Saturday, May 23, 2020

Him, not me

‘What are you doing?’


‘Seriously? Why?’

‘Because I was in a relationship with you, not your brother.’


‘Whatever we had is broken, Steve. It’s certainly weaker than family bonds.’

‘But we’re family.’

‘No. We were lovers. Your brother is family. And he comes first.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Really? He’s a fucking nightmare yet you side with him every time.’

‘He needs time. And I can’t just throw him out! He’s my brother.’

‘So I’m throwing myself out instead.’

‘But neither of us wants you to leave.’

‘Us! Him, not me. Well, now you have him all to yourself.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Review of Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackman (2010, Soho Press)

After recovering from a mortar blast that wrecked her leg, Iraq vet and medic Ellie Cooper followed her husband to China where he’s working for a black ops company after leaving the army. While living in Beijing they separate after Trey starts an affair with a Chinese woman. Ellie works in a bar and falls in with some artists, one of which is an occasional lover whose art is on the cusp of becoming highly bankable. Turning up at his apartment one evening she’s introduced to a Hashim, a dissident Uighur. Soon after the artist and the Uighur have disappeared and some shadowy associates of Trey, and possibly the Chinese security services, want to find them. They believe Ellie is the key to tracking them down and soon she too is on the run, guided by characters in an online game, unsure who to trust offline but aware of the potential consequences after what she witnessed of interrogations in Iraq. In Ellie, Brackman has created a character that is both world weary and a little naïve, out-of-place in China but with sufficient language proficiency and social understanding to survive. The tale tells of her time in Iraq where she drifted onto the fringes of torture interrogations of prisoners, to helping Chinese dissidents evade capture and the same fate. The story provides interesting detail and insight into both worlds, leading to a lengthy chase across China. It’s a pretty engaging story for most of the book, then it runs out of steam and fizzles out without any real resolution, as if Brackman wasn’t sure how to wrap up the intrigue. Which was a shame as it all seemed to be leading to a big denouement that never came.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Review of Black Cross by Greg Iles (1995, Harper)

January 1944. The Allies are preparing for to cross the Channel but there are rumours that the Nazis have a deadly surprise for them – Sarin and Soman gases, both much more deadly than anything the Allies have in their armoury. It is being developed and tested in Totenhausen, a Nazi camp that conducts medical experiments to test and develop the toxic gases. Churchill and the head of SOE, Duff Smith, hatch a plan to halt the use of the gases by bluffing the Germans into thinking that the Allies have the capability to exact revenge at scale. It involves smuggling their own experimental, unstable supply of Sarin into Germany and releasing it at Totenhausen. It will, however, kill both the concentration camp inmates as well as their captors. Churchill reasons that the inmates will die anyway and their sacrifice will save tens of thousands of lives. Eisenhower is set against the mission, but Churchill is convinced it is necessary. One of the men picked for the secret job, Jonas Stern, a Zionist guerilla fighter from Palestine, is prepared to sacrifice his own people for the greater good; the other Mark McConnell, an American pacifist and poisonous gas expert, is much more reluctant to participate in mass murder. They are flown into Northern Germany, where from the start their mission runs into trouble, leaving the two men to improvise, their moral dilemmas multiplying as they seek a way to destroy the camp, save as many inmates as possible, and steal secrets, knowing that the chances of success and escape are diminishing with each hour they are there.

Black Cross is a thriller set at the start of 1944 involving a secret Allied mission into Germany to destroy a camp that is producing and testing deadly poisonous gases. The action adventure of infiltrating Nazi Germany to perform a mission is given a twist through a series of moral dilemmas and Sophie’s choices and the selection of the two men selected to undertake the task. Mark McConnell is a pacifist and conscientious objector who is asked to perform mass murder for the greater good. Jonas Stern is a German Zionist who has no qualms using violence for political ends, but is formerly local to the area and may know people in the camp they are to destroy. Their inside agent is a nurse dedicated to saving lives, not taking them. The three of them are persuaded that since all the inmates are to die in medical experiments anyway, hastening their demise for liberation of the continent is the right thing to do. But executing the plan in practice, especially when you’re in situ and things are not going as hoped, is fraught. Iles spends the first part of the book patiently setting the scene, lining up the characters, building their relationships, and creating empathy for the camp inmates. Once McConnell and Stern are in Germany the pace shifts gears and he quickly ratchets up the tension. It all seems a little far-fetched but the story hook, dilemmas, characters, and twist and turns keep the pages turning with no let up. The result is a thought provoking action thriller, though the moral aspect seemed to get a little lost towards the end, with none of the characters reflecting in any depth on whether they’d pursued the right course of action and its consequences.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Tough love

‘You need to toughen up, Kyle. This is tough love.’

Lonny held out a hand.

Kyle ignored it. ‘What it is, is bullying. You’re a fucked-up prima donna.’

‘I’m a winner. I do what I need to. If that means battering you into shape, that’s what I’ll do.’

‘You’re a tyrant. If you weren’t who you were, someone would have capped your ass long ago.’

‘Exactly. Because of who I am. What I do. Carrying your lazy asses every game. If you don’t want to win get off the team.’

‘We all want to win.’

‘Then goddamn act like it.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Review of Black Betty by Walter Mosley (1994, Pan)

Black Betty is the fifth book in the Easy Rawlins series and it’s a doozey. It’s now 1961. Easy has fallen on hard times; his property business has been hustled out from under him and he’s living in rented accommodation with his mute son and young daughter. To add to his woes his murderous friend, Mouse, has just been released from prison and wants revenge on the man who put him there, and he’s been asked by a white PI to find Black Betty, famed for twisting men’s necks and wrapping them around her fingers. Easy was in awe of Betty back in Houston when he was a kid, now she’s disappeared from a Beverley Hills mansion shortly after the owner died. Easy agrees to find the aging siren, but it quickly leads him into deadly trouble. Between trying to unravel mystery and stay alive, he also works to stop Mouse from murdering innocent men, and turn the tables on the woman who hustled him. It’s inevitable that some folk are going to die, but he’s determined it’s not going to be him. As well as a compelling mystery, with a couple of nice sub-plots, Mosley does an excellent job at charting the social relations and geography of being black in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Kennedy might have been elected, but racism and the race divide is as deep as ever. Easy is smart and canny, he’s managed to build a property business, but he’s still struggling to get by and is often the victim of institutionalised abuse. Mosley nicely portrays these tensions and injustices through a hardboiled style with a tender underbelly, populating the book with a nice mix of conflicted characters. The subplots were perhaps wrapped up a little too quickly, but Black Betty is a wonderful, noir read.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Review of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990, Corgi)

Since the Garden of Eden, Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, have been living amongst Earth’s mortals, along with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They have an uneasy alliance doing Heaven and Hell’s work as they wait for the coming battle between good and evil. Now the anti-Christ is coming and by his eleventh year Judgement Day will arrive and the apocalypse will sweep the Earth. Only there’s a mix-up at the birth and the Young’s have been given the wrong baby. Moreover, Aziraphale and Crowley have grown quite fond of the way thing are. Adam Young grows up in an idyllic village with its own microclimate in a loving family with close friends. During his eleventh summer he finds that his imaginative musings are starting to come true; powers that would do enormous harm in the hands of an evil mind. Aziraphale and Crowley call on the witchfinder army to locate their missing anti-Christ before the legions of heaven and hell do battle; but there’s only two of them and they’re not up to much. And a witch is also searching, guided by The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter.

It’s nearly 30 years since I first read Good Omens. It’s as much fun as I remember it. Pratchett and Gaiman spin an amusing tale that plots the potential end of the world, centred on an angel and demon who have messed up big time, a gang of four kids who are always up to mischief led by a boy with mysterious powers, a pair of witchfinders and a witch who are descendants of duel that has lasted over four hundred years, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The story is very nicely spun, with plenty of action, and engaging dialogue, but what gives it an extra lift is its musings on religion and its role in society. The result is a playful, thoughtful page turner. A wonderful read. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

I want sanity

‘I don’t think I can do this, Ryan.’


‘Live with you. It’s just … you …’

What?’ Ryan looked up from his breakfast.

‘It’s all the small things,’ Mia said. ‘They’re driving me nuts. I can’t stand it anymore.’

‘What things?’

‘The sound of you breathing. The noise you make when you eat. Speaking with your mouth full.’

‘So, basically anything to do with my mouth.’

‘Not everything.’ She smiled weakly. ‘And you live like a slob.’

‘But apart from that, I’m okay?’

‘Apart from that, you’re wonderful. But it’s not enough.’

‘You want Mr Perfect?’

‘I want sanity.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Review of Arabesk by Barbara Nadel (2000, Headline)

When the wife of one of Istanbul’s most popular Arabesk singers is poisoned and his baby daughter disappears, newly promoted Inspector Suleyman is put in charge of the case. The obvious suspect is the singer’s much older mistress, Tansu, an aging star prone to temper tantrums, though the presence of a neighbour with Downs Syndrome in the apartment is muddying the water. In addition, his mentor, Inspector Cetin Ikmen, although ill and notionally off work, can’t help meddling in the case, and one of his officers seems to have more loyalty to the singer than this boss. The third book in the Ikmen series, is as much about the religious make-up of Turkey as the mystery. Indeed, the mystery element is quite thin given the limited cast and the direction of the story. As such, the interest in the tale is driven by interactions between the characters and the sense of place than the mystery. Which works fine if you’re interested in the culture, politics and social relations of life in Turkey, and the interwoven personal lives of a small murder team, rather than simply wanting a compelling police procedural. And that worked just fine for me.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Before it's too late

‘What’re you doing?’

‘Dividing the house in two.’ Kelly stretched the masking tape along the floor.


‘I’ve had enough. That’s your side of this room. You can do what the hell you like with it, I’m not tidying it up.’

‘Are you serious?’ Mike asked.

‘When this bloody lockdown is over, you need to move out. If it’s taught me anything, it’s that I can’t live with you.’

‘But we’re engaged!’

‘That’s off as well.’ Kelly looked up. ‘This whole thing’s been a nightmare, but also a blessing.’


‘At least I found out before it was too late.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review of Finnegan’s Week by Joseph Wambaugh (1993, Bantam)

Forty five, three divorces under his belt, and still searching for his big acting break, Fin Finnegan is half-hearted in life and his work as San Diego cop. His life though is about to get a bit more interesting – there’s a television show shooting in town and he knows he’ll be perfect as the hitman, and a case comes his way that sees him partnering with a Navy detective, Bobbie, and an environmental crimes cop, Nell, neither of whom think he’s a total loser. The crime involves the theft of some shoes by two truck drivers who were picking up hazardous waste from the Navy yard. They take the truck south to Mexico to offload their haul, dumping the waste and selling the truck. After two kids prize open one of the drums their perfect plan starts to unravel. As does the plan of the waste company boss who’d falsified the manifest, omitting the inclusion of Guthion, a lethal chemical. Fin will be pleased to solve the case; landing a part in the television show and one of the women would be the icing on the cake. Wambaugh spins the tale as a darkly comic caper, with plenty of humour, banter dialogue, and dashes of violence, though with few twists or turns. The truck drivers’ mismatched double act, and the Fin, Bobbie, Nell triangle provide strong character dynamics, and there’s a good sense of place and juxtaposition of San Diego and Tijuana. An engaging, often amusing procedural.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review of Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid (2011, Sphere)

Criminal psychiatrist is Dr Charlie Flint is suspended from work after a man she cleared of murder goes on to kill four women. While waiting for her hearing she is asked by one of her old university professors to look into a possible miscarriage of justice. The husband of the professor’s daughter, whom Charlie used to babysit, was murdered on their wedding day. The professor is convinced the man’s business partners are not the murderers. Instead, she suspects successful entrepreneur, Jay Macallan Stewart, also a former babysitter and now her daughter’s new lover, who she believes also murdered somebody else years before. Charlie also has other motivations for wanting to visit, Oxford; a psychologist whom she has found herself romantically drawn to despite being in a steady relationship for seven years. Charlie doesn’t believe Jay is the murderer, yet she discovers a number of suspicious deaths in her past that demand investigation. McDermid spins the story around the tangled relationships of five lesbian women, told predominately through the perspective of two: Charlie and Jay. A large portion of the latter is told through extracts from Jay’s misery memoir, about her tough life growing up and the follow-up she is presently drafting. The investigation often seemed to play second fiddle to the melodrama of these women’s lives, but it’s kept moving forward through an interesting enough plot. And McDermid’s writing is very easy on the eye, keeping the pages turning. The outcome was somewhat telegraphed, but there were a couple of nice twists to offset.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

End of the world party

‘When this is over there’s going to be one hell of a party,’ Barry said, throwing a tennis ball off a wall.

‘If there’s a hell of a party,’ Sally said, ‘it’ll just re-set the clock and we’ll have to isolate all again.’

‘I don’t care. It can be an end of the fucking world party. As long as it’s a party. An epic one.’

‘Trust you to dream of being a selfish prick.’

‘Me and ninety percent of the population.’

‘People will die so you can letch.’

‘God, you’re such a party-pooper, Sally. Lighten up.’

‘Only if you grow-up.’  

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Review of On Leaving a Prague Window by David Brierley (1996, Little Brown and Co)

Eighteen months after The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the country is still finding its feet. The apparatus of the old state has faded into the shadows but are still pulling strings, exerting influence and trying to protect themselves from accusations related to their regime. Melina Prerova is seeking answers to the death of her journalist lover during the last uprising in 1968. Disgraced Father Alois Fulcek has found himself helping her. Broucek, a high ranking official in the Finance Ministry who had been abusing his power hears of their quest and seeks to shut them down, pulling favours from old colleagues. The fulcrum of the three main actors is a concern for Radl, a kingpin from the previous regime keen to retain his power in the new state by reinventing himself. Will truth out or be supressed as the country tries to come to terms with life post-Communism. Brierley’s novel is an allegory of the transition, secrets and power. It kind of works at one level, but the story is very drawn out and not very engaging for much of its telling. It’s kind of difficult to care about any of the characters and the thriller element is quite flat. The result is a story lacks heart and hook.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Just friends?

‘I guess we’re friends now then,’ Tony said, leaning against the fridge. ‘Having discussed life, the universe and fashion disasters.’

‘Men and women can never be friends,’ Jane slurred.

‘Because sex always gets in the way, right?’


‘So, does that mean that straight men can never be friends with gay men?’


‘Or straight women with lesbians?’

‘No. Jesus, Tony!’

‘So, why?’

‘Because, eventually …’

‘Even if they’re not attracted to each other?’

‘You’re not attracted to me?’

‘I’d sleep with you in a heartbeat.’

‘I knew it!’


‘You were never going to be just a friend, anyway.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review of Spook Country by William Gibson (2007, Putnam)

Former band singer turned journalist, Hollis Henry, is on an assignment in Los Angeles for soon-to-be-launched Node magazine. Her task is to write about the new phenomena of locative virtual art and track down Bobby Chombo, a genius with locative technologies, who has a side-line troubleshooting navigation issues for government bodies, and is a fan of Hollis’ band, Curfew. Tito is a member of a shadowy, Cuban-Chinese mafia-style family with Russian connections, who is passing information along a chain in New York. He’s pursued by Brown, a hardnosed operative for an unnamed government agency, and Milgram, a junkie held on a short-lease by Brown who can interpret Tito’s messages. Pawns in a larger game that has Chombo and a shipping container at its core, Hollis, Tito and Milgram find themselves centre stage while barely aware of what is really going-on as they operate in spook country.

The second book in the Blue Ant trilogy, Spook Country can be read as a standalone. Whereas the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies explored possible near futures, this tale exposes realities already unfolding focusing on locative virtual art and emerging neo-geographies and connecting them into a shadow world of corrupt government post 9/11. At the same time, it still retains a sense of other-worldliness, with the three main characters being drawn into a world that seems to operate alongside or behind-the-scenes; of government secrets and unnamed organizations working and battling covertly yet in plain sight. Gibson spins an engaging, sometimes elliptical tale, told in his characteristic style, charting the three strands that follow the principal characters of Hollis, Tito and Milgram. These strands gradually converge, leading to a nice denouement. An interesting, understated thriller.