Friday, October 31, 2014

Review of Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988, Phoenix)

Vidin, Bulgaria, 1934, Khristo Stoianev witnesses his brother being kicked to death by local fascists.  A couple of weeks later he is sailing down the Danube towards the Black Sea on his way to Moscow.  There he starts to train as an agent for the NKVD, discovering a rare talent for field operations, and forming a close bond with a small group of other recruits.  After proving himself in a regime full of tests - some obvious, many less so - he is sent to Spain, where he works with Republican forces.  As Madrid teeters on the edge of falling to Franco’s forces, Khristo is warned that he is about to become the victim of one of Stalin’s purges and he takes flight to Paris.  There he finds work as a waiter, hoping that he can avoid those searching for him, and that the growing threat of war will dissipate.  But trouble always seems to find him and once again he has to rely on his tradecraft and old friends to survive.

Night Soldiers is the first in Alan Furst’s series of espionage novels that take place in 1930s and 40s Europe.  It’s an ambitious book charting the adventures of Khristo Stoianev between 1934 through to 1945, starting with the death of his younger brother, killed by Bulgarian fascists, and his recruitment by a Russian agent.  The story then switches to his training by the NKVD in Moscow, followed by a posting in Spain, then flight to pre-war Paris, followed by his war years.  Criss-crossing Europe and playing games with soldiers, spies, and others, Khristo lives a life full of incident whilst trying to stay in the shadows.  Furst is an excellent storyteller and the narrative is expressive and engaging throughout, and full of historical detail.  The characterisation is well realised, with some very nice interactions and points of departure and reconnection across the story.  The first half of the tale, up to Khristo’s time in Paris is excellent, being tight in focus and absorbing.  The second half, however, is much less convincing, with the storyline becoming stretched and thin in places and the denouement fanciful.  The story in the end became too expansive and reliant on unlikely threads and connections.  Nonetheless, Night Soldiers is a very good read, full of intrigue, adventure, friendship and dark encounters.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review of Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software by Vikram Chandra (Faber, 2013)

Vikram Chandra has made a living as a programmer and also written award winning literary fiction.  In Geek Sublime he reflects on the writing of fiction and code, their points of connection and departure, drawing on his own experiences and the observations of others.  In particular, he makes reference to literary theory, especially that relating to Indian texts, languages, philosophy, mythology and poetry, using it to reflect on ideas of the structure, aesthetics, logic, and the work of text as fiction and code.  In the main it’s an interesting read, engaging with ideas little used in the consideration of code, but it is a little to uneven in its analysis, and also lopsided in its treatment of fiction and code, with too much attention paid to the former.  Indeed, while there is some engagement with literary theory, there is no attention paid to its equivalent of software studies or critical code studies, though there are some references to computer science views of programming.  Nor is there any reference to code poetry, the most obvious example of where code and fiction directly interface, or in thinking about code in relation to storytelling, for example in framing and generating the narrative of games or CGI movies.  Overall then, an interesting read that introduces a number of new ideas, but is somewhat uneven and limited in its comparison of writing fiction and code. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review of The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin (Faber, 2009)

Istanbul, 1840, and there is a reshuffling of power as a new sultan succeeds the old.  The young sultan has heard a rumour that a portrait by Bellini of his ancestor, Mehmet the Conqueror, has resurfaced in Venice.  Yashim, a palace eunuch and detective, is asked to quietly investigate whether the painting exists and is for sale.  Not wanting to draw attention to sultan’s interest, Yashim sends his friend, Palewski, the Polish ambassador to Istanbul to Venice.  Given that Venice is in the control of Austrian authorities, and their recent conflict with Poland, Palewski adopts the disguise of a rich American seeking masterpieces to take back to the new world.  Venice is a shadow of its former glory, but its people still possess the guile and hospitality that made it a key Mediterranean trading port.  Palewski is soon moving in a world of old aristocratic families, dealers and cunning guides, seeking the fabled Bellini, but so is a killer who’s leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. 

The strengths of The Bellini Card are the sense of place, characterisation, and historical detail.  Goodwin places the reader in both Istanbul and Venice -- the landscape and architecture, the sights, sounds and smells, and the social strata and living conditions.  The descriptions are wonderfully evocative and come to life in one’s mind’s eye.  This is aided by a melting pot of nicely drawn characters -- a mix of fading aristocrats, bureaucrats, servants and criminals -- and their interactions conditioned by social standing.  This is all well framed with respect to byzantine politics and the long history of connections between the two cities.  The plot, however, is also somewhat byzantine.  It might have been because I was tired when reading, but as the story progressed I became increasingly lost as to logic driving the story and I reached the end without really understanding the denouement.  Maybe if I read it again it would become clear, but on first reading the complex weave and twists in the story never fully unravelled to reveal themselves.  The result was a tale I enjoyed for the rich portrait of people and places, but where the plot became evermore incidental.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm presently reading Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan.  Rather than a straightforward telling of the devastating 900 day siege of the great city, Moynahan weaves in the story of the writing of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the city in which he lived and worked, which was performed in the Philharmonia Hall in August 1942 by a full orchestra of starved musicians pulled from the front lines and work places.  What Moynahan's account reveals is that the city had been under siege prior to the German invasion through Stalin's purges, with the war heightening the terror and suffering, and that this is captured in Shostakovich's work.  So far it's a fascinating but harrowing book, with a casualty rate in the hundreds of thousands, with plenty of resilience and fear and a few glimmers of hope.

My posts this week
Review of The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter
Review of Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
Waiting for the NKVD

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Waiting for the NKVD

‘They took Mikhail last night.’

‘Mikhail?  What’s Mikhail ever done?’

‘Nothing, probably, but give it a few days: with no sleep and a rubber hose they’ll no doubt discover he holds anti-Soviet views or he’s an agent of an enemy state.’

‘But that’s ... that’s ...’

‘The way things are.  You know how they think.  How they act.  And they’ll come for me soon.’

‘You!’ Anna wailed.  ‘Why you?’

‘Because Mikhail will name me as an accomplice.’

‘An accomplice?’

‘To make them stop.  He’ll say whatever they want to hear.’

‘We’ll leave.’

‘And go where?  They’ll already be watching us.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of Villain by Shuichi Yoshida (Vintage, 2010; Japanese 2007)

Yoshino Ishibashi works as an insurance sales agent, lives in a company apartment, hangs around and bitches with her friends Mako and Sari, and dates men she meets on internet sites while pretending to have a rich boyfriend, Keigo.  After a night out with her girlfriends she leaves them to head to Higashi Park telling them she is going to meet Keigo, but is really going to rendezvous with Yuichi, a quite, serious young construction worker who has travelled over the sinister Mitsuse Pass, that connects Nagasaki with Fukuoka City, to meet her.  The next morning she is found dead on the Pass having been strangled, Keigo has disappeared, and the police launch a murder investigation.  They quickly unravel Yoshino’s double life, but their search for the murderer moves more slowly. 

Villain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking read that could have easily been titled ‘Victim’, since the two roles are thoroughly entwined in Yoshida’s absorbing tale of the murder of a young insurance sales agent.  The great strength of the story is its telling, characterisation, contextualisation, atmosphere and plotting.  While keeping the temporal structure linear, Yoshida tells the tale from multiple perspectives using both third and first person voices to detail the relationships between characters and their interactions.  It’s a technique that works surprisingly well, I suspect because Yoshida’s narrative has an understated style, avoiding any melodrama, and yet captures the subtleties of emotion and human relations.  He does a particularly nice job of detailing the relationships between friends and family members and their petty jealousies, awkward moments, lonely reflections, secret fantasies and encounters.  These are nicely contextualised with respect to the social relations of Japanese society.  The result is a layered, nuanced and interesting tapestry of views that thorough unsettles and blurs any notion of villain and victim, and a compelling plot that charts the aftermath of the murder and how the case unfolds to a resolution, but never from the perspective of the police.  In this sense it’s a kind of police-less procedural.  I especially like the denouement that threw up as many questions as it answered, creating closure but leaving the reader pondering the tale.  In my view an excellent piece of literary crime fiction.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter (Headline, 2014)

Klaus Fuchs was a German mathematician/physicist who fled Germany in 1933 to Britain.  There he found employment, first in Bristol University, then Edinburgh, before being interned at the start of the war as a German national and being sent to a camp in Canada.  He was then repatriated back to Britain, where he started to work on nuclear research.  As plans started on the Manhattan Project and the development of a nuclear bomb, Kuchs formed part of the British contingent, first moving to New York, then onto Los Alamos, where he was a key member of the theoretical physics team.  At the end of the war he returned to the UK to take up a post as a key member of Britain’s new nuclear programme. 

Fuchs was undoubtedly a leading nuclear scientist who made key contributions to the development of the nuclear age, but his infamy owes more to the fact that throughout his time working on nuclear physics in Britain and the United States he was passing on everything he knew about the programmes he participated in to the Soviets, enabling them to become the second state to possess nuclear weapons much earlier than expected.  In fact, Fuchs had been an active and politically committed communist his whole adult life and it was his activism against the Nazis that forced him underground, then out of Germany.  His spying only came to an end in 1950 when he confessed to his activities to British authorities, despite the quite thin evidence against him, under the impression that he would be able to continue his work for the British. 

Given the importance and scale of the material he passed on, Mike Rossiter claims Fuchs was the most significant spy of the twentieth century, and The Spy Who Changed The World tells Fuchs story drawing on declassified archive material in Britain, Germany and Russia.  It’s a fascinating read, told through an engaging narrative that both maps out Fuch’s activities but also tries to make sense of them.  The final chapters covering Fuch’s confession are particularly interesting because they seem so odd, Fuch’s being allowed to continue his work despite being under investigation and the slightly, amateurish comic cat-and-mouse game that was played out with British intelligence services.  Rossiter admits that there are holes in the story, but that in some cases they are never likely to be filled due to the lack of documented evidence, and in others the material is still classified.  Nevertheless, he’s done a good job of marshalling what material there is from archives in Britain, Germany and Russia providing a nicely told biography.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm always over-packing books.  Yesterday I got back from a three day work trip.  I took four books with me, that I couldn't have possibly of read given how busy I was.  Then to add to my luggage I picked up three books in a charity shop and one in the airport.  A very nice looking pile, but one that will probably take four weeks to get through!  Two of them are also further along a series than I'm up to and I need to decide if I'm going to read out of sequence.

My posts this week
Review of The Man From Berlin by Luke McCallin
Review of All God's Children by Arthur Lyons
Playing with fire

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Playing with fire

‘Pull it back.  You need to create a beam.’

‘Like this?’

‘Now hold it steady.’

The young boy concentrated, clutching the magnifying glass. 

‘And you can kill ants like this?’

‘If they stay still long enough!  Look, it’s starting to burn.’

The two boys stared at the piece of straw darkening and smoking.


The yellow strand sparked into flame, nearby pieces catching light.


They backed away, mesmerized by the blaze and their success.

The elder glanced up at the bales rising into the shed.  ‘Oh, oh.’


'We need to put it out!’

‘Dad’s going to kill us!'  

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of The Man from Berlin by Luke McCallin (No Exit Press, 2014)

First World War veteran Captain Gregor Reinhardt used to be a homicide detective in Berlin, but now works somewhat reluctantly for the Abwehr - German military intelligence - in Sarajevo in 1943.  Reinhardt is pining for his dead wife and his son missing since Stalingrad, actively dislikes the Nazis, but feels honour-bound to perform his duties.  When Marija Vukic, a beautiful film-maker, journalist and socialite, and a fellow Abwehr officer are found murdered, Reinhardt is asked to investigate the case, working with the local police.  Yugoslav politics and ethnic tensions are complicated and dangerous, a fractious civil war raging inside a world war, and the local Sarajevo police are neither interested in Reinhardt’s help or in finding the real perpetrator of the murder.  It’s clear that a number of Germans share their views.  As Reinhardt starts to make progress towards identifying the murderer he becomes increasingly aware that this might be a case that’s best not solved, but since he has little to seemingly to live for he’s prepared to risk everything to discover the truth. 

The Man from Berlin is a fairly lengthy, ambitious novel that charts the investigation into a double murder in Sarajevo in 1943 by a disaffected German officer and decorated First World War veteran, Captain Gregor Reinhardt.  Reinhardt shares a similar history to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther -- a successful homicide detective in Berlin’s Kripo who has little time for the Nazis and is forced out of the service in the wake of its takeover by the Gestapo.  Reinhardt has a very different personality to Gunther, however, being standoffish, reflexive, somewhat passive and prone to self-loathing.  Now working in the Abwehr he’s keeping his head low and serving out time.  However, the investigation into the deaths of a fellow officer and a feisty femme fatale awaken his detective skills and his conscience.  The great strengths of the story are the characterisation, and in particular Reinhardt, and the plot, with a number of compelling sub-plots, tension points, and twists.  McCallin nicely portrays the tensions within the German forces and between Axis allies, and maps out the complicated terrain of Yugoslav politics and ethnic rivalries.  The result is a story that has depth and resonance, as well as good sense of time and place, though occasionally the pace slows to crawl, the result of too much description and explication.  Nonetheless, The Man From Berlin is a very good read, full of historical detail, with a fascinating backdrop and interesting murder case.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review All God’s Children by Arthur Lyons (No Exit Press, 1975)

Jacob Asch works as a private investigator in Los Angeles.  He’s hired by Robert Haynes to search for his eighteen year old step-daughter, Susan Gurney.  Susan has a history of running away.  As a child she fled to her real father, who has a new family, and used to pack her off back home.  The last time was to religious commune, The Word of God.  Haynes had her rescued and deprogrammed but fears she might have returned to the cult.  It seems a straightforward enough case, though the commune is openly hostile to Asch’s enquiries, he finds the deprogrammer dead, and it appears that Susan was dating a motorcycle gang member.  Despite warnings to drop the case, Asch soldiers on, determined to track the young woman down.

All God’s Children is a fairly glib affair that felt like a fairly standard episode of the Rockford Files or Columbo -- more small screen than big; more everyday than exceptional -- but with a lead character who lacks warmth, depth and vitality.  At the one level, this provides a degree of social realism -- Asch is a fairly ordinary guy working as a private investigator.  At another, it took a mix of rich family searching for a runaway child, a cultish commune, and a thuggish motorcycle gang, and made them pretty mundane.  Moreover the denouement felt weak.  The result was an okay, run-of-the-mill story that lacked sparkle and edge.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

For the last couple of days I've been reading Shuichi Yoshida's Villain.  From a browse of the first couple of pages I wasn't sure it was going to be my kind of story, but I soon found it an absorbing, compelling read.  I'm now about two thirds of the way through.  In a nicely understated way, Yoshida perfectly captures the everyday humdrum of the human condition - the petty jealousies, awkward moments, lonely reflections, secret fantasies and encounters - inflected with odd moments of hope and catastrophe.  I've no idea how it's going to conclude, but I have a foreboding that it'll not be all sweetness and light.

My posts this week
Review of Because the Night by James Ellroy
Review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Snow blind

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Snow blind

‘It’s got to be that way,’ Curzon shouted, his voice whipped away by the wind.

‘Why?’ Gunn’s gaze followed the line of Curzon’s arm, turning into the blizzard.  Everything was white to the horizon.

‘Because we came from over there.’  Curzon gestured over his shoulder.

‘We’ve been walking in circles!  We’ve come from everywhere.’

‘I still think we need to go that way.’

‘What we need is to find some shelter.  We’re going to freeze to death.’

‘There’s shelter that way.’

‘There’s shelter right here.’  Gunn gestured at a snow bank.

‘I say we keep going.’

‘Well, I’m digging in.’

 A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926, Penguin Classics)

It’s 1922 and Nick Carraway has moved east to New York, taking up residence in a small house in the community of West Egg on Long Island.  His next door neighbour is the enigmatic, Jay Gatsby, a man whose past is open to speculation, who lives in mansion that seems to be host to an endless stream of parties all summer long, attended by celebrities and anyone who wants to gatecrash.  Across the bay in East Egg lives Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy young couple who have also moved east.  Carraway is a cousin of Daisy, and Gatsby is an old flame.  As the summer progresses, the paths of all four intersect and the tension rises as Gatsby and Tom vie for Daisy’s affections.

The Great Gatsby is considered one of the classic novels of American Literature -- a tragic tale of lost love, hedonism, jealousy, and the quest to live the American dream.  For me, it’s one of those novels that seems more satisfying when one has completed reading it, than when working one’s way through the story.  I think this is most due to the fact that it’s a slower burner of a tale, with not much happening in the first two thirds as Fitzgerald manoeuvres elements of the story into place for the final denouement.  It is only at this point that tale gains resonance as the enigmatic Gatsby and his back story are exposed to view and starts to unwind.  And while Fitzgerald’s prose is engaging, with many quotable sentences, the characters are nonetheless shallow and vapid and there is little to like about any of them, though this undoubtedly the point.  Overall, a story that some may love for its social commentary on a certain strata of American society and the dream of many to join that class, but which left me cold for the most part.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review of Because the Night by James Ellroy (1984, Mysterious Press)

As a child, John Havilland decided that we was going to become a high flying psychiatrist.  After graduating from Harvard and working with the criminally insane, he moved to LA, setting up a practice.  He specializes in preying on vulnerable individuals then using them to source money, drugs, information, and commit violent acts.  When one of his charges commits a liquor store heist, murdering three people with an ancient pistol, Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins is assigned to the case.  Hopkins is fabled as a clever, rogue cop who regularly breaks the rules to achieve results.  One of his other cases involves trying to locate a missing vice cop.  Hopkins spots a connection between the two cases and is soon playing a deadly cat and mouse game with Havilland and his band of disciples.

Because the Night is the second book in the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy.  As with other Ellroy novels the narrative is infused with a dark, vivid intensity, each scene either full of tension or eruptions of graphic violence and populated by strongly defined characters.  The style makes for a gripping read, but it this case was off-set by a story line that felt it belonged more in Marvel comic book than police procedural -- mad psychiatrist super-villain versus rogue super-cop.  Both cop and villain play loose and fast with other peoples’ lives and both assume that they’ll ultimately triumph and will be able to continue on with their activities despite the fall-out from their tussles.  The result was a tale that was vividly told, but that at no time felt credible.  Nonetheless, the tale is an engagingly told noir police procedural.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Over the past couple of years I've been getting more and more invites to do work that extends beyond my usual day to day work.  This last week has bought it home to me that I really need to try and put a strategy in place to manage how I deal with these requests.  Excluding spam, I was asked to: edit a handbook; write an op ed; review two papers, one grant application, and a set of document for a municipality; present five invited talks; attend six other events; and give six media interviews.  That's over twenty additional jobs, which collectively would take up more than a working week in time, only one of which provides any recompense.  My inclination is to try and be helpful and do as many as I can, but for the sake of sanity I need to start saying no a lot more.  And since I said yes to 14 of these requests, though not the one that pays, I need to say no a lot, lot more.  I guess I just need to say it, but any strategies for handling this kind of avalanche of requests will be gratefully received.

My posts this week
Review of Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh
Review of Black Rock by John McFetridge
September reads
On the bus with grandfather

Saturday, October 4, 2014

On the bus with grandfather

‘I always feel I’m going back in time on this bus.  I got into a hell of fight in that pub.  Summer 1963.’ 

The old man pointed out the window.

‘Blood everywhere.  Ten stitches here.’  He pulled up his shirt sleeve.

‘Jesus.’  The young lad glanced at the ugly scar.

‘And we knocked that place over in about 1970.’  He gestured at a derelict factory. 

‘You robbed that factory?’

‘Amongst others.’

‘Others?’ The boy’s voice rose in pitch, staring at his grandfather’s wistful face.  ‘What about the police?’

‘They were fine, as long as they got a cut.  Good times.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

September reads

September proved to be a fairly solid month of reading.  The two standout books were John McFetridge's historical police procedural set in Montreal in 1970, Black Rock, and Bill Fitzhugh's screwball noir, Pest Control.  The latter is my book of the month, a fun, warm-hearted comic crime caper.

Black Rock by John McFetridge ****.5
Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh *****
The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn ***.5
The Late Greats by Nick Quantrill ***.5
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintrye ***
Salty by Mark Haskell Smith ***
Automate This by Christopher Steiner ***.5
Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth ****