Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review of Original Skin by David Mark (Quercus, 2013)

DS Aector McAvoy and his boss, Trish Pharaoh, are under-pressure to reduce Hull’s crime stats.  However, a vicious gang are taking over the cannabis trade from the Vietnamese and is leaving a trail of tortured bodies in their wake.  And McAvoy suspects that the death of Simon Appleyard six months previously was not a suicide.  Simon’s death has sent his best friend, Susie, into a low and she’s been trying to lose herself in sex parties and dogging, but as McAvoy hunts for clues Susie starts to suspect she might be the next victim.  With internal tensions not helping matters, McAvoy, Pharaoh and their team try to bring both cases to a resolution.

Original Skin is the second book in the DS McAvoy series set in Hull.  The strengths of the story are the characterisation and sense of place.  Mark provides vivid descriptions of his characters, whom have emotional depth and resonance.  McAvoy, in particular, is a likeable character – a gentle, somewhat naïve giant who likes to believe the best about people despite all the evidence to the contrary.  He has an endearing relationship to his wife and kids and a nice chalk/cheese one with his sassy boss, Trish Pharaoh.  And the other characters in the story are three-dimensional.  There is also a clear sense of Hull and its contemporary history and problems.  Where the story is weaker, however, is with respect to the plot.  While the context is interesting – a battle within the cannabis trade, swinging and sex parties, and local political scandal – the tale relies extensively on a string of coincidences rather than good detective work.  McAvoy always seems to be in the right place at the right time to find a clue or intervene or accidentally nudge pieces into plot devices into place.  Moreover, the cannabis plot all but disappears in the last third of the book and is weakly and incompletely resolved.  The result was a tale where I cared for the characters but didn’t believe in the story, which was a shame.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review of Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin (2015, Orion)

A senior lawyer has been murdered.  It’s appears to be a robbery gone wrong until a threatening note is found.  Then a shot is taken at Big Ger Cafferty, an Edinburgh crime boss who has received an identical note.  DI Siobhan Clarke is investigating both cases, but Cafferty will only deal with Rebus and the old cop is bought out of retirement as a ‘consultant’.  It doesn’t take Rebus long to pick up the scent of an old crime being revenged.  Cafferty has other worries as well.  A notorious Glasgow criminal and his gang are making waves in the city and Daryl Christie, his one-time lieutenant, is playing games.  DI Malcolm Fox has been assigned local liaison to a surveillance team from Glasgow, but he’s an unwanted team member and his fondness for procedure soon causes friction.  With tensions rising, Rebus, Clarke and Fox work to stop dog eating dog.

Even Dogs in the Wild is the twentieth book in the Rebus series.  One problem with long-running series is maintaining the freshness of the plots and interest in the characters.  Rankin suffers neither problem.  In this outing the plot consists of two separate investigations – an incursion into Edinburgh by a Glasgow-based gang and the deaths of a lawyer, a lottery winner and a potshot at crime boss, Big Ger Cafferty.  What joins the two plot lines are the involvement of principle characters of DI Clarke, DI Fox, recently retired Rebus, and Cafferty, and good old fashioned detective work.  Rankin keeps the parallel stories both ticking along at a clip and nicely balances the investigations with the evolving relationships between the characters.  The result is an entertaining and enjoyable police procedural that taps into current events and the exposure of past ones.  The only bit that felt a little underdeveloped was the end, which seemed to tail off and left untold the aftermath and fallout of the cases.  Nonetheless, another strong addition to the series.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

This week I picked up my visa to visit Russia.  I'm heading to Moscow and St Petersburg to give a set of talks in October.  I'm really looking forward to the trip and to hopefully explore a bit of each city.  First up though are trips to the US and South Korea.  I'm interested in novels set in Korea and Russia to accompany me on my travels.  Any suggestions?

My posts this week

Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Mad or bad?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mad or bad?

‘Mad or bad?’

‘He’s a bloody headcase!’ Flanagan snapped, nursing a sore ear.

‘But a headcase that’s compos mentis?’

‘Whether he is or he isn’t he’s guilty as hell.’

Of that there was little dispute.  Logan had admitted to killing the mother and daughter.  Said he needed to drive the devil from them. 

‘But did he know what he was doing?  The consequences of his actions?’

‘I don’t care as long as the sick fuck’s locked up.’

‘It’s what his defense will argue.  They’ll plead insanity.’

‘He knew.’

‘Or the voices in his head did.’

‘Mad, bad – he knew.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013, Vintage)

Dorrigo Evans has risen from rural poverty in Tasmania to become a doctor.  He joins the Australian Army and is preparing to ship out and join the fight in the Second World War when he meets Amy, the young wife of his uncle.  Despite being engaged to Elle, Dorrigo starts a passionate affair with Amy, but then the war intervenes.  First he lands in Syria, fighting the Vichy French, then transfers to Java where he is captured by the Japanese.  With a thousand men under his command he’s put to work building ‘The Line’ – a railway through Thailand to Burma.  In the forced labour camp he assumes the persona of The Big Fella – the compassionate but hard-nosed commander who strives to keep his men alive, forcing officers to share the work of ordinary ranks, negotiating with the Japanese, begging and stealing where necessary, and looking after the sick and dying.  Thoughts about Amy sustain him, but then in a rare letter from home he learns of a tragedy from home.  When he returns to Australia after the war he quickly finds himself married to Elle and resumes his career as a surgeon.  But he’s haunted by the war and Amy and continues to play The Big Fella, though with an ever-growing list of indiscretions, including a string of affairs. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North charts the life of Dorrigo Evans, a flawed war hero who is haunted by his love for a woman with whom he had a brief affair and the horror of a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  It’s essentially an exploration of the human condition and its different forms and qualities – love, regret, cruelty, honour, jealousy, friendship, savagery, doubt, hope, commitment, infidelity – and of culture and social relations, while also detailing the history, context and horrors of the construction of ‘The Line’ – the railway built by the Japanese using forced prisoner of war and local forced labour.  Rather than use a linear narrative, Flanagan switches between different points in Evans life in a seemingly random order that actually pivot around a single day in 1943 when he receives a letter from home, Darky Gardiner is thrashed to death, and Jack Rainbow dies on a makeshift operating table.  He also switches the focus to other characters, notably the Japanese camp commander who survives the war and rebuilds his own life, but also Amy, the woman Dorrigo loved, his wife, Darky Gardiner, a Korean prison guard, and a number of the Australian prisoners.  What emerges is a series of contrasts and juxtapositions – love/indifference, freedom/confinement, compassion/cruelty, carefree/haunted – with threads of connection such as the camaraderie of prisoners, family ties, and in the case of Dorrigo and his Japanese commander a fascination with the beauty and meaning of poetry and literature.  The result is a vivid, haunting, moving and thought-provoking tale of love and loss told through some wonderful prose.  A story that I sense I will continue to mull over for some time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Service

Having thought I was making good progress on a chapter for an edited book, I now find I am back to square one.  It was all going so well - I'd found a nice angle, structure and argument - then I realised I was heading down a path at forty five degrees to where I should have been.  So now I'm going to have to start again, this time sticking to the brief. And I'm also left with a half-finished chapter, which hopefully I'll be able to recycle at some point.  A frustrating few days.

My posts this week
Review of Pleasantville by Attica Locke
New paper: Reframing, reimagining and remaking smart cities
Review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Saturday, August 20, 2016


When he closed his eyes Tom felt like he was falling in on himself, like an endless wave pouring into a caldera.  Once the water had drained away, he sensed that would be the end.  The big nothing.  He was calmer than he thought he’d be.  Not exactly resigned; more at peace.  He’d made a mess of his life, but who hadn’t?  Wrong choices, bad decisions, a myriad of indiscretions.  But there’d been good moments: laughter, love, small triumphs.  And now there was death. The first thing at which he’d excelled. He smiled as the water slowed to a trickle.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of Pleasantville by Attica Locke (2015, Serpent’s Tail)

1996, Houston.  Former police of chief Axel Hathorne is running to become the first black mayor of the city.  Pleasantville, a planned neighbourhood built in the 1950s, is a key battleground district.  It’s Hathorne territory, with Axel’s father being a founder and key community leader.  When a young woman disappears while campaign volunteering it sets the community on edge, especially as two other women were sexually assaulted and murdered in previous years.  Then Axel’s son is first accused of being complicit in her disappearance, then when her body is found, murder.  Given the thin complicit evidence and Axel’s main rival is the attorney general, whose office is prosecuting the case, it appears that some very dirty politics is at play.  Pleasantville native, activist and environmental lawyer, Jay Porter, is hired to represent Axel’s son, despite having little criminal trial experience. Porter has his own problems given the death of his wife a year ago, a break-in at his office, and someone trying to steal his clients.  But he’s tenacious and he detests injustice.  However, there are powerful forces at work that have a larger agenda and are prepared to play hardball.

Pleasantville is a political and legal thriller set in Houston in 1996.  As well as telling a complex tale of murder and political and community skulduggery, Locke also provides insightful social commentary on communities in transition, election campaigning, environmental racism and long-term legal battles.  The wider context is the Clinton years and the Republican long-term strategy for a run on the White House in 2000. The story has many interlocking moving parts that all swirl around the Hathorne family and Jay Porter.  The Hathorne’s helped found Pleasantville, a planned black community, and Axel is running to be the city’s first black mayor.  Porter is a single father, activist and environmental lawyer who has been seeking damages for local residents from contamination.  While there are a number of subplots, the hook of the story is the disappearance and murder of a young female campaign volunteer and how her death is used politically and personally.  Given the various threads, the number of characters and the social and political commentary it’s an ambitious tale.  Overall, it mostly delivers on this ambition.  At the start there is a lot of moving pieces into place and introducing characters and threads that dulls the pace and demands concentration, but as the story progresses the intrigue, tension and pace increases, and Locke makes some interesting observations about racial and environmental issues and local/national US politics.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013, Viking)

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the US rowing eight and their quest to win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  The central hook for the story is the life of Joe Rantz, a man who’d had a hard upbringing and had never rowed three years prior to the Olympics.  After his mother had died, Joe’s father remarried, but his step-mother resented Joe and the life she’d inherited.  He was pushed out of the house aged ten, sleeping in the schoolhouse and earning his keep by cutting logs for the school furnace and serving miners breakfast, and was abandoned completely at age 15 at the height of the Great Depression.  Despite this Joe managed to survive, living on his own in the old family home, doing odd-jobs and scrapping-by and doing well enough at school to enrol at the University of Washington.  There he joined the rowing club, hoping it would help him get part-time work on campus.  His natural talents as a rower were quickly discovered and, despite a sense of being out of place, he worked his way into the elite freshman boat.  Over the next three years, the UW boat in which Rantz rowed, predominately made up of working class young men, never lost a race, earning the right to represent their country at the Olympics, their trip paid for by public donations from communities in Washington State.

Rather than simply focus solely on Rantz and his fellow crew, Brown tells a multi-layered story, weaving together strands that detail the development of rowing at UW in the 1920s and 30s, the personal trajectories of coaches and master boat builder, George Pocock, their rivalry with the University of California, and rowing in the US more generally, the Great Depression, and how the Nazis orchestrated the 1936 Olympics.  The result is a richly contextualised, fascinating, and highly entertaining tale, rich in personal biographies, historic occasions, and high emotion and drama.  Despite all its moving parts, Brown’s narrative is beautifully structured, never losing coherence, and his voice very engaging.  In short, I found I couldn’t put the book down since I was so wrapped up in the lives, the history, the races of Joe and his crew, and the Great Depression and the 1936 Olympics.  My read of the year so far.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I eased my way back into work after a couple of weeks off by hunting down old articles and book chapters, scanning them and saving as pdfs, and putting them up on Academia and Researchgate as open access downloads.  I also updated my university profile page so it now includes a complete list of everything non-fiction published (excluding blog posts), though I'm waiting for the pdfs to be uploaded into the institutional repository.  I was surprised to find I didn't have pdf versions of over a hundred pieces I've had published (most of them book chapters, minor journals and working papers).  I'm still missing a handful that were published only in paper form.  A bonus, however, was I did find a handful of pieces while searching for others that I'd forgotten I'd written and for some reason I hadn't kept a record of.  I really should have collated all these older pieces and made them open access a few years ago, but better late than never.

My posts this week

Review of Rough Treatment by John Harvey
Review of Hurt by Brian McGilloway
Vanished into thin air

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Vanished into thin air

Carter stared vacantly at the evidence wall.

‘Three days and nothing,’ Mackay said.  ‘She simply vanished into thin air.’

‘Or into a shallow grave or fifty feet of water,’ Nally added.

‘Or to a new life.’ Carter turned to face his colleagues.  ‘She might have wanted to disappear.’

‘That’s not what the family are saying,’ Nally countered.  ‘They already believe the worst.’

‘I’m not interested in beliefs.  I want evidence! Alive or dead she left her home Tuesday morning.  There must be some trace of her somewhere.’

‘If there is, we can’t find it.’

‘Then look again.  And keep looking.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Review of Rough Treatment by John Harvey (1990, Arrow)

Grabianski and Grice meet up a few times a year, each time in a different city, and conduct a series of lucrative burglaries.  When they enter television director Harold Roy’s house to break into his safe they find something they weren’t anticipating, Maria, Roy’s wife.  Unexpectedly for Grabianski and Maria it's lust at first site.  Also of surprise is a kilo of cocaine.  When Maria reports the crime she decides to give a false description of the robbers.  When Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick investigates his instincts are piqued.  So is the real owner of the cocaine.  With patient persistence, Resnick and his team slowly make progress and if they’re lucky they’ll catch more than two professional thieves.

Rough Treatment is the second in the series of twelve police procedurals featuring Charlie Resnick.  What’s nice about this story is its everydayness rather than unusual or spectacular forms of crimes.  The focus is on catching two professional thieves that specialise in house burglaries.  The twist is that when they enter the house of television director Harold Roy they discover his wife, who one of the thieves takes a shine to, and a kilo of cocaine that belongs to someone else.  Rather than disappearing as usual the two thieves hang around, one starting an affair with Maria Roy and both trying to sell the cocaine back to the original owner.  While Harvey centres the story on Detective Inspector Resnick’s investigation and his stuttering, hesitant personal life, he also focuses on the interrelationships and politics of his whole team and wider station, adding context.  Into the mix he also adds the tensions of recording a television series, a fight within a Chinese restaurant dynasty, and a wayward superintendent’s daughter.  The result is an interlocking set of relatively low key, character-driven stories.  While the story lacks punch, it is nonetheless and entertaining slice of social realism.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review of Hurt by Brian McGilloway (Constable, 2013)

December in Derry and the body of a sixteen year old is found on train tracks.  The victim’s phone and social media suggests she was groomed by a man using multiple identities before being enticed to meet him.  When a second teenage girl goes missing Sergeant Lucy Black and her colleagues are determined to find her before she suffers the same fate.  Given the anonymity of the internet, the on-going sectarian divisions and the strained relationship between community and police, plus her continued stressed relationship with her superiors, including her boss who happens to be her estranged mother, tracking down the abductor and killer is not going to be straightforward.

Hurt is the second book in the Lucy Black series set in and around Derry in Northern Ireland.  As with McGilloway’s previous books he captures well the tense social relations of the sectarian city and complex set of community relations.  The tale focuses on the internet grooming of teenage girls and the discovery of the body of one, her throat cut, and the disappearance of another.  The context with respect to the grooming is nicely done.  However, the story is fairly straightforward and tension added through the focus on Lucy and her investigation felt a little hollow.  Black is cast as somewhat of a loner, pursuing her own path and constantly battling her superiors, including her mother, her senior officer.  While the mother is set up to play a negative foil given Lucy’s foolhardy antics I found myself agreeing more-and-more with the mother’s dressing-downs.  Moreover, I couldn’t work out why Lucy’s unit seemed to only have two staff - her and her alcoholic boss.  The result was I never quite believed Lucy’s detective work, especially those bits where she decides to head into potentially dangerous situations unaccompanied.  Nonetheless an engaging tale with good social context.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

With the Rio Olympics now under way I'm reading my second related book of the summer, The Boys in the Boat about the 1936 USA rowing eight who won gold in Berlin. It's my read of the year so far.  Nine undergraduates from the University of Washington, most of them dirt poor and paying their way through college by holding down jobs as well as doing their training and studying, who can make a boat 'swing'.

My posts this week:
Review of The Long Glasgow Kiss by Craig Russell
July reviews
Review of The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto 
A journey under the skin

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A journey under the skin

‘Come with me for a journey under the skin,’ Haskins sang to the tune of The Waterboys’ The Pan Within.  ‘Come with me to find the devil within.’

He placed a scalpel at top of the sternum and sliced towards the navel.

‘Try and show some decorum, doc,’ Naylor said.

‘Since he’s stopped living the rest us have to as well?’

‘No, but … This whole business creeps the hell out me.’

‘Says the man who hunts murderers.’

‘And was he?  Murdered?’

‘I’ll need a bit of more time under his skin to determine that.’  Haskins started to whistle tunelessly.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review of The Long Glasgow Kiss by Craig Russell (Quercus, 2010)

Glasgow in the mid-1950s.  A bookie with his hand in a number of pies is bludgeoned to death.  Lennox, a private investigator who’s been known to do jobs for the Three Kings who run the Glasgow criminal underworld, was with the victim’s daughter at the time of the murder.  One of the Kings asks him to look into the case and to also keep an eye on an up-and-coming boxer who is about to fight for the European title who’s been receiving threats.  Lennox balances the job with searching for the missing brother of a famous actress who had thought he had a sure-fire way to get rich.  Lennox keeps stumbling across references to Largo, but nobody knows who he is, though there’s a big-shot American lawman in town also seeking him.  Both cases have Lennox stretched, especially since there are forces at play who’d sooner he dropped his snooping and are prepared to use violence to achieve their ends.

The Long Glasgow Kiss is the second book in the Lennox series.  Russell transplants the PI genre across the pond and adapts it for 1950s Glasgow to good effect.  It helps that Lennox is Canadian, with his street-smarts and fighting skills honed through some of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War and black market in peace time.  As an outsider he can operate across sectarian and criminal territories and he can hold his own in a tight spot, and he can occupy the traditional genre figure that might seem false on a Scot.  Russell though is a native and his knowledge of the geography and history of the city is evident in the story's strong sense of place and time.  Indeed, the narrative captures well the hard edge and criminal underbelly of post-war Glasgow, its social divides and landscape.  In this outing, Russell weaves together a handful of engaging and intriguing plotlines centred around a murdered bookie, a missing man, a new shady operator, and a threatened boxer.  It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on but there’s never a sense of getting lost, with Russell keeping a firm hand on the tiller leading to a well figured denouement.  Certainly, Lennox manages to get out of scrapes that really should have seen his demise, but one expects as much in tough-guy PI tales.  The result is a taut, entertaining tale that kept the pages turning.  It’s always a good sign when the first thought on finishing a book is, ‘I need to get my hands on the next in the series’.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

July reads

An easy task to pick my read of the month of July - A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield.  It was a shame to finish out this excellent series, but it goes out on a high.

The Dirtiest Race in History by Richard Moore ****
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian ***.5
Masaryk Station by David Downing ****
Dog Day by Alicia Giménez Bartlett ***
Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf ***.5
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North ***
Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus ***.5
Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand ****
Darkside by Belinda Bauer ****
A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield *****

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review of The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto (Orenda Books, 2015)

Sammy, a Christian Pakistani refugee and drug addict, has been denied asylum in Finland.  Rather than be deported he goes on the run, sleeping rough and searching for his next fix.  Unwittingly, he is visiting a drug dealer when an elderly neighbour complaining about loud music is accidentally killed.  To cover their tracks the pair dump the body on an icy road where a distracted Hungarian au pair runs over the corpse.  Anna Fekete, herself a refugee from the former Yugoslavia and now a police officer, is part of the team investigating the old man’s death, which is initially assumed to be a case of dangerous driving.  Fekete already feels somewhat out of place in her adopted country, but the case heightens those sentiments.  Meanwhile a patch of blood-stained snow has been found in some woods and two drug gangs, one consisting of disaffected immigrants, are fighting for control of supplying the city.  Both Fekete and her racist, anti-immigrant colleague, Esko, have their hands full dealing with cases strongly linked to immigration.

The Defenseless, the second book in the Anna Fekete series, is set in a northern Finnish city at the tail end of winter.  The tale is very much a part of the Scandinavian tradition of social realist crime fiction, focusing on the themes of immigration, identity, dislocation and family, and on drug gangs and rivalries, and their interrelationship.  The story follows three intertwined trajectories: Sammy, a Pakistani Christian and drug addict who fled his home country in fear and does not want to be sent back to certain death; Fekete, an immigrant from Yugoslavia with Hungarian roots who is now a police officer but is somewhat listless and homesick; and Esko, a racist police officer who is struggling with his health.  The plot centres on the death of an elderly man and his missing neighbour, and a battle between rival drug gangs that Sammy has stumbled into and Fekete and Esko are investigating.  Hiekkapelto nicely explores the core themes and the lives of immigrants in Finland.  The plot is engaging and there is an interesting twist in its tail, though the ending seemed to fizzle out somewhat, with weak resolutions to a couple of strands.  Nonetheless, a nicely told socially realist police procedural.