Monday, December 31, 2012

The year that was ... 2012 retrospective

On the whole 2012 was a good and productive year, though it was fairly trying at times. 

The trying stuff

For the whole year I was undertaking three jobs, including running two research institutes.  That was meant to end in September, but the university failed to appoint one position and failed to advertise the other lumbering me with the two additional posts for another academic year.  Running one soft money institute in a country enacting full austerity is tough going, doing it for two is definitely not to be recommended.

I also split, on amicable terms, from my agent.  I know life would probably be a lot easier with a new agent, but I’m not sure I can face into the effort of securing one at the moment.  Perhaps something to work on in 2013. 

I had a couple of short stories rejected.  I might dust them off and redraft them in the coming year.

The good stuff

Awards, etc

I was awarded an European Research Council Advanced Investigator Award for my project, ‘The Programmable City’.  Besides letting me get on with some research, the award means I am stepping down from my three present jobs in August 2013.  We also landed a large Interreg project and agreed a business plan with the university for another project.  Every year is a battle to raise salary for research staff and we managed to scrape by and get most of 2013 sorted for most folk.

I picked up three book awards in 2012 - the Association of American Geographer’s Meridian Prize for best book in the discipline and an American Library Association CHOICE award for Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, and the Cantemir Prize for The Map Reader.

Whilst I have a healthy scepticism for academic metrics, I’ll admit to getting a little kick when my citations passed 5000 in late autumn.

Writing and editing

On the writing and publishing front, the collection of interlinked short stories, Killer Reels, was published back in May and I signed a contract with Snubnose Press for the publication of my novel, Stiffed.  I also had 12 short stories published, some on the blog and others at A Twist of Noir, All Due Respect, Flash Fiction Offensive, Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey, Spinetingler, and The Laughter Shack, and wrote 52 drabbles.

Beyond fiction, the big writing project of the year was the Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography submitted in September for which I wrote over 700 entries.  The proofs should arrive the first week in January.  I also started writing a new academic book examining the growth and consequences of big data and have been editing a handbook which might see the light of day before the end of 2013.  I also submitted a few academic articles to journals and chapters to edited collections, and co-edited 9 issues of two academic journals and kept the two book series I edit moving along.

Reading etc for 2012

I’ll do a more detailed overview of reading in the next few days, but suffice to say that 2012 was a very good year of reading.  Despite my new year’s resolution to cut down on the number of books read and to concentrate on writing, instead I read and reviewed 109 books, plus read a hundred plus short stories and academic papers, and thousands of blog posts, newspaper articles, emails, etc.  It’s certainly the thing I spend more time doing than anything else, followed most probably by writing.
2012 was also the year that I finally succumbed and bought a Kindle.  I am still a firm fan of paper books and buy them when available, but for e-only or difficult to source books, or for quick access, I’ve been using the e-reader.

A particular highlight for 2012 was organising the ‘Crime fiction and Contemporary Ireland’ event in Maynooth at which Declan Burke, Gene Kerrigan and Niamh O’Connor spoke, and other authors such as Louise Phillips attended (and artfully worked the event into her debut novel, Red Ribbons).  I also enjoyed co-organising an event on the American election and meeting Phil and Patti Abbott.

Social media and media

2012 was the year I moved beyond blogging with respect to social media.  Back in late January I started to use Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.  In particular, I enjoy Twitter and have found loads of interesting things through it, and I’ve been amazed to have been followed by so many folk.  In November I started using, which I’m finding to be a handy curation tool.  On the blogging front I wrote 339 posts on this blog and 74 on IrelandAfterNAMA.  I don’t anticipate doing so many on either next year.

2012 was reasonably busy year for media work.  I appeared on television twice, did 18 national radio interviews and two local interviews, and my work was cited 44 times in international newspapers, 65 times in national papers, and 26 times in local papers.  Nowhere near on par with 2010, but a lot more manageable.  I suspect it will drop off in 2013 now the media are back to trying to find deluded optimists!

I also delivered 17 talks during the year to a variety of audiences.

So that was 2012 in short.  It seemed busy at the time, but writing this post has made realise why I’ve spent most of the year knackered.  Hopefully 2013 will be a little more sedate, though I doubt it. 

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by the blog and left comments, all those that read any of my various musings and stories, and all those who’ve had to suffer working with me or listening to me.  Your time and encouragement has been very much appreciated.  Onto 2013 ...

All the best wishes for the new year.

Review of Dig Two Graves by Eric Beetner (Snubnose Press, 2011)

Having learnt his ways via a prison term, Val is a planner.  Now when he robs banks he doesn’t even draw a gun.  So when he’s arrested he knows that he’s been sold out by Ernesto, his partner in more ways than one.  Managing to escape the clutches of the cops rather than obeying his head’s desire to skip town, Val follows his heart’s need for revenge and roams the city seeking to teach his partner a deadly lesson.  The cops, however, are not the only ones trying to catch Val dead or alive.  His nemesis, Francis Santangelo, a mid-rank mobster, has placed a bounty on his head.  Frank has not counted though on the willpower and resourcefulness of a lover spurned and, as the night unfolds, Val leaves a bloody trail in his wake.

Dig Two Graves is a dark, action-packed tale of revenge thickly laced with gallows humour that rattles along a quick clip.  As a novella, it’s a short, quick read, yet there’s a lot packed into the story as it twists and turns to its bloody conclusion.  The premise has a great hook - a hardened, slightly homophobic criminal has unwittingly fallen for his former cellmate, now criminal partner, who has sold him out.  He keeps telling himself it was just sex, but his heart is telling him otherwise.  Given the betrayal, he’s not simply seeking retribution but the revenge of a lover scorned.  And his need to carefully plan has been cast aside in favour of reacting instinctively.  The characterisation and plotting is spot on and Beetner writes in tight prose with an engaging voice that is all show and no tell.  The story could have easily been spun out into a full novel, as with similar types of tales such as The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips or Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman, but nevertheless works very well as novella.  Overall, a humorous, gritty slice of noir. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Five books I'm looking forward to reading in 2013

I am sure I'll buy and read loads of 2013 titles (I managed to read 35 2012 titles in 2012).  These five books are certainties and I'm looking forward to their publication.  I'd add Kieran Shea's Koko Takes a Holiday, but I'm not sure it'll be published in 2013 as the rights have only just been sold to Titan Books. 

William Ryan, The Twelfth Department (Mantle)

Adrian McKinty, I Hear Sirens in the Street (Serpent's Tail)

Alan Glynn, Graveland (Faber and Faber)

Patti Abbott, Home Invasion (Snubnose Press; initial mock cover)

Dan O’Shea, Penance (Exhibit A)

Lazy Sunday Service

It's very unusual for me to publish five reviews in a week, but there are two contributory factors.  First, I'm often a couple of days behind with putting up reviews after I've finished a book and I want to make sure that books read in 2012 are reviewed before the year end, and second, I've spent a good portion of the past week reading, finishing a book every one or two days.  Only one more review to go up, Eric Beetner's Dig Two Graves.  I'm glad I've waited until the end of the year to publish my best of 2012 reads as two of the books I reviewed this week will make my top ten list - more on that on Tuesday.

My posts this week
Review of The City of Shadows by Michael Russel
Crime at Christmas
Review of Red Ribbons by Louise Phillip
Review of Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin
Review of The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway
A murder in Iceland
Review of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Review of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason (AmazonCrossing, 2008)

After serving in the Croatian Army in the 1990s, fighting a bloody battle with the Serbs, Tomislav Bokšić, more commonly known Toxic, has moved to New York, working as a hitman for the Croatian mafia.  Between the war and the contract killing he’s dispatched over one hundred and twenty people.  His flawless record of 66 contract hits is bought to an end when he erroneously shoots dead a FBI agent.  The plan is to fly back to Croatia on a false passport but JFK airport is crawling with agents.  Instead he jumps a TV evangelist, Father David Friendly, in the toilets, slips on the dog-collar and gets on a flight to Iceland, where Friendly is due to appear on a small born-again Christian television show.  Drawing on his childhood Catholic upbringing, Toxic manages to fool his hosts.  However, stuck on an island with no guns, no mafia, all but no murder, and surrounded by essentially good people who want to save his soul, he has the time and space to reflect on his violent past and his potential future.

At its heart The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a tale of redemption.  Toxic is a repulsive character - a cold blooded killer, a selfish liar, and a misogynist.  Through a combination of politically incorrect humour, pathos and flashbacks, Helgason tries to encourage the reader to empathise with him and his predicament.  It’s a tall order, especially when Toxic remembers some of the horrendous, bloody events in which he’s participated.  And just as you start to warm to him a little, a cold bucket of water is thrown from the page.  The result is an oddly compelling, disturbing, jarring and comic tale.  Indeed,  Helgason uses comic touches to good effect and I found myself laughing out loud several times, admittedly to some fairly black, gallows humour.  And whilst Toxic dominates the story, he’s surrounded by an interesting odd-ball cast.  As with just about everything else about the story, the plot is a little over-the-top.  That’s to be expected in what is essentially a screwball noir, but occasionally the plot devices are a little too much and the story teeters on the edge of ridiculousness.  In addition, the tale doesn’t quite have enough reflective and remorseful moments, Toxic seemingly unable to fully transform himself.  Overall, an entertaining romp and something of a page turner, but all the paradoxes didn’t quite add up. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A murder in Iceland

‘I want checkpoints placed on all routes out of town,’ Inspector Olafsson said.

‘Are you sure?’ the local police officer replied.

They both glanced over at the husband, his hands and chest covered in blood, his eyes vacant.

Olfasson sighed.  Despite the dozen murders that happened each year in Iceland’s burgeoning crime fiction, he’d only investigated seven homicides in ten years.  All but one had been an open and shut case, solved within a few hours. 

This would be no different, but he wasn’t willing to sign-off the inquiry just yet.

‘We need to cover all possibilities,’ he said morbidly.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review of The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway (Pan, 2012)

The island of Islandmore lies in the no-man’s land of the River Foyle that separates the Republic of Ireland from the North; the border runs right down the centre of the small slither of land.  In the past it has been used by fishermen, smugglers and as the site of a cillin - a non-consecrated burial site for children who died before they could be baptised.  A recent submission to the Commission of the Location of Victims’ Remains suggests it was used in the Troubles as a burial site for one of those that 'disappeared'.  As the Commission searches the island, using geophysics, a cadaver dog and diggers, for the body of Declan Cleary, who vanished in the 1970s after supposedly informing on a man that was then shot by the British Army, they find the body of a baby buried sometime in the recent past.  The postmodern reveals that she had been strangled.  Inspector Ben Devlin would like to investigate, but the law states that no death discovered by the Commission can be followed up on and prosecuted, even those that were not part of the Troubles.  Undeterred he starts to poke around, but is soon distracted by a fresh murder; it seems the dig on the island has bought old animosities to the surface once again.  Devlin starts to probe further into Cleary’s and the island’s past looking for clues, but is hampered by the fact that much of the case resides in North, outside of his jurisdiction.

The Nameless Dead is the fifth instalment of McGilloway’s Ben Devlin series.  McGilloway has the full measure of Devlin’s world - his family, police politics and rivalries, his embedding in the social and criminal landscape of the border.  The writing is very assured, with a lovely cadence and pace, and nicely balances plot, characterization, sense of place and contextualisation.  With respect to the latter two, The Nameless Dead skilfully weaves together the troubles and sexual politics of the 1970s with the politics of peace and reconciliation and the social realities and landscape of the post-Celtic Tiger crash in the border counties.  The plotting is particularly well done, interlacing a number of subplots to produce a layered and textured story that charts both the investigation and Devlin’s personal life.  Whilst the focus is very much Devlin, importantly McGilloway also adds flesh to the series’ secondary characters, and the ongoing subplots adds to the overarching arc of the series.  Overall, The Nameless Dead is a satisfying and superior police procedural in what is shaping up to be a very accomplished and enjoyable series.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review of Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin (Hogarth, 1934; reprinted Faber and Faber 2009)

Malcolm Warren is a stockbroker in the City.  On Christmas eve his wealthiest client, Mr Quisberg asks him to increase his shareholding of the Harrington Cobalt Company before he travels out to Beresford Lodge, a large house in Hampstead Heath, to spend Christmas with his client and his other guests.  Warren arrives just as Quisling and his secretary, Hartley, are leaving to travel into the city to meet the owner of a company intent on purchasing the same company in which he's just bought shares.  After being shown to his room he joins the others for dinner, including Mrs Quisling, her daughters from her second marriage, Amabel and Sheila, her son from her first marriage, Clarence, Amabel’s would-be fiancée Len Dixon, the mother of Quisling’s secretary, Mrs Hartley, and Dr Green, Quisling’s right-hand man. Elsewhere in the house is another son, Cyril, who is being tended by the attractive young nurse, Ms Moon, and the house staff including Edwins the footman and several housemaids, cooks and gardeners.  When Warren awakes on Christmas morning he discovers the body of Mrs Hartley on the balcony outside his room.  It seems she had fallen from an open window whilst sleep walking.  The news of the accidental death unsurprisingly unsettles the household and Warren witnesses a number of odd occurrences.  Then he discovers a second body, this time most definitely the victim of foul play.

Crime at Christmas is the second novel in a short series of four books featuring Malcolm Warren.  The first, Death of My Aunt, published in 1929 is considered something of a classic.  Crime at Christmas follows a familiar trope of the golden age of crime novels - several people are staying in a large house and one of them dies.  It could be an accident or it could be murder.  The various family members, guests and domestic staff have varying status, relationships and conflicts, and the resident amateur detective sets about solving the mystery.  With regards to the latter, Warren is somewhat of a fey, upper-class gentleman character and reluctant detective who hoards clues to protect reputations rather than handing them over to the police.  Kitchin spins the tale out in an engaging fashion with a vivid cast of characters.  However, in the latter half of the book the story starts to unravel, with the solution to the puzzle being a little ridiculous and difficult to believe, and the denouement weak.  Kitchin himself seems to know this, with a final chapter that consists of a conversation between author and imagined reader that tries to provide reason to some of the more fanciful elements of the story.  Overall, an engaging and mildly amusing story that suffers from a weak resolution.  On the subject of production, I much prefer the Hogarth cover to the Faber and Faber one, which also lacks a synopsis or any details about CHB Kitchin or his work.  It's great that some of his novels have been reprinted, but it would have taken very little effort to add some value to the books in terms of design and an intro.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review of Red Ribbons by Louise Phillips (Hachette, 2012)

A young girl who has been missing for two days is discovered buried in a secluded plot beneath elderberry trees in the Dublin Mountains.  She’s been folded into a position of prayer, her hands clasped, her hair braided with red ribbons.  Detective Inspector O’Connor is assigned to investigate the case and immediately contacts criminal profiler, Kate Pearson.  The evidence from the crime scene unnerves Kate, suggesting that the murderer will strike again.  The following day another girl disappears who reassembles in appearance the first.  As well as the pressure of her domestic troubles, Kate is being pushed to help identify the killer and predict his next move.  Meanwhile in the north of the city, Ellie, a patient confined to a psychiatric hospital has finally broken her silence on the death of her daughter fifteen years earlier; a murder she denies committing.  What she has to say echoes with the recent deaths.  Is she imagining the connection or is the same killer at work?   

Louise Phillips’ debut novel, Red Ribbons is a psychological police procedural set over a few autumn days.  The story is told through three alternating voices: the killer’s, Kate Pearson’s and Ellie’s. Ellie’s voice in particular is very strong and engagingly written, but the characterisation of all three is well developed.  In contrast, the other characters are a little thin and two dimensional.  In particular, Detective Inspector O’Connor as the fourth central character is somewhat of an enigma and the reader learns little about him other than he’s an alpha male and under a lot of pressure.  The writing is a little hesitant at first, but as the story unfolds it becomes progressively more assured and compelling, hooking the reader in.  For the most part the plotting works well, though the timeline felt a little compressed, using a couple of plot devices to move the story along.  Given the structure, where the reader knows the killer and his thoughts, the tale is more of a why-dunnit and whether he’ll get away with it than a who-dunnit.  Yet, despite the relative transparency of the plot, Phillips manages to keep the tension high right to the final page.  Indeed, from about halfway-on it was quite engrossing and I raced through to the end.  Overall, an entertaining psychological thriller.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Crime at Christmas?

Seasonal best wishes to all readers of the blog.  I hope that you're having a nice, relaxing couple of days. Yesterday I started Crime at Christmas by my namesake C.H.B. Kitchin, set in London in the early 1930s (published in 1934) which starts on Christmas eve with the household waking to find one its guests dead on Christmas morn.  Thankfully a fate that has not affected the Blue House.  That said, my presents include a pair of binoculars, a book on forensic science and a high powered torch, so perhaps I might have to turn detective later in the day.  Either that or it's a 'how not to get caught' kit.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Review of The City of Shadows by Michael Russell (Avon, 2012)

It’s 1934 and the shadow of the war of independence and civil war still hangs over Ireland, their politics and factions infusing everyday life along with the rising power of the Church.  On the continent, fascism is a growing force, particularly in Germany as the Nazi party consolidates its grip on government, terrorizes Jewish citizens and threatens other nations.  When Stefan Gillespie, a detective sergeant in Dublin, stakes out a German back street abortionist, he little realizes he’s about to stumble into a tangled conspiracy of blackmail and murder that stretches from Dublin to Danzig.  On entering the clinic Gillespie encounters Hannah Rosen, a strong willed Jewess who has returned to Dublin from Palestine to investigate the disappearance of her best friend.  Very quickly Special Branch grabs the abortionist case from Gillespie and he swaps his attention to discovering what happened to Hannah’s friend, who’d been having an affair with a priest.  As he starts to investigate it’s clear that others want him to drop the case and they’re prepared to use coercion if necessary.  Gillespie is already vulnerable, a Protestant and single father to Tom in a country that favours neither status, but he’s also resilient and doesn’t react well to threats.  Meanwhile, Hannah has followed the trail to the priest to Danzig, a free city under political siege by Nazis keen to reintegrate it into Germany.

The City of Shadows is quite simply a brilliant crime novel.  Although his debut novel, Michael Russell has a wealth of experience as a television scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost, Emmerdale) and it shows in the quality of the story, which works at every level - plotting, sense of place, historical contextualisation, characterization.  Whilst the plot is expansive and complex, it is straightforward to follow and utterly compelling, grabbing the reader from the start and not letting up in intrigue or pace, and very well structured.  There are plenty of twists, turns and feints, with the reader kept guessing until the very end as to the mystery of the disappearance of Hannah’s friend.  Russell drops the reader into the landscapes of Dublin, rural Wicklow and Danzig, and the heady mix of state and religious politics both at a senior actor level and how it played out in everyday life.  There is real attention to historical detail and recreating the social and political atmosphere of the time.  Stefan Gillespie and Hannah Rosen are both wonderful characters, each trying to fight a system that is seemingly too large and powerful.  Russell brings both to life and their fragile relationship is well penned, as are the myriad of secondary characters.  Overall, The City of Shadows is a entertaining and gripping story that I thoroughly recommend.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

There's a reason why it's always best to wait until the very end of the year to announce your best reads - in last few days you might read a cracker of a book.  And that's precisely what I've just done.  Michael Russell's The City of Shadows is a brilliant debut novel set in Dublin and Danzig in 1934/35 that scores highly on every level - plotting, sense of place, historical contextualisation, characterization.  A really great read.  I'll post a full review tomorrow.

My posts this week:
Review of The Black Box by Michael Connelly
Review of Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin
Bosch, Rebus and Maxine
Review of The Information by James Gleick
Soon to be relaxing at the Diggers Rest Hotel
Preparing for the turkey shoot

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Preparing for the turkey shoot

‘What the ... is the world about to end?’

‘Last shopping day before Christmas; what were you expecting?  To have the place to yourself?  Try the far end, perhaps there’s some spaces there.’

‘How about we head home?  It’s going to be mayhem.’

‘And what are we going to eat on Christmas day?  Tuna surprise?  No doubt you haven’t bought presents yet either.’

‘I was hoping you’d be happy with a tin of salmon.  Let’s come back later.’

‘They’ll be nothing left but tuna.  We’re never doing that again.  We either come out with a turkey or we die trying.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, December 21, 2012

Soon to be relaxing at the Diggers Rest Hotel

Having vented my frustration at some of the vagaries of Australian publishing, I now have a more positive note.  A friend has managed to purchase a copy of The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin (quite possibly the last for sale in Oz), had it shipped to her and has tucked it into her suitcase for me, along with Sulari Gentill's A Decline in Prophets, for the long flight back to Ireland.  I hope to be checking into said hotel some time in the new year and hopefully it will have been worth the journey.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review of The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate, 2011)

The Information is billed as the ‘story of how human beings use, transmit and keep what they know’, discussing a series of information revolutions: ‘the invention of writing, the composition of dictionaries, the creation of charts that made navigation possible, the discovery of the electronic signal, and the cracking of the genetic code.’  At best it only does a fraction of this and from a very particular perspective.  The book is principally a treatise on information theory within mathematics and physics and how information is encoded and communicated in a technical and theoretical sense.  It is especially concerned with the reduction of information to constituents parts, how this is encoded and transmitted, and the notion that information is the constituent component of life and the universe.  This is a view of information shorn of meaning and context.  Consequently the reader does not get the full story of information revolutions with respect to the written word, and the visual (art, maps, photography, television, film) and aural (voice, music) is all but absent.  Oddly, there is no discussion of broadcast media such as radio and television, though there is a fair amount of discussion dedicated to the telegraph and internet.  There is no discussion of discourse or how information is used.  The book then is filled with absences.  What is included, however, is often fascinating and intriguing, although my feeling is that the level is often not for the average lay reader - it is quite advanced and requires a fair degree of pre-requisite knowledge.  In this sense, it’s sold as a popular science book, but given its technical nature and length I suspect it has far more sales than readers who manage to get from start to end.  Overall, an interesting book but doesn’t quite live up to its billing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bosch, Rebus and Maxine

It was interesting to read Michael Connelly’s The Black Box and Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave back to back.  There’s a lot of similarities between the two series.  Both follow the exploits of maverick cops who have analogous characteristics and histories.  Harry Bosch and John Rebus both started out in the army before becoming cops.  Both are laws unto themselves who have their own approaches that bend rules and set them in conflict with their bosses, and both are no strangers to be investigated by internal watchdogs.  They survive because they solve difficult puzzles and get results, and they have been protected by senior cops who have watched their backs.  Their careers trajectories are also similar, with both cops having retired as detectives to be taken back on in cold case units.  In both cases their personal lives are a bit of a mess, each has a daughter with whom they have a difficult relationship, and they are obsessive about music.  Both detectives have featured in eighteen novels, and both authors are published by Orion.  I’ve read 15 of the Bosch books and all of Rebus. 

So what are the differences?  For me, the main differences are that Bosch acts more in a solo capacity, whereas Rebus is anarchic but tries harder to bring his colleagues along with him; the Bosch novels tend more towards thriller-like finales, whereas Rebus cases tend to play out in more understated but equally dramatic ways; and Rankin tends to have more layered and complex stories with nuanced subplots and stronger secondary characters (especially in the latter books in both series).  That said, both are exceptionally strong series, with main characters that have built up loyal followings for good reasons - compelling lead characters, strong sense of place, good contextualisation, and strong plotting.

I’m sure that this would have been a post that Maxine Clarke, an avid crime fiction fan, reviewer of books on her blog Petrona, and curator of the Crime and Mystery Friendfeed, would have commented on.  Connelly and Rankin rated amongst her favourite authors and she always had a perceptive observation to offer.  Sadly, Maxine passed away on Monday morning after a long illness.  She was a great friend of this blog, especially when I first started out, inviting me into the Friendfeed community and introducing me to other crime fiction bloggers.  She will be sadly missed by authors and readers for her constructive critical appraisal and by the community of crime fiction bloggers for whom she was a key catalyst and energetic friend.  A measure of the esteem in which she is held is the number of tributes that have been written in her honour over the past couple of days - links to them all are listed on Margot Kinberg's blog.  I hope she’s comfortably settled in the ‘big library in the sky’.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review of Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Orion, 2012)

After being forced to retire from CID, John Rebus has ended up as a civilian working in a cold case unit.  He’s frustrated to be away from the energy of live cases, but it’s better than no job at all.  When a woman approaches the unit claiming a link between a number of missing person cases, including the recent death of a teenage girl, Rebus manages to inveigle his way onto the fringes of the main case via his ex-colleague DI Siobhan Clarke.  Rebus has lost none of his old, anachronistic ways, seeing potential leads that others miss, prodding and probing potential witnesses, and kicking up the sand at the bottom of the pool to see what rises, rather than relying on formal procedure, forensics and files.  Beyond Clarke, nobody seems happy with his presence or methods, but he produces leads.  The question is whether he can hang on in until the case is solved or survive the attention of ‘the complaint’s unit’.  Given his track record, neither look likely, especially given his weekly drinking sessions with his nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty.

Having retired his famous detective a couple of books ago, Ian Rankin places him front and centre in Standing in Another Man’s Grave.  It’s a very welcome return in a thoroughly entertaining story.  Rankin always scores well on several fronts - characterisation, sense of place, contextualisation, plotting - and it’s no different with this tale, which is layered and complex.  Although the main focus is Rebus and the main case under investigation, Rankin does not neglect the host of secondary characters and their interrelations, and he interlinks several subplots that give the story a rich texture.  For the most part the plotting is excellent, though it unravels a little in the final scenes, the resolution somewhat weak and a little unconvincing.  Nevertheless, Rankin shows his skills at producing a multi-textual, engaging police procedural that hooks the reader in and tugs them along on a compelling jaunt.  Despite eighteen outings, there’s still plenty of life in the old detective and hopefully there’s more to come.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review of The Black Box by Michael Connelly (Orion, 2012)

Harry Bosch is a detective with the open-unsolved unit of the LAPD.  Twenty years earlier he’d been a homicide detective investigating suspicious deaths as the 1992 LA riots unfolded.  One such case was the murder of a Danish photojournalist who’d been on vacation in the US and who'd decided to combine business with pleasure; for her trouble she’d been lured into an alley and shot.  When the riots were concluded the case was given to a different division and Bosch lost sight of it.  As the anniversary of the riots approaches the LAPD has decided to take a fresh look at its unsolved murders and Bosch gets another chance to solve the case.  Running the one solid clue he has - a shell casing - through ballistics reveals that the gun used to fire the fatal bullet has subsequently been used in three other murders.  That’s not quite enough to open up the black box to reveal the killer, but it provides an initial trail.  A trail that his bosses don’t seem keen for him to follow. 

As police procedurals go, The Black Box was pretty average (especially compared to some of Connelly’s earlier books in the series).  The focus of the plot is interesting, but it felt a little too linear and straightforward, lacking in subplot (beyond his usual run in with his bosses and internal affairs), layers and twists or turns - Harry unearths all the clues, but doesn’t seem to have to work that hard to locate them.  The ending in particular felt shallow, rushed and lacked credibility in parts, using weak plot devices to create a bloody climax. After 18 outings (I've read 15 of them), Harry seemed somewhat tired and drawn, a shadow of his former self trapped in a cycle of endlessly reliving his modus operandi as a solo, maverick cop who bends rules and annoys his superiors whilst unpicking puzzles lesser men would fail to solve.  For the series to have new life my feeling is the stories are going to need to become more complex, layered and believable, and some of the secondary characters are going to have to come to the fore and there be sustained interaction.  I’m sure there are plenty of Connelly fans out there who will disagree, but whilst The Black Box was entertaining enough way to spend a few hours, Connelly is capable of spinning more gripping and engrossing tales (as evidenced by his back catalogue).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up three new novels in the local bookshop yesterday - The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway; In Search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi; and The City of Shadows by Michael Russell.  With a selection of others from the TBR pile I think that's me sorted now for the seasonal break.  I'm looking forward to tucking in to one of them once I've finished Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin.

My posts this week
Reading shelf
Review of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith
100 up
Northern Ireland census data visualization
Run out of steam
Why have you applied for this job?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why have you applied for this job?

‘It’s not that I hate my job.  I mean, I’m not going to lie, it’s a dead end, the people are ... well, they’re interesting, the commute is a nightmare, and the work is ... work.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy. Well, happy-ish.  It’s my boss; we don’t see eye-to-eye.  Given he’s two feet shorter than anyone else he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with anyone!  Sorry, bad joke.  He does think he’s Napoleon though.  What was the question again?  Oh, yes, why have I applied for this job?  Well, I ... I’m not going to get this job, am I?’

A drabble is a story of exactly one hundred words.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Run out of steam

I think I have officially run out of steam for 2012.  All year I’ve been running two research institutes and the experience has worn thin.  You know when you’ve been carrying an excessive load when it’s announced that you will be relinquishing your present roles and your employer starts to look for three new people to take up the duties.  In this case, three full professors.  Anyway, that’s my excuse for not yet writing up my review of The Black Box by Michael Connelly.  Maybe I’ll get to it over the weekend.  Or perhaps I’ll start marking the essays from two of the modules I taught this semester.  At some point next week I’ll post the review.  It would be nice to post it from California as a bit of winter sun would go down a treat right now.  Oh well, at least I’ll be in LA in April; I might try and check out some Bosch haunts on the trip.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

100 up

Yesterday's review of Roger Smith's Wake Up Dead was my 100th review of 2012. The plan was to read less and write more this year. So much for plans.  Maybe next year I'll stick to the plan.  Or perhaps not.  Full list of reviews is here

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith (Serpent’s Tail, 2010)

Billy Afrika is an ex-cop turned security mercenary.  After the charge he was guarding in Iraq is killed he heads back to South Africa, looking for the pay he’s owed.  American ex-model Roxy Palmer has washed up in Cape Town, married to Joe, a gunrunner and owner of the security firm for whom Billy works.  After dining out with a despot keen to secure a new wave of arms for an obscure African war Roxy and Joe are carjacked at the gates to their house by two lowlifes from the Cape Flats, the sprawling ghetto outside the city.  Joe is shot and left for dead, the thieves speeding away with an attaché case full of cash.  Caught in the heat of the moment, Roxy makes a decision that ties her fate to her attackers and to Billy Afrika.  It’s a decision that plunges them both into the gangland underworld of the Flats, a place no-one wants to be.

If you’re heading on holiday to South Africa do not pack this book; indeed, the South African Tourist Board probably has a contract out on Smith’s head.  It’s difficult to think of a crime that it is not committed in Wake Up Dead - armed robbery, murder, theft, blackmail, rape, fraud, bribery, assault, kidnapping, cannibalism, abandonment, carjacking, drug dealing, the harvesting of body parts; the list is endless.  And they happen multiple times.  In other words, Wake Up Dead is not for the faint hearted.  From its inception it’s a fast moving, violent tale, whose pace and body count rises as it progresses to its bloody conclusion.  Few of the characters have any redeemable qualities; one way or another they are all on the make, scrabbling and fighting to stay alive and out of each other’s clutches.  And yet it is oddly compelling, sucking the reader into a gritty, gripping story that is full of twists and sucker punches.  At times the violence seems a little gratuitous, but in the main illustrates the social realities of gang culture in the ghetto and prison, and the cheapness and tenuous nature of such lives.  Given the pace and intricacies of the interlocking subplots, the story could have easily slipped into a narrative mess, but Smith writes with an assured hand that keeps everything in motion but straightforward to follow.  I was hooked from the start, caught in the headlights as the carnage and life histories of its victims unfolded on the page.  The most visceral, action packed rollercoaster ride of a novel I’ve read this year. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reading shelf

A couple of months ago I said I was starting to write a new academic book.  I was setting off with a focus, but no set plan or argument.  I've now got a structure worked out, a reasonable amount written, and the argument is evolving, though the text is a long, long way from being finished.  At the time I was starting I didn't give any clues as to what the book would be about.  The picture above is the reading I've assembled for the next couple of months, which gives a reasonable hint.  Expect the crime fiction reviews to reduce as I work my way through these tomes.  I'm particularly hoping that The Politics of Large Numbers and A History of the Modern Fact live up to expectation as the titles make the books sound fascinating (well to me, at least).  I'll probably review some of the titles here in due course.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a while since I've read a book by either Michael Connelly (The Scarecrow in mid-2010) or Ian Rankin (The Complaints, start-2010), so when I saw The Black Box and Standing in Another Man's Grave on display in the local bookshop yesterday I decided to part with some cash.  Interestingly, they are both cold case stories featuring retired detectives.  Neither Connelly or Rankin it seems are willing to let their signature lead characters wander off into the sunset. Expect reviews sometime between now and the new year.

My posts this week:
November reads
Review of A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill
Australian publishing: Digging a hole for itself?
Review of The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid
Home run

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Home run

McFarlane jumped the ditch, scrabbling up the steep bank, clutching at sodden grass and weeds.  A fence topped with barbed wire skirted the crest.  He clambered over, snagging his filthy jeans, then set off at a canter across a broad field towards a gateway and the road beyond.  Headlights danced along the hedgerow.  He dropped to the sticky soil, heart thumping like a bass drum.  The car disappeared, fading to a low hum, then silence.  He savoured the moment, then rose and set off again, trotting through the crop.  He’d made it.  Freedom.

Behind him a siren started to wail.  

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid (Little Brown, 2012)

Stephanie Harker is transiting through Chicago airport with Jimmy, a five year old boy for whom she is the legal guardian.  Caught in the security check area she watches in horror as Jimmy is led away by a security guard.  When she tries to intervene she is tazered to the ground.  It takes a while for the authorities to realise that Stephanie is not a security risk and a child has been abducted in plain view of their officers.  By then Jimmy and his abductor are long gone.  FBI agent Vivian McKuras is charged with recovering Jimmy, but first she needs to know all about their lives, and who might want to snatch him.  As McKuras listens to their story, on the other side of the Atlantic, Met police officer Nick Nicolaides also hunts for clues.  The consensus is that the abductor is someone that Stephanie and Jimmy knows, but who?

The Vanishing Point tries to mash together a conventional thriller with c-list celebrity culture.  Stephanie Harker is a professional ghost writer who drafts the life stories of famous folk and Jimmy is the son of a reality television star, Scarlett Higgins, a kind of cross between Jade Goody and Katie Price that draws heavily on aspects of both these women’s lives (most definitely in the case of Goody).  The opening premise and performance of the abduction is nicely done, providing a tense entree.  For the next two thirds of the tale the reader is presented with a very detailed back story account of Stephanie and Scarlett.  At one level, the back story is an interesting take on celebrity culture, and the characters are very well drawn with some nice observational touches.  The writing is engaging and McDermid’s voice intimate.  However, the focus on the back story creates an imbalance between the context and the chase.  It also does not ring true in the sense that time is of the essence in terms of tracking down Jimmy, but Stephanie is telling a very drawn out tale to the FBI.  There is simply no sense of urgency beyond the initial abduction.  Where the story really becomes unstuck, however, is the final quarter and the denouement.  The chase actually proves to be incredibly fast and straightforward, despite a couple of twists, and the closing scene was contrived and unbelievable.  Overall then, although the setup and the back story are both nicely done, they didn’t connect sufficiently well, and the overall plot arc was imbalanced and lacked credibility.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Australian publishing: digging a hole for itself?

A little while ago I had a rant about getting hold of Australian crime fiction.  In short, it is damn difficult given the rights restrictions in place around novels published there.  I thought I'd come up with a solution - there are loads of Irish people who have emigrated or travel back-and-forth to Aus; maybe one or two of them could bring me back some selected books.  That's how I managed to get hold of Sulari Gentill's A Few Right Thinking Men, reviewed yesterday, and I'm hoping to get her next book that way as well.  Tracking down Geoffrey McGeachin's The Diggers Rest Hotel has been more difficult.  Despite winning the Ned Kelly Award for 2011 that book is no longer available, even in Australia!  I can't find a single online retailer that has a copy. Nor does the publisher, Penguin, except as an ebook.  I just find this baffling.  The book was awarded the top crime fiction gong in Australia and not only are the rest of the world denied the pleasure of reading it, so too are people in the only region where it was available.  The publishing world often baffles me, but not enabling potential readers a chance to buy and read a book seems a very odd strategy to me.  And it certainly doesn't serve authors very well either.  I'll keep trying to get a hold of this book, but I really shouldn't have to be trying.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Review of A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press, 2010)

1931 and Australia is in the grip of a depression, with thousands finding it difficult to make ends meet.  Politically, the country is being split between the left and the rise of communism, and the conservative right and the spectre of fascism in the form of the New Guard.  Rowly Sinclair has been bought up as a privileged gentlemen, his family rich from farming and investments, but lives a bohemian lifestyle as an artist, friends with many working class folk.  When his uncle is killed in his own home, the police prove less than useful, suspecting the elderly housekeeper.  Rowly and his friends decide to investigate, much to the chagrin of his elder brother.  Soon they are caught up in the swirl of political rhetoric and running battles between the communists and New Front, Rowly risking his reputation and life to get at the truth and justice. 

I wasn’t really sure about A Few Right Thinking Men for the first 150 pages or so.  Not a whole lot happens except the characters are introduced and the scene set for what follows.  It is only with Rowly’s friends turning up at his brother’s house that the book sparks into life and then it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp all the way to near the end.  The strength of the story is its characterization, and its sense of place and history.  Rowly and his friends are very engaging, and the other main characters such as his brother, the police and the various political actors are nicely drawn.  Gentill weaves the story around a series of real events and actors, and the reader is dropped into Australia society in the 1930s, and in particular to the brief flirtations with communism and fascism.  The plot was relatively straightforward, the mystery element was a bit of damp squib, and the end just kind of drifted away as a bit of anti-climax and setup for the next instalment.  Nevertheless, for a good chunk of the story I was captivated and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, A Decline in Prophets.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

November reads

Another good month of solid reads, though no book completely captivated me.  My book of the month was Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab, a fascinating account of the science behind winning elections.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller **.5
Cypress Grove by James Sallis ****
The Great Crash 1929 by JK Galbraith ***
The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg ****.5
A Dark Place to Die by Ed Chatterton ****
Cadaver Blues by J.E. Fishman ***.5
Money Shot by Christa Faust ****
Slaughter's Hound by Declan Burke ***.5
Even Flow by Darragh McManus****

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent part of yesterday afternoon using a roll of sellotape to stick James Gleick's The Information back together again after our deaf, slightly mad collie passed judgement on it.  Popular science is clearly not her thing; she's never touched any of the crime novels I have lying around.  Half the front cover got ripped free and shredded, as did the whole of the back cover, and the rest is nicely chewed.  Thankfully it is still readable as I'm only halfway through.

My posts this week:

Review of A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
Scoop It! Crime novel reviews
Another grant crosses the line
Statistical solutions to unfinished estates
Unfinished estates 2012 data viz
Review of Cypress Grove by James Sallis
Changing channels

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Changing channels

‘I can’t see what you see in this rubbish.  It’s like the Battlefield Earth of soap operas.  Can we not watch something worth seeing?  A decent film, maybe?  Janey?  Hello, Earth calling Janey.  For god’s sake, it’s barely eight o’clock.  Jane?  Well, if you’re going to sleep, I’m changing the channel.  There’s got to be something better on than this nonsense.  Jane, are you listening?  I’m getting a cup of tea then swapping to the football.  Do you want one?  Janey?  Are you okay, love?  Hey, Janey?  Oh, god.  Can you hear me?  Jane?  Jane?  Wake up, love.  Fuck.  Jane?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words