Thursday, June 30, 2016

June reviews

June seemed to whip by accompanied by quite a diverse set of books.  The standout read was Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen, a fascinating and deeply troubling book that raised all kinds of moral and ethical questions.

Fool by Christopher Moore ***.5
Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen *****
The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr ****
The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell **
Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester ***.5
Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach ***
My Kind of Justice by Col Bury ***.5
The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban ***.5
Elegy for April by Benjamin Black ****

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review of Fool by Christopher Moore (2009, Sphere)

Thirteenth century Britain.  Having been bought up by nuns and been a member of a travelling troupe, Pocket was taken in by King Lear to amuse his youngest daughter, Cordelia.  For years he has been the court jester, the Black Fool, who talks truth to power with rapier wit, often receiving death threats in return.  Lear’s daughters are now young women and when Lear tests their love for him, Goneril and Regan lie to gain favour, each receiving half the nation, while Cordelia tells the truth and is banished to France.  Haunted by a ghost that talks in rhymes it is left to Pocket to try and restore family harmony and to put a halt to the ambitions of the scheming older sisters, each of whom sees an opportunity to claim the crown for themselves.  That’s no easy task given the shifting alliances and skulduggery at play, but Pocket is one heck of a schemer himself, assuming he can stay alive and keep his libido in check.

In Fool, Christopher Moore reworks King Lear, weaving in a bunch of other references of Shakespeare’s players, to create a kind of ‘Carry-on’ version that is a bawdy, sweary, tragic comedy that involves a lot of well-endowed codpieces and heaving chests, back-stabbing, scheming, and characters dropping like flies.  There is, of course, also a convoluted plot, full of twists and turns, intriguing reveals and betrayals, as each character seeks to gain the upper-hand.  At the centre of the tale is Pocket, the Black Fool, a man with a lustful eye and a sharp tongue who is trying to pull strings of King Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, their husbands, and the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, in order to ensure that Lear’s reign is not cut short and his youngest daughter, Cordelia, inherits her rightful share of his estate.  Pocket is aided by Drool, his dim-witted, sex-mad sidekick, a rhyming ghost, three witches, and the Earl of Kent, a knight of King Lear’s inner-circle.  In theory, I should have delighted in the tale and its telling – the plot is clever and well constructed, the characters are well penned, and many of the scenes are humorous – and yet it didn’t quite click for me for much of the book.  I’m not really sure why.  I think in trying to pay homage to Shakespeare in his own unique way the tale felt like an over-produced parody where the bawdiness is a little forced at times.  Nonetheless Fool is an interesting, entertaining tale with some laugh-out-loud lines.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Summer reading

A nice selection of books have arrived to replenish the to-be-read pile.  Looking forward to reading these over the coming weeks.  Hopefully they'll live up to the praise of those that recommended them to me.  I do like the feeling of receiving and flicking through new books!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen (Back Bay Books, 2014)

As the Second World War in Europe drew to a close the Allies started to hunt down Nazi war criminals and top German scientists.  In many cases, these two groups overlapped, such as military doctors who performed experiments on people at concentration camps, or rocket scientists who oversaw and relied on the manufacturing and assembling of parts in camps where workers were worked to death, or chemists and biologists who created and tested chemical weapons.  With the cold war set to start, some German scientists being captured and put to work by the Soviets, and German science being far in advance of US with regards to rockets and aviation, chemical weapons, underground construction, and military medicine, the US is left with a choice – prosecute scientists who had participated in crimes against humanity in which people were murdered, or give them clemency and hire them to work on military science projects and for the US military-industrial complex.

As Annie Jacobsen details in great depth and detail, the US military chose the latter through Project Paperclip, often duping other branches of the armed forces, the State Department and the President’s Office, by hiding the criminal pasts of their new hires.  In all 1,000 German scientists were targeted, many of whom were ardent Nazis and were involved in crimes that led to the death of thousands of people, with over 500 moving to take up positions in the US, where they were mollycoddled and well paid.  Only a handful stood trial for their crimes, often many years after the war, and most were given lenient sentences or clemency.  Some of them became household names, such as Wernher von Braun, and rose to positions of prominence. Some were involved in dubious post-war science, for example, the CIAs poison weapons programme, LSD and mind-altering drugs for interrogation, and chemical and biological weapons programmes (that were discontinued and decommissioned after 1969 at massive cost).  The argument used to justify recruiting and not prosecuting these scientists was that they held knowledge that was useful to the US military and US businesses and that many of their colleagues were being employed by the Soviets.  In other words, useful knowledge trumped justice for mass murder – and in most cases, the US had the scientific documents and the equipment (the knowledge was not simply locked inside of heads).

Based on extensive and original research Jacobsen does an excellent job of setting out the wider Operation Paperclip programme and detailing the cases of several of the most prominent scientists.  The result is an interesting, engaging and disturbing read that raises all kinds of moral and ethical questions concerning both the actions of the scientists, but also those of the Americans who recruited and befriended them, actively worked against other elements of government and those that sought to expose the truth, and funded and used some of the scientists knowledge to produce non-conventional and controversial weapons.  It would make a fascinating case text for a course on moral and ethics simply because there are so many thorny questions raised.  The core one being: are there some occasions in which crimes against humanity – such as deliberately freezing to death an innocent person to examine how it affects their physiology – can be ignored for a supposed greater good?  It is clear where Jacobsen sits on this, and I would agree with her, but rather than explore these questions in detail she lets the details speak for themselves.  An absorbing and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been putting off reading A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield for some time.  It's the last book in a set of six (Wingfield died shortly before it was published) and I was reluctant to reach the end of what is one of my favourite series.  Frost is a great character - much more coarse and politically incorrect than the TV version - and the books are very well written, rattling along at quick pace, each containing several plot lines as Frost tries to juggle multiple cases and deal with internal police politics.  The staging, dialogue and interactions between characters are particularly strong, not unsurprisingly given Wingfield wrote over forty plays for radio.  I finally read the book last week and despite telling myself that I would take my time and savour it, I shot through it in a couple of days, captivated by the story.  I'll post a review shortly.  A series I can see myself re-reading in a few years time.

My posts this week:
Review of The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr
Review of The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell
My nerves can't take this

Saturday, June 25, 2016

My nerves can't take this!

'What’s going on?’

‘It’s still nil-all.’

‘My nerves can’t take this!’

‘It’s worse if you’re actually watching it.  Come-on!  Go-on, go-on.  YES!  You fuckin’ beauty!’

The door burst open. ‘We’ve scored?’

‘Robbie Brady!  A header.  A beauty.  I told you we’d do it!’

‘You said, we’d need a bucket load of luck and the Italians to be useless.’

‘But I still believed!  Remember 1994, I said.  We did it then!’

‘How long left?’

‘Six minutes.  Plus extra-time.’  

‘I feel sick.’

‘All we have to do is not concede!  Who’d have believed it?  Where’re you going?’

‘I can’t watch.  I can’t.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review of The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2016)

1956, Cote D’Azur.  An ex-kripo detective in pre-war Berlin, Bernie Gunther is now working as the concierge in the Grand Hotel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, spending his days helping guests and nights playing bridge or trying to drink his troubles away.  And Bernie has a habit of attracting or creating trouble.  When he spots an old foe, an ex-gestapo member and accomplished blackmailer, Harold Hebel, enter the hotel he senses the past might once again be about to come back and haunt him.  Not long after he’s asked by the novelist and former spy Somerset Maugham, who is residing locally, to be the intermediary in paying a sum of money for a compromising photograph.  Reluctantly, Bernie agrees wanting justice for past misdeeds but knowing that they’ll be much more to the sting operation if Hebel is involved.

The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in the Bernie Gunther series.  This one is mainly set in 1956 in the south of France, but shuttles back to Berlin in 1938 and Konigsberg in 1944/45 for brief interludes.  Bernie is his usual self-depreciating, world weary and sarcastic self, living a life where he unwittingly comes into contact with famous people and gets dragged into and implicated in key events.  In this case, he’s drawn into the world of Somerset Maugham and the Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, as well as recounting his link to the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, in which around ten thousand people perished.  The central hook is Bernie being hired by Maugham to act as intermediary in a blackmail payment to an old foe and former gestapo member, the odious Harold Hebel.  It’s a nice setup and Kerr spins out an interesting tale, working in a femme fatale, a sinister twist, and a murder subplot.  At times, the pacing and plotting felt a little uneven, and the murder subplot was a bit of an unnecessary distraction, but there are plenty of really well-crafted scenes.  The denouement, in which Bernie creates a large lie to save himself while placing his head in another noose, is particularly nicely done.  As usual, Kerr draws a strong set of well realised characters and nicely situates the tale historically.  Overall, an enjoyable addition to the series that fills in more gaps in Bernie’s eventful life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell (Vintage, 2007)

In a small hamlet in northern Sweden nineteen people are brutally murdered.  The local police are soon under enormous pressure to find the killer and bring him to justice, but clues are thin on the ground.  Judge Birgitta Roslin feels compelled to visit the hamlet when she realises she is related to one of the couples killed.  Using her legal insider status she gains privileged access to the investigation and soon picks up her own clues and pursues her own line of inquiry.  She is particularly interested in an old family diary and red silk ribbon left at scene, neither of which the police seem to have any interest in.  The ribbon eventually leads her to China and directly into the path of a powerful and highly politically-connected man who is prepared to stop at nothing to fulfil his ambition.

The title and the cover tagline (‘Revenge can take more than a lifetime’) neatly sum up in a few words the story that Henning Mankell spins out over 560 pages.  The first section of the book is a typical Scandinavian police procedural and is enjoyable and quite gripping.  But then the second section is set in China and Nevada in the mid-nineteenth century, the next in modern day China, then we visit East Africa, before heading back to China, Sweden and London.  While the mid-nineteenth century story is interesting, what follows is a rambling tale that is more a partial political treatise than a thriller.  Whole chunks of the material is overly descriptive and little move the story forward, there are a host of clunky plot devices, and bits of it make little sense, including why a very successful man from Beijing felt so compelled to murder 19 people for the way his ancestors were treated (not killed) more than a 130 years previously, and why a shooting in London is not investigated in any meaningful way.  In effect, Mankell has jammed two stories together – a murder in Sweden by someone holding an inter-generational grudge and a political tale about in-fighting amongst China’s elite and its policy in Africa.  Neither quite work on their own, let alone together.  After a good start then, the book becomes increasingly flabby and, in my view, untenable.  Which was a shame.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm most of the way through Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen, at present.  It concerns the recruitment of Nazi scientists by the US at the end of the Second World War, many of whom were war criminals who were given clemency because of their knowledge and skills which were deemed useful for the emerging cold war.  It's certainly one of the most thought-provoking and troubling books I've read in a while given the moral and ethical questions it raises.  More in the review in the next week or so.

My posts this week
Review of Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester
Review of Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach
The price of the moon

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The price of the moon

‘He could help us travel to the moon!’

‘I don’t care if he could get us to the stars!  He’s a war criminal!’

‘Who could help prevent or win the next war. Half his team have been taken by the Russians.’

‘We have the atom bomb.’

‘And we’ll be able to deliver them with rockets.’

‘He worked people to death.  Thousands of them.  Did you visit, Nordhausen?  They’re not shoulders I want to stand on.’

‘He’s a scientist. A brilliant one.’

‘And that excuses crimes against humanity?’

‘The camps were run for not by him and we need his know-how.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review of Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach (Bitter Lemon Press, 2006; German 2001)

After serving in the German army Scholten has worked for over thirty years in the same construction firm and is devoted to Erica Wallman, the firm’s attractive heiress.  When Erica falls to her death at her lakeside villa, the police suspect an unfortunate accident or suicide.  Scholten, however, is not convinced.  He has been maintaining the property and is sure that the steps were in good repair, Erica would be sure-footed, and she would never take her own life.  However, his prime suspect, Erica’s philandering husband and his new boss, has a solid alibi.  That doesn’t stop Scholten from conducting his own investigation, deceiving both his boss and his wife, Hilde.  The problem is that if a murder has been committed, it was fiendishly clever in its design.

Black Ice is a somewhat curious read, centring on the suspicious death of Erica Wallman and its investigation by one of her employees, Scholten.  There are three principal characters in the story, each of whom are not easy to like.  Scholten is a bitter, sarcastic, scheming, lazy misogynist, who is always finding ways to steal time and visit brothels.  His wife, Hilde, is a straight-laced, nagging, hypochondriac who feels she’s married beneath herself.  Scholten’s new boss, Wallman, is a caustic bully.  The tale is told from Scholten’s perspective and traces his attempt to discover what really happened when Erica tumbled to her death.  At the heart of the tale is an ingenious solution, but the telling is a relatively slow paced affair as Scholten struggles to make progress with his investigation and dithers about how to use the circumstantial evidence he discovers.  The resolution is quite sudden and open ended.  At the time the ending annoyed me, but after a few days reflection I think it suited the piece.  Usually a story has a character to root for and a neat denouement, but Black Ice has neither.  In that sense, it’s a brave piece of writing, but not one that I found particularly enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review of Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester (1950)

1794 and seventeen year old Horatio Hornblower is starting his career in the British Navy.  Despite his reserved nature, clumsiness and naivety, Hornblower is bright, has an inner determination and does not want to be seen to be weak.  As such, he’s prepared to do his duty and to take calculated risks.  Not long after boarding his first ship and sick of being bullied he challenges a shipmate to a duel where only one pistol is loaded.  His brave but foolhardy tactic earns him a transfer to a larger war ship.  What follows is a series of adventures fighting the French and Spanish at sea and on land as Hornblower comes of age and works his way towards gaining promotion.

Mr Midshipman Hornblower was the first book chronologically in a series of eleven books charting the career of Horatio Hornblower as he worked his way up the career ladder in the British Navy and tussled with French and Spanish forces.  The book is written as a set of interlinked short stories, with each chapter telling the tale of a mini-adventure.  The tactic ensures an even, quick pace, that there is plenty of action, danger points, and critical decisions, and that the tale can span a handful of years.  It also ensures that it crosses over into young adult market.  Some of the tales are a little weak and underdeveloped, but what makes the book compelling is the character of Hornblower, who matures quickly, learning to take control and act bravely and honourably, but doesn’t lose his insecurities.  The result is an enjoyable adventure yarn.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I collected several of my ordered books at the local bookshop yesterday.  While I was there I also spotted the latest Bernie Gunther installment (#11) and added it to the top of the pile.  This time Bernie is in the south of France and working as a concierge in swanky hotel.  I imagine Bernie's post-war dose of criminal pursuits is going to be of a very different variety to that being dispensed by English and Russian football fans at present, though characters from those countries may well feature.

My posts this week:
Review of My Kind of Justice by Col Bury
Review of The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

An empty house

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An empty house

Carter stepped over the pile of mail into the hall and paused.  It struck him that vacant houses always held a strange quality of silence; cold and hollow.  Somehow it created a small fear; a sense of dread as to what might be lying in wait.  The air in the living room was stale and musty.  In the kitchen the sink was full of dirty plates.  He climbed the stairs, pausing on the landing.  The door to the master bedroom was closed.  Apparently she hadn’t been seen for three weeks.  He pushed the door open, surprised to find it empty.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Review of My Kind of Justice by Col Bury (Caffeine Nights, 2015)

Though he grew up in a rough part of Manchester and has a shady past as a gang member, Jack Striker has managed to work his way up the police ranks to Detective Inspector.  Recently appointed to Greater Manchester’s Major Incident Team his first case seems like a gangland slaying.  Despite his doubts, DCI Maria Cunningham wants to forge ahead on a particular line of inquiry.  A few hours later another youth is killed.  While Cunningham tries to keep the cases separate, and enlists the help of another DI and her boss to try and marginalise Striker, he can see clear links and starts to investigate the cases as if they are related.  Soon it is apparent that Striker is right and there is a vigilante killer at work, murdering gang members who preyed on the local community.  One of the victims is Striker’s nephew and when Cunningham succeeds in pushing him from the investigation, Striker runs his own unofficial op along with a couple of trustworthy colleagues.  However, the ‘Hoodie Hunter’, as the press have dubbed him, is a dangerous foe and it seems that Striker has met his match.

My Kind of Justice is a gritty police procedural set in South Manchester.  The strengths of the story are the sense of place, characterisation and plot.  Col Bury clearly knows the area well and he paints a vivid social picture of a place blighted by poverty, drugs, and criminal gangs.  His central character, DI Jack Striker has managed to climb his way out these ills through a career in the police, though the cost has been his marriage and his relationship to his two kids.  He still has family and old friends living locally, however, and they hold secrets he’d like kept hidden as he plays out his version of a redemption man.  While he has close colleagues at work, he also has enemies, and Bury does a nice job of portraying work-based rivalries and office banter.  The plot centres on the investigation into a spate of murders of local gang members by a vigilante who is steadily picking them off.  The vigilante serial killer angle gives the story tension and an inherent pace.  It is fair to say, however, that once the tale moves out of the purely procedural format as Striker is removed from the official investigation it drifts towards a thriller and starts to become a little bit telegraphed and reliant on plot devices.  Moreover, the telling was a little stilted and overly descriptive at times, though this only marginally detracted from the enjoyment of the story. Overall, a decent start to what I suspect is the first in a series.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Review of The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban (Serpent’s Tail, 2005 [1997])

As a favour for his uncle, Barcelona-based private detective, Pepe Carvalho, agrees to travel to Argentina to find his cousin, Raul, who had been in political exile in Spain.  Raul was one of the ‘disappeared’ before his uncle cut a deal to free him.  However, his wife was shot dead, his baby daughter adopted, and his company taken over.  Now he seems intent on raking over the past, disturbing the tentative peace his fellow dissidents have created for themselves, as he seeks to locate his daughter.  Carvalho is out of place and almost out of his depth in Buenos Aires as he searches for Raul, inevitably ruffling feathers of some powerful people and making life uncomfortable for himself.  To pass the time he attends tangos, cooks the occasional gourmet meal, and investigates other cases, all the while hoping for a resolution so that he can return to Spain.

The Buenos Aires Quintet is a somewhat curious book using a Spanish detective out of place on a case in the Argentine capital as a means to explore the legacy of the military government period (1974-1983) in which several thousand left-wing politicians and activists ‘disappeared’.  Pepe Carvalho’s task is to find his cousin, Raul, who having been in exile in Spain has returned to find the daughter stolen from him and his dead wife.  The story is told in five parts, each focusing on a different case, but with overlapping characters – Carvalho, Raul and his co-conspirators who have all survived the purges but at varying costs, members of the military regime who still wield considerable power, and the new masters including a seemingly straight cop.  Each character and each sub-story and the overall piece seem to act allegorically to reveal the multi-layered and complex social relations of post-military government Argentina.  It’s an interesting and thought-provoking read that often has nice philosophical asides and well-observed scenes, but it is also a little long-winded and uneven at times.  Carvalho is also somewhat of a slippery character who I never quite resolved in my mind’s eye.  However, the macabre sub-story set in an upmarket restaurant is worth the read alone, being a wonderful, darkly humorous set piece.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Very Lazy Sunday Service

I almost missed writing and publishing my Saturday drabble, which would have broken a five year run.  I was in England with friends and it almost completely slipped my mind.  I only remembered as we passed a library, which prompted me to think about writing.  I then wrote it quickly on my phone and published it, hence it not being the most inspired story.  I did miss my Lazy Sunday Service slot however, hence catching up now.

My posts last week:
Review of Elegy for April by Benjamin Black
May reads
Review of The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey
Got a light, mate?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Got a light, mate?

Got a light, mate?'

Jack looked up startled. 'What?'

A tall youth in a black hoodie blocked his path. Two others lingered to one side.

'You got a light?'

'Nah, sorry, don't smoke.' Jack aimed for a gap between the adolescents.

'How about a wallet then?' The youth placed a hand on Jack's chest.

'Ah, come on lads. There's no need ...'

The first blow landed from behind, followed by a kick to his legs.  Jack tumbled forward.

'Fat fool!' The tall youth threw a couple of punches.

Jack landed hard, covered his head and prayed it would soon end.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review of Elegy for April by Benjamin Black (Picador, 2010)

1950s Dublin.  State pathologist, Quirke, has just spent six weeks in an institution drying out.  His daughter, Phoebe, has become concerned as to the well-being of her doctor friend, April, who has seemingly disappeared.  Phoebe enlists Quirke’s help to discover what has happened to the wayward daughter of a 1916 rising veteran and niece of the Health Minister.  While Phoebe tries to extract secrets from April’s other friends, Quirke calls on help from Inspector Hackett and tackles April’s family, who seem more concerned with possible scandal than the well-being of April.  Despite veiled threats to discontinue their investigation, Quirke and Phoebe continue to search for the missing woman, becoming increasingly concerned as to her fate as they slowly discover some of her secrets.

Elegy for April is the third instalment of the Quirke series and the best so far, in my view.  The story concerns the search, against the family’s wishes, for a female doctor who has disappeared.  The strength of the tale is its evocative atmosphere of fog and smoke, family and secrets, and scandal and power, and its focus on the sexual politics of conservative Ireland in the 1950s. Black evokes a certain mood, sense of place and social relations that draws the reader into a gloomy, drab Dublin.  Although a pathologist, Quirke is cast as a kind of disillusioned, drunken, anti-establishment PI who challenges convention and blunders his way towards truth and love, often losing as much as he gains in the process.  While the plotting is stronger than the first two outings it still seems to play second fiddle at times to the atmosphere, characterisation and social context, and the denouement felt somewhat contrived and strained.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable read and has persuaded me to persist with the series.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

May reads

A busy and interesting month of reading. The standout fiction read was The Blood Strand by Chris Ould, but my read of the month was The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds, which was an engaging military history.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey **
Stalin’s Gold by Mark Ellis ***
A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan ****
The Blood Strand by Chris Ould ****.5
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black ***
Billy Boyle by James Benn ***
Murderer in the Ruins by Cay Rademacher ***
A House of Knives by William Shaw ****
Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy ****
The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds *****
The Whites by Richard Price ***.5