Thursday, March 31, 2011

How useful is your work?

I've spent the last couple of weeks writing an European Research Council grant application. It's taken a huge amount of time as collectively the forms come to c.15,000 words and, given the competitiveness of the process, they have to be 'good' words. One of the things that you have to do is work out the impact of your work to date by looking up the citation rates of publications (basically how many times other people's papers/books refer to your papers/books). It's a pretty disheartening process. The vast majority of academic work it seems makes practically no impact, being cited only a handful of times. I'm not too unhappy with my citation rate given how it compares to others, but it's still fairly sobering (and I'm well aware of the problems of judging academic worth using such a crude quantitative measure). I used a neat bit of free software - the aptly named Publish or Perish - to calculate the rates (it harvests the data from Google Scholar). Overall, my work has been cited in excess of 3,500 times, but the distribution of those cites is very skewed as the graph shows. I don't actually have 170+ publications - it's around 130 (some of the tail is double counts). Only 24 of my pieces are cited more than 30 times, 9 of those above 100. Those 24 pieces are 75% of the citations (the top ten pieces are 40% of the citations, and the top cited book - Mapping Cyberspace - is 13% all on its own!).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review of People Who Walk in Darkness by Stuart Kaminsky (2008, Forge)

A Canadian diamond mining expert is found dead in a Siberian mine, dead after encountering a supposed ‘ghost child’. A young woman is discovered murdered on train after swapping a consignment of diamonds for a suitcase of cash. A Botswanan gang member is being held and tortured by a Moscow gangster. Inspector Rostnikov from the Office of Special Investigations is assigned to the first two cases, overseen by his ambitious and politically savvy boss, ‘The Yak’. A rival general would like to add the Office of Special Investigations to the Division of Murder, and without solving a high profile case in the next nine days, that's a distinct possibility. Rostnikov and his small team are in a race against time and several parties – including a super model, assassin, Olympic standard weight-lifter, a Russian billionaire, Botswanan gang and Russian mobsters – interested in recovering a fortune in diamonds and cash.

People Who Walk in Darkness has a fast paced plot involving many threads. The plot and characters hold much potential, but the narrative failed to deliver in many ways. The storytelling felt workman-like and rushed, with not enough attention to detail. My suspicion is it was written to a formula, by an old hand who has a track record of churning out a couple of books a year – others of which are much more finely honed. The result is flat prose, under-developed characters and scenes, and a lack of context and story scaffold. This was a real shame as the bones of a decent caper/police procedural novel are here. An interesting enough read, but not out of the top draw.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm most of the way through Michael Lewis' The Big Short, possibly one of the most depressing books I've read in a while. The focus is the greed, stupidity and duplicity of Wall Street and their handling of the sub-prime market and the handful of people who saw the crash coming and rather than try and stop it, put billion dollar bets on it happening. Casino capitalism at work. There's a reason for financial regulation and oversight and this book spells out why.

My posts this week:
More for the pile
'I do bad things but I'm not a bad man'
Review of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010
Review of A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
How to regress Irish universities and the smart economy
Review of The Main by Trevanian

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review of The Main by Trevanian (1976, edition Old Street Publishing)

The Main is Boulevard Saint Laurent, the heart of immigrant Montreal and an artery of the underworld and its vices. Police Lieutenant Claude LaPointe patrols the street and the neighbourhoods surrounding it as a patrician – a ruler who keeps peace and order, using his power, influence and street knowledge to marshal the drifters, cheats, thieves and other assorted lowlifes and people on the make. LaPointe is an old style cop that uses embarrassment, threats, intimidation and the odd bit of violence to stop the street descending into chaos. He’s an anachronism as policing changes; his old style methods out of place in a modern force. He is a rule unto himself, ignoring departmental procedure, paperwork and orders, and the senior management want him retired. The job though is his life. His wife died years before, with only her memory and the daughters that never were keeping him company. When a young man is found murdered in a side alley, LaPointe takes charge. A young, principled cop is assigned to work with him and despite their differences they work together to try and solve the puzzle, and in doing so come to see themselves in different ways.

The Main is principally a character driven novel in two senses. First, it is a detailed exploration of a neighbourhood, its geography, people, dynamics and relationships. Second, it is an in-depth portrait of a man and his lifeworld, outlook and philosophy, and how he relates to those people who populate his life. Trevanian really excels at both using well constructed prose. There is real insight, understanding and perceptive psychological and philosophical observation in his writing. He’s particularly good at teasing out the ambivalent, shifting, complex and sometimes paradoxical relationships between people and the places they inhabit. The murder and the investigation is almost incidental; a foil through which to explore the Main and LaPointe. Which is the one slight weakness of the novel. The mystery wasn’t particularly compelling and the resolution seemed somewhat weak and contrived. But this really isn’t a police procedural in the conventional sense. It is much more than that. If the murder element of the plot had received the same kind of attention that the character portrayal and sense of place then it would have been exceptional. As it was, it’s damn fine piece of writing and well worth a read.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review of A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (Picador, 2009)

September 1952 and the body of Willem Pretorius, an Afrikan Captain of the local police force, is found dead, lying face down in waters of a river he’d been fishing in rural South Africa. Due to a miscommunication, rather than a full investigative team arriving on the scene, Sergeant Cooper, an ‘English’ South African has been dispatched on his own, much to the chagrin of the dead man’s powerful family. Not long after Cooper starts his investigation, the case is taken over by the army’s security branch who are keen to prove that the captain’s death was the work of black communists. Convinced that the security branch are using the murder for their own ends and that Pretorius had been leading a double life, Cooper is ordered by his boss to stay in place and run a parallel investigation, much to the annoyance of the family and the army. Running against the grain, he slowly starts to unpick Pretorius’ dark secrets, aware that in pursuing them he is in danger of revealing his own – secrets that would threaten his position.

A Beautiful Place to Die has all the ingredients of a good crime novel – social tension between individuals and groups, interesting historical context, excellent characterization, strong sense of place, good pacing and a well constructed plot. The novel is set not long after the National Party came to power in 1948 and started to push a strong apartheid agenda and Nunn uses this context to good effect, especially the simmering tensions between Dutch Afrikaners, English White, Blacks and Coloureds, and even Jewish refugees from Germany, and exploring the blurred lines between these groups. The characters are well penned and memorable, and the dialogue and scenes were well judged. The sense of place is particularly strong, capturing both the landscape of rural South Africa and the geography of apartheid in terms of how space was carved up and traversed. The plot builds nicely, with a number of blinds and twists, though ultimately in striving for increasing tension the end wobbles a little by stretching plausibility to the limit and becoming a little too over-melodramatic. This was a shame as the book really was excellent up until this point. Regardless, there is much to like about A Beautiful Place to Die, and Nunn has the foundation for an enjoyable series.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"I do bad things but I'm not a bad man"

I was walking across campus this evening, trailing behind two young students flirting with each other. The man was wearing low rider jeans with no belt that kept slipping down to reveal multi-coloured underpants. The woman was wearing a short skirt over black tights. The skirt kept riding up her hips to reveal her tight-clad knickers. Every few yards he pulled up his trousers and she tugged down her skirt. It was one of those scenes where you feel you've entered a comedy sketch. What they needed to do was walk with their arms around each other, her hand holding his trousers up, his hand holding her skirt down. As I caught up and passed them, I heard one line of their conversation, said by him: "I do bad things, but I'm not a bad man". There's probably the hook of a short story there. Maybe I'll get round to using it sometime.

Monday, March 21, 2011

More for the pile

Four more books turned up today in the post, two of them for my Seattle trip next month. I've been on a bit of book buying binge since the start of the year and I've now got just over 40 books on the TBR, about half a year's supply at my present rate of reading. I usually try and keep it about around ten to fifteen, so I'm finding this pile a bit overwhelming. What it does mean is that I have great choice as I near the end of whatever book I'm presently reading. Looking forward to these ones in due course.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Arrived back from Montreal this afternoon after experiencing the joys of transferring through Heathrow; definitely the most chaotically designed airport I've experienced. I'n now wrecked from the travelling. Managed to finish The Main by Trevanian on the plane. Interesting to read a novel of an unfamiliar place, which one can explore whilst one reads. It might be forty odd years since the book was written, but the landscape along the Boulevard Saint-Laurent has little altered. All through the story, the Hotel de Ville de Montreal was being sandblasted to clean up the stonework and, and right now it is undergoing restoration work, covered in a giant hoarding.

My posts this week:
Review of The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham
The Main
Well you wouldn't think I'm in Canada from the books I've bought
Review of He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

Friday, March 18, 2011

Review of He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond (Abacus, 1984)

A man in his fifties is found in West London having been tortured and beaten to death. Within hours, the chief inspector has decided it’s a deadbeat case with few prospect of either headlines or being solved. The case is passed to a detective sergeant from A14, the section for unexplained deaths. The section is considered the graveyard of career ambition, staffed by plodders who try to grind out results for difficult cases. All the sergeant has to go on is that the dead man’s name is Charles Staniland and he died a slow, painful death somewhere other than where he was found. As he investigates the case, trooping round the underbelly of London, he slowly starts to become obsessed with Staniland’s life, and in particular the femme fatale, Barbara, a woman whom Staniland found impossible to both live with and without. Finding it difficult to unearth a solid lead or evidence, the sergeant tries to unsettle and unnerve those who he suspects are responsible for the murder, but in so doing he’s making himself vulnerable in the same way as had Staniland.

Derek Raymond is the pen-name of Robin Cook, his own name already taken by the medical thriller writer and the Labour politician. Having looked him up online, it seems that Raymond’s own history has more than a few passing references to Charles Staniland, the murder victim in He Died With His Eyes Open – both retreated as boys to the countryside in the Second World War, went to public school, dropped out of upper class life, went on the lam around Europe, bought a crumbling chateau in France, squandered their inheritance, worked as odd-job men and in the vineyards, their wives left them taking the children, they came back to Britain, worked as taxi drivers, and fell in with criminals. The unnamed policeman, one suspects, is his alter-ego, a stronger character, but with the same obsessive, reflective tendencies and weaknesses. Given its strong autobiographical elements, it’s no wonder then that Staniland’s nasal gazing, set out in the novel as passages from a set of tapes he used to record his thoughts, are very rich in detail and insight. The result is a book that is dark and sombre and which reads very much like a US hardboiled PI story, especially given the loner nature and personality of the cop. The prose is generally excellent and for a while I felt the book was first rate. The characterisation of the unnamed policeman, Staniland and Barbara is well constructed. As the story progresses, however, the plotting and pacing become a little uneven and ragged, and Staniland’s tapes and the plot in general become a little tiring. One knows from quite a long way out who killed Staniland, which left few options for the ending, which felt a little staged and false. Overall, a dark story with great prose, which becomes a little ragged as it progresses.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Well, you wouldn't think I'm in Canada from the books I've bought

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday wandering round Chapters and Indigo bookstores in downtown Montreal. Both had large crime sections. After quite a bit of browsing I ended up buying five books. A couple at top whack hardback prices. A fairly eclectic set. None of them are written by Canadian authors. How sad is that? Will have to have another session in them at some point.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Main

I arrived in Montreal last night. I'm presently a couple of chapters into The Main by Trevanian, set in the city in the early 1970s. The first chapter sets out the sense of place of The Main - Boulevard St Laurent in the heart of the city. I've been wandering around today and made a bee-line for The Main to see what it was like. I thought it might have been gentrified in the intervening 40 years, but it is still quite down at heal and had the feel of a liminal space, with its mix of immigrant shops and sex show places. It certainly hasn't been yuppified. Good to have the place in my head now as I read.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham (Time Warner, 2004)

Retired DCI Carol Chamberlain is being hassled by a man who claims to have killed a teenage schoolgirl by setting her on fire twenty years ago. Only the man convicted of the crime, Gordon Rooker, is still in prison. The victim was meant to be the daughter of a gangland boss, but instead her best friend died. Nonetheless the boss took the hint and retired and his second in command, Billy Ryan took over. Ryan has gone on to consolidate his position as a leading London gangster, but is now engaged in vicious eye-for-an-eye turf war with a Turkish gang headed by the Zarif family. When the Turkish owners of a video shop are murdered, DI Tom Thorne and the team he’s working for are assigned to the case. Then Carol Chamberlain makes contact, seeking help. Rooker, coming up for parole, now claims to be innocent, having refused to undertake the contract which had been issued by Ryan. And whoever did kill the burning girl seems to have resurfaced in the middle of a gangland war.

Like many of the leading police procedural writers such as Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly, Billingham has an easy but engaging writing style and a well developed, flawed, driven but sympathetic main character. The pages flip past without any real sense of the reader having do any work. This I think is a strong positive; clear, engaging, economical prose, with realistic scenes and dialogue. The Burning Girl is a solid piece of storytelling, but for me the book lacked the bite or spark that would have given it some needed suspense. The plot seemed a little aimless at times, as if Billingham wasn’t quite sure where it was going, and there were a couple of plot devices I didn’t really understand, such as the investigation being wrapped up and the team being disbanded even though the case was clearly not over. And the internal police tension amongst team members seemed staged. In contrast, the lives, politics and tactics of gang rivalry and prison life was more convincing. Overall, a solid, entertaining read, but not quite out of the top draw.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Just finished He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond. It's a dark, noir tale set in London in the early 1980s, that very much has a hardboiled PI feel about it, although the main protagonist is a Sergeant in the London Met. It has an interesting conversational tone to it at times. For example, the start.

He was found in the shrubbery in front of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don't know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you'll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other.

I don't know Albatross Road, as it happens (and a quick scout of Google Maps reveals I never could, although Hanger Lane W5 exists). But my mind's eye has had a pretty good go at imagining it.

My posts this week
Spitting on a Soldier's Grave by Robert Widders
Dallas crime fiction
Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse
Programme for Government/Minister for Housing and Planning
Seattle crime fiction
"This book represents a ‘William Gibson moment’ for the critical social sciences."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"This book represents a ‘William Gibson moment’ for the critical social sciences"

A new version of the Code/Space jacket cover arrived by email during the night. It has a new city image and the back cover author endorsements (click on the image for larger version). The endorsements are pretty flattering and from a great set of scholars. This statement made me smile: "This book represents a ‘William Gibson moment’ for the critical social sciences." It would be great if it were true, especially as Neuromancer is near the top of my list of best reads, but alas I fear it is the usual bookcover hyperbole, nice though it is. Here are the endorsements in full.

“Software is all around us. It is making new worlds of which we are often only faintly aware. So it is not just good to have this map of code/space, it is essential. All concerned citizens need to read it and think again about the world they inhabit.”
Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick

“This book represents a ‘William Gibson moment’ for the critical social sciences. Drawing upon the insights of geography, science and technology studies, and social and cultural theory, it offers an analytic encapsulation of how we should approach software and code when coming to terms with contemporary social ontology. It is a book written with a rare clarity, and it draws upon a rich set of empirical illustrations. Essential reading for all those concerned with how the social sciences should approach a world in which algorithmic power and processes of software sorting are coming to define ever more domains of everyday life.”
Roger Burrows, Department of Sociology, University of York

“Code/Space is like a travel guide to a new world—a world run on a hidden universe of computer code. With all aspects of contemporary life—from air travel to social networking, from online shopping to political violence—now orchestrated by obscure worlds of software, this dazzling book is the first to define the politics, sociology, and geography of this rapidly emerging world.”
Stephen Graham, Newcastle University

Nice! Thanks guys, cheques are in the post.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Seattle crime fiction

Next month I'm heading out to Seattle for a week, via Dallas. Whilst I'm still looking for Dallas crime fiction, I also on the hunt for crime fiction set in Seattle. I'm aware of GM Ford and I have one of his books in the TBR, but other suggestions would be gratefully received. Any ideas? One thing I've already pencilled into my diary is a visit to the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I aim to keep a decent size space in my suitcase free for my raid on the place.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse (The Bodley Head, 2010)

Roger Moorhouse’s premise for writing Berlin at War was that much has been written about the Nazi Party, leading figures, the German armed forces, various campaigns and theatres of war, and the Holocaust, but little has been written about the lives of ordinary Germans during the war. In Berlin at War he seeks to rectify this by using documentary evidence and war diaries to examine the lives of Berliners, and those living in the city such as diplomats, journalists and forced labourers, during the conflict. Rather than chart a straight chronological history, Moorhouse instead focuses on key themes such as rationing and sourcing food, architecture, bombings and taking shelter, entertainment, propaganda, evacuation, Jewish deportations, forced labour, regulations, governance and policing, resistance, public mood, and armed conflict. The result is a somewhat dry, but fascinating account of life in the German capital. Somewhat ironically, for a book that is meant to focus on the everyday lives of Berliners, the book starts by describing a Nazi parade for Hitler’s birthday in April 1939, rather than the mundanity of work or home life or leisure. The reliance on diaries and written testament, rather than interviews, is partially responsible I think for the quite detached tone, and it took me a little while to get into the book. By about a hundred pages in though I was hooked and Moorhouse does an admirable job of discussing a range of different issues to build up a reasonably comprehensive overview of everyday life. Not the most compelling book on the Second War World, and does not significantly extend accounts by William Shirer and Anthony Beevor or indeed the novels of Philip Kerr and Hans Falada, but an interesting read nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dallas crime fiction?

I'm going to be in Dallas for a couple of days next month. Since I try and read crime fiction set in the places I visit, I'm looking for some recommendations for crime stories set in and around the city. Does anyone have any good suggestions? I'll also take suggestions for Texas crime fiction, but it's Dallas I'm particularly interested in.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave by Robert Widders (Matador, 2010)

The subtitle of Robert Widders short book is ‘Court Martialed After Death, the Story of the Forgotten Irish and British Soldiers’. The focus is principally soldiers who deserted the Irish Army during World War II and crossed the border into Northern Ireland to join the allied services. 4,983 personnel deserted the Irish Army during the war, over 4,000 of whom joined the British services. Contrary to the belief that this was purely for financial gain, the interviews Widders conducted reveal a more complex set of reasons including boredom, political ideology, adventure, and moral justice.

If deserters returned home they could be jailed. For deserters with families, the consequence was children could be removed from the family home and placed in an industrial school through the 1941 Children’s Act that enable the state to do so if one parent was absent. At the end of the war those that served with the Allies were court martialed en masse and in absentia, with exception oddly of officers, and their names placed on a list that disbarred them from working for the state or state agencies for seven years (which was a major employer). This blanket court martial applied to those men that had fought and died fighting fascism. Not only were returning Irish soldiers disbarred from some kinds of work, they were ineligible for unemployment benefit and could not access their British demobilisation benefits, and they were publicly shunned. Those deserters that did not leave Ireland or went to Britain to work in its war factories did not face such penalties. In other words, desertion was only punished if the soldier went on to serve with the British Army, but not otherwise, clearly a highly politicised and partial decision.

Widders is clearly outraged with the discriminatory actions of the Irish state, given that those fighting the Nazis were fighting for democracy and Ireland’s future, given that Ireland would have undoubtedly been over-run and made a dominion like the rest of occupied Europe if not faced by the Allies. Whilst the book is interesting and informative, its shortcoming is depth and detail. It is relatively short at 142 pages. All of its chapters are short and partial. It reports on a number of interviews with Irish deserters who fought for the Allies, but the narrative lacks more historical context about Ireland during the war, the Irish services, Irish politics and the discourse and actions of the army and state in relation to deserters. Widders makes it clear that such historical detail is not his intention, rather wanting to get a populist book out as soon as feasible, but the argument and story does suffer as a result. Overall, a fascinating book that feels like a starter rather than the main course.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

A quiet week of blogging. A busy week at work. Yesterday at the beach in Sligo giving the dogs a salt bath. A beautiful part of the world. Should hopefully get three reviews up this coming week. Now back to reading through the first draft of Good Cop/Bad Cop.

My posts this week:
Short story: Insurance
February reviews
Scarry Nights

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Scarry Nights

I've finally read the 59 stories in Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge. Took me a while but I got there. All about 800-1000 words long. I tried leaving comments on a fair few, but for whatever reason, Blogger kept eating my comments. Very frustrating. These were my favourite fifteen. Not for the faint-hearted mind. The scar theme runs strong.

Kieran Shea - The Shift Change
Paul Brazill - The Endless Sleep
JF Norris - I Keep it Wherever I go
Patti Aboott - Burnt the Fire
Cameron Ashley - Robbie V Wants a Job
Brian Lindenmuth - My Brother's Keeper
Alan Griffiths - Razorblade Kisses
Jack Bates - Karaokie isn't for Wussies
Dana King - Slump Buster
Chad Eagleton - The Pit
Glenn Gray - Scars
Fleur Bradley - Restraining Order
Jimmy Callaway - Neuva Localizacion
MC Funk - Growing Scars
RL Kelstrom - Scars

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

February reviews

A fairly varied month of reading. The stand out book by a country mile was Philip Kerr's Field Grey. Bernie Gunther is a great character and Kerr is excellent at creating a complex plot that stretches out over twenty years, and which overlaps with the other six books. Really top-notch stuff.

Miami Blues by Charles Willeford ***
Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty ***.5
The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer ****
Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird ****
Field Grey by Philip Kerr *****
The Ice Harvest Scott Phillips ****
The Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose **
The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett ****