Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December reviews

Another interesting month of reading.  The two standout books were Michael Russell's The City of Strangers and Patti Abbott's Home Invasion, the first of which was my read of the month.  I'll post my best reads of the year tomorrow.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride ***
The Guts by Roddy Doyle ***.5
Home Invasion by Patti Abbott *****
Down Among the Dead Men by Ed Chatterton ****
The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain ***
Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland by Brendan McGrath ***.5
A Loyal Character Dancer by Qui Xiaolong ***
Snuff by Terry Pratchett ****
The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang ***
The City of Strangers by Michael Russell *****

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review of Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride (New Pulp Press, 2012)

St Louis PI, Nick Valentine, is a former cop with an addiction problem to alcohol, prescription drugs, and whatever else he can get his hands on, who’s only real friend is his Yorkshire Terrier, Frank Sinatra.  When a credit union boss is found dead in suspicious circumstances his old police boss calls him to help with the investigation.  Not long after the credit union is robbed, but it doesn’t go to plan when one of the thieves is shot in the back and a car driver is murdered.  Valentine knows the perfect place to find the word on the street - a strip-joint, Cowboy Roy’s Fantasyland.  Soon, along with a pair of strip-joint buddies, he’s on the trail of two local hoodlums, English Sid and Johnny No Nuts.  Valentine’s plan is to solve the crimes but to keep the money, but that may prove easy said than done given the rising body count.

In Frank Sinatra in a Blender, Matthew McBride takes a typical PI story and max everything up to eleven -- the hardboiled style, the excessive drug-taking, the violence and mayhem.  Nick Valentine used to be a decent cop, but is now a man living on the edge, bedding down in his office which he shares with Frank Sinatra, his Yorkshire Terrier, who can’t function without excessive quantities of alcohol or drugs, travels round with a small armoury, and is familiar with the underbelly of St Louis.  He doesn’t solve cases with subtlety or in ways that are always legal, and he’s quite happy to work with both cops and criminals.  He’s the kind of character that appeals to my baser tastes in crime fiction, and the caper plot and all show and no tell style of storytelling meant that Frank Sinatra in a Blender should have pushed all my buttons.  However, whilst the tale does have its merits as an escapist, excessive, fast-moving story, I never fully connected with either Valentine or the yarn.  In part, I think this is because the tale is told through the first-person voice of Valentine which curiously never modulates despite excessive drug-taking. Moreover, the prose is workmanlike, the characterization is largely skin deep, and the plot is premised on the criminals and cops being complete idiots and has a number of plot devices that felt a little too clunky.  Given the style and alcohol-fuelled state of the characters, the story is also thin on humour beyond parody, such as wisecracks and sarcasm.  The result is a fast paced, action-packed tale, but one that didn’t quite live up to its promise.  Nevertheless, it was for the most part an entertaining read. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week of reviewing in amongst the festivities.  I have another one to go up tomorrow - Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride - which will probably be the last of the year.  I've made a start on Dead Lions by Mick Herron, but doubt I'll have it finished and reviewed by the end of Tuesday.  I'm still thinking about my top ten reads of the year, but will post on New Year's Day.

My posts this week
Review of The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain
Review of Down Among the Dead Men by Ed Chatterton
Happy Christmas
Review of Home Invasion by Patti Abbott
Review of The Guts by Roddy Doyle
Ready-made family
2013 travels

2013 travels

2013 passed in a bit of blur.  I think I did more travelling this year than ever before, mostly connected to work.  In total I gave 27 presentations outside of my own institution, mostly in Ireland, and visited Venice, Los Angeles, Tucson, Aberystwyth, Reykjavík, Durham, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Brussels, New York, Boston, Lisbon, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and London (I visited way more places through fiction, though that'll be another post in the next few days).  They were all great trips, but I'd like to go back to Iceland and China for a bit more of an exploration.  My plan for 2014 is to try and spend a bit more time at home, though I've already agreed to travel to Stirling, Brussels, Oxford, Tampa, Paris, and Copenhagen in the first half of the year (though I've turned down trips to Lyon and Montreal). 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ready-made family

‘Come-on sleepy head, time to get up.’


‘Can you take Charlie to football practice?  I need to run the girls to hockey and ballet.’


‘Come-on, Steve, it’s nearly nine o’clock.’

‘Nine o’clock?  For fuc ...’  Steve reluctantly opened his eyes.

A small boy wearing a Liverpool top was staring at him.

‘We’re going to be late,’ Charlie said.


‘If you’re going to be our new dad you better pull your socks up.’


‘Did you enjoy last night, Steve?’ Susie asked.

‘What?  Yeah.’

‘Then think of it as a ready-made family.’

‘Ready-made family?’ 

‘Come-on, they’ll be late!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review of The Guts by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Back in the 1980s Jimmy Rabbitte was a wannabe manager who put together The Commitments, a soul band of Dublin northsiders.  Now 47 he’s still working on the fringes of the music industry, specialising in hunting down Irish punk and prog rock bands from the 1970s and re-releasing their back catalogue and hosting gigs.  Married with four kids he’s barely scrapping by in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger bust and to top it off he’s been diagnosed with bowel cancer.  Struggling to cope with the anxiety of treatment and work, Jimmy is in a slump, but then he hits on a plan to revive his fortunes -- the Eucharistic Congress is going to return to Dublin in 2012 and they’ll release a CD of risqué Irish songs from 1932, the last time it had been held in Ireland.  All he needs to do is wade through old record collections to find a dozen suitable tracks.  On the journey he rediscovers Imelda Quirk, the gorgeous singer from The Commitments, Outspan, the rhythm guitarist who now has terminal lung cancer, and his brother Les, who left for England twenty years ago and hasn’t been heard of since, as well as forming new bonds with his family. 

It’s about twenty years since I read The Commitments, following Jimmy Rabbitte’s attempts to put together a soul band in North Dublin in the recession hit 1980s.  I remember it as a short, sharp book, full of wit and keen observation that rattled along at a fair clip.  The Guts picks up Jimmy’s story in 2012 as he battles bowel cancer and a mid-life/end-life crisis, trying to stay alive, keep his business afloat, and his family happy.  The book is full of humour and charm, some excellent passages of dialogue and nice observations about family, friends and Irish life, and the characterisation and social interactions are very well portrayed.  However, the book suffers from two issues, plot and pace.  After an excellent start, the pace slowed and the plot meandered, a bit like Jimmy as he tried to find focus and purpose.  Many of the passages were too long and did not move the story forward.  As a result the story felt aimless, indulgent and in need of a good edit (for example, removing a good chunk of redundant dialogue; to make it more like The Commitments in form).  What rescues the book is the latter third.  From the incident cleaning the brown bin onwards the book is simply brilliant.  The plot gains direction, the sections shorten, the pace picks up and the energy, pathos and humour are dialled to eleven.  I laughed out loud dozens of times, stopping to share lines with others.  It was simply an inspired piece of writing.  If the rest of the story had been as good as this it would have been a contender for my book of the year.  Unfortunately, the first two thirds are too uneven in pace and directionless in plot.  Nevertheless, a good read and a heartening rejoinder to the Barrytown trilogy (of which The Commitments was the first book).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review of Home Invasion by Patti Abbott (Snubnose Press, 2013)

1961 and Billie and Kay are living in Philadelphia.  Kay has recently re-married and is obsessed with pleasing her new husband, her young teenage daughter unsure of her place in the relationship and world. A few years later and Billie has tracked down her real father to a born-again church in Detroit, but he’s a disappointment and the trip ends badly.  At seventeen she’s married to Dennis, a con-artist who’s always on the lookout for a quick buck.  By 1977, Billie and Dennis have two kids, Greg and Charlie, who when not fending for themselves are trying to marshal their drunken mother and scheming father as they move about trying to stay one step ahead of the police and their father’s cons.  Billie has maintained the family tradition of boozing and scraping by, the question is whether her sons will follow suit?

Patti Abbott has a well deserved reputation for writing thoughtful short stories about ordinary people who find themselves living on the edge or caught up in criminal activities.  Home Invasion is her first novel and parses out her skill as a short story writer into a longer narrative that follows the trials and tribulations of different generations of a dysfunctional family of grifters over nearly half a century.  Each chapter is set in a different year at a key inflection point in a family history that involves a whole tapestry of selfishness, misfortune, poor decisions and various crimes -- fraud, rape, cons, neglect, robbery, kidnap, murder -- and prison sentences.  These episodes are told through evocative prose and a narrative that perfectly captures the unfolding scenes, the tenuous web of social relations, complex swirl of emotions, and the foreboding that things will never quite work out as desired.  Although cast as a crime novel and published by a press specialising in noir and hardboiled stories, Home Invasion is more of a social commentary about a family struggling on the edge of the underclass, unable or unwilling to find upward mobility into respectability; a dark, unsettling, sympathetic and thoughtful tale that never quite extinguishes hope.  Whilst not the cheeriest of reads, I thought it was wonderful.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Christmas

Wishing you and your family a happy Christmas.  We've already created a mess with wrapping paper.  Two of my presents were books: The Guts by Roddy Doyle and Dead Lions by Mick Herron.  They've both risen to the top of the pile.  Really looking forward to catching up with Jimmy Rabbitte twenty odd years after The Commitments.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review of Down Among the Dead Men by Ed Chatterton (2013, Arrow Books)

Writer Dean Quinner has finally got his wish and The Tunnels, his first movie, has started to shoot in his home city of Liverpool, with Ben Noone, a charismatic Californian, in the lead role.  Working on the shoot is Terry Peters and his nephew, Nicky.  Not long after filming has started Nicky’s parents, suburban dentists, are murdered and the teenager has disappeared.  DCI Frank Keane of Merseyside’s Major Incident Team is assigned the case.  Newly promoted, recently separated and involved in a messy affair with a colleague, Keane is ready to stir things up, but his boss wants a softly, softly approach given the value of the movie industry to Liverpool, the celebrity status of one of the movie’s investors, and the interest of the media.  Still getting used to office politics in the upper echelons of the force and not known for his softly approach to cases, when another body linked to the film is discovered Keane continues to blunder on certain he has the perpetrator in his sights despite the lack of evidence and warnings to drop his line of enquiry.

Down Amongst the Dead Men is a book of two halves.  The first half is set in Liverpool and is a very good, straightforward police procedural.  Chatterton immerses the reader in the world of DCI Frank Keane, DS Em Harris and their colleagues and sets up an intriguing puzzle involving the death of two dentists and the disappearance of their son, who was working on a movie shoot.  The characterization and social interactions are nicely portrayed and the story is riveting and compelling with a nice blend of personal tribulations, police politics, and difficult investigation.  The second half shifts the action to Los Angeles and becomes much more thriller-like in its style, with Keane operating at the edge or outside of the procedures that gave him power but boxed him in in Liverpool.  The plot links Keane up with Menno Koopman, his former boss who also made an appearance in the first book, who has flown in from Australia to help with the investigation.  Whilst this part of the book is gripping, culminating in a tense finale, it is also less believable in substance given its political turn and presence of a shadowy organisation and I just didn’t buy the ending.  If Chatterton had found a way of wrapping up the story in Liverpool this would have been a five star read for me.  Nevertheless, it was engaging and entertaining read despite the shift in location and style and I’m very much looking forward to the next DCI Keane case. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review of The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain (2004 French, 2013 Maclehose Press)

After leaving school Khadidja and Chloe work in Maxime Duschamp’s cafe, sharing their Parisian apartment with blond haired Vanessa.  Returning home one afternoon, Khadidja and Chloe discover Vanessa’s body minus her feet and half a million euros in cash.  Commissaire Jean-Pascal Grousset is assigned to the case.  Labelled the ‘garden gnome’ by his colleagues, he is arrogant and useless.  He initially focuses his attention on the two flatmates, convinced they murdered their friend.  Unhappy with his boss’ approach, Lieutenant Jérôme Barthélemy calls on his recently retired commissaire, Lola Jost, who lives nearby for advice.  When the gnome shifts his focus to the womanising Maxime Duschamp, whose wife was murdered twelve years before and whose case was never solved, Lola joins forces with American wanderer and masseur, Ingrid Diesel to try and discover who really killed Vanessa.  

The Dark Angel was originally published in French with the title ‘Passage du Désir’ in 2004.  The story teams up the elderly, overweight, crotchety and brilliant former commissaire Lola Jost, with the tall, athletic, impulsive and forthright American, Ingrid Diesel, who try to solve a local murder given the ineptitude of the assigned commissaire.  Lola and Ingrid make for an interesting double act, but whereas Lola is well developed and engaging, Ingrid is less well flashed out, lacking in personality and depth -- a colourful back story and striking physique is not the same as ‘aliveness’.  The result is a somewhat lopsided relationship.  Similarly, the other characters are a little flat and one-dimensional, especially Maxime, who did not come across as an attractive lothario.  The story itself is enjoyable enough, with a few action sequences and twists and some nicely observed scenes, as long as one is happy to accept that it is simply a vehicle for introducing Lola and Ingrid given the procedural elements are weak, the police are fools, the pair make some silly decisions for dramatic effect, and the resolution is somewhat contrived.  Overall, a mildly amusing and dark tale of love, jealousy and rage.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

The kindle version of Stiffed is at present 77 pence on Amazon.co.uk and 99 cents on Amazon.com, as are other Snubnose Press books.  Worth a punt given its less than the price of snickers bar (how books ended up being regularly sold for less than small chocolate bars is another story).

My posts this week
Review of Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland by Brendan McGrath
Review of A Loyal Character Dancer by Qui Xiaolong
Code/Space book reviews
Review of Snuff by Terry Pratchett
Sore feet

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sore feet

Stacey hopped on one foot.

‘Sorry.’  Kevin took a step back, his face flushed red.

‘You can count, right?  I’m not marrying a complete idiot?’

‘I told you, I have two left feet.’

‘All you’ve got to do is count.  One, two, three, four.’  Stacey moved in time to the music.

‘I’m doing that.  It’s just that your feet are in the way.’

‘One dance.  That’s all I’m asking for.  The first dance.’

‘Can’t we just shuffle around?  Last dance at the disco.’

‘It’s meant to be our special day, not a re-enactment of the day I sold my soul.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review of Snuff by Terry Pratchett (Corgi 2011)

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is a city man and workaholic and has little interest in a holiday in the countryside at the ancestral home of his aristocratic wife, Sybil.  Nevertheless, he’s been packed off for two weeks of rest and recuperation in the stately home and to introduce Sam junior to the delights of rural pursuits.  The staff and tenants of their vast estate are as happy with Vimes’ presence as he is himself and they become even hostile when he starts to pick away at their social norms and to investigate rumours of a terrible crime.  After finding the mutilated body of a goblin and being accused of murdering a local blacksmith he swings into full action, along with the local constable and Willikins his gentleman’s gentleman, despite the fact that he is out of his jurisdiction and operating in a culture very different to the streets of his native city.

Both Terry Pratchett and Commander Sam Vimes are in fine form in Snuff.  Pratchett uses Vimes’ visit to his wife’s ancestral home to parody rural high society and the novels of Jane Eyre and her contemporaries, as well as more recent productions such as Downton Abbey, as well as explore heavier issues such as racism, exploitation and slavery.  To this end, Vimes performs his usual role of flawed emancipator and mediator, who believes in fairness and justice, but is happy to bend a few rules to combat prejudice and discrimination.  The story lacks some of the light humour that pervades most of the Discworld series, instead relying on some fair obvious satire, but makes up for it in the fullness of the plot, the action sequences, and its thoughtful engagement with somewhat weighty themes.  The characterisation is very nicely done, as are the keen social observations.  Overall, a solid, entertaining edition to Vimes’ thread in the Discworld series.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review of A Loyal Character Dancer by Qui Xiaolong (Sceptre, 2002)

It is the early 1990s and Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is a talented cop and an accomplished poet, with political connections that mean he is on a fast track to a senior position.  On an early morning visit to the Bund Park a body is discovered in the undergrowth, covered with eighteen axe wounds.  Just as Chen starts to investigate he is called away and assigned to chaperone US Marshall Catherine Rohn who is arriving to accompany a former dancer and party loyalist Wen Liping to the United States, where her husband has turned state witness against a triad gang who are running an illegal immigrant trafficking racket.  However, Wen has disappeared from her rural village in Fujian.  Chen dispatches Detective Yu to the province to hunt for her, whilst he stays in Shanghai to stall the American marshall and to present a favourable view of the country just a few years after the Tiananmen Square protest.  It soon becomes clear that Wen is being pursued by a triad gang intent on preventing her from travelling to the US and Chen gets further involved in the hunt for her, taking Catherine Rohn along with him against the orders of the party. 

I reviewed the first book in the book in Chief Inspector series, Death of a Red Heroine, in 2009.  It was a book I had struggled through, but since I was travelling to China I decided to give the second book, A Loyal Character Dancer, a go.  The story was an improvement on the first, presenting an interesting view of China at the start of the period where it opens up to the West, using the arrival of a US Marshall to explore cultural differences.  Chief Inspector Chen is relatively engaging as a lead character, prepared to take risks and challenge the party line and is reflective, quoting poetry as a way of making sense of the world.  However, whilst he’s meant to be a talented and skilled cop, he makes a series of poor and amateur judgements throughout the story, culminating in setting off into the lion’s den with the main source of prey, telegraphing his arrival and bringing no back-up.  Indeed, the procedural elements of the plot are a little weak throughout.  Moreover, the dialogue is somewhat stilted.  The result is a story that is interesting culturally, but falters with respect to the mystery, and whose resolution is far from convincing.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review of Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland by Brendan McGrath (2013, Cork University Press)

Whilst I was away in China my review of Brendan McGrath's book, Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland appeared in the Irish Times.  It ran thus:

Two of the key attractions for visitors to Ireland are its landscape and people. In survey after survey, tourists positively mention the beauty of the Irish countryside. Such praise is forthcoming in spite of the rapid and extensive developments that have occurred in rural Ireland over the past 40 years, including extensive one-off house building, sprawling suburbanisation, and the expansion of infrastructures such as motorways, electricity pylons, wind farms, and telephone masts. 

It seems, however, that whilst visitors appreciate the landscapes of Ireland, the Irish hold a more ambivalent relationship, one that prioritises property and individual rights rather than conservation, heritage and the common good. 

This is the principal argument of Brendan McGrath in Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland. The Irish, he contends, are often ill at ease in the places they inhabit, mostly viewing land as a commodity and resource rather than an amenity that needs to be tended and carefully planned and managed.

The consequence has been little consensus at both local and national scales concerning how development should occur, plenty of contestation over particular attempts to alter landscapes through construction activity, and little in the way of planning reform or landscape designations that would protect landscapes from negative change.

Through 11 short chapters McGrath provides an overview of how the Irish understand the landscapes they inhabit using a number of case examples that are richly supplemented with photographs, maps and plans. The argument developed contends that the relationship between people and the land is shaped principally by culture, nature, political economy and aesthetics, which have a particular configuration in the Irish case given its colonial past, localist politics, and weak regulation.

McGrath contends that whilst clientelism is a feature of Irish planning it is often not needed in practice as local authorities share the non-utilitarian position of local people and facilitate planning applications that run counter to national policy and international good practice. This is aided by weakly applied and contradictory planning policies across scales – local, county, regional, national, European.

Moreover, he notes, that the Irish government’s commitment to landscape protection rarely and barely extends beyond the aspirational and collapses at the first sign of opposition from local landowners worried about the loss of possible future development potential.

In other words, there is a gulf between planning theory and practice and an absence of working consensus across different stakeholders that enables ad hoc individualism at the expense of the common good. Although there is a balance in the coverage, with McGrath setting out the positions of different constituents, it is clear that his vision for housing and property development is one of concentrated urban development in the towns and cities, with a containment of low density suburbanisation, and nucleated villages in rural areas with limitations on one-off housing.

In both cases there is an appeal to sustainability, in terms of travel patterns and service and utility provision, but most particularly to landscape conservation and protecting habitats and cultural and landscape heritage. This is underpinned by a strong sense of visual aesthetics and the notion that “physical beauty enriches our lives.” 

It’s most definitely a planner’s and conservationist’s view of how land and landscape should be managed, forwarding an approach that is common across Europe and elsewhere. It is one that most Irish planners will be sympathetic to. However, given the widespread distrust and subversion of planning by politicians and the general population, it is a view that will not find favour amongst many stakeholders.

Aware of such opposition to his standpoint, McGrath’s suggestion for gaining consensus is a participatory approach wherein the local community is more actively engaged in planning and managing the landscape. For example, he suggests that protected areas need to be run by, with and for local people, and have both social and economic objectives as well as conservation, rather than be directed at a distance by government agencies in Dublin or Brussels.

For all of its positive qualities, the book does have two shortcomings.

First, the analysis is overly descriptive and lacks depth of argument. This is perhaps to be expected. It is a book aimed at a general, interested audience rather than a contribution to academic debates. Nevertheless, the account would have benefitted from more explanation and from an engagement with more normative questions about how the relationship between Irish society and landscape should be formulated.

Second, McGrath’s notion of landscape limited in scope and the title should have the word “Rural” at its start, given it barely discusses urban landscapes. Indeed, with the exception of a couple paragraphs about suburbanisation and the management of development on Howth peninsula, the towns and cities of Ireland are entirely absent from the analysis. Even villages barely get a mention.

The urban in Ireland is apparently devoid of landscapes worthy of discussion despite its inherent landscaping, architectural design and cultural heritage. For McGrath landscape is synonymous with countryside and, more specifically, romanticised, scenic vistas of mountains, bogs, lakes and coastline rather than agricultural land or Big House estates. Nearly all his examples are drawn from the Western seaboard stretching from Kerry to Donegal and refer to locales acknowledged to be areas of natural beauty.

Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting and engaging account of the relationship between landscape and society in contemporary Ireland and raises important questions about the nature of this association.

Given the piecemeal, wasteful and often damaging developments of the Celtic Tiger era and the on-going competing demands on Ireland’s landscapes it is clear that we need a full and frank debate about how land is managed. McGrath’s book provides a solid, accessible foundation to inform such a debate.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Whilst I was away in China the number of page views on the blog crossed the half a million mark according to the blogger stats.  Which is a fair number of hits and beyond my expectation.  By far the most popular post to date has been one entitled: 'Classic crime fiction curriculum challenge'.  Thanks to everybody who has stopped by the blog over the past four and a half years. 

My posts this week
Guangzhou heist
Back from China
Review of The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Guangzhou heist

Eva parked the BMW in front of the loan shark’s office. 


Evelyn grinned.  ‘This is going to be so super cool!’

‘Let’s go and free some money.’

They exited the car and headed for the door dressed like twin Hong Kong criminal fashionistas -- head to toe in tailored black threads, dark shades, hair pulled tight into ponytails, each gripping a handgun. 

A man stepped out of the shadows to block their progress, but changed his mind and melted away.

Eva pushed open the door and Evelyn stepped inside, her gun raised, already shouting orders at the startled occupants.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Back from China

I arrived back from 7 days in China (and a day there and a day back) yesterday morning.  It was a really excellent trip taking in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the south of the country and we were very well looked after by our hosts in Jinan University, where we co-ran a workshop.  The scale of development taking place has to be seen to be believed, with extensive building work taking place.  Skyscrapers seem to be going up everywhere.  To get a sense of this, Guangzhou had a population of 5.6 million in 1982 and 12.7 million in 2011 and Shenzhen had a population of 314,000 in 1979 and 10.5 million in 2011.  Despite the rapid growth, all the various urban systems worked fine, and the cities were clean and safe.  The only negatives were being unable to access my usual social media - my blogs, twitter, facebook and friendfeed - and the smog on the final couple of days.  Thankfully I'd lined up a couple of posts before I set off.  Definitely somewhere worth a visit.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review of The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (Simon and Schuster, 2008)

Head strong and proud, Mei Wang has left her job at the Ministry of Public Security and set herself up as an information consultant, a front given that private investigators are illegal.  Having given up a good position and still without a husband, Mei is a worry for her mother, who idolises her successful sister, a TV presenter who is married to a rich businessman.  When an old family friend, ‘Uncle Chen’, asks Mei to search for a piece of Han dynasty jade stolen from a museum during the Cultural Revolution, she takes up the challenge.  But not long after she starts her hunt her mother has a stroke, forcing her to balance the case with hospital vigils.  Both the case and her mother’s illness lead Mei to question their family history, stirring secrets that might be better left undisturbed.

Many detective stories seek to balance the back story and everyday life of the detective with the investigation and the resolution of the mystery.  In most cases, the balance veers towards the mystery element of the story, with the main character’s personal life and history taking a back seat.  In The Eye of Jade, Diane Wei Liang reverses this balance.  The story mostly focuses on the main character, Mei Wang, and her relationship to her mother and sister, and the family’s murky past tied up in the Cultural Revolution.  As such, the mystery element to the story is largely a plot device to enable the family history and present relations to be examined.  As a result, the investigation is a little thin and sketchy, with a somewhat quick and weak resolution.  This is, however, compensated to a degree by some nice characterisation, especially Mei Wang as a strong willed woman who is a little out of sync and place with Chinese social norms, and nice contextualisation with respect to life in Beijing, Chinese culture and values, family relationships, and China’s recent past.  Overall, a detective story that needed a little more focus on the mystery element, but nonetheless an interesting read.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reluctant witnesses

The couple veered off the pavement and crossed the deserted road, their heads bowed, eyes swivelled to their right.

‘Jesus, they’re going to kill him,’ the woman whispered.

‘Just keep walking.’

In front of a shuttered shop three men were savagely kicking a fourth who was curled up on the ground, his hands wrapped around his head.

‘We need to do something.’

‘We’ll call the police once we’re round the corner.’  The man tugged the woman along as she glanced over her shoulder.

‘What you looking at?’ one of the men shouted.  ‘You want to be next?’

‘Fuck.  Come-on, run.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review of The City of Strangers by Michael Russell (Avon, 2013)

March 1939.  Europe is on the edge of war and the IRA has started a bombing campaign in Britain.  Garda Sergeant Stefan Gillespie is serving in a small Wicklow station, raiding illegal dances and investigating petty rural crime.  He’s somewhat surprised when the Garda Commissioner calls him up to Dublin to tell him that he’s to take the new flying boat service from Foynes to New York to bring back a young man wanted in connection to the brutal murder of his mother.  On arrival Gillespie comes into contact with Clan na Gael, the upholders of Irish Republican politics in the US, campaigners to keep the US out of European affairs, and power-brokers between the IRA and German intelligence, and also meets an old colleague from G2, the Irish Intelligence unit.  He’s soon drawn into helping a woman holding vital secrets escape from an upscale psychiatric home, placing himself in danger, yet unable to turn to a police force dominated by Irish republicans.

The first Stefan Gillespie book, The City of Shadows, was one of my top three reads of 2012, so I’d been looking forward to the second book in the series.  The City of Strangers does not disappoint, with Michael Russell skilfully blending together three interconnected storylines: Gillespie travelling to New York to bring back a young man suspected of murdering his mother; a revenge plot dating back to the civil war; and the IRA’s political manoeuvrings in the US and with German intelligence and the Irish response just prior to the Second World War.  The result is a compelling, page-turner police procedural/political thriller.  Indeed, Russell has done a fine job at punching all the right buttons - as well as a gripping plot, the characterisation is strong, the historical contextualisation excellent, and the sense of place well realised.  Gillespie is a well penned and engaging lead, with a well developed back story.  He is accompanied by a mix of fictional and real characters who are all alive on the page and whose interactions are nicely observed.  There is a balanced blend of Irish and international politics, supported by some nice historical detail that is informative without swamping the story.  And the reader is dropped into pre-war Wicklow, Dublin and New York.  Overall, a very fine piece of crime fiction and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

November reads

November proved to be my slowest month of reading so far this year.  I completed and reviewed just six books.  They were six very good reads, however.  My book of the month was The Thicket by Joe Lansdale, an adventure yarn set in East Texas in the early part of the twentieth century.

The Thicket by Joe Lansdale *****
The Low Road by Chris Womersley ****
Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb ****
The Master Switch by Tim Wu ****
Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto ****.5
Severance Package by Duane Swiercynski ****.5

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

My review of The Thicket by Joe Lansdale was my 100th book review of the year so far, despite the fact that my resolution for this year was to reduce my reading and to write more.  I am writing quite a bit, it's just that it's nearly all academic stuff.  Next year I want to get back to more fiction, but hopefully without sacrificing my reading.  Talking of reading, last night I finished Michael Russell's excellent The City of Strangers and I'm now reading The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang, ahead of my trip to China.  Expect reviews shortly.

My posts this week:
Review of The Low Road by Chris Womersley
Getting lost in The Thicket
Review of The Thicket by Joe Lansdale
To the death

Saturday, November 30, 2013

To the death

As a startled looking Peter slipped out Cassie as she grimaced and squeezed the bones in my hand to dust, I knew I’d be prepared to fight to the death to protect them.  Little did I realise that I’d be doing just that six weeks later, struggling through forest undergrowth towards the border, pursued by the retort of pistols and drunken shouting.  We were targets in a game beyond our comprehension which was fast approaching its endpoint.  When we finally reached the river Cassie plunged in, swimming with Peter held above the water, as I fired shots into the dark.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review of The Thicket by Joe Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2013)

Jack Parker has just turned sixteen when his mother and father die from small pox on their East Texas farm.  His grandfather arrives to take him and his younger sister, Lula, to an aunt in Kansas.  Not long after setting off they run into Cut Throat Bill and his gang, who have just robbed a bank.  The gang murder Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his younger sister.  Jack makes his way to the nearest town to find the sheriff, who killed when the bank was robbed.  Determined to rescue his sister he turns to two bounty hunters, the charismatic dwarf, Shorty, and his partner, Eustace, the son of a slave, offering them the deeds to his parent’s and grandfather’s land in return for help.  The three of them set off in pursuit, picking up Jimmie-Sue, a young prostitute seeking to leave the profession, and Winton, another sheriff interested in the bounty on capturing Cut Throat Bill’s gang, dead or alive.  Tracking, Fatty, one of Bill’s gang, they home in on their quarry, hoping that Lula is still alive and they can rescue her whilst maintaining their own health.

Set just as oil is being discovered in Texas and the first cars are bumping along unpaved roads, The Thicket is an adventure yarn that is a mix of Tom Sawyer, Stand by Me and True Grit, with a solid dose of the comic, dark humour that populates Lansdale's Hap and Leonard books.  The strengths of the tale is its voice, characterisation, sense of place and time, and plot.  The story is told as a form of a reminiscence through a very engaging narrator’s voice that makes it feel as if it’s the transcript of porch-told tale.  Jack Parker is a wonderful character, just on the cusp of becoming an adult, but still naive and unworldly, though brave and determined.  And Lansdale puts in his company a colourful band of bounty hunters, who are ranged against an equally colourful band of dispicable villians.  The plot is a boys own adventure with a large dose of spice and grit, that is perfectly paced with the right balance of action and reflection, and the reader is placed into the landscape of East Texas in the early twentieth century and its social relations and rhythms.  Overall, Lansdale is on fine form and The Thicket is a thoroughly enjoyable escapist yarn.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting lost in The Thicket

In The Thicket Joe Lansdale continues his coming of age crime-filled adventures in East Texas some time in the early twentieth century - as with The Bottoms and Edge of Dark Water - told in the form of a reminiscence.  It's great stuff.  Here's how it starts.

I didn't suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I'd soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I'd take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that's exactly how it was.
    It was the pox that got it all started.  It had run through the country like a runaway mule and been especially unkind to the close-by town of Hinge Gate. ...

The pages just kept turning after that.  Review shortly.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review of The Low Road by Chris Womersley (Quercus, 2007)

After leaving prison, Lee is recruited by Josef into the criminal underworld.  Sent on a job to collect eight thousand dollars from a gambler, Lee is shot in the stomach.  He awakens in a grubby motel on the edge of the city.  The motel manager calls on Wild, a disgraced junkie doctor on the run to tend to the wound.  Wild reluctantly agrees but feels Lee needs the attention of a better physician.  Together they set off across country to visit Wild’s former mentor, taking with them a suitcase containing the gambler’s debt money.  Given Josef recruited Lee, he is responsible for debt is paid to his boss and he sets off in pursuit.

The Low Road is a bleak, dark, literary noir tale.  It is somewhat of a curious story as it feels both timeless and placeless: it could be set anywhere from the mid-1930s through to the 1990s and in any reasonable sized city with a large rural hinterland.  The story is all about the three main characters, especially Lee, a young petty criminal, and Wild, a doctor addicted to morphine, and their journey to try and escape their past and their developing, uneasy friendship.  It is not a cheery plot, but it well crafted and paced, told through stark and engaging prose.  Overall, this is not a story that will inspire hope and joy, but is an evocative and engaging tale that has the feel of a stage play with its small cast and handful of settings.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I attended the Irish Crime Fiction Festival event in Trinity College Dublin yesterday.  It was very well attended, especially the evening session with Michael Connelly and John Connolly, which had about 400 people crammed into the examination hall.  It was an interesting day and the three panels and evening discussion all had some engaging and enlightening discussion.  I even managed to slip out of lurk mode and introduce myself to a couple of folk, including Michael Russell who kindly signed a copy of his newly purchased latest book, The City of Strangers.  It doesn't matter how many events I attend as a speaker or an audience member, I always feel like I'm out of place, somehow trespassing in someone else's world.  And I'm quite happy to spend the time isolated in a crowd; a voyeur rather than a participant.  So it was good step out of that bubble a couple of times, but also to sink back into it.

Here are photos are of the three panels.  Sorry for the poor quality - taken on my phone without a flash.

Panel 1: Eoin McNamee, Conor Brady, Stuart Neville, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Russell

Panel 2: John Connolly, Jane Casey, Arlene Hunt, Alan Glynn, Conor Fitzgerald, Declan Burke

Panel 3: Brian McGilloway, Paul Charles, Declan Hughes, Louise Phillips, Gene Kerrigan, Niamh O'Connor

My posts this week:
Chiselling away at open data blockages
Irish crime fiction festival, this week coming
Smart cities, big data and their consequences
Review of Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb
Some media coverage of AIRO-based work
An honest man?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

An honest man?


‘They were hidden behind his water tank.’

‘Someone’s in trouble.  Did you take a peek?’

‘How could you be sure I’d bring them to you?’

‘Always send an honest man to do a scoundrel’s work.’

Dillon nodded and recalled the photographs.  Mackey meeting a suspected foreign agent; counting a stack of banknotes; looking furtive.

‘And how do I know you’re an honest man?’

‘You’ll just have to trust me.’  Mackey held out his hand.

Dillon paused, then handed over the envelope.

Mackey folded it in half and slipped it into his pocket, his mouth twisting into a crooked smile.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb (Quercus, 2009)

Adolf Eichmann was the operational manager in charge of the logistics of making the ‘Final Solution’ happen.  His job was to plan and coordinate the rounding up of Jews from across Europe, to strip them of their assets, and ship them to ghettos and death camps.  At the end of the Second World War he took on another identity and went underground.  In 1950 he used a ratline to escape Germany, travelling to Argentina, where his wife and three children joined him.  Unlike other Nazis, he had not looted for his own ends and his life in Argentina was very modest.  Initially omitted from the most wanted list, as the extent of his war crimes became clear, Eichmann soon rose to become one of the most sought after Nazis.  By the end of the 1950s, however, the appetite to hunt down war criminals had waned, except amongst a dedicated group determined to see justice administered.  When they received the news that Eichmann was living in a Buenos Aires suburb they agitated for action and in May 1960 a team of Mossad agents snatched Eichmann and smuggled him out of Argentina to Israel.  There he was put on trial for crimes against humanity.  Eichmann did not resist his capture, nor deny his crimes, but rather sought to argue that he had simply been carrying out his orders and duty.  He was hanged in June 1962.

Hunting Eichmann focuses on the hunt for and capture of Eichmann, concentrating on the period from the end of the Second World War up until his arrival in Israel.  As such, it sketches over Eichmann’s career within National Socialism and his activities during the war, and also his trial in Israel.  In this sense, the book is very much about the search for him by various people and groups and the planning and execution of his capture by an Israeli Mossad team.  Through extensive research, Bascomb produces a compelling narrative of how various events unfolded and all of the key personnel and their relationships and interactions.  The result is a telling that has the feel of a novel, rather than a dry and detached history.  In particular, the reader gets a sense of the personalities and politics at play, and the wider resonance of Eichmann for Holocaust survivors.  Personally, I would have liked a little more detail on Eichmann’s career and also the trial, but this is nonetheless a fascinating and well told read of how one of the most notorious war criminals of the twentieth century was brought to justice.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Irish crime fiction festival, this weekend coming

I attend a couple of dozen of events a year.  I'm usually pretty ambivalent about most of them.  Whereas I'm genuinely excited about attending the Irish crime fiction festival to hear the views of a great bunch of Irish crime writers.  Tickets can be sought through the website.  Here's the programme.

Friday 22 November
Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College

7.00pm-8.30pm: 'A Short Introduction to Crime Fiction: Why We Write It, How We Write It, and Why We Read It', featuring Trinity College alumni.
Introduction: Corman Ó Cuilleanáin a.k.a. Cormac Millar
Panelists: Jane Casey, John Connolly, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes, and Eoin McNamee.

Saturday 23 November
J.M. Synge Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity College

10.00am-11.15am: 'Historical Crime Fiction'.
Panelists: Conor Brady, Kevin McCarthy, Eoin McNamee (chair), Stuart Neville, and Michael Russell.

11.30am-12.45am: 'Irish Crime Fiction Abroad'.
Panelists: Declan Burke (chair), Jane Casey, John Connolly, Conor Fitzgerald, Alan Glynn, Arlene Hunt.

1.30-3.30pm: Surprise Film Screening

3.45pm-5pm: 'Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland'.
Panelists: Paul Charles, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway (chair), Niamh O'Connor, Louise Phillips.

Saturday 23 November, Closing Event
6pm (doors open 5.30), Public Theatre, Trinity College (€6 tickets)
'An Evening With Michael Connelly'.

I tend to be a lurker at these kinds of things, but I might get up the courage to go and introduce myself to a few of the speakers.  There's only one that I've not yet read at least one of their books.   

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I've made a start on The Low Road by Chris Womersley.  What I've found interesting about the first sixty pages or so is that the story is kind of placeless and timeless.  It could be set just about anywhere where there's a city with a large, sparse hinterland, and might be set any time from the 1930s to present.  It kind of feels 1970s, somehow, but I suspect it might be more recent.  And yet, it has a sense of place and a nice noirish atmosphere, which is kind of disconcerting and unsettling.  It'll be interesting to see how it develops.  Expect a review shortly. 

My posts this week:
A road map for planning, development, construction and related job creation in Ireland
Review of The Master Switch by Tim Wu
Review of Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto
Stranded behind enemy lines

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stranded behind enemy lines

Kiley stared out from the undergrowth at the soldiers and vehicles making their way across the fields.  In the distance smoke rose from a small village. 

‘There must be thousands of them.’

‘Now what?’ Smith asked, tending to Billy’s wounds.

‘We wait until dark, then sneak back to our lines.’

‘Or we could just surrender,’ Liddle said.  ‘Spend the rest of war behind barbed wire.’

‘Not without a fight.’

‘We’ve had a fight,’ Smith said.  ‘Ask Billy.’

‘We’re sneaking back.’

‘And if we’re spotted?’

‘We run.’

‘What about Billy?’

‘We leave him behind and hope the Jerries patch him up.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review of Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto (Ig Publishing, 2012)

Caesar Stiles grew up in a New Jersey town, playing on the railway tracks, protected from his violent father and combustible elder brother by his mother and Angie, the middle son.  When Angie was sucked under a train, Caesar, aged fifteen, ran away to drift across the country.  Eventually he returned to take care of his dying mother, his father long gone, his elder brother in prison.  After she’d passed away he boards up the house and moves to Brooklyn, buying a house in a poor, African-American neighbourhood restoring the property and working as a chef in a local bar.  His life seems to be finding a balance, then a young French girl asks him to find her missing brother, his own brother is released from prison and shows up wanting to settle an old family score, and two local developers start to tussle over his street and its gentrified potential.  Whilst he hunts for the French man, his life starts to unwind, threatening to spin out of control as his past finally seems to catch up with him.

The strength of Outerborough Blues is its strong sense of place, deeply fleshed out characterisation, social realism, and its poetic narrative.  It’s a kind of literary urban noir, full of subtext and allusion. Caesar Stiles is a compelling character with a colourful back story that is metered out over the course of the tale, and is surrounded by other well penned and distinctive characters.  Cotto vividly places the reader in Stiles world, especially the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn, and its oddities, rhythms and gatherings.  The prose is wonderfully rich and engaging. The plot, for the most part works well, though it becomes a little complex and confusing at points as Cotto intertwines a number of different threads.  This does not though detract the pleasure in reading the book, however.  Overall an evocative and thoughtful story about trauma, home and finding oneself.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu (Knopf, 2010)

In The Master Switch, Tim Wu draws on Schumpeterian theory of creative destruction and Christensen's notion of disruptive innovations to examine the rise and fall of information empires.  He makes the argument that various forms of information industries - the telegraph, the telephone, movie-making, radio, and television have been subject to what he terms the ‘Cycle’, wherein a disruptive new technology challenges an established hegemonic order, as with telephone confronting the wireless, slowly replacing it and itself becoming hegemonic.  Over time, dozens or hundreds of new disruptive players jostle for market position moving quite rapidly to a single monopoly player or cartel that dominates the landscape.  Eventually this monopoly player or cartel is challenged by a new disruption and is toppled, or resists by using the power of the state to stifle what is an inevitable change.  Providing a detailed genealogy of the industries already listed, and how they were initiated and developed through various power struggles and were eventually toppled or mutated, Wu asks whether the present period of disruption through internet technologies will follow the same Cycle pattern and become dominated by a handful of players who control the ‘master switch’, or will it be different given net neutrality and the global rather than national scale of operations?  He discusses this by counter-posing Apple with Google, who have very different business models, with the former seeking to replicate the Cycle.  The analysis is compellingly presented through a very engaging and accessible narrative.  I have two critiques.  The first is that the story told is highly American-centric and whilst his model of the ‘Cycle’ works in the US, it is not clear how applicable it is with respect to different contexts.  The second is that, the conclusion is a little ambiguous as to whether the Cycle will be repeated or resisted in the present age.  Otherwise, this is an excellent read.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was hectic, with a trip to Lisbon, meetings in Dublin, and a visit to Galway.  It was also a week of leaving items in my wake: a washbag, a power cable, a book, and no doubt other items I've not yet realised are elsewhere.  It was also a week of limited reading.  I completed reading Timothy Wu's The Master Switch and made it most of the way through the draft of my own work in progress, but did not manage a page of Andrew Cotto's Outerborough Blues, despite it being in my bag at all times.  I suspect my fiction reading might also be curtailed next week as I need to referee a bunch of academic papers and read a doctoral thesis.  If that pattern continues on for a while I'll soon be going cold turkey!

My posts this week:
Review of Severance Package by Duane Swiercynski
Lisboa rendezvous
Four critiques of open data initiatives
Why we need a housing strategy ASAP

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lisboa rendezvous

Robinson ambled down the hill towards the shouts and laughter drifting up from the brothels near to the Cais do Sodré.  He still found the streetlights of Lisboa a novelty after the blackout of the blitz.  He turned onto the Rua do Arsenal and stepped into the doorway of a bar.  A few moments later his shadow appeared at the intersection, an attaché from the German embassy.  Robinson ducked into the smoke-filled taberna, jostling his way through a crowd of sailors and exited into a tatty courtyard.  Rafaela, his contact in the city office, waved hesitantly from a window opposite.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review of Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski (Minotaur Books, 2008)

With a new born son, Jamie DeBroux, is not happy to be having to go into work on a Saturday morning.  He’s even less happy when the boss announces that he is terminating everybody’s contract forthwith, with the termination involving a fatal drink, the doors exiting the 36th floor rigged with lethal sarin gas.  A moment later and the boss is on his back, a bullet lodged in his brain and all hell has broken loose.  DeBroux thought he was working as a press officer for a financial company; it turns out that it was a top secret organisation targeting terrorist bank accounts.  Everyone else on the floor seems to be equipped with specialist operative skills and it appears that it’s every person for themselves.  All DeBroux wants is to make it back home to his wife and son, but the least well equipped he’ll be lucky to survive at all given the rising body count.

Severance Package starts at a quick clip and never lets up in pace.  Taking the form of a locked room escape drama, with a small number of operatives trapped on the 36th floor of a Philadelphia skyscraper pitted against each other, the story is laced with black humour and is full of twists and turns.  And over the course of a few hours Swierczynski cranks up the tension through a continuous conveyor belt of engaging action sequences.  Indeed, the strength of the story is the plot, with the characters having just enough back story to give them substance.  I thought it was a blast.  If I was a movie producer, I’d snap the options on Severance Package as it’s a ready-made action movie script, one that has three very strong female lead roles.  Overall, great fun with a lovely sucker punch ending.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm heading to Lisbon in Portugal tomorrow for two nights to attend a meeting.  I'd normally have a book set there to accompany me, but I've failed to source one this time.  Along with the present novel I'm reading, Andrew Cotto's Outerborough Blues, I'll be taking a full first draft of the academic book I'm writing at present.  Thankfully it's finally all come together.  Now onto edits and revisions.

My posts this week:
Review of Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
Review of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay
October reads
Snap inspection