Saturday, December 31, 2011

The dance floor swallows him whole

The music was throbbing, lights flashing in sequence.

'I'm telling you, she likes you,' Mike shouted, raising his pint to his lips.

'I don't even like me,' Richie shouted back, 'there's no way she does.'

From across the dance floor a young woman glanced over at them.

'Go on, ask her to dance.'

'She'll say no.'

'You won't know unless you ask! Go on, you wuss.'

'Sod it. I'll be back in ten seconds.'

He tapped her bare shoulder.

'Do you want to dance?'

'Only with your mate.' She looked past him.

His shoulders slumped. 'Come on, I'll introduce you.'

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Almost missed the regular Saturday slot; made it just in time!

2011 End of Year Book Meme

I picked up this meme from Reactions to Reading, who got it from Jen's Book Thoughts. I read 103 books in 2011 (two more than 2010).

1. Best Book of 2011 - A close run thing but I'm going with Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke. Here's what I said in the review: "Burke uses Greek mythology, theology and philosophy to deconstruct and satirise the life of a writer, the crime novel and contemporary society, especially the Irish health system. The result is a very clever book, that’s at once fun and challenging. The prose and plot has been honed within an inch of its life, full of lovely turns of phrases, philosophical depth and keen observational insight. ... Absolute Zero Cool takes the crime genre and its many tropes and stereotypes and throws them out the window. It’s a genuinely unique tale." My favourite non-fiction book was Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell.

2. Worst Book of 2011 - Agent X by Noah Boyd. Here's my damning verdict. "In my view it was the literary equivalent of a Steven Seagal movie. The prose was workmanlike and flat and the dialogue wooden, lifeless and corny. The characters have no depth and their back stories are practically none existent. There is barely any chemistry between the leads, despite their supposed attraction. The plot is totally unbelievable, both in premise and its unfolding, with Vail solving a whole series of very difficult puzzles in a matter of seconds, undertaking James Bondesque escapes where the baddies really should have finished him off several times, and relying on a couple of unlikely coincidences."

3. Most Disappointing Book - Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly. I'm a massive Connelly fan, but for me this one fell well short of his best work. Here's part of my verdict. "The story felt rushed, with prose that was workmanlike and flat. And the plot was weak, feeling like two shorter stories jammed together. The part of the book set in Hong Kong, in particular, seemed to lack life, depth and credibility. There was a particular event that happens that is described as if it had barely any emotional resonance or trauma to Bosch and other characters, and it continues as a notable absence throughout the rest of the book. And from the minute Bosch arrives back from Hong Kong, very little of the plot seems credible. The result is a police procedural/psychological thriller with the psychology bit mostly missing; a Harry Bosch story where Bosch seems like a very pale version of himself." Still can't believe I wrote that about a Michael Connelly book; he's usually bang on the money.

4. Most surprising (in a good way) book
- Mixed Blood by Roger Smith. Bought on a whim in a bookshop in London and with no sense of what to expect. It was one of my discoveries of the year. My verdict: "starts at a nice quick pace and steadily gathers more speed, rattling and twisting along like a rollercoaster by the end. This pace, however, is not at the expense of plot, sense of place or characterisation. Indeed, Smith manages to pack an awful lot into three hundred pages and Mixed Blood is a masterclass in tight, taut and tense writing."

5. Book you recommended to people most
- Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke and The City, The City by China Mieville (I work in an academic Geography department and the latter is an interesting exploration of territory).

6. Best series you discovered - Difficult to judge but I plan on continuing with these four series - William Ryan's Captain Korolev, Asa Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson, Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway, and Stan Jones' Nathan Active.

7. Favourite new authors you discovered - I read books by 71 authors new to me in 2011. Alan Glynn, William Ryan and Victor Gischler made sufficient impact that I read two of their books during the year. Other new favourites include John Brady, Tom Franklin, Roger Smith, Esi Edugyan, Frank Bill and Sergios Gakas.

8. Most hilarious read - I didn't read half as many humorous novels as I would have liked, something I intend to alter in 2012. Top of 2011 list though goes to Eoin Colfer's Plugged. "A zip along plot; lots of action; plenty of twists and turns; some very funny scenes; a healthy dose of witty one liners; and a load of colourful characters."

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book - Field Grey by Philip Kerr, closely followed by Mixed Blood by Roger Smith and The Holy Thief by William Ryan.

10. Book you most anticipated - Devil Red by Joe Lansdale; One of Our Thursday's is Missing by Jasper Fforde; Field Grey by Philip Kerr. Big fan of all three series.

11. Favorite cover of a book you read - Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I like the simplicity and humour.

12. Most memorable character - Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard in Mixed Blood; Captain Korolev in The Holy Thief; Larry Ott in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Sid in Half Blood Blues; Ruth Galloway in The Crossing Places

13. Most beautifully written book - Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo had an unusual and engaging style, David Peace's 1974 was like reading a pitch perfect scream, Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep was beautiful sculptures of prose, Frank Bill's Crimes in Southern Indiana was all float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, but I'm going for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. My verdict was: "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a masterclass in Country Noir - atmospheric, understated, dark, humane."

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you - difficult to judge. The affective response to 1974 by David Peace and Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill were both quite powerful. Simon Carswell's Anglo Republic had my blood boiling at times.

15. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2011 to finally read? The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson first published in 1952. What can I say? I'm still catching up on the classics. Was it worth the wait? You betcha. The writing was tight, all tell and no show, and plotting and characterization was excellent.

Review of Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011)

Crimes in Southern Indiana is a collection of 17 short stories all set in the area and interlinked by characters and common settings such as the Leavenworth Tavern. They are also the darkest set of country noir tales you're ever likely to read. If they were accompanied by a musical score it would be fighting banjos played by Black Sabbath. These are dark, dark stories of the rural underclass and feature murder, revenge, drugs, prostitution, rape, dog fights, bare knuckle boxing, domestic violence, incest, child abuse, mental illness, hit and runs, and immigrant gangs. Bill's tales are populated by the desperate, the needy, the greedy, the lawless, the revengeful, the hapless and the hopeless; people whose moral compass has been whacked off kilter and never reset. Across the stories, the sense of place is palpable and the characterisation excellent. There is a little unevenness in storytelling, ranging from good to outstanding, but each tale is well conceived and paced, using prose that swings at the reader in graceful arcs and wallops in the gut like an iron fist wrapped in silk. The stories might have been ruthless, joyless, bittersweet, cathartic, violent and vengeful, but they evoke a powerful, conflicting affective response of repulsion and admiration. Definitely not a book for everyone, but for those that like their noir as black as the water at the bottom of the Ohio River, this is a must read.

Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 wishlist

Here's what is presently on my 2012 reading wishlist, in no particular order:

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Money Shot by Christa Faust

Head Games by Craig McDonald

Death In The City Of Light by David King

Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill

Star Island
by Carl Hiaasen

Incompetence by Rob Grant

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

The Stingray Shuffle by Tim Dorsey

Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint

White Heat by Melanie McGrath

Kiss Me Quick by Danny Miller

Death on the Marais by Adrian Magson

Cypress Grove by James Sallis

The Dead Detective by William Heffernan

The Imitation of Patsy Burke by John J. Gaynard

The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin

The Brotherhood by YA Erskine

Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh

When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson

Review of Taken by Niamh O'Connor (Transworld 2011)

Celebrity model, Tara Parker Trench, has just filled up her car with petrol at a Dublin city centre garage. Her young son, Presley, is asleep in his car seat and its lashing rain so she decides to leave him in the car whilst she pays. When she returns a couple of minutes later, Presley has gone. Turning to the police for help they do very little. At her wits end, Tara seeks the aid of Inspector Jo Birmingham. Frustrated by her colleagues lack of action, she sets to work on the case. Very quickly it becomes clear that there is much more going on than a snatched child. Tara's world is not simply modelling and child care, but includes drugs, prostitution and people in high places. And she has just dragged Jo Birmingham into it and its dangers.

Taken starts at a clip and steadily builds steam. Niamh O'Connor works as the true crime editor of the Sunday World and she brings her knowledge of Ireland's criminal underbelly to the story, fictionalising elements of rumours concerning high class prostitution she's heard in her day job. Whilst the criminal side of the story, linking the rich and famous with underclass criminal gangs seems credible, the policing and family side of the story seemed less so. The guards are portrayed as incompetent, jealous and backstabbing, and the procedural elements are weak. This worked to create some tension and melodrama, but also undermined the credibility of the story. The plot also relied on some awkward set-ups at times, such as leaving the car unlocked, putting people in an inspector's office unattended, and a mobile phone too wet to use. Despite this, the story rattles along at a heck of a pace, dragging the reader with it as the various threads are woven together and resolved, culminating in an explosive finale. And given the high melodrama, its breakneck speed, and the mixing of the rich, famous and criminal gangs I can easily envisage Taken being serialised for television. Overall, a searing commentary on the legacy of Celtic Tiger excesses, played out through thrill-bound melodrama.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2010)

From the back cover: "Zinzi has a sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she's forced to take on her least favourite kind of job - missing persons."

Zoo City is not an easy book to summarize. It's set in present day Johannesburg and follows Zinzi December, a former journalist and drug addict, as she tries to find one half of a pop band who has disappeared. Zinzi has spent time in prison for killing her brother. She's also been animalled, like others who have morally transgressed; twinned with an animal familiar that is symbiotically attached to her and also given a special power which acts as both a blessing and a curse. In her case, she carries round a sloth who is atuned to her thinking and she is able to find missing items. A new, unexplained phenomena around the world, those animalled are marginalised, living with stigma and on the edges of society. Zinzi squats in Zoo City eaking out a living from her special talent and by writing email scam letters for a gangster designed to get the gullible to part with their cash. As she tries to track the missing pop star she's drawn into a deadly conspiracy where she's being set up as the fall girl.

Zoo City is a highly imaginative and creative story; a kind of modern version of cyberpunk - blending new cultural forms and urban dystopias into a rich kaleidoscope of colour and action. Indeed, it reminded me of William Gibson circa Virtual Light. This is no bad thing. Beukes is something of a 'word pimp' in her own words, fashioning some nice prose and a richly realised world. I suspect it is a book that needs a second reading to fully appreciate all the nuances of the story. There is so much going on, some of which is only obliquely explained, that it sometimes a little difficult to follow what is unfolding. And whilst the story is engaging and clever, it is also seemed a little uneven its telling. That said, Zinzi December is an interesting character that's fun to spend some time with and the book is populated with other colourful folk and subcultures. Overall, a entertaining read that works on different levels.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Irony and iconography

Finished Zoo City by Lauren Beukes yesterday. A book chocked full of ideas, imagination and astute observations. I could have pulled any number of passages out, but I liked this one about how the political is neutralised into a brand.

The Biko Bar is to Stephen Biko as crappy t-shirt design is to Che Guevara. His portrait stares down from various cheeky interpretations. A hand-painted bardber-shop sign with a line up of Bikos in profile modelling different hair-styles and headgear; a chiskop, a mullet, a makarapa mining helmet. Steve stares out with that trademark mix of determination and wistful heroism from the centre of a PAC-style Africa made of bold rays of sunlight. Steve, with a lion's mane, is the focal point of a crest of struggle symbols, power fists, soccer balls and a cursive "The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." My academic dad would have hated it. Reduced by irony and iconography to a brand.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review of Kursk by Lloyd Clark (Headline Review, 2011)

In early July 1943 the largest single battle in history took place around the Kursk salient on the frontline between German and Russian armies. It involved over two and half million men and several thousand tanks and planes and lasted less than three weeks. In that time the Russians suffered 177,847 casualties and lost 1600 armoured vehicles and 460 aircraft; the Germans lost 56,872 casualties and lost 252 tanks and 159 tanks. In a pincer movement from the north and south, the Germans launched an offensive to try and cut the salient off and ring the Russian troops. They played straight into the Russian plans, who had constructed several rings of defences designed to absorb and neutralize the attackers and to wear them down by shear attrition. This was to be followed by a large counter-offensive. For the Germans still reeling after Stalingrad, this was the last major offensive of the war; a last throw of the dice. 'Stalingrad was the end of the beginning,' in Churchill's words, 'Kursk was the beginning of the end.'

Lloyd Clark's book seeks to tell the story of the battle, placing it in the context of the larger German-Russian relations and the Eastern front, and to tell it from both sides. This scope means the book falls between two stools. On the one hand, the contextualisation material takes up far too much of the book. It is only at page 218 (out of 389) that we get to the battle. For anyone who is interested in military history, the pre-war material is a distraction; they most likely bought the book to read about the battle in particular. The context needed to focus solely on the immediate run up to it, not the previous thirty years, and it needed to be a lot shorter (it could have started around page 166, for example). On the other hand, given that the battle constitutes less than half the book and it's trying to detail a massive engagement, the material is quite sketchy and sometimes difficult to follow. There are a number of maps in the book, but the text never refers to them once and they appear at chapter breaks rather than where they are discussed in the narrative (and it's quite difficult to link up text and map due to labelling and coverage). They could have been used to much better effect. The description is quite dry, and whilst Clark tries to place the reader on the battlefield through the voices of some of the men who took part in the battle it doesn't work as effectively as it might. Kursk works as a general primer to the hostilities between Germany and Russia, the Eastern front, and the battle, but readers with a general interest in Second World War military history who want a detailed account of the battle itself will probably be better off looking elsewhere.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Review of Anglo Republic by Simon Carswell (Penguin, 2011)

In 2006 Ireland was riding on the back of the Celtic Tiger phenomena. The country was booming. The sky was full of cranes, unemployment was the lowest in Europe, everyone seemed to be driving a new car, and shopping trips to New York seemed normal. Fast forward to the end of 2011 and the country is in a very different place. One of the biggest banking busts globally led to the country being bailed out by the troika of IMF-ECB-EU and the effective loss of economic sovereignty. Unlike most of the rest of the global financial crisis that started to unfold in 2007, Ireland's economic crisis was not tied to the packaging and reselling of complex financial derivatives linked to sub-prime loans in the US. Rather it was a good, old fashioned property bubble grossly inflated by access to global inter-bank lending, very poor financial regulation, tax incentives, laissez faire planning, and greed. Ireland's banks, hungry for profit and growth, started to believe the rhetoric of developers hungry for capital to buy land and build property, and lent out massive sums of money. Risk assessment, due diligence and basic market analysis were pushed to one side. The result was huge profits, high stock price, massive lending way in-excess of deposit books, and enormous over-exposure to property. As the global financial crisis started to bite, the Irish banks and their lending came under scrutiny. Large institutional shareholders, investors and depositors started to get nervous. Share price dropped, money flowed out of the country, and investors wanted repaying. A run on the Irish banks seemed likely. The Irish government stepped in with a bank guarantee scheme, offering a national guarantee to all deposits and investments (to the tune of €440 billion). Next followed a calamitous set of decision-making that ultimately led to recapitalisation and nationalisation of the banks, the formation of NAMA, effectively a state bad bank, and the country being bankrupted. Bankrupted being the right word, since by tying the state to the Irish banks through the guarantee, the country was wedded to their dwindling fortunes.

Anglo Republic tells this tale through a forensic examination of Anglo Irish Bank. Anglo was the financial darling of the Celtic Tiger years. It grew from a small investment bank to become the third largest bank in the state. Each year it posted record profits and its share price grew accordingly. And more than any other bank its growth was tied to the property sector. Analysts were flabbergasted at its performance. Rather than questioning its business practices, they instead invested. Here was a bank that had seemingly found a magic formula. As Simon Carswell's book reveals, however, it's success was built on poor foundations and dodgy practices. Anglo was dependent on persistent high growth in the Irish economy to keep its house of cards upright. As soon as the economy started to slow, it started to fail. And it started using all kinds of tricks to keep the cards in place, including shifting money on and off the books when accounts were being audited and lending money to borrowers to buy shares to keep the share price up. If things were bad in the bank, things weren't much different outside with the financial regulator, Central Bank and Department of Finance all working to keep a dying entity alive. Anglo was viewed by the Irish government as a systemic risk to the state and could not simply wound down. Its balance sheet was equivalent to 60% of Irish GDP (Lehman Brothers was 7% of US GDP), and represented a fifth of the banking sector. Globally, no bank that represented such a large proportion of a country's banking balance sheet had failed before. All told, an entire year's worth of tax receipts were pumped into Anglo and promptly written down, never to be seen again. When Carswell chose the subtitle, 'Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland', he was being literal.

Anglo Republic is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the present Irish crisis and how it unfolded from a wider banking perspective and within a single financial institution. Carswell has amassed amount of information on the company and how it operated, included access into board meetings, email between key players and dozens of interviews. He does a very good job at putting a shape to all this information, producing a compelling narrative that details what went on in and outside the bank. Crucially he manages to weave the main characters, their motivations and actions, into the story to lift the book up out of a rather dry history. Sean FitzPatrick, David Drumm, Sean Quinn, Pat Neary and Brian Lenihan all figure prominently. What is particularly interested is the ways in which FitzPatrick, Drumm and Quinn schemed to try and save themselves and their personal fortunes whilst trying to keep a sinking ship afloat. Where the book is a little thin is with respect to wider analysis and judgement. Carswell describes in great detail Anglo's rise and fall, but does little to explain it; he shies away from commenting on the legalities and moralities of actions taken; and he fails to state how he thinks the system needs to changed to stop such a situation arising again. Overall, a book heavy on factual narrative that provides a very useful descriptive analysis of a banking and state failure. It's also a book that should perhaps come with a health warning: 'likely to make your blood boil'.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lazy Christmas Service

Happy seasonal break. Hope some nice books are under your tree (or as with the photo right the whole tree is made of books) and you get the time to read them.

My posts this week:
Review of The Cleansing Flames by R.N. Morris
Review of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Review of Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Seasonal reading
Review of The Killer is Dying by James Sallis
The cook is in meltdown

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The cook is in meltdown


'Yeah?' he replies from the living room.

'Where's the cranberry sauce?'

'I don't know.'

'Well, can you find it and put it on the table? Your parents are going to arrive anytime now.'

'We've loads of time until we eat.'

'Just do it will you!'

Steve enters the kitchen. The two children follow him in, clutching games consoles and radiating excitement. They head for a tin of chocolates.

'Out!' Chloe snaps. 'It's nearly time for Christmas dinner!'

Steve puts an arm round her waist. 'Hey, calm down. It's just a dinner.'

'Not with your mother judging it, it isn't.'

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of The Killer is Dying by James Sallis (No Exit Press, 2011)

For forty years Christian has advertised as a disposer of dolls. Seriously ill he is working what will probably be his last hit. Someone else however gets there before him, though they botch the job. Sayles, a tired cop nearing the end of his career, and his partner Graves are assigned to the case. Not wanting to die a slow painful death in front of her husband, Sayles' wife, Josie, has fled to an anonymous hospice. Meanwhile, Jimmie, a young teenager abandoned by his parents, wheels and deals on ebay to pay the household bills and create the impression that he's not living home alone. Used to dreamless nights, he's started to have the vivid dreams of a killer. The three lonely men orbit around each other as Christian hunts for the person who attacked his target, Sayles works the case, and Jimmie tries to maintain his illusion.

I found The Killer is Dying a curious read. It's elliptical, layered and somewhat ponderous, seeming to almost skirt around the edges of what might be considered the main story (the attempted killing of Rankin). For a short book, it's full of asides and tangent observations. The reader is given entry ways into the lives of the three main characters, small samples of their back stories, but it all remains a little bit elusive and enigmatic. One part of me liked this as it invited the reader to work with the author, another part found it frustrating that so much was left tantalizingly out of reach. Having reached the final page, my overall sense was that I never really felt I got to know either the case or the characters to any sufficient degree. Sallis' writing is prose with a nice cadence. His style and how he approaches the story has its charms, but for my tastes the story needed a little more depth and definition. There was enough here, however, that I'll give another one of his books a go.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Seasonal reading

For the last couple of years I have spent the seasonal break with my head down writing. For a change, I'm going to pass this year and read instead. I've pulled ten books off the pile for the seasonal break. I almost certainly won't get through them all, but I'm looking forward to having a go.

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes
Crimes in Southern Indiana - Frank Bill
Kursk - Lloyd Clark
White Nights - Ann Cleaves
Buried Strangers - Leighton Gage
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Black Sheep - Arlene Hunt
Shaman Pass - Stan Jones
Prague Fatale - Philip Kerr
Taken - Niamh O'Connor

A good mix there, I think.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of Mixed Blood by Roger Smith (Serpent's Tail, 2009)

A veteran of the Iraq war, Jack Burn has fled the US having taken part in a bank raid in which a cop died. He lands up in an exclusive enclave of Cape Town, South Africa, with his heavily pregnant wife and young son. Their troubles though are only just starting. Just as they are sitting down to eat, two local gangsters looking to commit an opportunistic robbery enter the house. Jack dispatches them with ruthless efficiency. However, Benny Mongrel, the watchman on the building site next door has witnessed the botched robbery, and the vicious, crooked cop, Rudi Barnard, is looking for one of the gangsters. Massively overweight and overbearing, Barnard thinks that he is conducting God's work and dispenses his own brand of justice in the Cape Flats, a vast sprawling suburb of poverty and lawless. His behaviour has attracted the attentions of those wishing to clean-up corruption in the police force; the solution he knows is a large payoff. Whilst Burn disposes of the gangster's bodies, he fails to move their car, thus attracting the attentions of Barnard. And once Barnard gains an inkling of Burn's past, he sees an opportunity to gain the money he needs to buy off his pursuers.

Mixed Blood starts at a nice quick pace and steadily gathers more speed, rattling and twisting along like a rollercoaster by the end. This pace, however, is not at the expense of plot, sense of place or characterisation. Indeed, Smith manages to pack an awful lot into three hundred pages and Mixed Blood is a masterclass in tight, taut and tense writing. Smith perfectly captures the troubled post-Apartheid politics and geography of Cape Town, its racism, poverty, crime and corruption. The characters of Benny Mongrel and Rudi Barnard are very well penned, as are their back stories. The only characters I had trouble buying into were Jack and Susan Burn, who seemed a little shallow and thin. Otherwise, this is a cracker of a story. The Cape Town tourist industry probably won't thank him for his efforts, but anyone who likes noir will thoroughly enjoy this dark tale. I'll certainly be tracking down his other books. One of my discoveries of the year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (Pan, 2010)

In the small, rural town of Chabot, Mississippi, Larry Ott has been an outsider his whole life. Bullied and marginalised at school, his only friend was Silas, a black kid who lived with his single mother in a rundown shack in the woods owned by Ott's father. Silas was a rising baseball star and he and Larry have an uneasy relationship, largely confined to playing in the forest. When a local girl asks Larry for a date he sees an opportunity to join the fold. When she fails to return, Larry is suspected of abducting and murdering her. It's an accusation he can't shake free despite never confessing and there being no material evidence to link him to her disappearance. The result is that he is further ostracized. After his father dies in a drunk driving accident and his mother enters a home because of dementia, he is left to look after the land and his father's garage, living a lonely existence. Twenty years after his date vanished another local girl has disappeared and Ott is once again in the spotlight as a possible perpetrator. Having headed away after school, Silas is now back and working as the local cop. He's managed to avoid talking to Larry since the last abduction, but now their paths seem destined to cross; something Silas has his own reasons for dreading.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a slower burner of a novel that never really roars into fire, but rather sizzles along intensely from start to finish. Which suited me just fine; this was a book to savour. Like Daniel Woodrell, Franklin immerses the reader in the landscape, people and rhythms of rural America; its small town politics and social relations, the poverty and racism, the slowly decaying buildings and half-tamed wilderness. Indeed, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a masterclass in Country Noir - atmospheric, understated, dark, humane. It is a story that makes its readers reflect on life, how we treat each other, and how we're wrapped up in a contingent, relational set of values and interactions. The plotting was excellent with just the right balance of back story, historical flashbacks and contemporary unfolding. Larry, Silas and the other characters are very well realised, the dialogue authentic, and the scenes and social relations realistic. The childhood bullying, marginalisation and eventual isolation of Larry in adulthood is very nicely done. I thought the book might rise to a crescendo, but Franklin keeps the understated and humaneness of the story consistent to the end avoiding unnecessary clichés and leaving a nice sense of open closure. Before reading the book I thought the title was a little clunky. On finishing it, I think it works well to capture the crooked twining of Larry and Silas. Overall, a very fine piece of storytelling that lends itself well to movie adaptation.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review of The Cleansing Flames by R.N. Morris (Faber, 2011)

St Petersburg in 1872 and as the ice melts and spring awakens radical politics are starting to challenge the authority of the Tsar and his institutions. Pavel Pavlovich Virginski is an investigative magistrate who has sympathy with the calls for political reform, though not necessarily the appetite for revolution. As he returns home after watching a distillery burn after being attacked by arsonists he meets a man who challenges him to act on his convictions. The next morning the body of a man is found in a thawing canal. A witness to the discovery is later found dead after his apartment is set on fire, also killing the children of the family living next door. Inspector Porfiry Petrovich starts to investigate the case, along with his colleague Virginski, quickly coming to understand that it has a political dimension. Warned off the case by Section Three, the department that investigates political crimes, Petrovich and Virginski continue to pry, Virginski using his new contact from the distillery fire to infiltrate a radical political network to seek answers.

The Cleansing Flames is the fourth instalment of Morris' Inspector Porfiry Petrovich series and the first I've read. Whilst there is much to admire about Morris' writing, especially his wry observations, social and political historicisation and sense of place, for my tastes the story suffered from a weak plot, some non-credible characters, and being overly long. The plot holds much promise, centring on a political cell in Tsarist St Petersburg. However, the cell seemed so weakly organised and run, populated by a diverse range of extravert characters, that it would have been pried open within moments of its formation, let alone sustain an entire novel's attention. That might have been okay, but I just didn't believe in Virginski as a character and his actions in infiltrating the cell, nor in a number of the other minor characters. And the dreaded Section Three, which could have provided a useful foil for the investigators, disappears without a trace in the second half of the novel. The story is quite flabby in places, with extended descriptive passages, and in my view would have benefitted from losing at least fifty pages to make it tighter and tenser. What saves the book is the overall atmosphere, political intrigue, its detailing of social relations, and Morris' subtle black humour. Overall, an interesting enough read, but with a few tweaks to the plot and tightening of the narrative it could have been a really good yarn.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I bought a book yesterday based pretty much on the title, The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, released last month (the geographer in me has difficulty passing over such a title; also its partly set in Ireland). I looked it up on Amazon when I got home to discover that it has already managed to split reviewers. Seems the book is a Marmite read - you'll either love it or hate it, even if you were previously a Houellebecq fan. Hopefully I'll be in the latter camp as it wasn't a cheap buy.

I've been slow in my posts this week. The last two weeks have been very busy at work. I'll be catching up with posting book reviews in the coming week - I have four lined up including The Cleansing Flames by R.N. Morris, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, Mixed Blood by Roger Smith, and Anglo Republic by Simon Carswell.
Have just made a start on The Killer is Dying by James Sallis, so that'll be coming up soon as well.

My posts this week
Mr Big by Woody Allen
What is trust ...
A mini-spree in London
You can ring my parents

Saturday, December 17, 2011

You can ring my parents

'Here's your Christmas present,' Mark held out an envelope. 'You'd better open it now.'

'Now?' Sarah's brow crinkled in puzzlement. Tentatively she pulled the card free. 'A week in Majorca.'

'We leave tomorrow. Better pack a bikini.'

'But we'll miss Christmas.'

'They have it out there as well.'

'But what about my parents?'

'I'm not paying for them to come with us.'

'But we're meant to be going to them!'

'We can go afterwards. Staying here is going to be depressing. Doom and gloom and the same old shite on the television.'

'If you ring my parents; I'll start packing.'

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A mini-spree in London

I flew into London on Wednesday night and flew back this afternoon. I was over for an editorial board meeting and slotted a couple of other meetings in. I did manage, however, to pick up a trio of books that I aim to read over the seasonal break. Two are them are new to me authors (Sallis, Smith). I've already made a start on Mixed Blood on the plane over. Great stuff. Reviews should appear over the next few weeks, hopefully.

James Sallis - The Killer is Dying
Roger Smith - Mixed Blood
Philip Kerr - Prague Fatale

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What is trust ...

I finished The Cleansing Flames by R.N. Morris last night (review soon). It has a number of nice observational touches. I liked this one about the relative, provisional nature of trust. A very poststructural argument.

'Can I trust you? Can you trust me? Can he trust us? I mean to say, my dear Kirill Kirillovich, that trust is always relative, always provisional, always unstable. Trust, whatever it is, is a highly volatile substance. I am not sure it even exists at all. And so, there is no meaningful answer to the question you asked. One must act as if there is trust between us, otherwise we could get nothing done. Still and all, at the same time, one must never lower one's guard. In essence, trust no one. Do not even trust yourself, Kirill Kirillovich.'

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mr Big by Woody Allen

One of the stories in Murder for Christmas edited by Thomas Godfrey is Mr Big by Woody Allen. It's not exactly a Christmas tale, but it's a clever little piece playing on schools of philosophy, the existence of God, and hardboiled PI in the tradition of Chandler and Hamnett. PI Kaiser Lupowitz has been hired by a femme fatale to find a missing person, God. It's been converted to radio by The Drama Hour (click on the link to take a listen). The text is here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service: Murder for Christmas

Got a nice early present yesterday - Murder for Christmas edited by Thomas Godfrey. The edition I have was published 1982 by Mysterious Press. It was first published 1958 which explains the make-up of authors. Here's the list of contents:

Back for Christmas / John Collier
Mr. Big / Woody Allen
The adventure of the blue carbuncle / Arthur Conan Doyle
The adventure of the Christmas pudding / Agatha Christie
Dancing Dan's Christmas / Damon Runyon
Cambric tea / Marjorie Bowen
Death on Christmas eve / Stanley Ellin
A Christmas tragedy / Baroness Orczy
Silent night / Baynard Kendrick
The stolen Christmas box / Lillian de la Torre
A chaparral Christmas gift / O. Henry
Dealth on the air / Ngaio Marsh
Inspector Ghote and the miracle baby / H.R.F. Keating
Maigret's Christmas / Georges Simenon
To be taken with a grain of salt / Charles Dickens
The adventure of the Dauphin's doll / Ellery Queen
Markheim / Robert Louis Stevenson
The necklace of pearls / Dorothy L. Sayers
Blind man's hood / Carter Dickson
Christmas is for cops / Edward D. Hoch
The thieves who couldn't help sneezing / Thomas Hardy
The case is altered / Margery Allingham
Christmas party / Rex Stout
The flying stars / G.K. Chesterton
Mother's milk / James Mines
Ring out, wild bells / D.B. Wyndham Lewis

Looking forward to dipping in and out of this over the seasonal break.

My posts this week:
Review of Ashes by Sergios Gakas
The problem with thinking ...
Rotten from the top down
First timers likely to buy or property sector's pipe dream?
Review of Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
Cancelling Christmas

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cancelling Christmas

'There's no way we're cancelling Christmas.'

'I'm not saying we cancel it; I'm saying it can't be like previous years. We can't afford it.'

'So you want us to have bangers and mash for Christmas dinner?'

'No! I'm saying we need to cut back on the presents.'

'They're seven and nine! They've been looking forward to this all year. Just because we're broke doesn't mean we're ruining their Christmas.'

'I'm not talking about ruining it; I'm talking about making sure they're not eating bangers and mash until next Christmas.'

'And you think fewer presents is going to stop that happening?'

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Review of Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (Vintage, 2003; in Russian 1996)

Victor is a lonely aspiring writer in post-Soviet Kiev who lives with Misha, a depressed King Penguin who he has adopted from the city zoo who were unable to afford to look after the bird. Unable to place enough short stories to make a living, Victor approaches a newspaper to see if they might have any work. They immediately offer him a job writing obelisks - obituaries for notable people who have not yet died. The work seems straightforward and Victor's life starts to change in both positive and weird ways - he gains a new friend and a surrogate family; people keep letting themselves into his apartment and leaving him things. He also starts to notice that his obelisks are starting to be printed with unnerving regulatory. And more unsettling still, the grieving families want Misha to attend the funerals. As the truth behind his work emerges, Victor feels increasingly alienated and trapped.

Death and the Penguin is a black tragic-comedy. It is written in short, simple sentences and told through a series of short scenes in a deadpan style. The premise of the story is interesting and the telling is deceptively effective. There is a nice building up of additional characters and there is a good sense of place in post-Soviet Kiev, though some wider political contextualisation would have been useful. The inclusion of Misha was, I thought, was a nice touch and was well used. There were, however, two main issues with the story. The first was that Victor was very one-dimensional as a character with little emotional depth or resonance. He seemed quite monotonous regardless of circumstance or context. The second is that towards the end of the story, the narrative veered towards the absurd and for me, at least, started to fall apart. Overall, I enjoyed the read, but wasn't bowled over by it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I'm having a bit of an understanding banking binge at the minute. Last night I watched Inside Job, a documentary about the global financial meltdown with a particular focus on the US banking system. On Monday, I watched The Bank that Ran Out of Money about the rise and fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a provincial bank that over a period of a decade grew through acquisitions and dodgy products to briefly become the world's largest bank. I'm also still working my way through Anglo Republic: Inside the Bank That Broke Ireland about Anglo Irish Bank and its rapid rise and catastrophic failure. What all three reveal is how, on the one hand, bankers, insurers and other financiers' greed led to them forgetting that they were entrusted to manage customer's money and to provide sound and prudent financial advice and loans, and, on the other, that government and financial regulators failed the people who elected and trusted them by not regulating the financial system. Bankers used to be prudent and careful, partly because it was often their own money they were investing, and partly because they were regulated sufficiently to stop them gambling other peoples' money. In the last couple of decades, the bankers and politicians got into bed with each other and forgot that they were working for their constituents. The sad thing is that practically nothing has changed post crisis. Financial regulation is still almost absent and bankers are still making massive bonuses for taking risks with other peoples' money and losing it. This is the first generation in the US that are poorer than their parents and have less opportunity for class progression than their parents. The country seems to be being driven into the ground through the process of wealth transfer from the lowest earning 90% to the top 1% aided and abetted by government; the wealthy are literally asset stripping the country leaving poverty and homelessness in their wake. Heaven knows where the country will be in twenty to thirty years time if it continues on the path its on. The society portrayed by William Gibson's Virtual Light or Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash seems very possible. Anyway, take a look at Inside Job. It'll enlight and infuriate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rotten from the top down

Ashes by Sergios Gakas has a strong theme of institutional corruption, including the police itself. Here's a short passage revealing how the problem stems from the top down.

I decided to tell him. Not because he was my friend; it had not taken me long to realize that in this job you cannot have friends. I had to talk to him because he was my boss and in this case I needed him onside. The Chief was one exhausted technocrat, handpicked by the Prime Minister himself, a dull negligible character, who, for the last three years, had been failing to keep the ship afloat, a ship sailing under too many different flags. A ship that in its hold concealed some very good intentions, as well as bad ones, incompetence, corruption, hard work, bureaucracy and, above all, personal ambition. He had spent quite some time on the other side of the Atlantic, and was in all likelihood, in the pay of the Americans. Perhaps that was why he moved with such ease through the huge, worm-infested, third world sewer the Hellenic Police was still fed on. However convinced he was that the police were dealing heroin, he was just as convinced that the situation would never change in a million years. Besides, Zorro had never been a particular hero of his. He preferred to proceed with caution and settled for small improvements. "The police force is never going to change society, get used to that," he would say when we had been knee-deep in shit on various cases.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The problem with thinking ...

I've started to read R.N. Morris' The Cleansing Flames. Only sixty or so pages in, but came across a nice passage last night about the opportunities and dangers of thinking.

To think - to think deeply and honestly and freely - was to make yourself vulnerable. It involved cutting yourself loose from the security of received ideas and laying yourself open to new ones. It was an unsettling activity. Eventually, if one perservered, it led to greater strength. But first there was a period of uncertainty and anxiety to endure, from which some never emerged. They would spend their whole lives in a state of crippling doubt, cowering beneath a shell of cynicism.

One of the joys of being a social scientist, I think, is to spend an entire career intellectually vulnerable and in doubt, though hopefully not of the crippling kind.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ashes by Sergios Gakas (MacLehose, 2011)

When a small cottage owned by an alcoholic lawyer, Simeon Piertzovanis, is burned to the ground the only survivor is Sonia Varika, a former actress. She is badly burned and is rushed to an intensive care unit. The three victims are an elderly man, an African woman and her young daughter. Colonel Halkidis of internal affairs pulls in a favour to be assigned the case. A former lover of Varika, he's determined to bring the people responsible for the arson to justice. Halkidis soon discovers that the cottage has been targeted by a right wing group for some time. Teaming up with Piertzovanis, also one of Sonia's former lovers, they start to uncover the truth. However, their investigation is quickly blocked by powerful forces both within and outside the police. Rather than retreating, the pair decide to fight fire with fire, pursuing justice and revenge with deadly consequences.

Ashes is a fine slice of Greek noir. All of the principle characters and institutions are deeply flawed. Although in charge of internal affairs, Colonel Halkidis is addicted to cocaine and is prepared bend the law in savage ways, though he does so for justice not financial gain. Piertzovanis is an alcoholic and prone to depression and melancholy. Raina is cheating on her boyfriend. Sonia is vain and a lush. Just about all the other characters are corrupt or prepared to turn a blind eye. The police, the government, the Church and businesses are all riddled with taken-for-granted corruption and cronyism. The story is well plotted, though it does become a little unconvincing in the latter pages as Halkidis' revenge spirals out of control and goes unchallenged. The story is told in the first person from three perspectives - Halkidis and Piertzovanis in alternating chapters, and Sonia whilst in a coma. This works surprisingly well, with Gakas able to maintain three distinct voices whilst revealing what each thinks of the other, as well as fleshing out their back stories. Indeed, the characterisation is strong throughout. There is a good sense of place and as well as being a fine crime story, Ashes is a searing social commentary on the Greek society and its institutions. Having read the novel it is certainly much easier to understand the events in the country over the past couple of years. I thoroughly enjoyed Ashes and if any of Gakas' other books are translated I intend to give them a go. There's an interesting interview with the author on the publisher's website.