Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

After a week in Chicago I head back to Ireland this afternoon.  It's been a good trip, though 10,000 geographers all in one place at the same time is a little overwhelming.  Most of the papers I listened to were very good and a couple of the sessions would have been worth the trip on their own (especially a pair on spatial big data and everyday life). The team I was part of, Lampchop, came second in the IronSheep hackathon with a couple of animated maps of twitter data (to which I contributed nothing but ideas and critique) - the photo left is me with our trophy!  I also picked up the AAG Media prize at yesterday's awards ceremony.  Up until the handful of major awards there had been a whole series of study group awards for which the winners were presented with their certificate and then exited the stage without being given the opportunity to say anything.  However, for the major awards they asked the awardee to say a few words for which I was singularly ill-prepared, expecting simply to follow the arrows stage right.  Since the compere mentioned my novels in the citation, I managed to offer to kill audience members before remembering to say 'in a story.'  Probably a unique offer in the history of the Association!  Afterwards, I only got one request, from a prominent geographer who wanted me to include her in a story, not as a victim, but as a mass murderer (but not a serial killer)!  I guess it's better that she gets this fantasy performed in fiction than in the classroom or university management building so I'm trying to think of a suitable scenario and method!

My posts this week
Review of The Spy Who Came in From The Co-op by David Burke
Chicago haul
Towards geographies of and produced by data brokers
The politics and praxis of urban data: building the Dublin Dashboard
Review of Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Hilliard spread his arms and let the cold wind whip through his suit, the jacket held firm by the straps of a small rucksack.

‘Don’t do it, man!’ A voice shouted from behind.  ‘Don’t jump!’

Hilliard ignored him.

‘However bad it is, it can be fixed.  Get down from the ledge, Sir, and we can talk.’

The view was spectacular; a jumble of brightly-lit skyscrapers.

‘You think I want to kill myself?  You can’t get more alive than standing here!  Except diving off.’

Hilliard pitched forward and disappeared.

The cop rushed to the edge.  Twenty storeys below a parachute twirled.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review of Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus, 2009)

After witnessing the murder of a fellow pupil, senior students of St Peter’s High School are taken on a weekend retreat to a secluded outdoor centre in the Scottish Highlands. Divided into cliques and full of hormones, anxieties, sexual insecurities and curiosities, and bravado, as well as counselling and prayer there’s an expectation of parties and clandestine liaisons.  Accompanying them are three teachers and a young priest, hoping they can maintain control.  Nearby, at a top-secret military base scientists and priests are conducting an experiment that seems to have opened a portal into Hell.  Fighting for control of the project and its future, with the military and ensnared demons in the middle, it looks like religion is going to get its way and the portal closed.  Similar debates about science and theology, philosophy and faith, are happening at the retreat, but very soon they are going to be put into practice as two worlds collide.

There are two great strengths to Pandaemonium: the wonderful way in which Brookmyre captures the personalities, insecurities and interactions of school trip to an outdoor centre; and the exploration of the themes of science and theology.  Although it was sometimes a little confusing trying to follow the stories, insecurities and interrelations between thirty or so characters, the teenage angst and clique dynamics is very well evoked.  In contrast, whilst the scientists and priests in the secret research centre are well penned, they lacked the same vitality.  Where that thread of the story excelled was in the exploration of scientific philosophy and faith, with some really great passages about physics and theology.  Running through both threads is a nice streak of dark humour.  Up to about two thirds of the way through I thought the book was fabulous – insightful, rich, layered and fun.  Then it takes an altogether darker turn towards horror as the two worlds of the outdoor centre and the research labs collide, with some fairly graphic violence and the more literary, thoughtful storytelling being jettisoned for gory action.  And whilst Brookmyre tries to pull it all back round to philosophy and theology in the last few pages, it seems to end a little too abruptly and without a clear sense of the thoughts of all the leading characters.  Nonetheless, Pandaemonium was a great read – lively, engaging, thought provoking, with a dollop of black comedy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chicago haul

I'm pretty much locked up in a set of hotels attending a conference, but I have managed to spend a pleasant morning wandering round Chicago and browsing through a couple of bookshops.  And, as usual, the suitcase will have a bit more weight for the journey home.  So far I have bought:

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (which I've made a start on)
How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser
The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager
The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

I suspect they'll be more added to the pile by the weekend.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Spy Who Came in From The Co-op by David Burke (Boydell Press, 2008)

I ordered A Spy Who Came in From The Co-op after reading Jennie Rooney’s excellent novel, Red Joan, which was inspired by the life of Melita Norwood who was revealed as the Soviet’s longest serving spy in Britain when she was 87 years old.  Norwood worked in the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, passing on secrets from the late 1930s until she retired relating to Britain’s atomic programme.  Although the British government played down Norwood’s role when she was exposed in 1999, and she was not prosecuted, the KGB files suggest that she was considered more valuable than the Cambridge Five.  The strength of the book is placing Melita Norwood’s life in the wider context of her father’s activities, the wider communist movement and Russian spy networks in the UK across the first sixty years of the twentieth century.  Where the book is weaker is with respect to Melita Norwood herself.  The author spent a lot of time with her, both prior to and after her she was exposed, talking to her about her father, her own life and the people that she knew, yet her personal profile and psychology is relatively thin, with very little information gleaned from chatting to her documented.  Indeed, a lot of the narrative is reliant on archival sources.  This is a shame as it would have been nice to dissect in a bit more detail the life of a committed spy and how she reconciled and rationalised her actions.  Moreover, the telling is quite dry and there’s a fair bit of repetition.  Nonetheless it’s an interesting read.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

All being well, this post should be published when I am over the Atlantic en route to Chicago.  Unfortunately I don't have a copy of Barbara Fister's In The Wind with me as it 'got lost in the post'.  I'll have to try and source another copy when I get back.  I'll be spending the flight, however, not reading but trying to finish off an academic paper.  Like everything else at present these have turned into a just-in-time endeavour.  Somehow I've committed to writing twelve papers and book chapters between now and mid-July.  If I churn them out at one per week I'll be fine.  What could go wrong!

My posts this week
Review of Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

Saturday, April 18, 2015


The door slammed against brick wall, Larson darted through the opening, struggling to change his trajectory ninety degrees.  He brushed against the far wall, finding his stride, his legs and arms pumping.

‘You’re a dead man, Larson,’ a voice boomed from the doorway.

A chunk of masonry popped from the wall ahead of him, the retort of the shot echoing loudly.

Larson started to weave, but didn’t break stride.

Two more retorts, followed by a stream of inventive swearing.

The alley opened onto a street and Larson veered left.  Six months of undercover work blown.  He need to warn Janie.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review of Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (Corgi, 2010)

Twelve year old Steven Lamb lives in small village on the edge of Dartmoor with his mother, younger brother and Gran.  The home is haunted by the memory of Billy Peters who disappeared after visiting the local shop.  Every day Steven’s gran stands guard at the front window waiting for Billy to return.  The rest of the town believes the boy is dead, killed by a serial killer, Arnold Avery, who admitted to killing six other children and burying them on the moor.  Steven believes that if he can locate the body he can heal the rift between his mother and gran and every weekend he treks up on the moor with a spade and searches for Billy’s burial site.  As he starts to lose hope he conceives of a new idea, drafting a letter to Avery seeking his help.  And so begins a cat-and-mouse game as Avery toys with Steven, both re-energised by their exchange of letters.

The strength of Blacklands is the idea of a young boy from a troubled home exchanging letters with the murderer of his uncle in the hope of discovering the location of the body.  It’s a novel take on the crime fiction oeuvre.  Bauer nicely sets up the premise, charting Steven’s unsettled home life, the bullying he receives at school, and his quest to resolve the doubt in his grandmother’s mind as to what happened to her son.  Then she weaves in the perspective of Arnold Avery, a predatory serial killer of children, and how Steven’s letters re-ignites Avery’s psychopathic fantasies.  However, the tale is rather narrow and linear in its telling and having spent so much time setting up the premise and manoeuvring people into place the ending was somewhat underplayed and underwhelming.  This was a shame as the story really does have a great hook.  Nonetheless, an interesting and innovative read.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)

Up to her ears in college debt and in a dead-end job she loathes, Mae Holland swallows her pride and asks her best friend from college, Annie, to help get her a job in The Circle, an giant internet company that specialises in providing authentication and transparency in online transactions.  The company has a reputation as a great employer, with wonderful facilities, endless parties, free food and accommodation, excellent health packages, and opportunities to pursue the development of novel ideas aimed at making society safer and people more accountable.  Mae’s initial job is in customer experience, dealing with online queries, but she is soon simultaneously fielding hundreds of survey questions.  Her friendship with Annie, one of the executives, provides her with access denied to most newbies and she is soon encountering some of The Circle's top execs and scientists.  It’s an exciting time in the company given its continuing meteoric rise and an endless procession of new product launches.  Mae feels incredibly privileged to be a part of what seems as much a social movement as a company, but nonetheless is unsettled by the disjuncture between her old and new life and the increasing pressure to live her life in ways visible to the company and the rest of the world.

The Circle is an allegorical tale about the perils of creating a large, seemingly for the public good, data aggregator company that controls access to vital social, economic and governmental goods and services.  The Circle is a large internet company that has quickly grown to become a massive, global critical player through it TruYou authentication system that provides a unified identification system for online transactions and interactions (whether that be using social media, playing games, conducting banking, or accessing government services).  It’s effect has been to be to just about eliminate anonymous internet activity, hugely reducing anti-social behaviour and criminality.  It’s ambition is to create open, transparent and accountable society and governance through the elimination of privacy on and offline (for example, by distributing hundreds of thousands of networked miniature cameras throughout landscapes and implanting tracker devices in kids).  The sunlight of constant exposure will prevent crime and corruption, they prophetize.  The tale follows Mae Holland, a young college graduate and her introduction to the company, her indoctrination into its ethos, and her rise through its ranks as she resolves personal reservations and conflicts.  The power of the tale is in exposing the cult and power of information and how it is increasingly being exposed, collated and centralized in the internet age.  Eggers does a good job at shining a critical light onto the California ideology underpinning many such companies.  The main issue with the tale is that Mae is a little too one-dimensional and compliant and there’s too little examination of resistance to The Circle’s ambitions or alternatives, both within and outside the company.  And while the story does raise questions about what an open society created through private vendors means for privacy, democracy and governance, it’s treatment of such issues is rather shallow.  Overall, a thought-provoking read about the supposed utopian promise that information will set us free.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

This time next week I should be boarding a plane for Chicago where I'll be attending a conference for a week.  With that in mind I've pulled Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second in the Harry Dresden series which is set in the city, off the shelf and also ordered Barbara Fister's In the Wind.  The latter has already been in the post for over two weeks, so I'm hoping it will drop through the letterbox shortly.  I must also remember to look out for a Sara Paretsky, V.I. Warshawski tale, whilst there.  If anyone has a recommendation for a good Chicago bookstore, then please share.  I always leave some space in the suitcase to bring a haul of books back.

My posts this week
Review of California Thriller by Max Byrd
Review of Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty
Review of Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum

'Would suit a DIY enthusiast'

Saturday, April 11, 2015

'Would suit DIY enthusiast'

Several bricks thudded to the floor and a cloud of thick dust filled the vaulted space.

‘Flip!’ Frank roared, trying to cover his face.

‘Just think how much more it’ll be worth when we’re done,’ Jane said, flapping her hands.

‘We should have hired someone who knows what they’re doing.’

‘Stop being a grump!  It’s not often I get to wield a sledgehammer.’

Frank peered through the new gap in the brickwork.

‘I think the house price just took a nose dive.’

‘What!  Why?’

‘We’ve just discovered two corpses.’

‘Really!  Oh god.  How are you at bricking up holes again?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review of California Thriller by Max Byrd (1982)

A Bostonian working in San Francisco, P.I. Mike Haller is ex-military and ex-newspaper reporter.  He’s hired by the wife of a missing reporter to find her wayward husband whose last known location was the Central Valley near to Sacramento.  Haller and his ex-cop colleague, Fred, gradually make headway uncovering the story the reporter was working on and tracking his movements, but they soon have their wings clipped and they’re asked to drop the case.  Haller though believes he’s onto something more than simply a missing reporter and is unwilling to let go.

Published in  1982, California Thriller is a fairly average P.I. tale charting the progress of Mike Haller in solving the mystery of a missing newspaper reporter.  Haller has less hang-ups than the average PI, being in a stable relationship and lacking a self-destructive streak and macho bravado.  He is though dogged, tough and smart.  The tale itself mixes a standard missing persons plot with a wider, fairly fanciful conspiracy.  Whilst there is steady stream of action, most of it is reasonably standard PI work and the tale only strays into ‘thriller’ territory in the last quarter, and even then in a fairly low key way. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review of Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail, 2015)

Belfast, 1985, and Detective Inspector Sean Duffy of Carrickfergus CID seems to be spending more time maning riot lines than investigating cases.  Teetering on the edge of burnout he backs his sergeant in a dispute over the jurisdiction of a double murder of a rich bookmaker and his wife.  Solving it will aid McCrabban’s career prospects and it seems like an open and shut case, especially after the son commits suicide leaving a confession note.  Duffy, however, is not convinced, especially when he discovers that Michael Kelly dropped out of Oxford after attending a party where a cabinet minister’s daughter died of a heroin overdose, and Kelly’s best friend has just been sacked from Shorts factory, where six missiles have gone missing.  Then there’s another murder, followed by political pressure to drop the case.  Ever dogged, Duffy and his team stick to their task, determined to discover the truth.

Gun Street Girl is the fourth book in Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.  Duffy is an appealing character, a perennially out of place Northern Irish cop blessed with mordant wit and a self-destructive streak.  Add to this McKinty’s ability to conjure up the sense of time and place and to thread his stories through the real scandals of the period (which given its politics and conflicts, Northern Ireland has in abundance) and you have a very attractive mix.  The wider context in Gun Street Girl is the disappearance of six Javelin missiles from Shorts Factory in East Belfast.  Narrow margins a theme that runs through the book.  At the start, Sean Duffy’s sergeant takes on a murder case as it just about falls into their jurisdiction and Duffy is teetering on the edge of burnout and leaving the RUC, and the book closes with a very nicely judged pair of close shaves.  It was always going to be difficult to top Duffy’s last outing, In the Morning I’ll be Gone (my book of 2014), given its clever story within a story, and whilst Gun Street Girl is an engaging read it lacked the same edge, tension and political intrigue that ran throughout its predecessor.  It is nonetheless, a very decent police procedural that really sparks to life in the final couple of chapters as it nears its double denouement, both of them with a nice bitter twist.  As usual, McKinty’s unique prose style shines throughout.  It’ll be very interesting to see where McKinty takes Duffy next in what is an excellent series.

As an afternote, I wish Serpent's Tail would stop using the Ian Rankin quote of 'An exciting new voice' on the covers of McKinty's books.  Yes, an exciting voice, but he's well into double figures at this stage, is pretty well established, and is far beyond 'new'.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review of Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum (Vintage, 2006; Norwegian 2000)

Gunder Jomann has led a quiet life in the small village of Elvestad in Norway.  Well into middle age he has a steady job at an agricultural machine supplier and a nice house, but no life partner.  After becoming enchanted with India through a book his sister gave to him he decides to fly to Mumbai to explore and to see if he can find a wife.  Shortly after arriving he meets Poona, who works as a waitress in a cafe and shortly before he returns home they marry.  On the day that Poona flies to Norway to meet her new husband, Gunder is prevented from meeting her at the airport.  The next morning her battered body is found in a field, a short distance from his home.  Nobody in the village can believe any of their neighbours capable of such an atrocity and they close ranks, leaving Inspector Konrad Sejer and his team to try and fathom what transpired and who killed the unfortunate Poona.

Whilst ostensibly a police procedural, Calling Out For You has a somewhat different approach to most books in the sub-genre, focusing as much on the local community and how it reacts to a heinous crime in its midst as it does on the investigation.  The result is a narrative strongly focused on exploring various characters and their interactions and the themes of uncertainty, doubt, suspicion and loyalty.  Fossum nicely plays the heartstrings with respect to the doomed relationship between Gunder and Poona, and the tale has a strong emotional register throughout.  Inspector Sejer is a reflexive policeman who steadily goes about his work, trying to build a case with limited evidence and cooperation.  The scenes where he interviews a suspect are particularly nicely done, illustrating the subtleties of his approach.  Overall, an engaging and unsettling read that provides some degree of closure, but leaves the reader with thoughtful questions to ponder.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I've fallen behind with my reviews and hope to catch up with drafting a handful in the next few days.  This is mainly to do with running around a lot in the past two weeks, giving seven talks and undertaking seven fieldwork interviews.  Expect reviews of Calling Out for You by Karin Fossum, Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty, California Thriller by Max Byrd, and The Circle by Dave Eggers shortly. 

My posts this week
Review of A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez
Review of Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block
March reads
I can barely breath, let alone run

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I can barely breath, let alone run

‘Come-on, we need to go.’  Sabine tugged at the limp arm.  ‘There are soldiers in the far field.’

‘You go,’ Josef said, his face pale and damp, his body shivering. 

‘They’ll kill you.’

‘I’m already half-dead.’

‘And in a week you’ll have another forty years to live.  Get out of the bed!  They’ll be here soon.’

‘And then we’ll both be dead.  I can barely breath, let alone run.’

‘Josef, please.  Move!’

He lethargically manoeuvred his legs round onto the floor.

Sabine tugged him upright and dragged him to the door. 

In the distance, two shots echoed in the twilight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

March reads

An interesting month of reading.  The two standout reads were Jennie Rooney's Red Joan and Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors.  Difficult to top The Nine Tailors - there's a reason it's considered a classic.

Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block ***
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez ****
Angels Passing by Graham Hurley ****.5
Mort by Terry Pratchett ****.5
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers *****
The Few by Nadia Dalbuono ***
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene ****
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin ***
Red Joan by Jennie Rooney *****