Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I attended the admittance ceremony for new members of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.  19 new members were elected and admitted, a number of which were honarary.  Since its founding in 1785 there have been around 3700 members, so it's a relatively select club, and it's something of an honour to be elected.  It was a very pleasant day out, first with a ceremony in Academy House, then a reception in the Mansion House.

On other news, it transpires that my drabble last week was my 200th published on the site.  More amazing than that was that I've not missed writing and publishing them on a Saturday in four years.  I've come close once or twice, when I've been distracted and only remembered late at night, but I've managed to write and post before midnight.  I enjoy the challenge of writing them, so it's a tradition I intend to maintain, even if the product is a little hit and miss.

My posts this week
Review of Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol
Review of Bound by Secrecy by Vamba Sherif
These woods are haunted

Saturday, May 30, 2015

These woods are haunted

‘I’m telling you, we’re being followed.’

Mikey turned and peered along the quiet road into the gloom. 

‘You’ve an overactive imagination.  There’s nothing there.’

‘Something’s there.’

‘Come-on, let’s get you home before you crap your pants.’

Mikey set off again, Neil scuttling alongside, his head swivelling like an anxious periscope.

‘My sister says these woods are haunted.’

‘They are if she’s hanging around in them.  Take it easy, will you.’

‘There, did you hear that?’


A stick snapped off to their right.


‘It’s just an animal.’

Something clattered into them from behind, knocking them over.


‘Come-on, run!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review of Bound to Secrecy by Vamba Sherif (Hope Road Publishing, 2015)

Civil servant, William Mawolo, has travelled to a small, remote Liberian border town at the instigation of the country’s president to investigate the disappearance of the local chief, Tetese.  Although trying to act incognito, his real mission is soon exposed by the suspicious and secretive local townspeople.  Finding the locals either beguiling or uncooperative and deceitful, and plagued by seemingly supernatural incidents summoned by a local cult, Mawolo decides to try and assert his authority, taking charge of the local militia.  All this achieves is further antagonism and the harder Mawolo tries to discover what happened to the local chief, the more his ego grows and his grip on matters weakens, his judgement clouded by his desire for the elusive and indifferent, Makemeh, the daughter of the missing chief.

Bound to Secrecy is a relatively short novel (183 pages) set in rural Liberia, that blends together elements of crime fiction and political and social observation concerning the intersection of community and familial relations in a small town, local power and governance from a distance, and rational and supernatural beliefs.  The tale follows the exploits of William Mawolo, considered a rising star in the Ministry of the Interior, as he tries to discover what happened to a local chief who has disappeared.  His every move is either countered or tentatively supported by the local townspeople as they try to gauge who is most likely to win out, the local power players or the man sent by the national government.  All the time, Mawolo is never sure what is truth and lies and who to trust or fear and he becomes increasingly assertive, impulsive and erratic.  The tale is quite tightly told in expressive prose and it unfolds at a steady clip.  However, the reader is dropped straight into the tale and my sense was some additional historical and political context throughout would have been useful.  Moreover, the narrative is a little jerky, seemingly turning through a series of right angles as Mawolo falls out with locals or his mood swings.  The result was an interesting read, but one in which I was never quite fully hooked.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review of The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol (Norwegian 2008; Minnesota Press, 2013)

Lance Hansen is a cop working for the U.S. Forest Service on the shore of Lake Superior, policing hunting, fishing and camping infringements.  He’s also a keen local historian and genealogist.  Following up a tip on an illegal campsite Lance discovers a naked man covered in blood.  A short distance away is the body of a Norwegian tourist, his head bashed in.  The case is passed on to the FBI and a Norwegian detective, Eirik Nyland, flies in from Oslo to help with the case.  Wondering if anyone else has ever been murdered before in the area, Hansen starts to search through his archive, becoming convinced that a century before a local Ojibwe tribe member was killed by one his ancestors.  He also suspects that a more immediate family member might have murdered the Norwegian.  Troubled by his discoveries he skirts around the fringes of the investigation, unsure as to his feelings or what to do.

The Land of Dreams is the first in a trilogy of stories about the investigation into the death of a Norwegian tourist and its aftermath, along with a possible murder of an Ojibwe Indian a century earlier, set on the Minnesotan shore of Lake Superior, and focusing on the troubled Forest service cop and local historian, Lance Hansen.  By spreading the story over three books, Sundstol takes a somewhat bold and unconventional approach as it means the first book is required to be only partially resolved.  That said, the book does come to natural end; one that leaves the reader pondering some intriguing questions about family, loyalty, integrity and identity.  Indeed, over the course of the tale it was interesting to follow a cop becoming increasingly troubled, wrestling with his conscience as his sense of self and work is compromised.  This was a strength of the tale, along with its characterisation, and the strong sense of place and history.  That said, the telling was a little uneven, with chunks of the text swapping from storytelling to extended history lessons.  History, I think, always works best in stories when it is emerges through the narrative rather than being inserted into it.  Overall, an interesting, thoughtful and engaging tale.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday Irish voters went to the polls to vote on whether to change the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage.  Yesterday the count revealed an overwhelming majority had voted 'Yes', making it the first country to bring about this change by popular vote.  Ireland has long been perceived as a conservative country, with very good reason.  Between 1922 and the 1937 Constitution there were 19 pieces of legislation or major commissions concerning the regulation of sexuality and gender (see Table 1 in this paper I co-wrote with Una Crowley a few years ago).  Over the past forty years these have slowly been undone.  For example, the marriage bar was lifted in 1973, contraceptives became freely available to purchase in 1985, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, and divorce became legal in 1996 (only by 9000 votes).  Friday was another large step forward to a more liberal, equal and secular society.  And it felt like one of those days where history was in the making.  

My posts this week

Review of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr
New paper: Solutions, Strategies and Frictions in Civic Hacking
Review of The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson
New paper: The politics and praxis of building urban dashboards
Home to vote

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Home to vote

‘Feck this, I’m off home to vote,’ Brian said, heading for the door.

‘You can’t leave now; what about the Churchill order?’

‘Get Sharon to help you.  I need to get to Holyhead for the ferry to Dublin.’

‘Brian!  Stop being daft.  One vote isn’t going to make a difference.’

‘I’ve a stake in that country,’ Brian said, tapping at his phone.  ‘I have to vote.  This could be history in the making.  Who’d thought, gay marriage?’

‘Is that you coming out?’

‘Dave, read the hashtag #hometovote.  Mam, you’ve got my polling card?  Can you meet me off the ferry?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review of The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson (Pan, 1989)

In a hanging valley near to Swainshead in the Yorkshire Dales a walker discovers the body of man whose face has been battered beyond recognition.  Chief Inspector Banks starts to investigate, wondering if the case has any links to an unsolved murder in the village and the disappearance of a local woman five years previously.  The locals are a tightly knit community and they are being quite coy in their dealings with the police, but Banks is a tenacious copper who likes to solve a puzzling mystery.

The Hanging Valley is the fourth book in the Chief Inspector Alan Banks series (which has now reached book #22).  The story is a straightforward police procedural set in small village with a relatively small cast of characters.  The strength of the tale is the steady plotting, with Robinson carefully unfolding the investigation, keeping a handful of likely suspects in frame until the final chapters.  That said, the story simmers without ever boiling over, except for an excellent last couple of pages.  The characterisation is nicely done, especially the fragile and vulnerable Katie Greenock, who runs the local guesthouse with her abusive husband, the jocular but abrasive local landlord, and the Collier brothers, the local lords of the manor.  Moreover, there is a good sense of place, capturing the essence of a small village in the Yorkshire Dales.  Overall, a solid, enjoyable police procedural.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2015)

After his recent trip to Prague that ended with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, veteran cop, Bernie Gunther, is back in Berlin working once again in Kripo.  However, his old boss, Arthur Nebe, has secured him a job with the War Crime Bureau, but first he wants him to deliver a speech at a meeting of the International Criminal Police Commission about one his famous cases.  That meeting is taking place in Wannasee in the villa of a former rich businessman who is now languishing in prison, and despite his better judgement, Bernie starts to investigate the transfer of the house.  At the meeting he is asked to babysit two Swiss policemen and his interest is piqued in some strange transactions between a German business owned by the SS and Swiss companies.  Before he’s made much headway, his 'employer' is murdered and he's transferred to the War Crime Bureau and heads East to investigate the Katyn massacre.  On his return to Berlin he is summoned by the Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels, who wants Bernie to go to Croatia to track down the father of his favour starlet at the German film company, UFA, the beautiful, Dalia Dresner.  It’s a task that he has no option in avoiding and this is doubly so once he meets and instantly falls in love with the charismatic Dalia.  What he finds in Croatia makes even a witness of the horrors of the Nazi atrocities in Russia blanche and he returns to Germany determined to pursue his leading lady, aware that he is crossing one of the most dangerous men in the Reich.  She, however, has fled to Switzerland, and the home of her rich husband, a Serb nationalist.

The Lady from Zagreb is the tenth book in the Bernie Gunther series.  Many of the books have intersecting characters and plotlines and span a number of years and places.  This book is no different, spanning 1942 to 1956, but mainly focusing on 1942-1943, and includes a number of re-occurring real-life characters such as Arthur Nebe, Joseph Goebbels, and Friedrich Minoux, along with fictional characters such as Bernie’s wife, Kirsten.  The tale picks up after Prague Fatale and spans The Man Without Breath.  The strength and the real joy of the series is the character of Bernie Gunther, a world weary, sarcastic, caustic, anti-Nazi, who stumbles through life with bombast, luck, cynicism and bloody-mindedness, surviving mainly because he's useful.  Bernie is in fine form in The Lady from Zagreb, investigating two cases that both have Swiss connections, and one of which involves an excursion into the confused killing fields of Croatia.  The plot is somewhat rambling, and it’s fair to say that there is quite a bit going on between the two cases, and for good measure Kerr drops all kinds of other small vignettes into the story.  Moreover, there are a couple of somewhat clunky plot devices and whilst it is not necessary, an understanding of how the other books situate the fractured timeline is helpful.  That said, Kerr manages to keep the story together and coherent and the pages turning.  And as usual, there is a strong historicization and sense of time and place.  The result is an engaging and disturbing tale of lust, corruption, mass murder, and surviving in a society that has lost its moral compass.  An interesting addition to Bernie’s unfolding biography.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

In the lead up to the Interdisciplinary Approaches to ‘Setting the Scene’: Representations of Rurality in Crime Fiction symposuium at Queen's University Belfast on June 15th-16th, at which I've agreed to present a paper, I'll be reading and reviewing nothing but crime fiction located in rural settings between now and then.  Hopefully, by the power of osmosis some deep and penetrating insights will hopefully surface whilst reading the books.  I'm presently halfway through Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley set in the Yorkshire Dales.

My posts this week
Review of Rosa by Jonathan Rabb
Review of Vinnie Got Blown Away by Jeremy Cameron
He'll be coming down the mountain

Saturday, May 16, 2015

He'll be coming down the mountain

Schwarz gasped for air.  ‘What’s the point of climbing mountains?’

‘Because they’re there,’ Adler replied, admiring the view.

‘No doubt the philosophy of our dead professor.’  Schwarz pointed at the twisted body.  ‘As he tumbled over the edge, I bet he wished he’d thought differently.’

‘Probably didn’t even realise he was falling; there's a bullet hole at the base of his skull.’

‘Seems like overkill given the fall would’ve done the job.  And looked like an accident.’

‘Unless it’s designed to send a message.’

‘What?  Philosophy and mountains don’t mix?’

‘Smuggling secrets over high passes is bad for your health.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review of Vinnie Got Blown Away by Jeremy Cameron (1995, re-released 2015, Hope Road Publishing)

A Walthamstow native, Nicky Burnett, has been in and out of trouble his whole life.  Now nineteen he finds the body of his best friend, Vinnie, at the bottom of a tower block, minus his feet.  It seems that Vinnie had crossed some deadly criminals who have decided to take over the drug trade in the area.  Nicky’s code of conduct dictates that he needs to exact an appropriate revenge and to defend his patch.  The problem is he’s seriously outgunned so he sets off to persuade his mates and assorted local hard men and villains to join his vendetta. 

Most British crime novels tell their tale from the perspective of the police, or have a middle-class sensibility running through them.  Vinnie Got Blown Away, first published in 1995, however, is told from the perspective of a habitual petty criminal and is set amongst the working and benefits class estates of Walthamstow in outer London.  More than that, Cameron writes in a style that captures the inner dialogue and thoughts of his protagonist, nineteen year old, Nicky Burnett.  The result is a tale that captures the social realities of urban youth, casual crime, single parenthood and broken families.  Yet the story is not a grim, grey read, but rather has a vibrancy sustained by dark humour and well penned characters.  The tale is told through two intersecting plotlines: Nicky’s attempt to persuade friends and acquaintances to seek revenge for the murder of his best friend, Vinnie; and an account of Nicky’s time behind bars and his observations about how to survive.  Although relatively linear and short, it’s an engaging and compelling read that at times really sparkles (I particularly liked the section on learning French and a school trip to France).  Overall, an interesting tale of loyalty, courage and revenge that ends with a hack of bang.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review of Rosa by Jonathan Rabb (Halban, 2005)

1919 and German is in political turmoil after the end of the First World War, a socialist revolution threatening to transform the state and society.  Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of the Berlin Kripo has other things to worry about -- a serial killer is preying on women, killing them and leaving an elaborate carved pattern on their backs.  The fifth victim, however, radically changes the case.  It was widely believed that Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leaders of the socialist uprising, had been killed by an angry mob.  The pattern on her back suggests a different course of events.  Not long after her body is discovered it is claimed by Polpo, the political police, but not before Hoffner starts to realise not all is as it appears.  While the evidence suggests Rosa was the victim of a madman, Hoffner smells a political conspiracy and he’s determined to discover what really happened regardless of the price to be paid. 

The first instalment in Rabb’s Berlin trilogy featuring Kripo detective, Nikolai Hoffner, Rosa has a lot going for it -- a complex and compelling lead character, a strong sense of place and time, a noir atmosphere, evocative prose, and an engaging plot.  Hoffner is a gruff, tough and savvy detective who doesn’t mind stepping on toes and whose moral compass is not always well set.  Rabb surrounds him with a set of well penned characters, including his somewhat naive assistant, Hans Fichte, the child office runners in Kripo, his long suffering wife and children, the sinister members of Polpo, the political police, and the ghostly presence of Rosa Luxemburg.  He places all of these in the dark, uncertain and claustrophobic landscape of Berlin, with its inequalities, poverty and shortages of food and goods, and its political tensions, street battles and unstable state.  The plot mixes together an investigation into the work of a serial killer and a high-level political conspiracy, creating a strong hook that drives the narrative along.  However, while the plot is compelling, it is also rather fanciful which after a while starts to undermine the credibility of tale.  Nonetheless, the tension and intrigue holds the story together until the end.  Overall, a strong start to the trilogy.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Lazy Sunday service

I hit the road again early tomorrow morning to give back to back talks in Munich on Monday and Zurich on Tuesday.  I'm taking Philip Kerr's The Lady from Zagreb with me since a chunk of the story is set in Zurich.  I've also just agreed to give a talk in Zagreb in September, so it'll help set the scene for that trip as well.

My posts this week:
April reads
Population, automation and the death drive of capitalism
Review of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Review of The Woman That Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde
Open data talks at Dublinked event
I am. I was. I will be.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

I am. I was. I will be.

‘I am.  I was.  I will be.’ Mackay said, reading the epitaph.  ‘What the hell’s that meant to mean?’

‘That he made a difference when he was alive, he’s making a difference right now, and he’ll continue to do so into the future.’

‘He sounds like a pretentious gobshite.’

‘How many of us can say we shaped history, the present, and the future?  Most of us just live, die and are forgotten.’

‘And that’s what you want, is it?  Immortality?’

Kelly ignored the question.  ‘Ideas and ideology.  That’s what people remember, revisit, rework.  Come-on, I have a speech to write.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde (Penguin, 2012)

With SpecOps reduced to just six divisions and having barely surviving a failed assassination attempt Thursday Next is four months into semi-retirement, living on the edge of Swindon with Landen, her husband, Tuesday, her genius teenage daughter, Friday, her disgruntled, edgy son, Jenny, her fictitious daughter, a couple of fictional characters and a dodo.  Swindon is due to be smited by an angry God in a few days time and the Anti-Smote shield, designed by Tuesday, is not yet working.  On the same day, Friday is destined to murder a sixteen year old boy.  And it seems that Jenny is a mind worm planted by Aornis Hades, one of Thursday's mortal enemies.  As well as dealing with these issues, Thursday has just been appointed Chief Librarian for the town and is immediately facing a one hundred percent budget cut as well a succession of Thursday impersonators and the continued unwanted attention of the Goliath Corporation.  With the whole family under threat, Thursday tries to unpick the deadly plot at play.

The seventh instalment of the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot has a somewhat different setting to the other stories, being set entirely in and around Swindon with no excursions into the BookWorld, and is very much a family affair involving the whole of the Next clan.  Nonetheless, like the other books in the series Fforde has produced a clever, inventive tale with a tangle of intersecting plotlines that all eventually resolve themselves after a number of scrapes.  There’s certainly a lot going on and it takes a bit of concentration to follow the various threads and logic, but Fforde does a good job of keeping everything on track.  Moreover, the characterisation is nicely done, especially Thursday’s children, Tuesday and Friday, and old enemies such as Jack Schitt and Aornis Hades also make appearances.  There is nice humour throughout, though it was of the smirking rather than laughing out loud variety, and a lot of the literary in-jokes and satire on modern living of the earlier books was largely absent.  Where the tale comes a little unstuck, however, is the ending, which felt a little flat and underwhelming given the extended lead-in.  It made sense, and set up the next instalment, but didn’t pack the wallop I was expecting.  Overall, a good, fun, cerebral read, but hopefully the next instalment will re-enter the BookWorld once more.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003, Crown)

Chicago in the late 1880s was a city on the rise, economically, socially and vertically as the first wave of skyscrapers were built; a maelstrom of mobility and enterprise as the city exploded in population.  With a sizeable chip on its shoulder, the city was looking for a way to put itself on a par with New York and onto the global map.  The solution was to bid for the 1893 World’s Fair, the most recent of which had been held in Paris, but to build bigger and better, to attract a larger audience, and to out Eiffel the Eiffel Tower.  To oversee its development the city put local architect Daniel H. Burnham in charge, with a brief to build a fair like no other and to do it in record time.  Burnham set about his task with gusto, despite the death of his partner near the start of the project, political interference, and the reluctance of others to contribute with the same enthusiasm.  Near to the park another enterprising man had set up business, first purchasing a pharmacy, then developing a block into shops and boarding rooms with large vault and furnace in the basement.  It was the perfect location to stay for those visiting or working in the park.  Dr H.H. Holmes was a charming, charismatic conman and womaniser who seduced a succession of women to their death, as well as murdering a number of children and men.  His total number of victims is unknown, but thought to be well over thirty. 

In The Devil and the White City Larson tells the stories of the two men and the events that consumed them both as a means to tell the wider story of the World Fair and Chicago’s development.  It’s a strategy that works remarkably well, with both narratives full of drama, intrigue and suspense.  Indeed, Larson manages to balance well the details of each man’s life with the wider context of the fair, the swirl of other actors, city politics and social landscape to provide an interesting and engaging historical account.  This is to be admired, I think, because the book could have been a rather dull, dry, fact laden tale, whereas Larson understands the notion of popular history, writing almost in the style of a fictional account.  If you’re visiting Chicago and you’re looking for an entertaining and informative read, then the book makes for a good travelling companion.

Monday, May 4, 2015

April reads

April was a month of okay reads.  My book of the month was Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre, which was heading for a five star review before shifting gears and style in its latter third.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher ***
The Spy Who Came in From The Co-op by David Burke ***
Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre ****
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer ***.5
The Circle by Dave Eggers ***.5
California Thriller by Max Byrd ***
Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty ****
Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum ****

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I received a whole avalanche of books this week.  Five that I bought: The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr; Tin Sky by Ben Pastor; Rosa by Jonathan Rabb; The Interrogator by Andrew Williams and Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard.  But also two large boxes containing dozens of books by Robert Parker, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain and Bill Pronzini donated by a colleague.  There must be 15 plus books by each author.  I left the boxes in my office for the weekend and will post more on them during the week once I've had chance to browse through them.  Needless to say, they're a heck of a haul that will mean the TBR pile will be well stocked for some time (which, of course, it already is given there's fifty odd books already on it!).

My posts this week
Review of Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
Making waves

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Making waves

Carter stared down at the floating bodies.  ‘Why was the whole of the senior management team here?’

‘Aqua aerobics,’ Jamieson answered.  ‘The chancellor thought it would enhance their morale.  An hour of playful splashing while slashing budgets and closing programmes.’

‘Except someone decided to terminate them.’

‘They probably died of chlorine gas poisoning.  Above 1,000 ppm death occurs after only a couple of minutes.’

‘Explains why all the windows are open.  Suspects?’

‘CCTV shows a woman leaving by a side door, though her face was hidden.’

‘No doubt a socialist, anarchist intellectual trying to make the world a better place.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review of Fool Moon by Jim Butcher (Orbit, 2001)

After his last bloody escapade business has been slow for Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only wizard listed in the phone book.  Somewhat reluctantly Karrin Murphy of the Chicago PD Special Investigations unit enlists his help in solving a handful of murders.  The victims have all been savaged, there are large paw prints at the scene, and the attacks occur on a full moon.  It doesn’t take a genius to determine what is committing the murders, the problem is identifying and capturing the culprit.  Especially when the FBI is intent on conducting the investigation without the interference of the Chicago PD or a wizard, and other forces also seem intent on making them walk away from the case.  However, Dresden has little respect for rules and Murphy is used to infringing on jurisdiction, and despite a fractious relationship they continue to poke their noses where they’re not wanted, determined to halt the spate of deaths.

Fool Moon is the second book in the Harry Dresden series about a PI wizard in Chicago who consults with the police on supernatural cases.  I thought the first book in the series was a wonderful hoot.  Fool Moon, in contrast, felt flatter, more contrived, and relied too much on plot devices to drive the story forward.  At several points, Harry makes some very poor decisions, and the judgement of his cop buddy, Karrin Murphy, spins like a compass in an electrical storm.  There’s certainly plenty of action and tension, a couple of nice twists, and some good contextualisation about varieties of werewolves, but there was little sense of place, the characterisation somewhat one dimensional beyond Harry, the plot creaked at times, and the story lacked the humour of the first book.  Overall, a reasonably solid second instalment that’s entertaining without being captivating.