Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent Christmas week doing a bit of DIY, reading, and finally catching up with writing/posting reviews (I'm now up-to-date again). I'm a long way from finishing Laura Lippman's The Sugar House, so that'll be the first review of 2018. Hope you've had a great seasonal break and all the best for the new year.

My posts this week:
Review of A Red Death by Walter Mosley ****
What kind of present is that?
Review of A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy ****.5
Review of Solo Hand by Bill Moody ***.5
Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman ****.5
Review of Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic ****

Review of A Red Death by Walter Mosley (W.W. Norton, 1991)

1953, Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has invested his ill-gotten gains from a murderous adventure a few years previously into real estate. Working as a janitor at the buildings he owns, he hides his assets behind a paperwork screen, leaving his associate, Mofass, to front managing the properties. Now the IRS are chasing him for undisclosed income, seeking to press federal charges. Adding to his woes is the suspicious death of one of his tenants and the arrival of EttaMae and her child, on-the-run from Easy’s villainous best friend, Mouse. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of the FBI, who offer Easy a chance to skip the tax charges if he helps them investigate a group of communists connected to a local church with activities linked to Champion Aircraft. The IRS are not happy and continue to make threats, the cops have him in the frame for the tenant’s death, and he’s in love with EttaMae but knows Mouse will kill him if he tries to steal her away.  And that’s just the start of his problems.

A Red Death is the second book in the Easy Rawlins series set in post-war Los Angeles. Easy has a habit of finding trouble and acting detective. In this outing he’s infiltrating a communist cell for the FBI in order to avoid a federal charge for tax evasion. When people connected to both his IRS charge and his FBI case start dying, it seems he’s swapped going to jail for non-payment of tax to going for murder. To add to his woes his personal life is a mess, starting an affair with EttaMae, the love of his life and partner of his best friend. The strength of the tale is its portrayal of the African-American experience in post-war America (both the seamier, darker underbelly and respectable business and church communities) and every-day and institutional racism, the sense of place, and the character of Easy Rawlins. Easy is a complex man in which good and evil battle internally and he’s often the sinner using casual lies, deception, robbery and violence to make headway; while he has a moral compass of sorts helping people where he can, ultimately he prioritises protecting himself. Which is perhaps no surprise given the social circumstances of the poor, working class community he’s operating in, which is a dog-eat-dog world. Where the tale struggles a little is with regards to the plot, which felt a little to tangled with a number of subplots and dozens of characters being threaded together – a death in one of the apartments Easy owns; a IRS case against Easy; a FBI case into a communist cell; an extortion racket in a church; EttaMae and Mouse arriving in the city – each with its own sub-plots and twists. There’s plenty going on – scheming, violence, extortion, murder, sex - leaving Easy dazed and confused throughout much of the story. And so, to a degree, is the reader. Eventually it all comes together with a well disguised twist. Overall, an interesting and entertaining story that might have benefitted from less is more.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What kind of present is that?

Tess passed over a large wrapped box. ‘Okay, guess!’

It was surprisingly heavy.

‘So this is something you wanted that you bought for yourself for me to give to you?’ Ron asked.


‘So shouldn’t you be opening it?’

‘What would the fun in that be? Guess.’

‘A bread-maker.’


‘A coffee machine?’

‘Open it!’

Ron ripped the paper free and opened the box.

‘Tins of paint. What kind of present is that?’

‘Well, you’ll be doing the painting.’


‘Well, I’ll be looking after junior while you paint the box room.’ She rubbed her belly.

‘Now that’s a present!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Review of A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy (Seventh Street Books, 2016)

June 1933, a chance encounter and chase with Bonnie and Clyde on a Texas road has left Ranger Sonny Burton with a badly damaged arm. A few months later, while still coming to terms with his enforced retirement the arm has to be amputated. Aged sixty two and a widower, Sonny is struggling to come to terms with a sedate life and trying to complete everyday tasks with one hand. He’s not left idle for long, however. A hospital janitor, Aldo Hernandez, persuades him to look for his wayward and missing daughter, Carmen. Aldo is afraid she might join two other young women who’ve been brutally murdered and left on the side of the road for the crows to feast on. In addition, on his first trip to the local store he witnesses a robbery-turned-homicide. Sonny is reluctant to act as detective given he no longer carries a badge, especially when his son – also a Texas Ranger – is sent to the area to hunt for the man killing young women. However, he’s prepared to help Aldo search for Carmen and if that helps find the store thieves-cum-murderers, or the serial killer preying on young women, then he’ll try to administer justice.

Set in depression-era, post-prohibition Texas, A Thousand Falling Crows tells the story of Sonny Burton’s semi-retirement from the Texas Rangers after losing an arm in a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde. Licking his wounds and struggling to come to terms with living with only one hand, he’s asked by a local Mexican janitor to search for his missing daughter. He’s reluctant to get involved, but Aldo Hernandez believes a ranger always remains one, regardless of what the service thinks. Sonny thus finds himself investigating two cases that might be related – a couple of deaths of young women, brutally attacked and left on the roadside, and a robbery-homicide conducted by two young Mexican twins. Sweazy tells the tale in an understated, poetic and engaging voice – much in keeping with his reserved lead character. The plot and pacing works well, hooking the reader quickly and drawing them through the narrative, and there’s interesting historicisation with respect to the depression era and race relations, and nice sense of place of the Texas panhandle in high summer. Interspersed in the tale are short interludes where the action is seen from the perspective of on-looking crows intrigued by human behaviour and the possibilities of a fresh meal. These interludes work surprisingly well and act as a nice counterpoint to the story. Overall, a compelling read in what might hopefully be a new series.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of Solo Hand by Bill Moody (1994, Walker & Company)

Evan Horne is having a bad year – a car accident severed the tendons in his right ‘solo’ hand ending his career as a jazz pianist and his wife has divorced him, moving in with his former boss, singer Lonnie Cole. When highly compromising pictures of Cole and country star, Charlie Crisp, along with a blackmail note, are sent to the singer that names Evan as the go-between he’s given little choice but to cooperate. However, Evan isn’t just going to just hand over the million dollar ransom; he’s also going use his insider knowledge of the music business to try and uncover the blackmailer. What he discovers is the dark arts of false accounting, royalty and return scams, and other record company and agent tricks to promote artists and divest them of their earnings. Those tricks seem to also run to blackmail and murder, with Evan soon becoming framed for the extortion and the target of violence. Even with his old pal, now cop, Coop, helping, it seems Evan will do well to find the blackmailer given the number of potential suspects and backstabbing nature of the music industry.

Solo Hand is the first in a series that features Evan Horne, ex-jazz pianist turned amateur detective, who investigates crimes related to the music business. In this outing, Horne is drawn into what at first seems like a straightforward case of blackmail against his former employer, jazz singer Lonnie Cole, which turns to violence and murder. The strength of the tale is Moody’s insider knowledge of the music industry, its dark underbelly and how it works as business to generate profits at the musicians expense. There's also a good sense of place and music scene relating to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Evan Horne is an interesting enough character, uncertain about his future after a car accident that has damaged his right hand, but with enough wits to play detective, albeit with the help of his cop buddy, and he’s trying to navigate a colourful set of characters working in the industry. The plot unfolds at a nice pace and there’s a few twists and turns, though the tale lacks a little heft, the characters feel a little thin, and there’s no major surprises as to the perpetrator or outcome. Overall, a solid amateur PI tale with an authentic take on the dirty side of the music industry.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2012)

Ove has never been the life and soul of a party – in fact, he’s been withdrawn, taciturn, irritable and abrasive most of his life. Ove has high principles and a short fuse. He expects things to be done correctly, conducts daily neighbourhood inspections, and badgers his fellow residents and the local council if things don’t meet his exacting standards. And he has no time for people who do not drive a Saab or can’t fix anything they own. Now aged 59, his beloved wife, Sonja, is dead and he’s been let go from his job. He just wants to end it all and join her. His new neighbours and a stray cat, however, have other ideas, disrupting his plans and his ordered life. Pregnant Parvaneh, husband Patrick and their two young children are immune to Ove’s curmudgeonly ways and slowly inveigle their way into his life – borrowing ladders, seeking lifts to hospital and driving lessons, and reading stories. The cat hangs around his house seeking shelter from a local bully with a vicious little dog. Try as he might, Ove can neither end it all, nor get his neighbours or council officials to follow or enforce the Resident Association rules. Moreover, he can’t help doing good deeds, in part because he gets so frustrated with other people making a hames of whatever it is they are doing, though he moans and despairs all the while. Despite his wishes, his bitterness and crankiness seem to finally be becoming appreciated by more than his wife, who always saw in him qualities that no-one else could. Backman tells Ove’s story by focusing on the few weeks from when Parvaneh and her family move into street, interspersed with key moments in his life. The tale is essentially an in-depth character study, peeling back the layers to reveal what made the man, and detailing how his life and those of his neighbours becomes transformed. It’s a sort of a late coming-of-age/putting life back-on-track story that’s engaging, gently humorous, a bit sentimental, and heart-warming. I found it an enjoyable read on the lead up to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review of Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (Pushkin Vertigo, 2015)

Caleb Zelic and his business partner, ex-cop, ex-alcoholic, Frankie Reynolds run a security and investigation company in Melbourne. They hire in Caleb’s best friend, Senior Constable Gary Marsden, to help solve a couple of thefts from a warehouse. Shortly after sending a couple of warning texts to his family and Caleb, Gary is found dead. Soon Frankie has seemingly been kidnapped, Caleb has been attacked, and the only clue as to who’s behind the assaults is the name ‘Scott’. Unwilling to trust the police, Caleb retreats to his ex-wife, Kat, and to Resurrection Bay, his childhood home. There he tries to piece together Gary’s last few hours and identify Scott, while also rekindling his relationship with Kat. But Resurrection Bay isn’t beyond the reaches of his enemies.

In many ways, Resurrection Bay is a straightforward crime confusion tale in which a PI stumbles into a murderous situation and, unable to trust the police, goes on the run, at the same time trying to protect those around him, solve the case and bring the perpetrators to justice. As with most fictional PIs, Caleb Zelic’s personal life is a mess – recently divorced, a brother who’s a reformed drug addict/dealer, a partner who’s a recovering alcoholic. The fresh angle is Zelic is deaf and is reliant on lip-reading, some very residual hearing, and sign language (by coincidence, in the book I read prior to this, Sleeping Dogs, it was the criminal who was deaf and signed). Zelic’s deafness adds somewhat to the confusion, but to Viskic’s credit it is largely incidental to the story – it’s a tale in which the lead character happens to be deaf, rather than being centrally about a deaf PI. The characterisation in general is nicely done, with a good dynamic between Zelic, his ex-wife, and those he encounters. And the story zips along as Zelic careens from one situation to the next. The plot itself and the denouement is a bit predictable, except for a twist near the end, and is reliant on a series of somewhat staged plot devices (lost phone, crushed keys, etc.); nonetheless, the characters, pacing, dash of dark humour ensure it’s engaging and entertaining read.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

After letting my Goodreads 'want to read' list expand to over 100 books I've culled a few I was interested in, but not desperate to read. The plan now is to try and work it down by actually finding and reading a good portion of the books on it. I have a couple of the tbr pile and I'm presently reading 'A Man Called Ove' by Fredrik Backman. There seems little point have a 'want to read' list if I'm not actually going to read them. Mind you, I've a pile of books I've bought that I've not read, which is worse than wishful thinking!

My posts this week:
Review of Sleeping Dogs by Mark O’Sullivan
Review of A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart Kaminsky
Review of Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between by Liz Evans
Stick 'em up

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Stick 'em up

‘Stick ’em up!’ Karl yelled. 

The three people in the queue raised their arms at the sight of two men holding sawn-off shotguns, nylon tights pulled over their faces.

‘I always want to say that,’ Karl said to Peter.

‘Just concentrate on the job. You, behind the counter, put all the money in a bag and pass it out.’

‘Don’t hurt us,’ an elderly woman pleaded.

‘Don’t worry, Betty, we’re just here to collect our pension. In a lump sum!’


‘Way to go, numb-nuts,’ Peter hissed.

‘Sorry, Peter.’

‘Sheesh. We’re meant to be incognito. Hey, lady, where’s our pension!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A review of Sleeping Dogs by Mark O’Sullivan (2014, Transworld)

Shot three times on an isolated lane, Harry Larkin, head of a criminal family, lies dying in a Dublin hospital. Before slipping into a coma he asks Eveleen, the ward nurse, to find Detective Inspector Leo Woods and to tell him to find his daughter, Whitney. Leo has history with the family, having run Harry as a police informer thirty years ago and had an affair with his wife, Liz. As Harry’s son and his right-hand man vie to take over the dying man’s operations, Leo and his team try to discover who shot him and what has happened to his teenage daughter. The case soon become more murky when a second death is linked to the investigation, as well as a Slovakian and Libyan connection. Dealing with the Larkins was always fraught and this case feels to Leo like an intimate family affair, tinged with an international twist that makes it tricky to decipher.

Sleeping Dogs is the second book in the DI Leo Woods series set in Dublin. In this outing, Leo is forced to revisit his past involvement with a criminal family through an investigation into the death of its patriarch and the disappearance of his daughter. Initially the case seems like it might be relatively straightforward, but it soon becomes clear that there is much more to Harry Larkin’s death than a simple shooting by a rival gang or a family feud, including a couple of international connections. As with the first outing, Sleeping Dogs is an excellent tale with strong characterisation, nicely portrayed social interactions, and an intricate, engaging plot. There’s plenty of backstory of the Larkins and Leo’s past relations, as well as the contemporary lives of the police characters inside and outside work. And the case is an interesting multifaceted puzzle built around a somewhat dysfunctional family who have little trust in the police. The only element that’s somewhat subdued is the sense of place – while located in Dublin there’s little real sense of the city or Ireland more generally and the tale could have been set just about anywhere. Nonetheless, a very fine police procedural.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review of A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart Kaminsky (1988, Ballantine)

In a remote village in Siberia the young daughter of a soon to be political-exile has died. The commissar sent to investigate her death is murdered by an icicle thrust through his eye. Inspector Porfiry Rostnikpov is sent from Moscow to investigate the commissar’s murder, but is instructed not to investigate the death of the young girl, even if the two are related. Rostnikpov’s career is on a downward spiral; he manages to expose political and police corruption and gain justice but pays in being reassigned and sidelined. And it seems that some hope that the trip to Siberia will finish him off for good, either falling foul of the two officers sent to spy on his investigation or going the same way as the commissar. In freezing conditions, Rostnikpov quizzes the inhabitants and tries to identify a murderer while also outwitting his companions.

A Cold Red Sunrise is the fifth book of the Inspector Rostnikpov series set in Russia. This outing, published in 1988, shows slight hints of the Glasnost era, though the Soviet regime is very much in place. Rostnikpov is an interesting character – a stoic, cunning man with an injured leg, who is obsessed with weight-lifting and solving crimes, and manages to maintain high principles yet survive the political machinations of the Soviet policing and intelligence services. In this tale, Rostnikpov is sent to Siberia to investigate the death of a commissar who had been investigating the suspicious death of the daughter of a soon-to-be political exile. Nobody in the small village seems happy with his presence and his prime tactic is to subtly unsettle the locals to try and provoke a reaction. It’s a dangerous move given what happened to the commissar. Like Rostnikpov and Siberia, the storytelling is spartan, being all show and no tell. There’s a strong sense of place and contextualisation as to the politics of living and working in the Soviet regime. At one level the story seems relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, but as it nears its conclusion Kaminsky reveals some nice twists that make perfect sense but are nonetheless surprising. Overall, an engaging and entertaining police procedural.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between by Liz Evans (Orion, 2005)

Grace Smith is an independent PI working out of a collective office. When the owner of the office passes on a case to her it seems relatively straightforward. Barbra Delaney wants to leave her fortune to three strangers who she photographed leaving a local shop. Grace’s job is to find out the identity of the three lucky people and check out whether they are upstanding citizens. However, tracking down the three proves a little more tricky than anticipated, especially since all them have something to hide. What follows is a calamitous set of events, including Grace’s home and office being trashed and a nasty murder.

Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between is the third book in the PI Grace Smith series. Grace is not the most talented PI, but she is feisty and persistent, and she likes to think she always gets her man (or at least they might fancy her). In this outing she tries to track down three people chosen at random by a rich heiress to become the beneficiaries of her will. Only the three are not keen to have someone snooping around their business and the heiress also seems to have something to hide. Progressively the case becomes more convoluted and dangerous. The tale fits into the tart noir genre popular at the end of the 1990s/early 2000s, a kind of edgy cozy with a strong-willed, independent female lead. While at times entertaining, the story unfolds somewhat haphazardly, often held together by thin or awkward plot devices and I just had difficulty believing a good chunk of it or in some of the characters, and the ending was weak. I know tart noir and crime with a comic twist often requires a suspension of disbelief, but it all felt too overly contrived without the payoff of being lost in the tale or belly laughs. And some things made little sense to me – for example, a PI being knocked from her bike and not even being curious about who hit her, let alone trying to track them down. The result was a book that felt a little insubstantial, driven by a central character with flaws, some humour, and a frail plot.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally found time to get to the local bookshop to pick up some Christmas reading: Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic; A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman; A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; and A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy. Hopefully I'll also pick-up The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, which had been put to one side for me but was lost among similar piles. Looking forward to some time to relax and enjoy these over the seasonal break. I also bought Slumberland by Paul Beatty and Spook Street by Mick Herron (who wrote my two favourite reads of November) to read early next year.

My posts this week:
Review of Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler
New paper: The (In)Security of Smart Cities: Vulnerabilities, Risks, Mitigation, and Prevention
November reads
Won’t is not the same as can’t

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Won’t is not the same as can’t

‘You have one life, Beth. You need to leave him and enjoy being alive again.’

‘It’s not that simple.’

‘But better than living in fear. Or hiding these.’

Mary tugged up a sleeve to reveal a bruise.

Beth yanked it down again.

‘He’s just under a lot stress. Occasionally he flips.’

‘Stop making excuses for him. Lots of people are under pressure but they don’t smack their partners about.’

‘He doesn’t smack me about.’

‘And those bruises made themselves.’

‘Mary, just leave it.’

‘I will when you leave him.’

‘You know, I can’t.’

‘Won’t is not the same as can’t.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday, 2015)

The end of October and a scheming banker has not only collapsed a private merchant bank, he seems to be getting away with it. The injustice has not just anti-capitalists on the streets of London, but also ordinary citizens. In the depths of austerity it seems people have had enough of the blatant greed. One man, however, is taking his protest further than others and appears to be using his actions to try and whip the crowds into more of a frenzy. He starts by throwing a petrol bomb at the bank, killing a homeless man taking refuge in the doorway. Next he tars and feathers a banker. Each day there is another victim and soon it’ll be Guy Fawkes night when bonfires will lit across the nation. Trying to stop the arsonist is Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Met Police. Hampered by other sections of the police and the bank, the two old detectives and their assistants race against time to find useful clues, worried that the city might go up in flames.

The Burning Man is the twelfth book in the Bryant and May series. In this outing they are trying to stop an arsonist wreaking revenge on people working in the banking sector after another financial scandal and who seems to be orchestrating the sentiments of a restless and angry public. After years of working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, Bryant and May are long in the tooth and well versed in tackling difficult cases, but this one has them taxed. The killer is clever and quick moving, dispatching one person a day, and Bryant is starting to suffer from dementia. The climax of the week is going to be Guy Fawkes night at which point the city could tip-over into full-scale anarchy. There is much to like about The Burning Man: the wonderful set of characters, especially Bryant, and their interactions; the deep sense of place and all the historical factual snippets that are woven into the narrative; its political sensibilities and its critique of the ‘one percent’; and the lucid and engaging storytelling with a rising sense of tension. The story just carries the reader along in an entertaining, dark, and at time humorous romp. There were just two bumps in the tale – the fact that I was pretty confident I knew the identity of the killer from near the start; and the ending was a bit of damp squib. Nonetheless, a very enjoyable read.

Monday, December 11, 2017

November reads

Late with noting my November reads.  Difficult to pick between The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Real Tigers by Mick Herron. I think the The Sellout just shades it, but they are both excellent.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty *****
Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley ***.5
Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente ***
Real Tigers by Mick Herron *****
Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann ****
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee ****
Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt ***

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Given winter seems to be gearing up with the first largish (by Irish standards) snow fall, I thought I'd whisk myself away to Siberia where they really know how to do freezing landscapes with Stuart Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise. Making me feel positively warm.

My posts this week:
Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout
New paper: slow computing
Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy
Buried treasure

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Buried treasure

Conor thrust the spade into the glue-like clay, then stomped on it with muddy boots.

He leveraged back the handle, easing a block free. The clay stuck to the face and he slid it off with a gloved hand.

A glint of gold caught his eye. Digging at the soil revealed a solid gold band.

Clambering out of the hole he yelled to his wife. ‘I’ve struck gold!’

‘Don’t be daft, Conor.’

‘Look, see.’

She turned the intricate band over. ‘It looks like it belongs in a museum.’

‘Buried treasure! I guess I better find another spot to bury Lucky!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout (Viking, 1966)

Orrie Cather is in a bind. He’s engaged to be married, but has been having an affair with a woman who is unwilling to let him go. Then she is murdered and Orrie is the number one suspect. Fortunately for Orrie he works for Nero Wolfe, the celebrated private detective. Wolfe believes that Orrie is innocent but the problem will be proving it. Soon a new twist is added to the investigation. The murdered woman was a doxy – the kept woman of rich businessman, and that man will pay Wolfe fifty thousand dollars if he can solve the case and keep his name a secret. Slowly Wolfe, his faithful assistant, Archie, and the rest of the team winkle out some clues. Eventually they have a suspect. But how can they ensnare the murderer, spring Orrie, and keep the sugar daddy’s name a secret?

Death of a Doxy was the forty second instalment of the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1966 (the first in the series was published in 1934). In this outing, Wolfe and the narrator, Archie, are tasked with clearing the name of one of their detectives accused of murder. The case is already a bit of a puzzle when it’s made a little more tricky by the addition of a silence clause – the sugar daddy of the victim will pay handsomely for his name to remain unknown. It’s a challenge they’re prepared to accept. At this stage of the series, Wolfe and Archie are well drawn characters, there’s a deep well of back story, and Stout is versed in crafting a story that has intrigue, a neat puzzle, well-staged set pieces, and nicely drawn characters. The storytelling is tight and all show not tell. Stout keeps the reader guessing as to the ending, which is a little ambiguous, though no less satisfying for that. Overall, a quick, entertaining read.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy (Oneworld, 2016)

In the late 1950s two leading Ukrainian nationalist leaders were murdered in Munich. Both deaths baffled the nationalist groups and West German police. In the fall of 1961, just before the Berlin wall was erected, Bogdan Stashinsky and his East German wife skipped the funeral of their baby and made a dash into West Berlin. Stashinsky headed to the local CIA headquarters and claimed he was a KGB assassin who had murdered Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera using a secret poison gun. The Americans were suspicious that he might be a plant and passed him over to their West German colleagues. Slowly, Stashinsky, also a Ukrainian forced to work for the KGB, persuaded the police that he was who he said he was, and that he had murdered his compatriots. The subsequent trial placed the Soviet Union on trial as much as Stashinsky and the result had long term implications – Stashinsky was effectively deemed a puppet, with the real murderers those who controlled him, creating a legitimate new legal defence for Nazi war criminals; the KGB was forced to change its policy of overseas political assassination; there was a reshuffle at the top of the Soviet political system, with Aleksandr Shelepin’s career cut short; and the plight of Ukrainian nationalist movement was highlighted.

Serhii Plokhy’s book traces the life of Bogdan Stashinsky, particularly from his entrapment recruitment by the KGB through to his disappearance after his short prison stay post-trial. It’s a factual account that tries to cut through all the misinformation about Stashinsky created by the Ukrainian nationalists, the KGB and East Germans, especially at the time of the trial, when the Cold War propaganda machine went into overdrive. While it does seek to provide an objective view, it is also a largely sympathetic account of a man trying to survive inside the KGB and Soviet system that had a habit of severely punishing its own members for supposed and real transgressions. Usefully, it provides an everyday account of Soviet spycraft, Cold War relations between East and West, and the fragmented overseas Ukrainian nationalist movement that sought to highlight the plight of captive nations of the Soviet Union. It is only towards the end that books drifts to speculation given that what became of Stashinsky after prison is publicly unknown. I found it a fascinating read, especially given the present context of strained relations between the Ukraine and Russia.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Since I was heading to London last week I decided to take a read of Christopher Fowler's 'Bryant and May: The Burning Man.' I read the first book in the series when it was first published in paperback, but for some reason never got round to reading any others. Now I'm wondering why as this outing has all the ingredients I love in a story - great characters, interesting plot, social commentary, and strong sense of place. I think the series might become my travelling to London reads for the next few years.

My posts this week

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty
New paper: The timescape of smart cities
Sitting ducks

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Sitting ducks

It took a brief moment for Finnegan to realise a shot had been fired. Then he was diving towards Kelly Meakin.

The actress hit the wet pavement, Finnegan sprawled on top of her.

A second shot had him trying to cover her.


‘We’re sitting ducks,’ he muttered, ignoring her.

‘Finn, my shoulder.’

He risked a look.

Her dress was covered in blood.

‘We need to go.’

Finn scooped her up and started to run.

‘I told you.’

‘Now’s not the time for point scoring.’

A third shot and his legs buckled.

‘I don’t want to die, Finn … Finn?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2015)

The Sellout is the story of how the unnamed narrator – called ‘The Sellout’ by one character, and ‘Bonbon’ by another – becomes infamous through his efforts to place Dickens, a town in South Central Los Angeles, back onto the map and to challenge ideas of race and racism within the black community. Bought up and home-schooled on a small two acre urban farm by his single father, a reasonably well-known psychology/sociology professor, The Sellout has a deep appreciation of the structural violence committed against and by the black community. Drawing on this knowledge his method is to use situationalist-like tactics to unsettle and disrupt deep-rooted thinking and social relations, including painting the old city boundary back onto the landscape, altering road signs, making a city block appear as if an exclusive white school is about to be built there, placing signs on buses to create white-only areas, and generally re-segregating the community, not only between white and black, but also the Mexicans, Asians, etc. Aiding him in the task is Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, a group of black kids who starred in a dozens of short movies from the 1930s-50s playing racist stereotypes, who self-declares himself the narrator’s slave. While his work seems to be having a positive effect on those living in Dickens, through some strange reverse-psychology, his actions land him in hot water and a case that makes its way to the Supreme Court.

I loved The Sellout. It’s smart, sassy, outrageous, knowledgeable, and laugh-out loud funny. It is highly entertaining tale, with a great set of characters and an engaging storyline, yet also makes one reflect and think on a whole bunch of social issues and the history of race relations and places. It might well be the best recent book on race and racism in contemporary United States and I would love to see it taught on the school curriculum. At the same time I’m grateful I don’t belong to a book group as I suspect we’d need a few months to discuss everything going on in the narrative rather than a couple of hours. It’s easy to understand why it has won a number of major awards. Definitely worth reading, and I plan to read Paul Beatty’s other books.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

After a long battle with cancer my father died peacefully on Friday evening. It was a tough old day, but he still found ways to make us all smile at the end as well. I'm going to miss him a lot. The video below was made a couple of months ago to help promote the work of Maggies at Clatterbridge. Both Dad and Mum found Maggies to be a wonderful resource and made some good friends there.

Mervyn Kitchin (19 Nov 1944 - 24 Nov 2017).

My posts this week:
Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley
Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente
New paper: Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things

Saturday, November 25, 2017


‘You want me to do what?’

‘Some of those donut thingys.  Out on the main road.’

‘Granddad, I think …’

‘Everyone knows you nick cars and go joyriding, Tom.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing. I’m eighty three and it’s time I did something stupid.’

‘But …’

‘Just shut the fuck up and drive the bloody car.’

‘Don’t blame me if you have a heart attack.’

Tom revved the engine and dropped the clutch. He handbreaked into the first corner. Out past Jones’ farm he started to spin the car.


‘You mad old bastard.’

‘Where’d you’d think you’re genes came from?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley (2015, Ebury Press)

Codebreakers tells the story of codebreaking by the British in the First World War and how it impacted on the course of the war and specific actions. The book covers a number of themes, such as the art of codebreaking, which often relied as much on dare-doing elsewhere to recover code books; the institutional politics in and between government agencies, and specifically Room 40 and other units; international politics and especially tackling German spying in America, and attempts to bring the US into the war. The tale is told in a loose chronological order and mainly focuses on particular key individuals, their personalities and stories. The strength and the weakness of the book is that it tends towards the large picture and spying in general, rather than specifically on codebreaking. Clearly, codebreaking is a key aspect of spy work and how it functions and used fits into a larger set of practices. At the same time it would have been interesting to get more insight into the actual day-to-day work of the codebreakers and their strategies and work. As the authors note, this was limited by a lack of written archival sources. Nonetheless, Codebreakers is an interesting and informative read, detailing a number of now little-known but important events and the intersection of codebreaking, politics and military action in the First World War.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente (Quirk Books, 2017)

Nine US comedians, who each perform a different form of comedy and are at varying stages of career fortunes, are invited by legendary Hollywood funnyman, Dustin Walker, to spend a week on a Caribbean island. They are accompanied by a naïve event organizer and wannabe comedian, Meredith. The ten arrive on the island to find it deserted, with their host dead. There is no mode of communication with the outside world, food and drink is in short supply, and soon they are being murdered through a variety of means. As the group shrinks, paranoia and strained alliances form. Will any of them be left alive at the end?

Ten Dead Comedians is a modern day take on Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’. Ten comedians and almost strangers (a number know or have met each other) are seduced to a remote Caribbean island to meet Dustin Walker, a legendary funnyman whose career has hit the skids after several flops. The island is deserted and in turn each is killed as they search to identify the murderer and a means to leave the island. Van Lente’s main twist is to make each character a different type of comedian, who’re at varying stages of their career, to infuse the tale with dark humour. The story unfolds in a linear fashion, punctuated by comedy routines by each of the comedians in which their supposed crime takes place. The concept of the story is a nice one and some of the set pieces are nicely inventive; the issue is the execution. While the tale is full of comedians it is not full of comedy, or at least I didn’t find myself laughing out loud. And the characters are all quite shallow and hollow and do not invite any emotional investment. Also, the perpetrator is kind of obvious, though not necessarily how the murders are being orchestrated. The result was an interesting without being spellbinding or side-splitting tale.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Maggie's at Clatterbridge have made a video about the support they provide for those with cancer starring my Mum and Dad available through their facebook page. They've both found the Maggie's centre a wonderful resource and wanted to help promote their work.

My posts this week

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron
Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann
All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Saturday, November 18, 2017

All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Flashing red and blue lights lit up the ceiling.

Kathy risked a glimpse over the counter. The store was a mess. Display stands and fridges were toppled over; food, drink and packaging covered every surface.

The man was pounding a fridge with a shelf.

‘Drop the board! Raise your hands and kneel on the floor!’

The man twirled towards the megaphone.

A single loud retort and his head exploded.

Kathy screamed.

‘Mam, put your hands on your head.’

‘All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel,’ Kathy blubbered.


‘But we don’t sell them.’ She thrust her hands up.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, 2016)

Slough House is where disgraced British spies are put out to pasture; whiling away their hours doing pointless and soul-destroying admin in the hope that they will call it quits and leave the service. Each resident, however, hopes that they might put their career back on track and make it back to Regent’s Park. Catherine Standish, secretary and recovering alcoholic, doesn’t seem a likely candidate to be kidnapped, but when she’s snatched from the street by an ex-soldier, her colleague River Cartwright impetuously leaps into action, which is the reason he’s no longer trusted with operations any longer, and tries to steal a secret file to ensure Standish’s release. Slough House’s misfits play into the ambitions and scheming of the kidnappers, but also into a three-way power play between the home secretary, head of MI5, and one of her deputies. But there’s life in the slow horses yet and their boss, arrogant, bullying Jackson Lamb, is an old hand at department politics and scheming himself.

Real Tigers is the third book in the Slough series that follows the exploits of the slow horses – spies who’ve been put out to grass because of some major blemish in their careers. While the first two books in the series are good, Herron really hits it out of the park with this outing. The two key elements – plot and characterisation – are excellent. The slow horses are pawns in a much larger game between a vengeful ex-army senior officer, a clownish but ruthless politician, the head of MI5 and her internal rival. There’s plenty of scheming, backstabbing, action, and twists and turns, and Herron ratchets up the tension with the slow horses stumbling and fumbling towards a resolution, led by Jackson Lamb, who respects his charges just as little as the rest of the organization but believes the only person who should make their lives a misery is himself. Rather than being a simple linear tale, Herron creates a multi-threaded and layered story with the strands being drawn to a climatic showdown and intriguing fallout. Along with the insufferable, abrasive Lamb, the slow horses are a delight – Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, Shirley has a coke habit, Marcus has a problem with gambling, River acts before thinking, and Roddy is a delusional geek with zero social skills. Added into the mix is a home secretary clearly modelled on Boris Johnson, and two scheming, hard-headed spymasters in the Stella Remington mould. The dialogue and social relations between characters is nicely done as is the storytelling in general. There is also a delicious streak of dark humour running throughout and I laughed out loud at several points. Overall, a wonderful read.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann (Short Books, 2012)

Birds in a Cage tells the story of four keen birdwatchers - Peter Conder, John Buxton, George Waterston and John Barrett - who met in a German prisoner of war camp and spend their days undertaking scientific research on bird migrations and behaviour.  Post-war the four men each became part of Britain’s wildlife conservation movement, maintaining professional and personal relationships for the rest of their lives.  As is often the case with popular history books the subtitle is somewhat misleading – “Four secret birdwatchers, the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation”: (1) their birdwatching was not secret either from other prisoners or guards, many of whom helped, (2) nor was it the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation, which was already underway pre-war, including by the protagonists, and was driven by many more actors than just these four.

Nonetheless, the book is an interesting account of both life as a British prisoner of war in Germany and the practices and comradery of birdwatching. Although isolating, demoralising and full of hardship and danger, prisoners regularly exchanged correspondence and parcels with family and friends at home, meaning that food and books made their way to the camp and poems, drawings, scientific papers went the other way. In addition, the men corresponded with the head of avian zoology at Berlin zoo, receiving homing tags and books from him. Given the long hours with little to do, the four men made pioneering, in-depth studies of certain birds and general counts and migrations. They often enrolled the help of other men, treating the whole enterprise as scientific study. Studying birds also gave them cover to act as lookouts for escape attempts, including participating in the wooden horse scheme. All four endured five years as a prisoner, overlapping in different camps, but often were alone from the others as they were moved about.

Niemann tells the tale with a sympathetic voice, drawing on diaries, letters, drawings and other secondary sources, to tell each man’s story as well as how they intertwine. The result is an engaging tale of how birdwatching suffused each man’s life, particularly during the war.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Having only read/reviewed four books during October, I suddenly find myself with three reviews to write and another book nearly finished. Expect reviews of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann, Real Tigers by Mick Herron, Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente, and Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley shortly. A slight review spoiler - Real Tigers was a cracking read.

My posts this week

The moon is extra bright today
Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
Slow computing: A workshop on resistance in the algorithmic age
October reads

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The moon is extra bright today

‘Here he comes!’

‘He’s cheating! He’s using fans.’

‘And shoes.’

The lumbering, naked figure of John Carter danced around startled shoppers, tracked by several smartphone cameras.

Someone shouted, ‘Go-on Boy!’

He didn’t notice Jane’s presence until the fan was snatched free.

Instinctively he moved the fan covering his arse to his shield his cock.

‘You’re meant to be naked! That was the forfeit.’

‘I am fecking naked!’ He was caught between wanting to argue and flee.

‘Cheat!’ Jane grabbed for the other fan.

John leapt sideways and resumed his run.

‘The moon is extra bright today,’ Jane yelled after him.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (Vintage)

1919, Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, has arrived in India after surviving the trenches of the Great War to return to an empty home, his wife dead from influenza. Only a week in the city and he is asked to investigate the death of a senior British civil servant found stabbed in an alley behind a brothel. He’s partnered by Inspector Digby, a long-time police officer in India, and Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, a Cambridge graduate who has defied his family wishes to join the police. While trying to orientate himself to colonial rule and policing, and local, national and cultural politics, Wyndham makes slow progress, made more difficult by the interference of the military police. To add to his load he’s also asked to investigate a train robbery. The evidence suggests that the murder and robbery are related, the work of Indian separatists, but Wyndham is not convinced.

A Rising Man is the first book in the Captain Wyndham series set in Calcutta just after the First World War. A historical murder mystery, there are a couple of compelling strengths to the story. First, the story is a nicely told crime tale, with the perpetrator and reason for the crime reasonably well covered until the reveal. Second, there is a good sense of place, culture and political context. Mukherjee details the segregated geography of the city, the power-laden architecture of the British Raj, and streetscape of Indian neighbourhoods. He also does a nice job of detailing the inherent racism and expressions of colonial British power, and forms of violent and non-violent resistance of Indians, as well as the complex social relations between British, Indian and Anglo-Indians. Where I struggled a little was with the character of Wyndham, who I couldn’t quite pin down – somehow he seemed both worldly and naïve, resolute but uncertain. This was perhaps personified by being a drug-addict-cum-recreational user – he lost control to the cravings, yet was still in control of his habit. He should have had depth, but somehow seemed a little hollow. The ending was also reliant on a plot device I’m never really comfortable with, which I won't discuss as it'll provide a spoiler. Nonetheless, the positives really outshone my nitpicking and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A Necessary Evil.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

October reads

Another slow month of reading. My read of the month was Moth by James Sallis, the second Lew Griffin book set in New Orleans.

Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser ***.5
A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston ****
Moth by James Sallis ****.5
Whisky in Small Glasses by Denzil Meyrich**.5

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

On my way to Brighton to present at a workshop and to launch a new centre at the University of Brighton. Haven't been visited Brighton for a few years, so looking forward to having a stroll around the town. I didn't have a novel set in the town on my TBR so I've bought Mick Herron's Real Tigers instead.

My posts this week
Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt
Collecting failed dates

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Collecting failed dates

‘Seriously, you go bird watching?’ Tanya said, glancing at her watch.

‘You think it’s a waste of time?’

‘It just seems so …’

‘Boring.’ David said, sensing the change of mood.

‘Well, I wasn’t going to put it like that.’

‘Though that’s what you’d mean. And yes, it can be a bit tedious, but it has its moments.’

‘Such as?’

‘Seeing a rare species, or a bird behaving unusually. Many of them are really quite beautiful.’

‘And would you expect … a partner to watch as well?’

‘Not really. Do you have a hobby?’

‘Does going on failed dates count?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (2010, Granta)

In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by tracing the lives of its key actors – David Watson, William Roy, William Mudge, Thomas Colby and others. Throughout the narrative there are a series of asides, with some context relating to politics, military conflict, scientific advances, philosophy, popular culture, and social relations, some of which aid the tale, some a bit of a distraction. Hewitt’s starting point is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the inability of English soldiers to navigate the Highlands, which led to a government-led mapping survey. Additional surveys were undertaken throughout the late eighteenth century, with the British collaborating with the French to create an accurate triangulation survey to document the precise location of key sites. These trig points became the basis for a national survey starting in 1791, under the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance, to underpin new, accurate maps. The survey first covered South East England leading to the first OS map in 1801 of Kent, and then continued across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century.

While it is evident that there is a substantial body of research underpinning the narrative, and there is a richness of detail, for my liking the account is somewhat an uncritical in charting Ordnance Survey’s history. There are very brief references to a more critical reading of how OS was a political body doing important work to maintain the Union and certainly no attempt at a postcolonial reading of OS’s work, particularly with respect to Ireland and Scotland. Instead the OS is framed as a somewhat neutral, yet civilising and Enlightenment endeavour, with some fairly weak defence of its colonial work. The result is an account that presents people, events and endeavours in a straightforward, face-value way but largely skims over the wider subtext. Overall, an interesting history of the formation of Britain’s national mapping agency, but lacking a critical edge.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It would have been nice to attend the Noireland, An International Crime Fiction Festival in Belfast this weekend, but family commitments prevented me from making it. From social media it seems to have been a success, so hopefully it will continue and I'll make it next year.

My posts this week:
Review of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser
New paper: A smart place to work? Big data systems, labour, control, and modern retail stores
Forgotten in his own life time

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Forgotten in his own life time

‘This is it?’ Turner put the photograph of a young woman back on a shelf and picked up a folder.

‘Yes,’ the duty manager replied. ‘He arrived with a suitcase and one box.’

‘And he’d no relatives?’

‘Not that we know about. No-one’s visited since he arrived three years ago.’

Turner pulled a sheet of paper free. ‘It says here he won a Gairnder Award.’

The manager shrugged.

‘It’s a major international award for medical science. A stepping stone to a Nobel prize.’

‘He never talked about himself.’

‘Jesus. Forgotten in his own life time.’

‘Even by himself. Alzheimers. Poor bastard.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser (1977, HarperCollins)

Harry Flashman is back in London and has been asked to reprise his cricketing prowess at Lords. Unwittingly he’s dragged into a gambling racket and into the orbit of Don Solomon, a man with great wealth but an unclear past rooted in the Far East, who has taken a shine to Elspeth, Flashman’s beautiful but ditzy wife.  Solomon wants to take Elspeth and her doddery, scheming father on a cruise to the far-side of the world. For once, Flashman acts with chivalry towards his wife and when Solomon gets his way he tags along to keep an eye on her. The journey takes them down the African coast, round the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean and to Singapore. There, Flashman is set upon and Elspeth kidnapped. Flashman hooks up with James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, to pursue his wife into the wilds of Borneo and a battle with pirates, ending his adventure on the island of Madagascar where he’s enslaved by despot, Queen Ranavalona.

Flashman’s Lady is the sixth book in the Harry Flashman series, but the second in chronological order, set in 1843-45. As usual, Fraser interweaves Flashman into real-world events and places from the time – in this case, cricket in London, James Brooke’s battles with pirates in Borneo, and the tyrannical reign of Queen Ranavalona in Madagascar, a deadly place for Europeans to visit. To a large degree these are three separate adventures just about held together by Flashman’s global chaperoning and pursuit of his air-headed wife, Elspeth. Moreover, Flashman almost slips out of character, for although he is his usual bawdy-self for once he is chivalrous to Elspeth, seeking to make sure she is safe rather than simply looking after himself as normal.  Of course, that doesn’t stop him getting up to high-jinks with other women. And Flashman continues in his misogynist, racist, imperialist ways – very much reflecting a certain British, nineteenth century mentality that feels somewhat uncomfortable in today’s politically correct times. Fraser plays the bawdiness and humour to good effect to deliver a swashbuckling adventure with plenty of social and historical commentary. Overall, an enjoyable if a little uneven addition to the series.