Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

On Thursday and Friday I attended a workshop at Windsor Castle, getting to stay the night inside the castle walls in St Georges House.  The house is connected to the chapel in which ten British monarchs are laid to rest.  The workshop was held in an Elizabethan banqueting hall in which Shakespeare had one of his plays acted for the queen.  A very interesting space and probably the first and last time I get to stay in a royal residence. 

My posts this week:
Her head had no room
Review of Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Her head had no room

Jones stared at the pale figure and twisted sheets.

‘She can’t be more than eighteen.  A bottle of vodka and fifty paracetamol.  Jesus.’

‘Boss.  You need to see this.’

‘What is it, sergeant?’ 

‘A checked list.  Is she weird?  Is she white?  Is she promised to the night?  And her head has no room?  They’re lyrics from a Pixies song.’

‘You’re telling me she killed herself because of a Pixies song?’

‘No, because her head had no room.  It was all too much for her.’

‘There’re better ways to empty a head.  Though it requires a different type of pixie.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review of Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott (Polis Books, 2015)

Eve Moran has a pathological need to take things without paying for them, then to hoard her collection.  Her target is usually cheap trinkets, knick-knacks and clothes – things that people will either not miss or won’t care about if they disappear.  From an early age, she relies on her own charisma, lies, and the efforts of others to evade serious punishment.  Nevertheless, she spends time in an institution to cure her of her compulsions and serves a little jail time.  Her daughter, Christine, learns that the way to her mother’s affection is to help her in her schemes, scams and swindles.  However, as she grows older she comes to resent her mother’s manipulative nature and eventually starts to resist when it’s clear that Eve is using her young son in one of her crimes.

Concrete Angel is marketed as ‘domestic suspense’ and that seems an apt label.  The story follows the life of Eve Moran, a compulsive petty thief and hoarder, from her adolescence in the 1950s to middle age, and her various trials and tribulations in and around Philadelphia.  In particular, it focuses on her strained relationship with her family, her husband and various lovers, and her daughter, Christine.  The latter slowly transforms from willing pawn and accomplice to resentful teenager, the change starting after she takes the rap for a murder her mother committed.  When Eve starts to use her young son in her crimes, Christine decides it’s time to try and end her mother’s behaviour.  The novel then is a relatively unusual for a crime novel given its extended timeline and its detailed character study.  Over the course of the story one really gets to know Eve and her family and their unfolding relationships.  The tale has plenty of drama, with an endless stream of crimes and scams, from shoplifting to murder.  Abbott, however, rather centring the plot on them, makes these a part of the everyday theatre of Eve and Christine’s lives.  The only bit that didn’t ring quite true to me was the ending, which felt a little underplayed.  Overall, an interesting tale told in an engaging voice.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I have a feeling this might be the longest gap between reviews since I began the blog.  Slowly getting back on track.  I've just started by first Lew Archer book by Ross Macdonald, The Instant Enemy.  The setup is fairly straightforward - parents wanting their daughter, who's run-off with a man found - but I suspect they'll be more to it than that.

My posts this week:

Saturday, November 21, 2015


‘Police!  You’re surrounded!  Come out with your hands on your head!’

‘What the fuck?’ Reggie glanced at the window and the strobe of red and blue lights.

‘If you’re not out in thirty seconds, we’re coming in.’

Reggie opened the front door to find half a SWAT team pointing guns at him.

‘Get down on the ground!’

Two cops bundled past him.

‘Where’s the woman?’

‘What woman?’

‘We got a 911.  A violent assault.  Possible homicide.’

‘There ain’t no woman.’

‘Down!  Now!’ 

‘I bet it’s those Callaghan kids again.  Last week it was pest control.  Week before a dozen pizzas.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm taking a mini unscheduled break from crime fiction at the minute.  My last two reviews were both history books.  The one I'm currently reading is Future Crimes by Marc Goodman, which is a thoroughly unsettling book about cybercrime and cyberattacks.  I'm preparing a report on the privacy and security implications of smart cities and I have a bunch of related books on my TBR.  My plan is to slot some fiction reading in between the work-related reads, but I'm up against a deadline so we'll see how I get on.

My posts this week:
Review of The Winter War by William Trotter
Review of T-Force by Sean Longden
Caught in a trap

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Caught in a trap

‘All I want to do is leave.’

‘And you can, Karen, once we think you’re well enough.’

‘When will that be?’

‘When we believe that you won’t self-harm.’

‘And how’re you judging that?  According to you, there’s always a risk I’ll do it again.’

‘There is, but we can minimize any attempt by ensuring that you leave in a good state of mind and with proper supports in place.’

‘And I’m not in a good state of mind now?’

‘You still have strong mood swings.’

‘You would too!  Locked up in here knowing the only way out is through self-harm.’

 A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Review of T-Force by Sean Longden (Constable, 2010)

In T-Force Sean Longden tells the story of the Allied forces strategy for capturing intelligence as field troops advanced.  Conceived by Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond books, which it is argued in the book were modelled on some of the exploits of T-Force and its personnel) in his role with the Admirality, the force was initially formed as an elite group who would advance with, or often in front of, frontline troops, with a roving brief to capture and secure key targets and to ship out key intelligence documents.  The force first served in North Africa and Italy as small, mobile elite.  It’s role from D-Day on however was much expanded, with it being staff by regular troops who were often rotated out of frontline duties.  They still advanced with the battles and had license to roam from target to target, but their focus shifted to include military and industrial research, and to determine how much of this had been shared with the Japanese.  In particular, as the Allies entered Germany, the Allies rushed to secure key facilities and their secrets.  In the last days of the war this included trying to secure key locations such Kiel, a key German navy base and maritime research centre, ahead of the Russians.  In the months after surrender, T-Force raced to capture industrial and military materials and scientific personnel, in part for war repatriations, to gain key knowledge, and to stop the Russians gathering up key researchers.  In many cases this involved trips into Russian occupied areas to snatch scientists and their families.  This work continued for a couple of years before being wound down.

As Longden argues T-Forces role and its valuable work has been mostly airbrushed from history, in part because a lot of its work was classified (and some still remains so), in part because the force was quite internally fractured.  In the few accounts that do discuss its work, there is a lot of misconception and misreporting.  His aim then was to provide a more thorough and overarching history of T-Force, drawing on archival sources and interviews with a handful of remaining personnel.  The result is a fascinating tale, that is a little uneven in its treatment, is often quite sketchy, and overly relies on personal testimony from a small group.  It also suffers from some repetition and in the conclusion in particular speculation.  Nonetheless, the book provides a good overview of T-Force, especially in the immediate post-war era, and Longden fulfils his aim. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review of Winter War by William Trotter (1991 [2013, Aurum Press])

As Europe heads towards war in 1939 the Soviet Union demands large swathes of land from its neighbour Finland in order to extend its borders.  The Finns refuse to yield to the threats, despite its small population size and limited military and arsenal.  Stalin, used to getting what he wants, backs the Finns into a corner with an ultimatum: the land or war.  The Finns try to find a diplomatic solution, the Allies make supportive noises but are really trying to leverage the situation to their own ends, and the Soviets amass a huge army along the border.  On November 30th, the Soviets storm across the border, notionally responding to Finnish provocation.  They are met by stubborn and well organized resistance.  Despite having massive numerical advantage and superior weapons, the Russians make limited gains and the war quickly turns into attrition on one front, and defensive strong points and willo-the-wisp counter-attacks on the others.  Expecting a quick victory, the Russian soldiers are mostly conscripts who are not equipped for winter fighting, led by officers whose tactics are limited.  The Finns in contrast use the landscape and weather to their advantage, are well motivated, and are led by officers with tactical nous.  And while the Finns suffer large losses and slowly lose ground, they win the majority of encounters and the Soviets losses are enormous.  One hundred days later, the Finns sue for peace, ceding land to the Soviets but the majority of the country remaining free, unlike many other countries in Europe.

William Trotter’s book provides a detailed and engaging account of the Winter War.  It is well written and structured, providing good contextualisation as to the path to war, the roles of key actors and events, detailed accounts of the various battles and how they fitted into the wider war, and gives a good overview from both Finnish and Soviet perspectives.  Personally, I would have liked a bit more information about post-conflict events, especially the subsequent war with the Soviets 18 months later and the final resolution at the Second World War’s end.  Nonetheless, a very readable and informative account of the Winter War.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Two weeks ago I got invites to give talks in Moscow/St Petersburg, Singapore, London and Lancaster. Last week has been invites to Shanghai and Barcelona. I've said yes to Moscow/St Petersburg, no to London, Lancaster and Barcelona (they clash with other ones I've already agreed to do), and am mulling over Singapore (June) and Shanghai (Sept).  On the plus side I'd get to look around both cities.  On the negative side, they'll take up a week each, with 13 hour return flights, and all for giving a single 30-45 minute talk at events I probably wouldn't go to otherwise.  And I'm trying to cut back on talks, having given around 40 so far this year. A very privileged kind of problem, I know. Hmmm.

My posts this week
October reads
Review of The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis
Flash mob robbery

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Flash mob robbery

The guard slid out of the bank truck clutching two bags. Moments later he was rubbing eyes full of pepper spray.

A passerby called 911:  ‘He was a construction guy.  Hard hat, high-vis vest, tool-bag.’

Two blocks away a siren whooped into life.

The police car skidded to a halt.

‘Drop the bag and put your hands on your head!’

The construction worker complied.  ‘Hey man, I’m just here for the job.  We all are.’

The cop noticed the other workers milling nearby.

‘Bay and First, 11 o’clock.  Bring your own tools; double pay.’

‘Fucking flash mob,’ Officer Murphy muttered.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review of The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis (1996, No Exit Press)

Perpetually haunted by his race and his own failures, Lew Griffin drifts from one case to the next, and from one bar to another, working as a private detective in New Orleans.  In most crime novels the hook is the solving the crime.  Sallis takes a different route, focusing instead on Griffin and the everyday lives of those a crime effects.  In The Long-Legged Fly he provides a glimpse into the long arc of Griffin’s life by charting four cases set in 1964, 1970, 1984 and 1990.  The result is a wonderfully emotive tale underpinned by strong character development and observational philosophy.  Sallis’ narrative subtly explores race and gender in the Deep South, and reflects on the intricate webs of social and political relations and histories people are bound up in.  While each of the four cases is engaging, it is Griffin’s story and his relationships with his clients, women and a local policeman that fascinates.  Sallis revels in the question ‘what does this all mean?’, with Griffin looking for answers on the street and the bottom of a glass.  Moreover, his prose is a joy to read.  I loved the book from start to finish.

Monday, November 2, 2015

October reads

A mixed month of reading.  My standout read was Luke McCallin's The Pale House set in Sarajevo during the Second World War.

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey ***
Stasi Child by David Young ****
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel ***
Sign of the Cross by Anne Emery ***
Lunenburg by Keith Baker **.5
The Pale House by Luke McCallin *****
Blizzard of Glass by Sally M Walker ***
The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson ***
Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin ****

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week proved busy.  My computer died on Monday.  The motherboard is fried, apparently. Thankfully I had backed it up on Friday.  I still managed to lose a whole day to messing about trying to fix it and borrow a machine, however.  Then on Thursday I presented three talks.  The first was in a church (the second time in two weeks I've given a talk in a church) for the National College of Art and Design. Then to Google HQ to present to the CEOs of EU capital cities, then a talk via Skype to Seattle. Three is definitely limit of talks to do in a day.

My posts this week
Review of The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey ***
September reviews
She looked like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity