Monday, February 29, 2016

February reads

February was a very good month of reading.  Difficult to choose between Eleven Days by Stav Sherez and When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen for my read of the month.  When the Doves Disappeared shades it, I think, mainly due to the denouement.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen *****
Tell No Tales by Eva Dolan ****
Dark Star by Alan Furst ****.5
Eleven Days by Stav Sherez *****
World of Trouble by Ben H Winters ****
Snapshots by Michael O'Higgins ****
Slow Horses by Mick Herron ****

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been another hectic week.  I have, however, managed to make a start into Canary by Duane Swierczynski.  A review shortly.

My post this week:
New paper in Big Data and Society: What makes big data, big data?
Review of When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
Review of Tell No Tales by Eva Dolan
New paper in Information, Communication and Society: Thinking critically about and researching algorithms
Review of Dark Star by Alan Furst

Second chance

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Second chance

‘Don’t look at it as betrayal.  It’s salvation.  It’s doing the right thing.  You ended up on the wrong side of the tracks, now you’ve got the opportunity to make amends.’

Finlay continued to stare at the far wall.

‘You’re really prepared to jail time for them?  To take their rap?’  Carter paused.  ‘I’m offering you a second chance.’

‘You’re offering me a death sentence.’

‘We’d give you a new life.  It would be a fresh start.’

‘With no family and friends and constantly looking over my shoulder.’

‘You’d be doing the same in jail. Every second of every day.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review of When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen (2015, Atlantic; 2012 Finnish)

Estonia, 1941, and the Russians are retreating.  Having trained in Finland, Roland and his cousin, Edgar, initially a collaborator with the Russians, are fighting with fellow Estonians in the forests, hoping that country might once again gain independence.  Their two wives, Rosalie and Juudit, await their return.  Instead of freedom the Germans become the new occupiers.  While Roland continues in the independence movement, Edgar takes on a new identity and cosies up to the Germans, still driven by a desire to gain and wield power, becoming active in the running of the forced labour camps.  Abandoned by her husband, Juudit falls in love with a SS officer, while still aiding the idealistic Roland.  Twenty years later, Roland has seemingly vanished and Juudit is an alcoholic and still locked in a loveless marriage to Edgar, who after serving time in Siberia has become a Soviet apparatchik.  Edgar is desperate to continue to hide his past and when he’s asked to write a book about Estonian collaborators he sees a way to rewrite history and tidy up some loose ends.

When the Doves Disappeared charts the entangled lives of three Estonians during the Second World War and twenty years later.  Roland is idealistic and desires a return to independence, resisting both Russians and Germans.  Edgar is a ruthless toady, constantly scheming to curry favour and gain recognition, first working for the Russians, then the Germans, and back to the Russians.  Juudit is naïve and craves love and freedom, falling for a German SS officer but still helping Roland and fleeing refugees.  In turn they represent the different positions of Estonians during successive waves of occupation, resistance, and collaboration.  Oskanen maps out their intersecting lives, shuttling back and forth between the years 1941-44 and 1963-66, documenting the ongoing struggles and betrayals of family and country.  While it takes a little bit of time for this narrative strategy to bed in, the result is a compelling, bleak, haunting and thought-provoking black drama that explores themes of love, loyalty, treachery, tragedy and freedom.  A story that packs a punch at multiple levels.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review of Tell No Tales by Eva Dolan (Vintage, 2015)

As they wait at a bus stop in Peterborough three immigrants are mowed down by a passing car.  Two are killed outright, but the third survives.  The case is given to the Hate Crimes Unit headed by up DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira.  They are already struggling to identify the killer of two men kicked to death in previous weeks.  Both were murdered in full view of CCTV cameras by a man who has carefully concealed his face but raises a Nazi salute before disappearing.  The bus stop deaths attract the national newspapers and soon the full glare of the media are focused on both cases.  Racial tension in the town had already been high with far-right factions both fuelling and capitalising on it, but now it is spilling over into more violence and Zigic, Ferreira and their colleagues are under huge pressure to get an early result.  

Like the first book in the Zigic and Ferreira series, Tell No Tales focuses on racial tensions in the town of Peterborough given the recent wave of East European immigration.  The tale has all the elements of a compelling police procedural – engaging and well-contextualised cases, gritty realism in the interactions between the police, public and media, a strong cast of characters with the lead pair having interesting personal back stories, internal conflict within the police force and nice subplots, and a good sense of place.  In particular, the story has its finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary Britain, its turn towards English nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the exploitation of new arrivals, and underlying racial tensions.  While the two cases are interesting and nicely told, especially as to how they gradually become entwined, the plotting did feel a little forced at times.  Nonetheless, Tell No Tales is a gripping and thought-provoking page turner and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Review of Dark Star by Alan Furst (Phoenix, 1991)

A Polish Jew bought up in early twentieth century Russia, Pravda foreign correspondent André Szara is a born survivor.  But as Stalin conducts his purges and Europe teeters on the edge of war, staying alive requires both wits and luck.  As the Czech’s try to hold back Germany’s demands Szara is drawn into the clutches of the NKVD and a deadly rivalry between factions.  Set up as the deputy director of spy rings in Paris and Berlin, Szara criss-crosses Europe using his role as a journalist as cover.  But what he and his agents discover is as dangerous as the agency running them.  Szara thus resorts to a tricky game of piggy-in-the-middle, playing the various foes against each other while trying to find a way out of their various predicaments.  And in the meantime, Europe becomes ever more dangerous for Jews and edges towards war. 

Dark Star is the second book in Alan Furst’s Night Soldier’s series set in 1930s and 40s Europe.  Like the first in the series, the tale is an epic adventure traversing several countries including Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland and Russia, tracking the fortunes of André Szara, a foreign correspondent for Pravda and reluctant Russian spymaster, over a four year period.  Like the geography and time frame, the scope of the story is similarly expansive revolving around a conspiracy within the NKVD related to Stalin and his purges and German/Soviet relations pre-war.  Szara unwittingly stumbles into the middle of a secretive and deadly game of cat-and-mouse and is thrust into its centre.  Despite its expansiveness, Furst keeps a tight grip on the storytelling setting out a complex and layered plot in 400 pages.  It’s a remarkable feat given the richness in the descriptions of people, politics, situations and places and the well-developed characterisation.  Szara, in particular, and his various interactions and reflexive thoughts is nicely penned.  The plot does become a little convoluted and seemingly fanciful at times – Szara is certainly blessed with a lot of luck – but it is also compelling and very well contextualised with respect to the events and manoeuvring of the time.  The result is a gripping tale of espionage and a man living on the edge.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

The trip to Naples was interesting and the venue for my talk was pretty spectacular (as per photos).  I failed, however, to pick up any Italian crime fiction in either Dublin or Stansted airport.  Instead, I purchased a copy of Sofi Oksanen's When the Doves Disappeared set in Estonia in the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, which I have already devoured (review soon).

My posts this week

Review of Eleven Days by Stav Sherez
Robinson Crusoe dreams of big data
Eye trouble

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Eye trouble

The old lady leaned across the table.  ‘Are you heading up to Dublin?’

Colin turned from the window and the expanse of peaty bog.  ‘Sorry?’

‘I asked whether you’re going to Dublin.’

‘Yes.  To see a specialist.  In the hospital.’

‘Nothing too serious, I hope?’

'I have a detached retina.'

'A detached rectum?' The woman asked, her brow furrowing.

'A detached retina.'

'How do you detach your rectum? Does it move somewhere else?'

'Retina. In my eye.' He pointed to his face.

'In your eye?'

'I have a detached retina in my eye.'

'I see why you need a specialist.'

A drabble is a story of 100 words.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review of Eleven Days by Stav Sherez (Faber and Faber, 2013)

Eleven days before Christmas a fire guts a small convent in a residential area of West London.  Ten nuns are found dead in an upstairs room having seemingly made little effort to escape the inferno and an eleventh body is found in a confessional in the chapel.  DI Jack Carrigan is handpicked by Assistant Chief Constable Quinn, head of the Catholic Police Association, to investigate the case with instructions to wrap it up quickly.  However, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary case, the victims were no ordinary nuns, and the identity of the eleventh victim may provide the answer to solving the crime. While Carrigan pursues a line of inquiry concerning the nuns’ on-going battle with Albanian criminals operating near to the convent, DS Geneva Miller concentrates on the work of the nuns in Peru in the 1970s and their links to liberation theology.  Their progress is slowed by both internal politics and the church hierarchy, but Carrigan and Miller are determined coppers willing to confront difficult challenges.

Eleven Days is the second book in the Carrigan and Miller series.  Like the first book, Sherez uses the format of a police procedural and London’s diverse population to shine a light on fairly weighty political and social issues.  In this case, the political turmoil and violence in Peru during the 1970s and the role of liberation theology and the contemporary movement of Albanian criminals into London’s underworld and sex trafficking.  Both provide a menacing backdrop to Carrigan and Miller’s investigation into the death of ten nuns and an unknown young woman.  Hindering their investigation is the intransigence of the Catholic Church to share information about the nuns or their work and internal police politics.  The result is an engaging and compelling tale full of gritty realism in which the politics is a crucial element of the story but never overly dominates it at its expense.   Moreover, Carrigan and Miller make for an interesting pairing as they battle their own personal demons.  I wasn’t entirely convinced by the denouement, which I felt had one twist too many, but nonetheless a superior, thought-provoking, edge-of-seat police procedural that had me staying up late to keep the pages turning.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to Naples for a couple of days next week to deliver a lecture.  It'll be my first visit to the city in person and I've only read one book set there: I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio De Giovanni.  I've just discovered that I don't have any books set in Italy on my to-be-read pile so my plan is to have a browse in the airport bookshop to see what I can find.  I'm looking forward to having a brief look around between engagements.

My posts this week
Review of World of Trouble by Ben H Winters
Cork as a smart region?
Review of Snapshots by Michael O'Higgins
The body in the bench

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The body in the bench

Carter glanced over at a long built-in bench, its padded seat removed.  A technician leaned forward and snapped a couple of pictures.

‘What made you lift it up?’ he asked the pub’s cleaner.

‘It was broken … out of line.’

‘But it wasn’t broken yesterday?’


Carter shook his head.  In the last twenty four hours someone had ripped open the sealed bench and stuffed a dead body in the gap.

‘Sir?’ the technician said.


‘I think it’s that actress.  From Downton Abbey.’

‘Actress?’ Carter muttered aware that an already odd case was about to become a soap opera.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review of World of Trouble by Ben H Winters (Quirk, 2014)

In the final two weeks before a deadly asteroid ploughs into the planet Detective Hank Palace has one final case to solve – to track down his wayward sister, Nico, who belongs to a radical group that believes that they know a way to avert disaster.  Hank sets off on a journey from Concord, Massachusetts to Rotary, Ohio with his dog Houdini and the resourceful ex-con, Cortez, passing through deserted and barricaded towns, encountering souls nervously protecting what little they’ve managed to horde.  Arriving at the last known place Nico was sighted, an abandoned police station, Hank becomes suspicious that it’s the scene of a murderous crime.  His suspicions are confirmed when he discovers a young woman barely alive after her throat had been cut.  Despite there being only days left until armageddon Hank is unable to stop being a policeman, rescuing the woman and trying to solve the mystery of who attacked her and left her for dead whilst also trying to locate his sister.

World of Trouble is the final book in the Last Policeman trilogy.  The countdown to a massive asteroid hitting Earth is very much in its last phase, with no hope of the disaster being averted.  The conclusion to the book is then very much assured.  The intriguing hook is how rookie Detective Hank Palace decides to spend his final two weeks, continuing to act as a policeman while the rest of world either descends into chaos or tries to prepare themselves for the impending disaster.  Palace’s quest is to try and find his wayward sister and solve a couple of puzzles.  There is a lot to like about this series and the final book, most notably the character of Hank Palace, a thoroughly decent man who is committed to the premise of law and order.  Winter constructs a plausible pre-apocalypse landscape and to his credit, rather than ramping the story up into an explosive ending, he maintains a realist narrative and sticks to a police procedural format.  The result is an engaging, thoughtful and somewhat sombre tale that I found a thoroughly enjoyable read.  There were, however, a couple of bits that I found didn’t quite add up with regards to the puzzles.  Interestingly, Winters does leave the story slightly open-ended with the possibility of Palace continuing his adventures post-apocalypse and I hope he might persist with the series, much as Adrian McKinty did with his Sean Duffy trilogy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review of Snapshots by Michael O’Higgins (New Island, 2015)

Dublin, 1981, at the height of the hunger strikes.  Christy Clarke is a ruthless criminal specialising in armed robberies.  Wayne Clarke, his son, is a gifted musician and footballer, who wishes his parents would stop their constant fighting.  Father Brendan is the local curate, actively involved in the abortion referendum campaign and battling his conscious with regards to his own sexuality.  Detective Sergeant Dick Roche is obsessed with tackling serious crime in Dublin and has his sights set on nabbing Christy.  A brutal attack on a prison officer puts these four on a collision course where each has something significant to lose: their freedom, their innocence, their reputation, their career.  An uncompromising battle of wits ensues, with no player wishing to cede ground.

Snapshots is the debut novel of criminal lawyer, Michael O’Higgins.  The real strength of the novel is its characterisation and character development as the four principal actors seek to outwit each other to come out top in their various interlinked battles.  O’Higgins carefully frames and sets out the worldviews of a ruthless criminal, his twelve year old son, the local curate, and a committed copper, and slowly entangles their interactions, charting how each is transformed by their encounters and the passage of time.  While the plot and telling is somewhat slow and ponderous to begin with, the tale soon picks up pace and intrigue and really hits its stride when O’Higgins gets onto his familiar territory of the courts.  Rather than adopting the register of a thriller, the narrative benefits from a grounding in realism and authenticity, with working class Dublin in 1981-82, the Troubles and hunger strikes in the North, domestic violence, clerical sexual abuse and the abortion referendum providing wider contextualisation.  While there is no great sense of mystery, O’Higgins does keep the reader wondering as to who will come out on top and the denouement is wonderfully classic noir.  Overall, a thoughtful, literary, criminal tale.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm slowly making progress constructing the index to the new academic book - Code and the City.  I've done twenty or so of these and I'm still surprised how long it takes to do it properly.  My estimate is that it'll have taken me over twenty hours by the time it's complete.  Still, it'll be a useful index, as opposed to some of the ones I've had done for me in the past that seemed to consist of a random selection of words.  Nonetheless, it's a tedious process and I'll be glad when I'm done!

My posts this week

Smart cities, privacy, data protection and cybersecurity
Review of Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Watching you, watching me

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Watching you, watching me



‘What about the lights?’

‘Maybe they’ve just left them on to deter burglars?’

‘Well, it’s not working.  Let me have a look.’

Dave shuffled Kenny to one side and placed his eye to the scope.  A farmhouse door came into focus.

‘Jesus, it’s like we’re ten feet away.  Where’s their car?’

‘Dunno.  Gone?’

‘Come-on then, let’s get in-and-out before they return.’

The two men started along the track.

‘Hello lads.’  A man holding a shotgun stepped out from the trees.  ‘Mighty things, aren’t they?’  He  touched his binoculars.  ‘Great for spying on car lights bumping along isolated lanes.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review of Slow Horses by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, 2010)

Slough House, an anonymous building in Central London, is where failed British spies are dumped in the hope that they will call it quits and leave the service.  There they do hours of boring, tedious, low-level work while trying to work out a way back to Regent’s Park and the intelligence heartland.  River Cartwright should be a rising star, but after causing chaos when an evaluation exercise goes wrong he finds himself transcribing mobile phone calls.  When a young Pakistani man is kidnapped by Far Right extremists who are threatening to behead him, River sees an opportunity for redemption.  Soon he’s dragged the other slow horses into his secret mission.  However, nothing is quite what it seems and rather than winning the race the slow horses could well be on the way to being put down for good.  However, they’re not going to go without a fight.

Slow Horses has an intriguing hook – what happens to spies that become a potential liability – those that have not done enough to be sacked but have a big question mark hanging over them?  Are they forced out the service or put out to pasture?  Britain’s answer is Slough House, a building full of misfits desperate to find their way back to the centre.  In Slow Horses, the first book in a series, a young agent side-lined for causing a major emergency shutdown of a mainline station decides he’s not simply going to serve his time, but is going to earn a recall, even if it means going head-to-head with the centre.  His ragbag collection of colleagues are soon, if reluctantly, drawn into his unofficial mission, and they’re all soon teetering on being out of their depth, with the exception of their boss, a field agent of some renown.  Rather than stick with one point of focus, the tale spends time with each of the Slough House occupants, their rivals, and the victim at the core of their mission.  It's a strategy that works well, introducing the reader to the ensemble cast.  And rather than the story being a thriller with a capital T, the game being played is more cloak and dagger and character-driven, though there is still tension and some dramatic action.  There is also some nice contextualisation concerning post 9/11 right-wing politics.  The result is an enjoyable spy tale for the modern age that would translate well to television.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January world tour

I've been on a mini-world tour in January visiting Colombia, Finland, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Japan, United States, Australia, Egypt and Norway.  Certainly one of best reading months, with plenty of variation in the story lines as well as settings.  My stand out read was 7Days by Deon Meyer, closely followed by To Steal Her Love, Galveston, and A Small Town in Germany.  

Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst ***.5
The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal ****
Peepshow by Leigh Redhead ***.5
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto ****.5
Parade by Shuichi Yoshida ***
7Days by Deon Meyer *****
A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre ****.5
Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski ***
To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu ****.5
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez ***