Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I made the beauty pages of the Irish Times yesterday, I suspect for the first and last time (click on image to enlarge). I always knew that was my rightful place in the newspaper!  The photo was taken in the Dublin traffic control room.  It's actually a feature relating to a talk about the Dublin Dashboard I'm giving in Dublin Castle on Thursday as part of the Irish Design series.

My posts this week:

Review of Lehrter Station by David Downing
Review of Royal Flash by George Fraser Macdonald
The first punch

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The first punch

It started as a drunken argument outside a pub.  Which turned to shoving and threats.  Then Trevor threw the first punch.

His fist connected high on the other guy’s cheek.  A clean shot with follow through.

The man tottered back and his feet slipped out from under him.

The crack of his head as it hit the kerbstone punctuated the hubbub of the street.

Steve dropped down beside the man.  ‘Fuck!  He’s not breathing.’

A pool of blood was already forming.

‘I hardly touched him!’

‘You hit him and he’s dead!’

‘I didn’t kill him.’

‘Jesus, Trev.  He’s fuckin’ dead!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review of Lehrter Station by David Downing (2012, Old Street)

November, 1945.  John Russell and Effi Koenen are living in London with their adopted daughter, Rosa, John’s son Paul, and Effi’s sister, Zarah.  Russell is struggling as a freelance journalist and then an old ‘friend’ Yevgeny Shchepkin of the NKVD makes contact.  He threatens to reveal how Russell helped the Russians obtain German atomic research material unless he travels to Berlin to help assess the loyalty of German Communist Party members to Moscow and to offer his services to the American intelligence.  Shchepkin has his own plan to help both him and Russell escape Moscow’s grip, which involves revealing his plan to be a double agent to the Americans.  The upshot is Russell and Effi travel back to the ruins of Berlin, intent on fulfilling their mission and trying to track down surviving friends and family.  While they try to satisfy both Soviet and American spymasters, their search for Rosa’s father brings them into contact with a black marketeer with a secret to hide and the trails set-up to take surviving Jews to Palestine. 

This fifth book in David Downing’s ‘Berlin stations’ series and it is very much a series book being mainly focused on revealing the fate of the characters from the previous four books and the city of Berlin post World War Two.  It was certainly interesting to discover who had survived and perished and to get a sense of everyday life in the ruins and the large-scale migrations occurring.  And Russell and Effi are as engaging as ever.  That said, the tale lacked impetus, pace and tension, being a rather meandering affair with a handful of intersecting threads and lacking a clear resolution, and the hold of the Soviets over Russell felt a little weak.  Overall, then, a book that felt like a bridging episode, but nonetheless a nice read.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of Royal Flash by George Macdonald Fraser (1970, Knopf)

1842.  Still living in the reflected glory of his exploits in Afghanistan, Harry Flashman acts the man about town in London, when he runs into the beguiling charms of Mrs James and Otto Von Bismarck while fleeing from a raided gambling and whore house.  So starts a difficult relationship with both, especially when Flashman puts one over on each: first revealing the former to be the scandalous dancer, Lola Montez, then setting the latter up for a beating at the hands of prize fighter.  A few years later, Lola, has become Countess of Landsfeld and lover of Ludwig I, the Bavarian king.  When she summons Flashman to Munich, he sets off hoping that she’s forgiven him and they can renew their passion between the sheets.  Instead he is placed into the hands of Bismarck and forced into a plot to unite the German states into a single Germany.  He’s a very reluctant participant, but he can see no alternative but to muddle through with mock heroism.

The second set of Flashman papers picks up where the first ended, but after an initial setup jumps forward a few years.  As with the first tale, Macdonald Fraser inserts his intrepid, womanising, cowardly anti-hero into real world events in which he interacts with principal historical figures: in this case, the courtesan, Lola Montez, and the statesman, Otto Von Bismarck.  The twist in this book, however, is to also parody the novel, The Prisoner of Zelda, which Flashman then claims is based upon his exploits.  As with the first book, the whole affair is very well executed, aided by a strong, distinctive voice and attention to detail.  That said, the tale itself did not have quite the same verve as the first, and the use of a novel as the context rather than real historical events throughout meant it didn’t quite have the same resonance as Flashman recasting established history through his exploits.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable read.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

It took all week, but I have now managed to complete a micro-edit of the 'Code and the City' book I'm working on, which is due to be submitted shortly. It's based on a workshop I co-organised this time last year.  There's a few little jobs for myself and Sung-Yueh, my co-editor, to complete, but otherwise it's in reasonable shape. Overall, I think it's a good collection of essays on how software is reshaping city life, helped by it being truly interdisciplinary and having a stellar group of authors.  I also managed to read a couple of books: Lehrter Station by David Downing and The Exterminators by Bill Fitzhugh - reviews shortly.

My posts this week:
The right kind of wrong
Review of Deadlock by Sara Paretsky
Data and the City workshop
Review of Princes Gate by Mark Ellis

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The right kind of wrong

‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘No, but that’s the thrill of it.  I haven’t felt this alive in years.’  Paula twirled on the spot.

‘But he’s, he’s ...’

‘A little rough around the edges.’

‘More like spiky to the core.’

‘Exactly.  He’s edgy.  Spunky.  He lives in the moment and those moments can’t be dull.’

‘He’s a troublemaker and he’ll get you into trouble.  And break your heart.  Probably bruise your arms and legs as well.’

‘And maybe somewhere else!’

‘But at a price!  He’s all wrong for you, Paula.’

‘But he’s the right kind of wrong.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review of Deadlock by Sara Paretsky (1984, Ballantine)

When Boom Boom Warshawski, a former star player for the Chicago Black Hawks, takes a tumble from a wharf and is chewed up by a ship’s propeller, his cousin V.I. refuses to accept the death was accidental.  Although his ankle was weak, he’d left a message on her phone asking to talk to her about his new job.  As a private investigator, V.I. Warshawski is used to digging around to discover the truth and her questioning takes her into the world of Great Lakes shipping and the cut-throat business of logistics.  With strong personal rivalries and large sums of money at stake there’s plenty of potential reasons and suspects for Boom Boom’s death.  And it’s clear that someone does not want V.I. to discover the truth.

Deadlock is the second book in the popular V.I. Warshawski series that presently has seventeen instalments.  The story is engaging and there’s plenty of action throughout.  However, I struggled with the plot devices used to propel the tale along.  V.I. Warshawski’s modus operandi in Deadlock is largely the bull in the china shop approach, thrashing around unsubtly to see what emerges, and she fails to document anything or confide in anyone and seems largely immune to the fate of others (such as collateral deaths and job losses) as long as she solves the initial case.  The cops are stupid and obstinate and refuse to either listen to V.I. or join the dots between cases that are obviously linked and are clearly not accidents.  The credibility of both sets of investigations is pretty much nil, but enable V.I. to barrel her way through a set of scrapes as she seeks the identity of the killer.  On the other hand, it’s nonetheless an entertaining jaunt, with an interesting context in terms of the Great Lakes shipping industry.  As long as you can suspend disbelief it’ll pass a few hours.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review of Princes Gate by Mark Ellis (Matador, 2011)

London, 1940, and the city is experiencing the ‘phoney war’.  Politically, many of those in government favour appeasement, as does Joseph Kennedy, the US Ambassador to Britain.  While Kennedy is away in America seeking to dethrone Roosevelt, one of the young women from his typing pool is found floating in the Thames.  DCI Merlin is assigned the case, one of a handful under his brief that includes the hit and run death of an emigre scientist, and suspected IRA activity.  Merlin would like to sign-up for active service, but is consigned to remain in the police. Shortly after questioning, another of the US embassy’s staff is found beaten to death.  It appears that there is something afoot within Kennedy’s domain, but diplomatic concerns over Anglo-American relations hampers Merlin’s investigation.  Instead he pursues the case through other means, drifting through the seamier side of the capital, ruffling feathers in the underworld and Whitehall.

Princes Gate is the first in a war-time series featuring London-based DCI Frank Merlin, a widowed copper of Spanish descent.  This first book is set during the ‘phoney war’ of early 1940, a time when many hoped that an agreement could be reach with Hitler rather than pursuing total war.  Ellis taps into the political movements around such hopes as Merlin investigates two murders linked to the US embassy and Joseph Kennedy, a strong proponent of appeasement.  Merlin is a likeable character, the story has a nice hook, and the plot is engaging, entwining a couple of intersecting threads.  However, the pacing is a little uneven, the plot drifts a little in the middle, the tone is a sombre throughout, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the closing pages.  Nonetheless, Princes Gate is an interesting read and Merlin seems a character worth spending time with so I look forward to reading the second book in the series, Stalin’s Gold.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

A fairly hectic week.  For some reason when I'm planning my time I never factor in the following: copyediting proofs, writing reviews of papers/books/grant proposals, writing references, making revisions to papers, and talking to journalists.  As a consequence I'm constantly trying to fit them in and around other things.  This last week seemed to consist of nothing but the above and I've fallen further behind in trying to meet some deadlines.  On the plus side, I've been enjoying the political incorrectness and dashing adventures of Flashman in Royal Flash.  Now there's a man who would shirk all those responsibilities and have a damn good time in the process!

My posts this week
Review of In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward
New paper: Data-driven, networked urbanism
Review of Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code-Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War by Taylor Downing
New paper: Improving the Veracity of Open & Real-Time Urban Data
Eve to the power of infinity

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eve to the power of infinity

Carter stepped over the threshold and halted.

He’d entered a speculum world.  The wall, floor, ceiling, every piece of furniture were covered in mirrors.  The whole space stretched and concertinaed without end. 

A dark haired woman wearing in a white nightdress was sitting on a chair holding a red apple.  She was visible simultaneously from every angle, reflected and refracted into a million editions.

A million Carter’s scratched their heads.  ‘It’s like something out of a Kubrick movie.’

‘Doc thinks she was poisoned,’ Hanley said, joining him. ‘Blue lips. Cyanide in the apple.’

‘She’s Eve to the power of infinity.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review of Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code-Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War by Taylor Downing (Little Brown, 2014)

The British Army and Navy were deeply conservative institutions going into the First World War.  Much of their technology and strategies were firmly rooted in the nineteenth century.  The political realm and universities were not much different, with science and engineering held in relative disdain.  Over the course of the war the thinking and tactics of the establishment were altered by a range of scientists, medics, journalists and writers who sought to aid Britain in its pursuit of victory. 

In Secret Warriors, Taylor Downing provides an expansive overview of how technologies and attitudes were reshaped, focusing on five main areas - aviation, code-breaking, engineering and chemistry, medicine, and propaganda - and their key actors.  While covering so much ground provides a broad overview, it inevitably sacrifices depth for breadth.  As such, while the book is often fascinating it is also quite sketchy at times.  And it is very much focused on Britain, largely ignoring developments elsewhere, except for cursory nods every now and then.  Further, the book could have done with a bit more wider contextualisation as to the institutional and cultural changes taking place in British society, and a conclusion that sought to more fully make sense of how the ‘secret warriors’ made a difference and their legacy.  Instead, the conclusion is quite piecemeal, focusing mostly on the careers of three scientists, and makes a tentative argument about how the changes wrought fed into the Second World War.  Overall, a useful book if you’re interested in a broad brush overview of scientific breakthroughs in the First World War.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review of In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (2015, Faber & Faber)

1978, in the small town of Bampton in Derbyshire two young girls, Sophie and Rachel, are kidnapped on their way to school.  A few hours later Rachel is found traumatised but unhurt.  Sophie is never found.  Thirty years later and Sophie’s mother commits suicide.  Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a young constable working the original case, decides to use the suicide as a pretext for re-examining the investigation into the girls' disappearance.  For Rachel, now working as a genealogist, it re-opens old wounds and places her once again in the media spotlight.  To DI Francis Sadler and DC Connie Childs, it appears that the original investigation was performed competently.  Their investigation, however, changes direction when a retired teacher from Sophie and Rachel’s school is found strangled in local woods.  At the same time, Rachel starts to employ her genealogist skills to investigate why she might have been the victim thirty years previously and why her friend’s mother and school teacher are dead.

In Bitter Chill is the debut novel of Sarah Ward.  Following in the tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction the story told is a rather understated police procedural that focuses on the present day repercussions of a tragic crime committed thirty years previously.  As such, as much attention is paid to family and community members as to the police team, and there is no lead character as such, with the narrative mostly split between two police officers and the surviving victim from the original crime.  The characterisation is quite nicely done, there is a good sense of place, and the plot is for the most part well constructed and measured, though the ending was a little melodramatic and to me at least there was something off with the timeline regarding one character.  Overall, a solid British police procedural that should appeal to fans of Scandi crime fiction.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

After a couple of weeks break I launch back into the fray today with talk in City Hall in Dublin on data-driven urbanism.  It'll no doubt feel like going from zero to sixty in a few seconds.  In the meantime, I'll continue my leisurely stroll through V.I. Warshawski's Chicago in Sara Paretsky's Deadlock.

My posts this week
July reviews
First draft of The Deadly Detective Agency complete
Review of Border Angels by Anthony Quinn
Review of Target London: Under Attack From V-Weapons During WWII by Christy Campbell
Sitting target

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sitting target

‘He definitely came in here?’  Halligan peered into the old factory.

‘Unless I was chasing a shadow,’ Jones said, breathing deeply. 

‘There’s probably a dozen ways in and out of this place.  Come-on.’

‘We’re not going to wait for back-up?’

‘He’ll be long gone by then.’

‘But what if he’s armed?’

‘That didn’t seem to bother you when you were sprinting after him.’ Halligan entered the gloom.

‘I wasn’t a sitting target then,’ Jones said, following.

Halligan gestured right and they divided.

Ten seconds later there were two shots and a lithe figure dashed for the door.

‘Jones!  Jones!  Shit!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review of Target London: Under Attack From V-Weapons During WWII by Christy Campbell (Abacus, 2012)

Between mid-1944 and the end of the war, Christy Campbell documents that 10,492 V1 flying bombs were launched, of which 2,419 reached London killing 6,184 and injuring 17,981, and 1,402 V2 rockets reached the UK killing 2,754 and injuring 6,500.  107,000 houses were destroyed in the city and 1.5 million damaged.  While the flying bombs could be intercepted and shot down and gave a brief indication of its arrival via its noisy jet engine, the V2 arrived unexpectedly at six times the speed of sound.  Hitler’s terror weapons were indeed terrifying, but they were nowhere near as effective as the German leader hoped and stood little chance of turning the tide of the war. 

Target London tells the story of the V1 and V2, focusing for the main part on how the British came to learn of their development and set about trying to gather intelligence, formulate a response in advance of them being used, and cope with them while in operation.  As such, while the book does cover their development and rollout in Germany and their deployment in France and the Netherlands, in the main the narrative concentrates on machinations in Whitehall and the Armed Services, and the various scheming and in-fighting between departments, politicians, officers, intelligence operatives, scientists and allies.  Far from being a united and coordinated effort various factions manoeuvred  to claim authority over the intelligence and response to V-weapons. 

Campbell tells this story by weaving together the biographies of key individuals and documenting the work of various committees and the policies and actions they produced.  It gets off to a somewhat rocky start, with a timeline that jumps around, moving from Germany 1943, then 1929, then Britain in 1958, followed by 1939 and 1942.  Then it settles into a set timeline moving from 1943 to 1945, with each chapter covering one or two months.  It would have been better to have had a linear timeline throughout and the 1958 chapter could have been a postscript or dropped altogether.  Once it becomes linear, the story is more coherent and there’s a wealth of detail, though it’s a little confusing to follow the various spats and threads at times.  Nonetheless it makes for fascinating reading.  Overall, an interesting book that could have done with an edit to strengthen its narrative flow and clarity. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review of Border Angels by Anthony Quinn (Head of Zeus, 2015)

Lena Novak has been trafficked to a brothel in a run-down farm on the Northern Ireland side of the Irish border run by a ruthless Croatian.  One her customers, an ex-IRA man and Maze prisoner turned businessman and community development champion decides to rescue her.  Only the escape goes badly wrong leaving a man dead and Lena on the run.  A short time later her knight in shining armour is also dead having seemingly committed suicide, leaving a financial mess of embezzled peace monies in his wake.  Inspector Celcius Daly investigates, quickly becoming beguiled by the mysterious Lena.  What he discovers is a dark world of illegal immigrants, prostitution, vicious pimps, shady deals, and no easy answers. 

Border Angels is the second Inspector Celcius Daly tale set in the Irish borderlands.  Daly is a sombre, listless, melancholic character, who’s experiencing a mid-life crisis.  Recently divorced and living in his father’s isolated, run-down cottage on the edge of Lough Neagh he’s also somewhat alienated by his work.  In this tale he’s investigating the death of a Croatian thug, burned to death in his car, and the apparent suicide of ex-IRA businessman whose empire was about to collapse.  The link between them is Lena Novak, a young woman trafficked into prostitution who’s determined to win her freedom and to extract revenge on the man who enslaved her.  Told through a sober voice that doesn’t shy away from the stark realities of sex trafficking and illegal immigration, Quinn charts the hesitant and uncertain dance between Daly and Novak, where at various points other people cut-in, including a republican hit-man and Novak’s pimp.  The result is a meandering story that is told in a flat, lyrical style, with a strong sense of place, that matches Daly’s melancholy and uncertainty. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

First draft of The Deadly Detective Agency complete!

Having speculated yesterday that I might soon complete the first draft of the new novel, I find I have reached the end having bashed out five thousand words in the last twenty four hours. The Deadly Detective Agency has been my favourite one to date to write.  It has a nice set of characters and location and everything just slotted into place plot wise. If only all my writing progressed with the same karma!  Now onto edits, then beta readers.

July reviews

July was a good, varied month of reading.  The standout read was The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. An excellent example of a realist police procedural that doesn't rely on plot devices to move the investigation along.

The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker ****.5
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers ***
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo *****
Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway ****
Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard ***.5
In The Wind by Barbara Fister ****.5
Easy Streets by Bill James ***
The Detective Branch by Andrew Pepper ****
Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal ****
Nazis in the Metro by Didier Daeninckx **.5
The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris ***

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

After a couple of days break in East Mayo, I've returned to working on the current novel.  I'm making steady progress and hope to finish the first draft this coming week.  Then to edits.  I'm still not sure as to who constitutes its ideal audience.  I've basically written it to keep myself amused and it'll be interesting to see what my beta readers make of it.  Tapping away at the laptop has slowed my reading a little, though I have managed to read Sarah Ward's In Bitter Chill, which I'll review sometime in the coming days.

My posts this week:
Review of The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker
Review of Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers

Saturday, August 1, 2015


‘It’s seaweed.’

‘That’s just covering something else.’

‘Okay, it’s a log covered in seaweed.’

‘I think it’s a box.’

‘I don’t care, I’m not wading out in this weather into those waves.  It’s freezing.’

‘Or maybe it’s a body!’

‘Then call the police.  What are you doing?’  Paul watched Steve tug off his shoes, socks and jeans. 

‘You’re mad!’

‘I need to know what it is!’

‘You could drown.  This beach has a hell of a riptide.’

Paul watched as Steve waded out into the roaring swell and disappeared from view.


A wave broke and rushed up the shore.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.