Thursday, December 31, 2009

So long 2009

All years have their ups and downs, but for me personally 2009 had more ups than downs - in fact, in many ways, it's been a bit of a stellar year. I'm probably a little unusual in that respect vis-a-vis most people in Ireland as the year has generally been an unmitigated disaster with rapidly rising unemployment, wages cuts, collapsing house prices, severe flooding, and general all round misery.

From my perspective though:
The Rule Book finally saw the light of day.

The 12 volume International Encyclopedia of Human Geography was published.

Rethinking Maps followed shortly afterwards.

I submitted two new books - Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (MIT Press) and the 2nd edition of Key Thinkers on Space and Place (Sage)

We put up the Atlas of Cyberspace up as free PDF download (my only book to briefly break into Amazon top 100 sales rank) and gave it a new life.

I finished a ten year stint as Editor of Social and Cultural Geography

I was appointed Editor of Progress in Human Geography

I got the green light to start a new journal, Dialogues in Human Geography (Sage)

The first books in the Key Concepts series I edit were published (Sage) and the first books in the Irish Society series were commissioned (Manchester University Press).

I travelled to some interesting places: Armenia, Ohio, Kentucky, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Germany, UK

We moved into the Blue House back in January

I started two blogs - The View from the Blue House in July, and Ireland After NAMA in November.

I discovered the world of blogging in general and some great blogs and communities

My reading got a new burst of life as I discovered loads of new authors whose other works I want to read and I read loads of fabulous books.

On the negative side, I've taken a 20 percent cut in my take home pay and been trying to fight a rearguard action on cuts to the institute I run. 2010 will be an interesting year on that front. I'm genuinely worried about the hole Ireland finds itself in and the government's handling of the crisis, and my fear is that things are going to get worse before they get better and it'll be a slow climb back to where we were. I also failed to find either agents or publishers for Saving Siobhan and The White Gallows.

I doubt I'll have another year like that any time soon. So long 2009, you were a rare vintage ...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Harper Perennial, 2007)

In 1940 the United States reluctantly creates a Jewish enclave at Sitka in Alaska. In 1946 an atomic bomb is dropped on Germany and two years later the Jews are forced from Palestine. With few places to go, Jews from around the world flock to Sitka. Sixty years later over three million Jews are crammed into the densely populated space and the date of Reversion back to full U.S. sovereignty is fast approaching. No-one is quite sure what will happen then, but the rush to find a new homeland in a world that does not want them is on. Detective Meyer Landsman though has his own problems – separated from his wife, he’s a drink problem, is living in crummy room in a downbeat hotel, has too many open homicide cases, and is haunted by the death of his sister. Then a fellow resident is murdered, shot in the back of the head, whilst playing chess. His new boss, his ex-wife, tells him to blacklist the case, but Meyer is hooked by a nagging feeling that there is more to the death than it first appears. Aided by his homicide partner, Berko Shemets, his first cousin, he starts to investigate. Soon he gunless, badgeless and up to his neck in trouble, but determined to uncover the reason for the chess player’s death.

If I was going to have a go at characterising The Yiddish Policemen’s Union I’d say it was the bastard child of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Chabon, like these authors, is a wordsmith, crafting beautiful, lyrical and weighty sentences. He also has their imagination and vision to create entire worlds. Unlike them, he’s created a story that is needlessly long, the narrative bloated by unnecessary back story and superfluous description. This serves to highlight his craft, but it’s at the expense of the story, so that the pacing is uneven, dissipating the tension that should have been present. The result was a reading experience similar to watching an overly long, indulgent movie with great cinematography, but a plodding, uneven storyline. Fans of well crafted prose will undoubtedly love the book, but the bottom line for me is always the story. With at least a twenty five percent cut in length, and prose as concise and sharp as Chandler or Gibson, this could have been a classic (the story is there, it’s just wrapped up and deadened by too much descriptive prose). As it stands, for my mind, the book illustrates what happens when you try to write genre fiction in a literary style without fully appreciating what makes a genre appealing to its readers (or at least this reader). Chabon sure can write, but sometimes less is more.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Nowhere Man

I spent part of Christmas day writing a piece of flash fiction - the idea was appealing enough that I had to let it unfold. Originally I was thinking that it might form the start of a short story, but now I'm wondering whether there's something more there. I thought I'd post the opening section and invite some critical feedback. I know it's difficult to judge a story on the opening gambit, but we all do it whilst browsing in a bookstore, so what I'm interested to know is whether this piques your interest. The story is set in 1924 in Ireland, immediately after independence and the civil war.

‘Harry? Harry!’ His pyjama top was sodden with sweat, his massive back twisting away from her gentle touch. ‘Harry, love.’

He woke with a start, momentarily lost, sucking in air.

‘You were having one of your nightmares,’ she explained, tugging him over onto his back.

His boyish face was ashen, unseeing, grey-blue eyes bloodshot. Nightmare seemed too tame a word for the hell he’d just re-lived. Great showers of soil and blood erupting all around, the thunder of artillery and the rattle of machine guns, the cries of the wounded and dying, the vicious tug of barbed wire, then the searing pain of shrapnel tearing through his left thigh, the brains of Private Conor Costello coating his face.

‘You alright, love?’

He blinked, his eyes darting left.

She was leaning up on her elbow, gazing down at him, wearing a once white, long sleeved nightdress. She pulled a tight, concerned smile and tucked a lock of her long, red hair behind an ear, moving a slender hand to his chest.

He let out a long sigh and swallowed hard, laying a huge hand over hers, giving it a light squeeze.
Costello had been eight years his senior, but he’d made the young officer promise that he’d take care of his wife and four children if he failed to make it back to Ireland. Harry Rutherford doubted that had meant sharing his wife’s bed, but things rarely turned out as Harry expected.

When he enrolled at Trinity College Dublin in September 1914 to study law, he’d expected the nascent hostilities with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians to be over by Christmas. When he dropped out of university before completing his first year of study to enlist in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he’d expected his father to be understanding and supportive. As a junior officer in the 8th Battalion, he’d expected war to be rational, honourable and heroic. During Easter 1916, as he choked on deadly chlorine gas at the Battle of Hulluch in Northern France, struggling to drag on his cumbersome gas mask, he’d expected that if he survived the mayhem and madness he would be returning to the Ireland he left. And when the shell exploded just a few feet in front of them as they advanced towards Ginchy in the Battle of the Somme, he’d expected to go the same way as poor Costello.

Instinctively, Harry moved his hand to his face as if to brush off the warm blood and tissue. ‘What time is it?’ he asked, disguising his movement to pinch the bridge of his nose and then rub his eyes.

‘You’ve plenty of time, yet,’ Mary Costello answered, tugging the sheet and rough, wool blankets up over his barrel chest, dropping down from her elbow to lie by his side, her head resting on his shoulder. ‘It’s barely gone five o’clock.’

When the telegram arrived in September 1916 to inform her that her husband had died for a King and Country which she didn’t consider to be her own, she’d never anticipated anybody but her children would share her bed again, let alone a Protestant policeman seven years her junior; a man who as a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had probably aided the British in the war for independence.

She knew what the neighbours thought of their tryst, but the neighbours could go to hell; they hadn’t had to live with the loneliness, the hunger, the cold and damp, the humiliation of being a single mother barely able to make ends meet. To try and save her modesty Harry ghosted in through the back yard late at night loaded with supplies, and slipped out again in the wee hours.

He tipped his head down so his cheek rested on her crown. ‘I’d better go,’ he mumbled. The only way to shift the vivid memories was to fill his lungs with cold morning air and plod the city streets. ‘I’ve got a couple of things I need to do.’

Mary didn’t move. ‘Harry …’

‘Sorry.’ He eased himself up, swinging his legs out of the bed, rubbing at the knotted scar tissue at the top of his left thigh.

‘Harry, stay a while longer.’

He reached down and picked his crumpled, uniformed trousers from the floor and shoved a hand into a pocket, withdrawing a couple of creased notes, placing them on the bedside locker. ‘For the children.’

‘Thanks, but there’s no need …’ she lied.

‘I know,’ he said standing, confirming the lie, ‘but they deserve a treat.’

She watched him dress, taking a clean shirt from the wardrobe, pulling on his tatty uniform. Tall, broad and sturdy, he would have made an excellent rower. At twenty eight he should by now have found himself a nice, young wife, settled down and started his own family. She felt a tinge of guilt and wondered how long Harry’s nightly visits would last and what she’d do once he’d gone.

He lent down and kissed her on the cheek. ‘I’ll see you tonight. I’ll bring a ham.’

‘Take care, Harry.’

‘Like always.’ He crept to the door, slid through it and down the stairs, and quietly exited the rear of the decrepit house. It was still dark, the sky overcast, a light drizzle falling, the air tinged with the taste of peaty smoke and the smell of stinking drains. He placed his hat over his short brown hair, his pug ears sticking out, and pulled his cape around him, tugging up the collar. There was a café on the South quays which catered for dockers that was open all hours. He would pick up a hearty breakfast and some information before heading to Pearse Street station. He set off at a brisk pace, splashing through oily puddles, a noticeable limp in his gait.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Blogs of the year

Like many people my feed reader is set to collate dozens of blogs. After I've been away for a few days there are usually hundreds of posts to be read. In such situations I usually just click the 'all read' button. There are some blogs though that I make an effort to read and work back through the posts I've missed. Picking just ten of these as my must-read blogs of the year has proven a difficult task, but these are the ones I've plucked for:

Big Beat from Badsville
Crime Always Pays
Crime Scraps
International Noir
Do Some Damage
International Crime Authors Reality Check
Killer Covers
Progressive Economy

Thanks to all those that write them. And if I have to pick an absolute favourite for 2009 then it's Do Some Damage. A consistently entertaining read.

There is quite a long list of blogs that teetered on the edge of this list, many of which are consolidated on the Crime and Mystery Fiction friendfeed (which I always find time to check into daily).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review of Frost at Christmas by R.D. Wingfield (1984, Corgi)

Its ten days until Christmas and Tracey Uphill, a precocious eight year old, has failed to return from Sunday school after her young mother is delayed by a late punter. The case is initially assigned to the fastidious Inspector Allen, but when he becomes ill it’s passed to irascible Inspector Jack Frost. Into the bargain comes the reluctant Detective Constable Clive Barnett, the Chief Constable’s son, reassigned from London to provincial Denton. With the snow falling and the temperature below freezing, finding Tracey is a priority, but wherever Frost goes chaos follows and soon he is juggling a number of cases, bumbling from one clue to another, messing up the paperwork, and bamboozling his boss, Superintendent Mullet.

Frost at Christmas is the first book in this delightful six book series. Frost is introduced as a befuddled, conniving, sarcastic, and insolent cop, promoted beyond his capabilities, who tackles crimes seemingly without rhyme or reason. Every one of his actions seem designed to be as inefficient as possible and annoy those around him, yet Frost receives loyalty from most of his colleagues as, at heart, he’s a lovable rogue whose two commitments are to catch the bad guys and to share any plaudits. Wingfield’s characterization is excellent, with every character well penned. The writing is light and comic, the story racing along at a cracking pace. My only gripe was the improbability of the interconnections between the plotlines, which were really not needed as what ties the strands together is Frost, not spurious sub-plots. Frost at Christmas was an entertaining Christmas day read, and I’d recommend the series to all crime fiction fans. My review of Winter Frost is here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas to all who read The View from the Blue House. I hope you have an enjoyable day (and were gifted some some great reading!).

We're still iced in and its due to snow again this afternoon. Thankfully, a neighbour has gifted us two chicken fillets for our Christmas meal to save us from tuna surprise. Thank heavens for neighbours!

Roll on the great melt ...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review of The Herring Seller’s Apprentice by L.C. Tyler (Pan Macmillan, 2007)

Having persuaded her sister, her lover and bank manager to invest in one of her business ventures, Geraldine Tressider disappears leaving her car and a suicide note at beach in West Sussex close to the home of her ex-husband, Ethelred, a crime fiction author. Everyone is convinced Geraldine has absconded with the money until the body of a woman matching her description is found strangled to death at a local scenic spot. The crime fits the pattern of a serial killer operating in the area. Unconvinced, Elsie Thirkettle, Ethelred’s no-nonsense, chocolate-loving agent, who despises both authors and fiction, presses her charge to investigate further. It soon becomes apparent that Geraldine had transferred her ill-gotten gains to Switzerland and the day after her death the money was withdrawn by a mystery woman. It appears that Geraldine was murdered for profit, the question is by whom?

The Herring Seller’Apprentice is a lightly satirical turn on cosy crime fiction. Although competently written, it did little for me. I suspect that this is partly a matter of taste. Cosies are not my crime fiction of choice. I am a great fan, however, of fiction that tries to play with and subvert the genre such as that by Malcolm Pryce, Jasper Fforde and Donna Moore. But even on this level, the book felt a little flat and insubstantial. The whole thing felt too contrived and knowing. The result was I almost stopped reading the book a couple of times, but in the end soldiered onto the end. There were a couple of nice passages, especially near the beginning discussing the relationship between author and agent, but not nearly enough for my palate. My view though is definitely out-voted by other blogs; for more positive reviews see:

Eurocrime, Fleur Fisher reads, DJ Krimiblog, Martin Edwards, Grey Dove, It's a Crime

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review of Stiff by Shane Maloney (Text Publishing, 1994)

Murray Whelan is the electorate officer for the Minister of Industry, Charlene Wills, the sitting Labour representative from Melbourne Upper, a multicultural district to the north of the city. His home life is a mess – his wife has upped sticks to Canberra and he’s looking after his young son, Red, in a house that’s seen better days – and his work life is not much better, spending his days fending off disgruntled voters, fixing relations with a variety of local self-interest groups, and smoothing over internal party squabbles. When a recent immigrant from Turkey is found frozen to death in a local meat packing plant he thinks nothing of it until one of Wills’ ministerial advisors, the snake-oiled, Angelo Agnelli, sends him off to investigate whether it’s anything the Minister needs to worry about. Whelan knows that this is probably a wild goose chase, but agrees to take a look to keep Agnelli and Wills happy. Pretty soon though it’s clear that there is more to worker’s death than a simple accident and, what is more, Whelan’s attention is definitely unwanted. And if he won’t drop the case, and walk away, then somebody is prepared to silence him before he discovers the real reason for the death. What should have been a straightforward look-see, instead has him struggling to stay alive.

In many ways Stiff is more of a political satire, than crime novel. Yes, the story charts Whelan’s attempt to uncover the reason for the worker’s death, but this adventure is used as a foil to expose and point fun at the machinations of political wheeler-dealing at the grassroots level. Mahoney is particularly good at detailing the life of an electorate officer - the slippage from ideologue to party hack, the flotsam of constituents, and the tedium of organising local party meetings. In Whelan he has created an interesting character; someone who is world weary, reflexive, crafty, and who has his own unrealised, political ambitions. The other characters are also well drawn and the dialogue realistic. The story itself though is a little contrived and the ending is telegraphed a little too early. All in all, Stiff is an enjoyable read, with enough snide humour and interesting insights into the political and social landscape of Australia in the late 1980s to keep the reader hooked to the end.

Finished and Famished

I've just sent off the full draft of the second edition of Key Thinkers on Space and Place, so I can finally relax and enjoy the seasonal break. At 245K words its a bit of a tome. As well as updated versions of the 52 entries of the first edition, it also includes pieces on another 14 theorists. Hopefully it will be out sometime towards the end of 2010.

We're still stuck at home after the snow at the weekend. Freezing temperatures and fog has meant that there has been no melting so far and none of the surrounding lanes or secondary roads have been cleared. We decided this morning to try and make it to the local town to get some provisions, but didn't manage to move the car more than three feet before the wheels started spinning and we lost all traction, so we gave that up as a bad idea. The snow and ice is not due to start melting until late Christmas day, so it's going to be a strange Christmas dinner as we're presently living off our stock of canned food. At the moment it's going to be tuna surprise - the surprise being what we find to cook with it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Saving Siobhán

Yesterday's post was lacking a bit of context, so I thought that today I would post the short synopsis to Saving Siobhán, so you can get a sense of what kind of book fell at the second hurdle.

It is election time in Ireland and a lot more is about to change for Grant and his wheelchair-bound friend, Mary, than their political representatives. Patrick has disappeared and his sister Siobhán abducted. The kidnappers have left behind Siobhan’s little finger, along with a simple instruction – find Pat quickly or receive more fingers. Soon Grant and Mary are caught between a vicious Dublin gangster and an ambitious politician. To make matters worse, when someone they confront is found floating face down in the River Liffey, Inspector McGerrity Black, Dublin’s finest rock-a-billy cop, is hot on their trail. With election day looming and Siobhán fingers turning up on a regular basis they race through County Kildare suburbia, Dublin’s saunas, Manchester’s gay village and rural Mayo, crossing paths with transvestite farmers, gombeen property developers, and sadistic criminals, as they desperately seek a way to save themselves and their friends while all the time staying ahead of the law. As first dates go, it’s one hell of a rollercoaster ride for Grant and Mary.

Saving Siobhán is a very different kind of book to The Rule Book (which was a straight police procedural) being a black comedy, crime caper (with a dash of romance thrown in). It's written in a style that avoids ‘thick’ description, instead using dialogue and action to drive the narrative along. This allows the text to move at a very quick pace, meaning that Saving Siobhán starts quite pacy and then gets faster and faster, maintaining and cranking up the tension without a change in style. While the novel starts as a single thread, it soon splits into a set of interwoven subplots that all converge at the story's climax.

Anyway, that's the bare bones of the story. Not everybody's cup of tea, but the kind of book that appeals to me (riotous escapism)! If anybody has any tips re. the short synposis, they'll be gratefully received.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Back to square one

After a five month wait I received news today that an agent has decided not to represent my novel ‘Saving Siobhan.’ Like the The Rule Book, this is a novel that won’t fall over the second hurdle. Of the ten or so agents I've sent this to, about half have asked to see the whole manuscript. After a few months delay they then then tell me that crime fiction is an incredibly tough market and they’re not quite sure it’s for them. For example, from this morning’s email: ‘I like many things about this novel: the quick pace, the natural dialogue, the humour. However, today's crime fiction market is incredibly tough …’ The trouble with Saving Siobhan, according to the agents, is it’s either too niche to gain enough sales or too mainstream that it’ll disappear in the pack! I was hoping for somewhere in the middle – mainstream but enough of a twist to make it distinctive.

The thing that I think I find most frustrating in these cases is not that the piece has been rejected, but that the process wasted so much time. At least a fall at the first hurdle only takes a couple of weeks, six at the most. It typically takes four to six months for a second hurdle decision, during which time it’s not possible to send the script to another agent. I wasted a couple of years doing this with The Rule Book. I was going to spend part of the Christmas break writing fiction, but this has taken the wind out of my sails. Oh well, time to hunt out the Writer’s Handbook and see who to hassle next.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lazy Sunday Service

I woke up this morning to find the surrounding landscape covered in a couple of inches of snow and it's been snowing on and off all day. In between the snow showers we've been for a long walk with the dogs and checked the cupboards to see how long we can last without having to risk the roads to get to the shops. When the lanes get impassable they stay so until they melt. Given the weather forecast predicts blizzards perhaps we might have a white christmas after all, if a bit of a hungry one.

My posts this week
Review of Ship of Fools by Fintan O'Toole
Reading on the edge
Deadline chasing
International misery index
Getting to grips
Review of Calumet City by Charlie Newton
Saturday Snippet: Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland

Emily Tempest’s life is split between the aboriginal world of her long dead mother and the white world of her mining father. Neither completely out of place nor fully at home in either an aboriginal camp or a rough and tumble mining town, she spends time in both. In the following two passages, Hyland describes wonderfully the two worlds.

‘Li’l Emmy, parnparr,’ said Gladys Kneebone as we sat by the fire half an hour later. ‘Didn’t they feed you down south?’

Gladys herself was a battleship on stilts. She wasn’t much older than me, but she’d exploded in every direction. She was immensely tall, immensely fat, wearing a green dress and a coiffure that looked like it had been fashioned with a splitting axe. She thrust a pannikur of head-banging tea into my hand, fossiked through the embers with a stick and offered me a leg of … a leg of what? I wondered warily. Rabbit?

‘Good tucker that one,’ she exclaimed.

I took a look at the scorched carcass grinning up from the ashes. Jesus, a fuking cat! Been a while since I’d had one of those. What the hell, I decided, it couldn’t be any worse than some of the crap I’d endured in roadhouses on the way up here.

It wasn’t. Kind of stringy, kind of greasy, kind of …well, catish but I managed.

Many of the adults I remembered from my childhood – Stumpy Doods, Spinifes, Timothy Windmill – drifted over and had a quiet word, shook my hand or threw their wary arms around me. Cissy Whiskey slipped in through the ruck, touched my face as if it was a sacred object and gave me the long lost daughter spiel. Cissy was famous for her ash-baked damper. I must have eaten tons of the stuff, smothered in golden syrup and washed down with sweet black tea. Despite the damper, Cissy herself was as skinny as a picket, with piercing eyes and an aureole of white hair.

* * * *

He appeared to be offended by the look of alarm that shot across my face. I was, I supposed, insulting the place he’d chosen to make his home. But Bluebush! What a dump! The sort of town which it’s easier to buy a silencer that a decent coffee. When we visited town, I’d never leave my father’s side; as a little black kid, you could feel the antagonism radiating out from the whitefellers when you passed them in the street.

And what a mob they were themselves. A bigger collection of dikheads and drop-kicks you’d have to travel a long way to find; boozers, bruisers and substance abusers, rockjaw Germans and lockjaw Yorkshiremen, grease monkeys and gamblers, meatworkers, meat-heads, missionaries, maniacs, men on the run, men on the dole, men on the Witness Protection Program. Peddlers, pushers, whores and bores, deperadoes of every denomination. You name it, they were there, drawn to the town like flies to a carcass.

My review is here

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review of Calumet City by Charlie Newton (Bantam Books, 2008)

Ghetto cop Patti Black is as tough as they come; street smart with the courage to take on the Gangster Disciples that haunt Chicago’s meaner neighbourhoods. Her tactical unit are preparing to deliver a stolen-property warrant to a GD haunt when they receive news that somebody has tried to kill the mayor. An hour later they are in a major gunfight that drifts to another house; a house that was once owned by the mayor’s wife and whose basement is found to contain the remains of woman. A woman that Patti knows well – her foster parent whose husband, Roland Ganz, had systematically raped her over a four year period in a house in Calumet City ending in pregnancy at 15, flight, her son being adopted, and a few years drunk before she got her life back together sufficiently to start a new life. Then Assistant State Attorney, Richard Rhodes, is kidnapped. Richey from the home. Then Patti is contacted by a third victim, Danny Del Paso, now in a maximum security prison to warn her that a contract is out on her life. Gwen, the final child, also then contacts her to say that ‘he’ has her child and he's after Patti’s son. She might not have seen her son for over twenty years, but Patti will do anything to protect him from the monster she endured. Only the re-emergence of Roland has sent her into a flatspin, unable to make rational decisions, teetering on the edge of her sanity. To make matters worse, her mentor, Chief Jesse Smith, seems implicated in corruption with the mayor's office and both the FBI and Internal Affairs are also after her. Unsure who to trust, she stumbles from one high octane situation to the next, all the time knowing that her former tormentor is drawing closer.

Calumet City starts with a bang and the pace continues to build from there, the tension being steadily ratcheted up as Patti bounces from one crisis to the next whilst slowly disintegrating mentally as the pressure mounts. The writing is taut, and Newton quickly hooks the reader in and drags them along; compelled to find out what happens next. Whilst the story relies on too many coincidences and entanglements, at one level it doesn’t really matter - the entertainment and the realism of ghetto policing compensates for the lack of overall plot realism that blends gang violence, city politics, child sex abuse, torture, murder, religious fervour, and one woman’s attempts to maintain her sanity and protect her unknown son. For my money it’s more a thriller than a police procedural, but it certainly blends the two. Overall, a flawed but compelling edge-of-the-seat, rollercoaster of a story.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Getting to grips

On Monday I attended my first meeting of the editors of Progress in Human Geography, one of the top three ranked journals in human geography. I take up my post as a new editor on Jan. 1st, though I've already been dealing with papers. I've therefore been on a crash course this week of trying to get to grips with how the journal functions and operates - every journal has its idiosyncracies and this one is no different. It was a real honour to be asked to join the editor's team, so hopefully I won't muck the thing up. At least it's all done virtually through online submission; my office is a mess of shifting piles of paper that submissions would have had every possibility to get lost in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Deadline chasing

I'm desperately trying to make an end of the week deadline to get a book across the finish line and into the hands of a publisher. I'm presently proofing the final draft of the second edition of Key Thinkers on Space and Place which, at over 800 pages at 1.5 spacing, is taking up quite a bit of time. Inevitably we're a little late with delivery, but the real reason I want shot of it is I don't want to be reading the thing over the seasonal break! I've plenty of other things I want to be reading then and none them involve the day job. I suspect it's going to be a bit of crime spree ...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading on the edge

I’m not sure I’m cut out for psychological thrillers. It’s not something I’d ordinarily read, but I started Calumet City by Charlie Newton thinking it was a relatively straightforward, police procedural. Wrong. It’s a psychological rollercoaster. The more I read the more I need to find out what happens, but the more I read the more nervous I am to continue. Tough, ghetto cop Patti Black and her world is disintegrating as her carefully concealed past erupts back into her life. Child sex abuse, torture, murder, gang violence, city politics, and religious fervour swirl around her as she desperately tries to hold onto her sanity. She’s not the only one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Review of Ship of Fools by Fintan O’Toole (Faber and Faber, 2009)

Fintan O’Toole is one Ireland’s best known social and economic commentators and cultural critics, and Deputy Editor of the Irish Times. Never shy about airing his views, he doesn’t pull his punches in telling it as he sees it, and in Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger he provides a damning critique of both the Celtic Tiger model of development and the Fianna Fail (and coalition partners) government since 1997. Rather than focus on one particular aspect of the present crisis – as with The Builders or Banksters – O’Toole provides a broad sided polemic on how Ireland went from bust to boom and back again in a twenty year period.

Written in a clear, engaging prose that is often angry and sometimes witty, he makes a compelling case that Ireland has experienced an acute case of crony capitalism – that is, the Irish government rather than steering the ship for the benefit of all its crew, became the vehicle for capital accumulation for the small group of friends milling about on the bridge. Indeed, it is telling that the book starts with two shipping anecdotes – one about the Sean Dunne’s (a developer) wedding to which high profile developers, bankers and politicians were invited for a two week Mediterranean cruise on board the yacht Christina O, owned since 2000 by an Irish consortium who wrote off up to two thirds of the €65 million cost against tax; the second about the Irish national yacht, the Ashgard II, which sank in September 2008 and which remains on the sea bed with little hope of salvage or replacement. The book consists of nine polemical essays, each focusing on a particular theme that together provide an overview of why Ireland finds itself in the mess it’s in.

The first chapter takes to task the notion that Ireland ever had a planned and coherent model of economic development (which it has recently been selling to every other wannabe developed nation), but rather was the beneficiary of a series of fortunate events largely outside of its control (such as the general, huge overseas expansion of US capital, structural funds from Europe, English language competence, social partnership, access to European markets, Northern Ireland peace process, etc), aided by lax regulation and a tax regime which enabled the attraction of significant foreign direct investment. Rather the narrative of economic development happened after the fact to explain Ireland’s catching up with other advanced economies, rather than forging ahead. And it was an economic model that had two fatal flaws: it only worked if there was sustained growth, and in O’Toole’s terms it was driven by stupidity and corruption that meant it became dangerous overheated so that collapse was inevitable. Simply put the economic model was geared towards over-extending ordinary citizens and over-rewarding those that were already wealthy.

The stupidity was the policy decisions of government and the head-in-the-sand approach to fiscal management and regulation, and the corruption was the blatant use of the state system for the benefit of high powered Fianna Fail supporters, the very close ties between business and state (particularly in the banking and property development sectors), and the general lack of accountability, transparency and prosecution of those defrauding the state (the focus of chapter 2). This corruption was powerful because it not only worked on a system of bribes but it: 1) fostered a sense of insider and outsider, wherein all other interested parties knew they had to participate to maintain competitive advantage (if one stock broker paid a bribe, they all had to to their maintain access to decision makers); 2) was largely condoned by the both the public sector regulators and the general public; 3) there was a culture of impunity wherein nobody was ever prosecuted for corruption and what is more if their corruption was ever exposed they maintained their access to power. In other words, corruption was allowed to flourish, and even now in the depths of the crisis it is still at work – for example in relation to how the banks have been bailed out, especially Anglo-Irish, and the setting up of NAMA protects the interests of high powered friends of Fianna Fail.

The vast majority of the electorate, he argues, let this happen because corruption, self-interest and self-duplicity and denial are embedded into Irish society. Low-level corruption, such as DIRT evasion or social welfare fraud, was widespread. Moreover, lots of people did well out of the boom with rising salaries, home equity, and small business growth. The politicians might have been corrupt, but many people were the beneficiaries. And if all politicians are corrupt, why wouldn’t you re-elect one that you knew to be so (because a tribunal had exposed them)? As long as they served local needs, they were welcome to skim a bit off the top.

In turn, he writes about the banking system, financial regulation and tax evasion; property development and the new class of super-wealthy; land speculation and development tax incentives; Ireland’s role in global financial markets and the crash; the failure to future proof Ireland for the next phase of development with respect to education, information communications infrastructure, and key transport and energy infrastructure; and the ad hoc approach to addressing the crisis once it appeared that seemingly had more to do with protecting self-interests than the national interest.

Central to O’Toole’s analysis is the notion that Ireland is not yet democratically mature, with a weak civic morality and underdeveloped system of political governance, and an electoral system that encourages and condones local clientelism and corruption. He suggests that Ireland failed to create a proper democratic republic, to go through a process of political and social reform, the establishment a strong welfare system and collective interest, and to create a state independent of Church and local interest, as in other post World War Two, European countries. Instead Ireland persisted with two, essentially ideologically barren, middle right parties that were for all intents and purposes identical and which used a form of machine politics that were highly clientalist, reactionary and short-termist.

For him, the Celtic Tiger represented an opportunity to lay the foundation for long term economic prosperity, but it was squandered by a political party more interested in short term economic gain for a small elite. The solution is to complete the democratic project in Ireland through a radical overhaul of our political system and consciousness. This means in the short term the election of a party with a radically alternative vision to Fianna Fail, and in the long term the establishment of a ‘second Republic’ with reform of the Irish electoral system, reform of the tax system, and systematic tackling of political and economic corruption accompanied by much stronger modes of governance and regulation

Overall, O’Toole’s analysis is compelling. The first half of the book is a lucid, tour de force polemic. The second half is more patchy in its argument and content, and its focus drifts a little. The book is driven by strong observational analysis, and to my mind could have benefited from some explanatory frameworks derived from the social sciences, particularly political science. There has, for example, been a debate between social scientists in Ireland as to the extent to which Ireland is a developmental state. It would have also been nice to have some comparative analysis that placed Ireland – economically, politically and socially - in relation to other European nations. Personally, I felt the conclusion also needed further elaboration on what needed to change and why, using examples from elsewhere, to really push the point home. Nevertheless, it’s a fine piece of work that will no doubt be popular reading for many people in Ireland keen to understand the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. I’ve already recommended it to a number of people.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Every time I travel into London on a train the same question pops into my head – how the heck does this place work? Why doesn’t the city simply crash in on itself under the weight of all its competing demands and overstretched infrastructure and services? Whilst many Londoners might complain about aspects of the city, the fact that it functions at all seems a miracle to me. As a system, London is an astonishing place. Goods, utilities, people, waste, services, flow in, out and around, and are distributed to where they’re needed. Society for the most part works, and hasn’t descended to total anarchy. There might be inefficiencies, differences and tensions, but the city does, for the most, part work.

The sheer logistics of making everything happen are mind blowing. Well there are for me in any case, because I do spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things. Though not too well on today’s journey into the city. I spent the weekend with five friends from my undergraduate days. We’ve been meeting up at least once a year since graduating in 1991 from Lancaster University. The problem is we go out and pretend that we’re all still students. And we’re not. And it shows the next morning. And the day after that. And the one after that.

I failed to find a copy of C.H.B. Kitchin’s Crime at Christmas in any of the bookstores in Oxford, though I did buy the following books in the closing down sale in Borders.

They’ll go into an already bloated TBR pile where they’ll have to try and jostle their way up to the top.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Henry

The Crime Scraps post about Geung, Colin Cotterill’s character with a learning disability, bought back fond memories of one of my own characters from an unpublished novel - Henry, who has Down's Syndrome and who works as an assistant to an amateur detective, who is herself wheelchair bound. Henry is one of the stars of the Irish Special Olympic Judo team, who is pretty handy in a tight corner and has great humour with a mischievous streak. He's a character I'm hoping will one day see the light of day as I'm very fond of him. Two Henry snippets:

Henry swivelled the chair around and pushed Mary down the drive. Jack trailed after them, leaving Mrs Roche stranded and confused in the doorway. As they turned at the end of the driveway, she gave a faint wave and slowly closed the door.

‘Ignorant cow,’ Mary muttered under her breath.

‘What Ms Carmichael?’ asked Henry.

‘I said, I thought that Mrs Roche was very rude.’

‘I thought you said she was an ignorant cow.’ Henry said loudly before bursting into a braying laugh.


Mary was sitting at the wheel of her car, her fingers drumming off the steering wheel, staring over at Aidan’s house. In the passenger seat Henry was humming, bouncing his head to the tune he was making.

‘Henry, you’re repeating. How does the rest of the song go?’

Henry looked at Mary and carried on humming the same few notes over and over.

‘For god’s sake Henry, do another tune, will you.’

‘My favourite,’ stated Henry and then resumed his humming.

‘I know! We all know. Can’t you do another one, that one’s driving me nuts.’

‘How long we gonna be here, Ms Carmichael?’

‘I dunno, Henry. It depends on whether Aidan goes out or not. Maybe ten minutes, maybe a few hours.’

‘Can’t we just go and talk to him?’

‘No, no, not yet. We need to work out if he’s behaving oddly, you know, if he might be doing things he shouldn’t. Besides, what would we say?’

‘We could ask him if he’s seen Mrs Roche’s cat?’ Henry suggested.

‘We could, you’re right, but then what? Aidan, are you doing things you shouldn’t?’

‘Yeah,’ said Henry enthusiastically. ‘We could ask that.’

‘No! He’d know what we’re up to then, wouldn’t he. We need to catch him out. Get him to reveal what he’s hiding.’

Henry nodded his head and then started humming again.

‘Jesus,’ Mary muttered, ‘can you hum a different tune, Henry?’

‘It’s my favourite,’ he replied, continuing to repeat the same few notes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review of The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski (St Martin’s Minotaur, 2005)

The heist was doomed from the start. Holden and Bling get caught in the doors to the bank and Lennon is forced to reverse the getaway car into vestibule to free them. Driving away he ploughs into a woman with a pram. Five minutes later they have dumped the car, leaving their haul inside, and swapped vehicles. Two minutes after that they are flip-flopping across the street having been rammed from the side, and are left for dead. Only Lennon isn’t prepared to give up on the loot so soon. In very short order he’s tangled up in a game of deals, counter-deals, and double crosses with the Russian mob, Italian mafia, and bent cops, all intent on revenge and the ill-gotten gains.

If I had some spare cash waiting for an investment opportunity I would have sought to buy the movie rights to The Wheelman within the first thirty pages of starting. The novel starts at a ferocious pace and never lets up, driven by snappy dialogue and taut action, with almost every scene containing a twist. In fact I can’t remember a story with so many twists and turns, with double, triple and more crosses, as every character seeks to get the better of the others in the hunt for the stolen money. In so doing, Swierczynski drags the principle character, Lennon, through the wringer, so that although he’s no saint you can’t put help root for the guy. The book is not without its faults – for example, a couple of the scenes lack credibility notably the first scene at the pipe – but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The Wheelman is a rollercoaster of a book. I loved it from first page to last. I need the next Swierczynski book right NOW!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another week another airport

On way to Exeter this morning to give a talk in the university this afternoon about the Irish and Scottish diaspora strategies. My first trip through Exeter airport. I've kind of been 'collecting' UK regional airports as I shuttle about to meetings and talks. Not the most sustainable form of travel, but taking the ferry and train would add a day each way onto each trip. As with many of these trips I doubt I'll see much of the town itself as I'll be leaving early tomorrow morning to catch a train up to London. The short flight should hopefully give me time to finish Duane Swierczynski's, The Wheelman, which at the minute is right up there in my top five reads of the year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I've actually written two fairly long blog posts today, but they were advance postings that I'll put up in a few days, so this will be something of a filler. One of the posts is a review of Fintan O'Toole's book 'Ship of Fools'. I wanted to get it written before I went and saw him talk this evening so I didn't conflate the book and the talk. And what a talk. It's quite a while since I've seen a presentation that was in the best traditions of the public intellectual - wide-ranging, erudite and insightful across the very broad terrain of Ireland over the past twenty years.

Just prior to the talk I got the news that my basic salary is being cut by the government (5% for the first 30,000, 7.5% for the next 40,000, and 10% for anything over that - only for those working in the public sector). That's on top of a cut so far this year of take home pay of 15% (made up of pension levy, income levy, health levy, and an increase in the ceiling of social insurance payments [PRSI]). All in all, I think I'm down about 22% on the start of the year. They've also changed my pension from being based on final salary to my average annual salary over my entire career. I'm well paid, so I'll cope okay. It's the people who are low earners I feel sorry for. They're being squeezed because of the follies of the neoliberal policies designed to bloat the coffers of the already wealthy.

On the positive side, I got a new set of bookcases installed (right). Plenty of space there to fill up! Hopefully that's future proofed me for a while.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

C.H.B. Kitchin, Crime at Christmas

I read with some interest on Mysteries in Paradise blog a mention of a crime novel by namesake, C.H.B. Kitchin, who published a number of books in the first half of the twentieth century. Kitchin is the 5816th most common surname in the UK according to the National Trust Name mapper, so its not that often that I come across the work of other members of the clan. I've been trying to get a copy of Crime at Christmas (first published in 1934, and reissued this year) ordered through a local bookshop in time for the xmas break, but I've had no luck so far as it's sold out in Ireland. Rather than resort to an online retailer I'm going to have a search for it on a trip later this week to Exeter, London and Oxford (it'll be an excuse for a good browse).

C. H. B. Kitchin was born in Harrogate 1895. He read classics at Oxford (Exeter College) and, after serving in France during World War I (1916-1918), worked at the stock exchange before being called to the bar in 1924. He led a varied and colourful life, born into wealth which he increased after inheriting in the mid-1920s through shrewd stock market investment. On inheritance he moved to Brighton to become a full-time writer. He published 13 novels (4 of them crime novels) and one collection of short stories. He died in 1967.

Kitchin's approach to crime fiction is revealed a little by Warren, the detective in his crime novels, when he tells the reader in a Crime at Christmas, "A detective story is always something of an étude de moeurs--a study in the behaviour of normal people in abnormal circumstances.... You want the revolver shot, the blood-stained knife, the mutilated corpse--but largely because they bring out the prettiness of the chintz in the drawing-room and the softness of the grass on the Vicarage lawn." The detective story, Warren continues, provides one with "a narrow but intensive view of ordinary life, the steady flow of which is felt more keenly through the very violence of its interruption." (from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, which I managed to get partial access to at Bookrags).

Faber have reissued six of his novels - Crime at Christmas, The Auction Sale, The Secret River, Streamers Waving, Death of my Aunt, and Mr Balcony.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review of The Build Up by Phillip Gwynne (Pan Macmillan, 2008)

Dusty Buchanon used to be the rising star of Darwin’s police force with an uncanny knack of solving difficult cases. That changed, however, with the failure to prosecute Evan Dale Gardner on circumstantial evidence for the rape and murder of a young backpacker. A couple of years on and Dianna McVeigh’s body has been found, but the case has been assigned to a hated colleague by the new, hardnosed commander. Frustrated at being sidelined, when Dusty hears that the body of another young woman has been found in a billabong, deep in the outback near to a Vietnam vets camp, she heads off to investigate. Only when she calls in reinforcements the body has disappeared and she is demoted back to uniform. Determined to prove that a murder has taken place and to catch the killer, she enrols a ragbag collection of friends to continue the hunt. All the while the heat and humidity continues to build-up prior to the monsoon rains falling.

Like Marshall Karp’s ‘The Rabbit Factory’ (reviewed here), The Build Up seeks create a police procedural underlain with dark humour, mostly mobilised through some comic set pieces and the ragbag collection of friends (including a gay art dealer, an aboriginal rock star, a German twitcher, and a pet pig). For the most part it kind of works. I enjoyed the book, but was not blown away by it. The writing is fairly perfunctory, the characters a little stereotypical, and plot a little haphazard. What should have been twists and turns in the story came as little surprise, and it kind of peters out towards the end rather than coming to a climax. The story has some nice observational asides about the Northern Territories and its inhabitants, but mostly the story felt quite shallow, contra Adrian Hyland’s ‘Diamond Dove’ (reviewed here). Overall, an okay read that has its amusing moments that will appeal to readers who enjoy comic crime capers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

I've just had one of those horror moments when Thunderbird decides that my inbox needs to be rebuilt, then taking 30 minutes to do it. The last thing I need is for my inbox to be zapped or rearranged into mush. Last time this happened the inbox looked fine until you clicked on a header, at which point a totally unrelated message popped up. All the messages were there, just not linked to the right headers! Nightmare. In the end I only lost 7 days of email after uploading the backup, but it still caused havoc.

Yesterday I took a trip into Carrick on Shannon to collect a couple of books I'd ordered. Over the past couple of weeks the town was reduced to an island along the River Shannon (pictures right from WillowIreland blog). There are still large parts of the town under water. What a disaster. Your heart cannot help but go out to people living there or those whose businesses were swamped. Thank god I don't live on a floodplain.

Posts I enjoyed this week
It's shameless the way we flirt - Adventures in Writing
I've seen the future, baby, it's murder - Crime Always Pays
Mr Geung - Crime Scraps
What's your genre - Criminal Brief
Femme Fatales
- Do Some Damage
Ass-backwards on gays - International Crime Authors Reality Check
Lost People of the Amazon - International Crime Authors Reality Check
Winterland by Alan Glynn - International Noir
Don't mess with the peer review process - Petrona

My posts this week
DDDA re-assessed
Review of Walking the Perfect Square by Reed Farrel Coleman
How to look like a twit
Review of Banksters by David Murphy and Martina Devlin
When smart economy and planning collide
November Review
Review of Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland
Saturday Snippet: Walking the Perfect Square by Reed Farrel Coleman

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Walking the Perfect Square by Reed Farrel Coleman

A short snippet from my November book of the month, Reed Farrel Coleman's, Walking the Perfect Square, with the main character, Moe Prager, being his usual philosophical self.

Leaving Pooty's I felt as much as I did after my college statistics classes: more confused on the way out than on the way in. But that was less Jack and Pete's fault than mine. My first step was a misstep. I could see that now. I was a bloodhound with no nose for blood. My forensics training was rudimentary at best. I wasn't going to find a magic carpet fiber or blood splatter. There was nothing at Pooty's for me to find that any of the other investigators, most far more experienced than myself, wouldn't have already stumbled upon. Maybe that's why they hadn't gotten anywhere. Sometimes, I thought, experience gets in the way. Even if I was wrong, it sounded good.

I found myself staring at Patrick Mahoney's poster pasted to a mailbox next to my car. 'HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?' the bold block letters wanted to know. It struck me that I hadn't really. I remembered a slide of a Magritte painting from my Introduction to Art History class - I guess I had college on my mind that day. It's funny what you think about. Anyway, the painting was of a tobacco pipe and the artist called it
Ceci n'est pas une pipe. In English I'm pretty sure that translates into 'This is not a pipe'. The point is, it wasn't a pipe. It was a painting of a pipe. And the poster I was looking at wasn't Patrick Mahoney. I guess that's what hit me.

My review is here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review of Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland (Text Publishing, 2006)

Emily Tempest has always felt a bit of an in-betweener, not quite in the world of her white, mining father, nor the aboriginal world of her long dead mother. Having gone for an extended walkabout through Australian cities, drifting from one unfinished course to another, and around the world, now in her mid-twenties she has returned to Central Australia and the scruffy camp of Moonlight Downs, unsure what to expect or how she’ll be received. Her mob welcome her back, but within hours her former mentor is brutally murdered and the group scatter to the winds in grief. Emily retreats to Bluebush, the nearby, rough and ready, mining town, determined to track down the killer. Only the clues point in different directions – to a loner, aboriginal who is a law unto himself, and a white, cattle farmer who has his eye on the sacred lands of the Diamond Dove. What soon becomes apparent is that finding the truth in part means finding herself.

Diamond Dove is a wonderful novel. Engagingly written, with good prose, a well crafted, multi-textured plot, and perfectly paced, Hyland transports the reader into the natural and social environment of the Australian outback, the worlds of aborigines and white settlers, and their interface. In both the bush and the town, Hyland evokes a rich sense of place conveying their respective sights, textures, sounds and smells. The characterization is excellent, with Emily Tempest particularly well drawn, with just the right amount of back story that the reader understands the context but is always kept in the present. The scenes and dialogue are well constructed, with a good blend of observations, pathos, wit, and social commentary without it ever becoming a sermon. Indeed, Diamond Dove cleverly explores race relations and social and political tensions in contemporary Australia without straying from Emily’s quest to discover who killed her friend and mentor. I’ve already started recommending it to friends.