.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review of The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves (1999, Pan)

Three women working for an environmental consultant move into Baikie’s Cottage on a farm in the North Pennines to conduct a survey of the area for a potential new large quarry. On moving in, Rachel, the head of the team, discovers the hanging body of her friend Bella Furness, the farmer’s wife, who has unexpectedly committed suicide. Convinced that there must be more to Bella’s death than looking after her crippled husband, Rachel along with her mother, start to ask questions. Botanist Anne Preece has her own secrets, including an affair with the owner of the quarrying company. Grace Fulwell is a secretive young woman specialising in mammal habitats who keeps herself to herself. When another death occurs, Inspector Vera Stanhope takes charge. She knows the area well having stayed in Baikie’s Cottage as a child. Her approach to solving the murder is to leave the women in the cottage as bait and encourage Rachel and her mother to keep investigating – creating a crow trap – hoping to lure the killer into the open. But it’s a dangerous strategy, especially since she’s unsure of the killer’s identity from the handful of likely suspects who are all linked to the quarry in one way or another.

The Crow Trap is the first book in the Vera Stanhope series (and the third episode of series one of the television series Vera) set in the North East England. In this outing, Vera investigates a death seemingly linked to a potential new quarry in a scenic part of the North Pennines. The first two fifths of the novel introduces the reader to the three women who move into Baikie’s Cottage to conduct an environmental survey of the area, along with the backstory of the farmer’s wife whom the women discover dead from suicide when they arrive. Only once a murder occurs does Vera enter the story. While she’s accompanied by her Sergeant, Joe Ashworth, the focus is very much on Vera, how she conducts the case, and her own backstory given her childhood links to the cottage. No other police officers feature to any real extent, with the tale concentrating on the lives of the three women, the key actors linked to the quarry development, and Vera’s slightly unconventional approach to solving the crime by setting a crow trap – using the women to try and lure the killer into the open. Cleeves creates a nice puzzle and keeps a number of viable suspects in the frame until the denouement, but what sets the book apart is the emphasis on character development and intersecting biographies. Much time is spent on fleshing out each of the four lead women plus the farmer’s wife and establishing their back stories and links to suspects. The result is an engaging, intimate tale, but also one that felt a little flabby and overly long at times. Regardless of the slow pace, the combination of three-dimensional characters and a well-constructed plot kept the pages turning.

Monday, October 7, 2019

September reviews

Tightrope by Simon Mawer was my read of September. An engaging tale about a former SOE agent who emerges from a concentration camp to re-enter post-war British society struggles to adjust to her new life.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty ****
Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum ****.5
Tightrope by Simon Mawer *****

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas ***.5
Gravesend by William Boyle ****

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey ***.5
The Smoke by Tony Broadbent ***

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up one new book during the week - Hiroshima Boy by Naomi Hirahara. It's the final book in a seven part series, so I'm a little nervous about jumping in at the end, but hopefully it'll work as a standalone.

My posts this week
Review of The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson
Review of The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland
Silly girl

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Silly girl

‘Come-on, Maisie, open wide.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Don’t be a silly girl, you need to eat.’

‘She isn’t a silly girl,’ Frank said. ‘She’s old enough to be your grandmother; stop treating her like an infant.’

‘I’m trying to help.’

‘Then start treating her like an adult. If she doesn’t want to eat, leave her be.’

‘I have a job to do, Frank.’

‘And we have lives to live. In dignity. With respect. We didn’t stop being adults when we moved in here.’

‘I treat you all with respect.’

‘Then why’re you treating Maisie as if she’s a little girl?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review of The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson (2014, Hodder)

London, 1727. Tom Hawkins needs to quickly come into some money to avoid being thrown in the debtors prison. Fortunately, he wins ten pounds at cards, but then is robbed on his way home while drunk. He’s sent to Marshalsea prison, which is run as a private concern. As long as family or friends can provide funds, the debtor can live a confined life but still access sustenance. If they can raise the whole debt, the prisoner can go free. If the prisoner cannot pay for his lodging or food then he is transferred to the commoner side, where the inmates are reliant on mercy and begging and several die of starvation and disease every day. Everybody inside the prison is on the make and Hawkins has to adapt quickly. The prison is unsettled by the ghost of Captain Roberts who was murdered a few months before. Hawkins is taken under the wing of the enigmatic Samuel Fleet, who the other inmates fear, suspecting he murdered Roberts. He’s also propositioned with an offer he cannot refuse – solve the murder and his debt will be paid and he’ll be a free man. The killer, however, does not want Hawkins poking around and soon there is a second body. Discovering the murderer is not straightforward given the prison is full of potential suspects.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is 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. The place is a shock to his sensibilities, with all the inmates and workers on the make, trying to survive in desperate straits. And he is on the privileged side of the prison, where those with the means to pay for sustenance can keep themselves out of the commoner part where inmates are reliant on charity to survive. It’s a brutal regime in which one needs their wits to get by. Hawkins has to adapt quickly, but he still goes through the ringer. Saviour seems to come in the form of a challenge – 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. Hawkins turns amateur detective, but everybody has a story to spin or their own agenda and he’s unsure who to trust. 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 as to the identity of the murderer and the fate of Hawkins.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review of The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland (2019, Faber and Faber)

1949. Nathan Carter, a disgraced American soldier is released from prison after nine months for stealing supplies to sell on the black market. He makes his way into the city of Cologne where he’s approached by the right-hand man of Hanno Dasch, king of illegal supplies. Dasch wants Carter to help him with his work, in particular to help expand his enterprise internationally. Carter, however, has his own agenda with respect to Dasch’s operations, and it soon becomes clear that another group are also using Dasch for their own ends. The promise of wiping his criminal record clean keeps Carter in the game, but it’s clear he’s going to need his wits to survive.

The Elegant Lie follows the fortunes of disgraced American officer, Nathan Carter, as he goes uncover in post-war Cologne to tackle a black market racketeer. While the premise is interesting, the story is far too linear and aspects of it make little sense. For example, it is really not clear at all why Dasch needs Carter, or why he’d pick him up straight after release from prison. Dasch has operated perfectly well without Carter, who brings little to Dasch’s game, and either Carter would have been thoroughly checked out in advance, or he would have needed to inveigle his way in. Instead, joining Dasch’s operation simply lands in Carter’s lap. Moreover, it’s not clear why the authorities can’t move to shut Dasch down given what’s known about his activities, or why Carter has to travel to a crash site rather than local contacts. The story is full of such simple plot devices, which along with the lack of twists and turns, means the tale is thin and lacking credibility, intrigue and tension. Instead, the narrative is padded out with an extended history of Carter and his time as an undercover cop pre-war and his journey to prison which provides a lot of backstory that could have been snappier, rather spooled out for little gain. Moreover, the character development is somewhat anaemic and there is little sense of life in post-war German beyond some thin description. So, while the premise of the story offered much potential, its execution lacked the depth, complexity and characterisation of a Philip Kerr, David Downing or Luke McCallin tale.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

In anticipation of a trip to Hong Kong and Taipei later in the year I ordered a couple of books set in HK which have just arrived. The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre and The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei. I'm still trying to decide on a Taiwan book.

My posts this week
Review of The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty
Life as a movie

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Life as a movie

Serena lent against the doorframe, her shoes dangling from a limp hand.

Jack kept his head down. ‘What’s he done now?’

‘I’m here alone, aren’t I?’

‘Another woman then?’

‘Or two. Or three.’

‘And I’m your revenge?’

‘You’re not a consolation prize, Jack.’

‘It seems that way. The man plays his life as badly as he plays characters on the screen, yet you always go back to him.’

‘We’re married.’

‘That’s a status, Serena, not a reason.’

She let her dress fall to the floor. ‘Let’s talk about this in the morning, Jack.’

‘Now you’re playing life like a movie.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review of The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty (2015, Orenda)

Since his time in the South African army Claymore Straker has been drifting, trying to forget his actions in skirmishes with communists in Angola. Years later he’s working as an environmental and social agent for an oil company in Yemen, testing for pollution and liaising with locals. Petro-Tex is run by a Russian brother and sister who specialise in extracting oil in unstable regions. And Yemen is teetering on the edge of civil war between North and South, with Al Qaeda in the mix. Straker and his driver are captured by the latter. Their leader orders Straker to find out what is killing the children of Al Urush, near to Petro-Tex’s facility, or his driver will be killed. He agrees to do some testing in the area. What he finds is a landscape transformed, with the water drying up, and very sick children. His bosses at Petro-Tex order him to forget the driver and resume his normal work doing minimal testing and bribing local chiefs. Straker is determined to save his friend and also discover what is going on, even if that means getting embroiled in a complex mess of disaster capitalism and the ruthless games different factions will play to realise their ambition. He’s aided by a troubled French journalist, Rania, and Islamic terrorists and opposing military intelligence, and soon finds a price put on his head.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is a thriller tale focused on the disaster capitalism of the oil industry and the environmental and social collateral damage of drilling in a politically unstable region. The tale is mostly set in Yemen at the point where the country is teetering on the edge of civil war. The protagonist is Clay Straker, a man with a troubled past from his time in the South African army, who has been drifting since his discharge. Trying to regain some stability he’s set up his own company doing environmental testing and social liaison work with local communities for oil companies. He’s been hired by Petro-Tex, a company owned by a couple of Russian billionaires, whose deposit in Yemen is running out and is seeking new sources. Straker and his driver are kidnapped, with the driver held hostage only to be released if Straker discovers why children are dying in a village near to Petro-Tex’s facility. Straker’s investigation places in confrontation with his bosses and also Yemeni military intelligence. Unwilling to sacrifice his driver, or the local villagers dying, Straker sets out to discover the truth, unsure who to trust, given just about everyone wants him to fail. Hardisty spins out a decent thriller, keeping the pace and tension high, with plenty of action and twists, and threading through a love interest in the form of Rania, an investigative journalist. While the tale has the usual credibility issues of thrillers, what elevates the book above the pack is the context and setting in Yemen, and the spotlight on the environment, social and political consequences of oil industry. Overall, an engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking read.