Sunday, January 29, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

In a world that seems to be spinning further off its axis, I've immersed myself in Sergei Lukyanenko's The Night Watch, an urban fantasy set in Moscow, where members of the Light and Dark seek an upper-hand while maintaining an uneasy truce. The Watches can move in and out of the Twilight, a kind of magical overlay across reality. In these times it might be nice to slip into the Twilight and out of the Twilight Zone.

My posts this week
Review of The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home
Review of The Harbour Master by Daniel Pembrey
Review of Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
Double or quits

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Double or quits

Kenny watched impassively as the black ball rolled across the green felt and dropped into the pocket.

‘That’s a hundred quid,’ Mike said.

‘Double or quits?’

‘I want the money first.’

‘I only have fifty.  I’ll owe you the rest.’

‘You played for money you didn’t have?’

‘I wasn't planning on losing.’

‘And I wasn’t planning on being short-changed.’

The cue cracked into Kenny’s raised forearm.

Half-a-dozen men converged on the two grappling men.

A cue slid across the green baize ripping the cloth.

‘Enough!’ Big Tony roared. ‘That’s a grand you owe me.’

Both men bolted for the door.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home

Cal McGill works as a sea detective, trying to determine where bodies that enter the water might travel to.  He’s often hired by families seeking to find the resting place of a loved one.  In this case, it’s David Wheeler, an English father who is hunting for answers in relation to the disappearance of his son, Max, from a small island in the Outer Hebrides.  The boy had been spending a night alone camping on Priest’s Island when he vanished, his body never found.  Wheeler is convinced his son was murdered by a local and has become obsessed with finding his killer. Every year he has sent an investigator with a different skill set to try and crack the case.  The arrival of the investigator along with Wheeler and his three daughters to mark the anniversary of the disappearance sets the small community on edge as they rally round to protect their reputation from what they feel are unfounded accusations. The question is, can McGill succeed where others have failed?

The Malice of Waves is the third instalment in the sea detective series. It’s not easy to find a fresh angle in crime fiction, but Douglas-Home manages to carve out a little niche with an oceanographer who specialises in tracking bodies lost at sea. In this case Cal McGill is drafted in to help find out what happened to a boy who disappeared from a small island five year’s previously. His presence in the local community is resented and family are hardly welcoming either. He’s joined in the Outer Hebrides by Helen Jamieson, a police officer pretending to an ordinary member of the public trying to get over a failed relationship. While Cal rubs the locals and family up the wrong way while trying to get a handle on the local currents, Helen makes friends with the locals by the hanging around the local tea shop. Douglas-Home creates a strong sense of place and immerses the reader in the tense relations between the locals and family.  There’s nice characterisation of the villagers and the Wheeler family, with both Cal and Helen being appealing leads. The pace is steady and unrushed and the plot has plenty of blinds and misdirection.  While the main thread is nicely constructed, the plotline with Pinkee Pryke, a poacher of bird eggs, felt like a plot device and was a little underdeveloped and not fully resolved.  Overall, an engaging and atmospheric detective story.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review of The Harbour Master by Daniel Pembrey

A career cop, Henk van der Pol is six months from retirement.  Up early one morning he’s present when a young woman is discovered floating in Amsterdam harbour.  Very quickly his colleague and boss have excluded him from the case.  Not satisfied with the way it is being handled, Henk runs his own parallel investigation. From a tattoo on her ankle he determines that the woman was a gang-run prostitute from Hungary. Tangling with her pimp, Henk soon finds himself threatened by both the pimp and his police colleagues.  He turns to a highly connected politician for help only to be enrolled in another scandal, this one involving diplomatic favours for political gain.  Not quite sure who to trust and fearing for his family’s safety Henk tries to navigate a treacherous terrain.

The Harbour Master is a police procedural thriller set in Amsterdam. The lead protagonist is Henk van der Pol, a cop nearing retirement, who is very much his own man and is reluctant to retire quietly.  When he suspects that an investigation is being deliberately stalled he decides to keep digging, placing himself and family in danger. From there Pembrey keeps layering in criminal intrigue and police and political corruption as Henk stumbles and prods, making and tangling with enemies close by.  Pembrey keeps the pace and tension high, but there were too many things I had a hard time believing from police and diplomatic conspiracies, to threats to shut police stations outside of any procedures or public process, to Henk’s investigative journalist wife having never previously visited Brussels.  The whole police setup felt far too small, rather than the large sprawling bureaucracy that it is.  The result was a tale that had plenty going on, but didn’t quite ring true.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (Orion, 2012)

A prostitute and her six-year-old daughter are found dead in an abandoned house in Cardiff.  At the scene is the credit card of a wealthy local businessman who died in a plane crash, though his body was never discovered. Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is working on a different case, assembling the accounts for an ex-cop caught embezzling funds from his new employer, but she desperately wants to be part of the new murder investigation. Her boss is somewhat reluctant, since Griffiths is a little erratic, excelling at things she likes, and neglecting those she doesn’t.  Indeed, she gives the appearance of being somewhat autistic, being highly intelligent, socially awkward, over-intense and a loner, and there’s a two year gap in her past which everyone assumes was a breakdown.  Nonetheless, her boss lets her hover round the fringe of the task force, seeking information from other prostitutes. Finding links between the ex-cop embezzler and the dead owner of the credit card, Griffiths is soon running her own parallel investigation, ignoring orders and protocol, and trying to shake things up to get a firm lead and evidence, placing herself in danger. And for reasons she can’t quite fathom the two deaths are drawing her back into her past and a dark secret.

The rebellious but good cop who’s prepared to break the rules, and sometimes the law, to catch dangerous criminals is somewhat of a cliché in police procedurals.  Harry Bingham manages, however, to put a fresh spin on the format with Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, an unconventional, socially awkward, highly intelligent woman who is something of a law to herself, despite her concerted attempts to try and read social situations and do the right thing.  Griffiths is a wonderful character that raises Talking to the Dead beyond just another competent police procedural.  Bingham gives her real depth, with strong character development occurring as the story unfolds. The plot is engaging with Griffiths running her own investigation within the official investigation into the death of a prostitute and her young daughter, all the while becoming more manic and seemingly regressing into the psychosis that consumed her last two years as a teenager.  Bingham nicely moves all the pieces into place, building to a dramatic denouement.  Unfortunately these scenes shifted into an action thriller that stretched credibility. Nonetheless, Talking to the Dead was a wonderful read and I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series and spending more time with DC Fiona Griffiths.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Work and home has been hectic recently and I'm falling behind with writing and posting reviews. I hope to draft and post three this week to get things back on track: Harry Bingham's Talking to the Dead, Daniel Pembrey's The Harbour Master, and Mark Douglas-Home's The Malice of Waves.

My posts this week
Review of Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb
We'll all face the music

Saturday, January 21, 2017

We'll all face the music

Davie peeked out at the audience from the wings. 

‘Where is he?’

‘I don’t know,’ Jack answered. ‘The lads haven’t seen him.’

‘Well, bloody find him.  They’re getting restless.’

‘I’ve already looked everywhere.’

‘If you had, you’d have found him!’

Davie discovered the guitarist and drummer smoking outside the back door.

‘Where is he?’

‘Propping up a bar. You know Jimmy.’

‘Which bar?’

The guitarist shrugged.  ‘It’s a big city.’

‘You’ll have to go on without him.’

‘Who’ll sing? No, no, not me.’

‘This is your big chance.’


‘Then find him!  And quick or we’ll all face the music.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review of Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb (Orenda, 2017)

Lori Anderson makes her living as a bounty hunter in Florida, but is struggling to pay the medical bills for her sick, nine-year old daughter, Dakota.  Desperate for cash she heckles her boss into letting her chase down a major bounty.  There are two snags, however.  The bounty is JT, her former mentor and lover, and she needs to take her daughter on the trip.  She finds JT in West Virginia, but straightaway things start to go wrong.  The Miami Mob and a theme-park paedophile ring are also searching for JT and when Dakota is snatched by one of them the stakes skyrocket. Lori is not about to forfeit her daughter or the bounty without a fight.

Deep Down Dead is a crime thriller that follows the exploits of sassy bounty hunter and single-mother, Lori Anderson, in bringing back to Florida the person who taught her everything about her job, JT.  In tow is her ill daughter and a messy past with JT.  The key ingredients to the book are pace, action and tension.  Broadribb keeps the narrative hurtling along as her heroine grapples with JT, the Miami Mob and a paedophile ring working in the Winter Wonderland theme park.  What holds the story together, however, is an endless series of plot devices, many of which felt a little clunky, that stretched believability to the limit. Moreover, the relentless pace meant the tale lacked emotional depth and reflexivity beyond some confused feelings for JT and a desire to rescue the daughter.  Overall then, a Hollywood action thriller that zips along in a series of improbable scenes, propelled by a sassy lead character, a will they/won’t they romance, and fear for a kidnapped child.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to Amsterdam to give a couple of talks this week, so thankfully I've Daniel Pembrey's The Harbour Master set in the city on the to-be-read pile and will be shuffling to the top.

My posts this week

Review of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Review of Invasion Rabaul by Bruce Gamble
Flight of the Living Dead

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Flight of the Living Dead

‘It’s empty.’


‘Yeah, Locker 3.’

 ‘It can’t be.  I put him there myself.  Let me see.’ 

Taylor marched past his young assistant.

‘Maybe you put him in a different one,’ Lenihan said, trailing behind.

They both stared into the empty locker.

‘For God’s sake!’ Taylor opened each of the twelve lockers in turn, five of them occupied.

‘Well, he didn’t walk out of here by himself!’

‘Unless he’s a zombie.’

‘Someone must have stolen him.’

‘Who steals a corpse?’

‘How the hell should I know!  The sub-editors are going to have a field day.’

‘Flight of the Living Dead!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2016)

April, 1975. As the Viet Cong advance on Saigon the Americans are leaving. At his villa, a South Vietmanese general, who is head of the secret police, and his chief-aide draw up a list of those to be given safe passage from the country. It is left to the captain to make the arrangements, bribing various officials for appropriate documents and access through checkpoints. As shells begin to fall on the city the selected few gather and head for the airport. There they scramble onto the last departing flight, becoming refugees and leaving millions to their fate. Via Guam they arrive in America and try to rebuild their lives, having slid from the elite and privileged to poverty. The general dreams of returning to South Vietnam and starts to build a resistance movement, aided by Claude, his long-time CIA liaison, and his trusted captain. However, the captain is not so trust-worthy, having been a long-time spy for the Communists. The captain is a man-in-between, the offspring of a French priest and Viet mother, a man educated in the US but serving a communist cause, a man who has sympathies for the people and values of both sides. This is evident in his primary commitment: his two best friends – one a committed communist and his Viet Cong handler, the other a committed anti-communist who wants to return home and take revenge for the death of his wife and child.

The Sympathizer documents the confession of ‘the captain’, an official in the South Vietnamese secret police who flees to America as Saigon falls, who is also a secret agent for the Viet Cong.  His confession is a fairly lengthy and rambling account of his flight and resettlement in Los Angeles, his work as an advisor on a movie about the Vietnam war, and his return as part of a resistance cell.  In it, the captain explores a whole series of issues relating to politics and ideology, identity and belonging, inclusion and exclusion, struggle and resistance, friendship and social ties, loyalty and self-deception, and how war is perceived and pursued by different parties.  In this sense, it provides quite a different perspective to American framings of the Vietnam war, yet a large part of the story is set in America and concerns American-supported actions.  The result is what might be termed a ‘big story’, covering a lot of territory and being thoughtful and reflexive.  Some of the writing really sparkles, with nice prose and insightful analysis.  Occasionally the tale is flabby and too meandering, getting lost in its pursuit of being a ‘big story’.  And while the lead up to the conclusion was interesting, with some nicely literary tricks, I just didn’t believe the ending.  Overall then a big story that delivers a thoughtful and thought-provoking, but also a slightly uneven, literary tale.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Review of Invasion Rabaul by Bruce Gamble (Zenith Press, 2006)

As Japan rattled her sabres prior to declaring war on the Allies, Australia – already mobilised for the war in Europe – sought to strengthen its defences to its North, creating a shield across the islands of Papua New Guinea.  One of those islands was New Britain, part of the Bismarck chain.  To its small capital town of Rabaul the Australian government sent Lark Force, comprising of 1,500 soldiers, plus a handful of outdated planes and nurses.  Most of the soldiers were volunteers with only a few weeks training and its commanders were reservists with some World War I experience.  After the attack on Pearl Harbour some of the locals were evacuated, but Lark Force was not strengthened.  On January 23, 1942, the Japanese attacked Rabaul in strength, the town chosen for the headquarters of Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific.  The attackers quickly captured the town, its deep water port, and two airstrips. 

The Australian defence was weak and poorly coordinated, and those troops that did not surrender fled into the jungle.  They had few supplies and little knowledge of how to survive in such an environment.  They headed west and south, hoping that the Australian government would send ships or seaplanes to rescue them.  There was to be no Dunkirk-style rescue, however, and many were tracked down by the Japanese and taken prisoner or killed.  Over the next few months a couple of hundred managed to escape the island.  Those captured toiled as forced labourers before being sent by ship to Japan.  The officers and women were separated from the enlisted soldiers and civilian men, who were packed into an old cruise-liner.  En route to Japan it was torpedoed by a US submarine with the loss of all prisoners, over a thousand souls perishing. 

In Invasion Rabaul, Gamble tells the story of Lark Force, the fall of Rabaul, the disorderly retreat and escape attempts, and the fate of prisoners, drawing on accounts and interviews of survivors and archival material.  He nicely mixes a general overview of the history of the events with more personal stories about members of Lark Force and their fates.  What is largely missing is a discussion of the Australian government and military decisions and actions, and reactions of the Australian public.  Nonetheless, a very readable account of one of Australian tragedies of the Second World War.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I got off to a good start to the year this week, drafting two book chapters: one on urban science, the other on smart cities and governmentality. This year will need to be a productive one on the academic side of things as a project enters its last phase.  I also picked up a haul of books from the local bookshop, including The Harbour Master by Daniel Pembrey, Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb, Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea, Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong.

My posts this week
New to me authors in 2016
Around the world in 2016
Best reads of 2016
December reviews
He was our child

Saturday, January 7, 2017

He was our child

Gina tumbled through the front door carrying grocery bags.

‘The place was mad!  How is he?’

Pete looked up bleary-eyed.  ‘Not good.  He’s … he’s dead, Gina.’


The bags hit the floor.

‘He’d had enough.  He went peacefully.’

Gina dashed for the stairs.  ‘Call an ambulance!’

‘It’s too late for that.’  Pete trudged up after her.

She was sitting on the bed, sobbing and stroking Joe’s brow.

‘How could you?’

‘He asked me to.’

‘And you just did it?’

‘He begged me.  He wanted to die on his terms.’

‘He was our child!’

‘I know and I loved him.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New to me authors in 2016

Of the 104 books I read last year 56 were authors new to me.  I'll no doubt be revisiting the work of many of them in the next few years.  There's good mix of styles and geographical settings across these books.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Dog Day by Alicia Giménez Bartlett
City of Thieves by David Benioff
Billy Boyle by James Benn
The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
The Nuremberg Enigma by Yves Bonavero
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan
Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand
Exposure by Helen Dunmore
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins
Crimea by Orlando Figes
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester
Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus
The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto
A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm
Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta
Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen
Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings
To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu
Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach
The Game Must Go On by John Klima
The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum
Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy
Pleasantville by Attica Locke
A Man With One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell
Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski
The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban
The Dirtiest Race in History by Richard Moore
The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North
Holding by Graham Norton
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Snapshots by Michael O'Higgins
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen
The Blood Strand by Chris Ould
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
The Whites by Richard Price 
Murderer in the Ruins by Cay Rademacher
Peepshow by Leigh Redhead
Journey to Death by Leigh Russell
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan
The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds  
The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey
Black Roses by Jayne Thynne
Dark As My Heart by Antti Tuomainen
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta
The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Around the world in 2016

I did quite a bit of travelling in 2016, including a month in Boston in April and several shorter trips to Italy, Germany, Korea, Russia, The Netherlands, and the UK. I also did a fair bit of literary travel to 41 countries:

The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban ***.5

Peepshow by Leigh Redhead ***.5

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto ****.5

A Little More Free by John McFetridge ****

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez ***

The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal **** 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore *****
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch ***5
The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North ****.5
The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley ***.5
Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings **.5
Original Skin by David Mark ***
Rough Treatment by John Harvey ***.5
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North ***
Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand ****
Darkside by Belinda Bauer  ****
A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield *****
Fool by Christopher Moore ***.5
My Kind of Justice by Col Bury ***.5
The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey **
Stalin’s Gold by Mark Ellis ***
A House of Knives by William Shaw ****
The Kill by Jane Casey ***
Tell No Tales by Eva Dolan ****
Eleven Days by Stav Sherez *****
Slow Horses by Mick Herron ****

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen *****

The Blood Strand by Chris Ould ****.5

Dark As My Heart by Antti Tuomainen ***
The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto ***.5
To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu ****.5

Murder in the Marais by Cara Black ***

Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta ****
The Nuremberg Enigma by Yves Bonavero **.5
Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach ***
Murderer in the Ruins by Cay Rademacher ***
A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre ****.5

Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason ***.5

Holding by Graham Norton ***
A Man With One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell ****
The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan ****.5
Hurt by Brian McGilloway ***
Elegy for April by Benjamin Black ****
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty ****.5
Snapshots by Michael O'Higgins ****

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida ***

Slicky Boys by Martin Limon **.5 

A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan ****

The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum ***.5
Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst ***.5

Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski ***

City of Thieves by David Benioff ****.5
A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris ****

Journey to Death by Leigh Russell **.5

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin ****
The Long Glasgow Kiss by Craig Russell ****.5

South Africa
Cobra by Deon Meyer ****
Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn *****
7Days by Deon Meyer *****

Dog Day by Alicia Giménez Bartlett ***

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo ***

Tin Sky by Ben Pastor ***

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh *****
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins ****.5
Willnot by James Sallis ***.5
Pleasantville by Attica Locke ****
The Whites by Richard Price ***.5
A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane ***.5
The Whisperers by John Connolly *****
Worst Enemies by Dana King ****.5
Night Passage by Robert Parker ***
Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe Lansdale ***
Canary by Duane Swierczynski ***
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto ****.5
World of Trouble by Ben H Winters ****

More than one country
Black Roses by Jayne Thynne *** (Britain, Germany)
Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt **** (Czechoslovakia, Germany)
Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith **** (Russia, United States)
Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear **.5 (England, Germany)
Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler *** (Turkey, Greece, Italy)
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute ****.5 (Malaysia, England, Australia)
The Constant Soldier by William Ryan ****.5 (Germany/Poland, Russia)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan ***** (Australia, Thailand)
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian ***.5 (Gibraltar, Spain)
Masaryk Station by David Downing **** (Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia)
Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus ***.5 (USA, Mexico, Portugal, France)
The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr **** (France, Germany)
The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell ** (Sweden, China, England, Zimbabwe, Mozambique)
Mr Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester ***.5 (England, France, Spain)
Billy Boyle by James Benn *** (England, Norway)
The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson *** (England, US, Cuba, Russia, Vietnam)
Dark Star by Alan Furst ****.5 (Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland and Russia)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best reads of 2016

I read and reviewed 104 books in 2016.  Here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction reads.  For full reviews of each book click on the links and to see all 104 reviews click here.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh

Set in 1974 in central Los Angeles, the tale follows the lives of five pairs of patrolmen working the night shift over a six-month period, culminating in a fatal shooting in MacArthur Park, where the men gather periodically to get drunk and let off steam.  The Choirboys is a fascinating, multi-layered story. The characterisation and social relations excellent, with Wambaugh fleshing out fully-dimensional personalities who form an uneasy and fractious alliance.  The vignettes and story arc are compelling and realistic.  And the prose and voice are engaging, blending serious social commentary with black humour and tragi-comedy.  A thoughtful, insightful, critical and entertaining read.  

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The story 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 through 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, poetry and literature.  The result is a vivid, haunting, moving and thought-provoking tale of love and loss told through some wonderful prose. 

A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield

The final book in the Frost series.  Wingfield does a great job at weaving together a multiple set of engaging plot lines, overloading the already overstretched Frost with cases and internal battles.  Along with the plotting, the characterisation is excellent and the dialogue and interactions between characters is superb.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable read, full of black humour.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure is a spy drama that focuses mostly on the fallout affecting a wife and children when a family-man is framed as a traitor.  The storyline is nicely plotted and paced. The characterisation and character development is excellent, with each of the leads being fully dimensional, along with the children, and their interactions ring true.  In addition, Dunmore keeps the mood and tension low-key but persistent, keeping the sense of an everyday family caught out of step front and centre.  The result is an engaging, thoughtful, understated literary spy tale.

Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn

The third book in the Emmanuel Cooper series set in 1950s South Africa.  Nunn has really hit her stride with this instalment.  The characterisation is excellent, especially Cooper and his colleague Shabalala, and Nunn nicely portrays their interactions and social relations.  Indeed, she excels at detailing the complex social structure within and between communities – Black, Indian, Jewish, White Afrikaans, White English – and the politics of policing within such strictures.  There is a nice attention to historical detail and the sense of place is palpable with the reader being transported to rural South Africa and its dramatic landscape.  A very good police procedural that delivers on multiple levels.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

When the Doves Disappeared charts the entangled lives of three Estonians during the Second World War and twenty years later.  Each represent the different positions of Estonians during successive waves of occupation, resistance, and collaboration.  Oskanen maps out their intersecting lives, shuttling back and forth between the years 1941-44 and 1963-66, documenting the ongoing struggles and betrayals of family and country.  The result is a compelling, bleak, haunting and thought-provoking black drama that explores themes of love, loyalty, treachery, tragedy and freedom. 

7Days by Deon Meyer

7Days has all the good hallmarks of a police procedural – an interesting lead cop and supporting cast, a strong sense of place, interesting puzzles, and attention to detail – but also have the pace and tension of a thriller. Meyer expertly balances character development, plot and pace, producing a highly engaging and entertaining read that not only delivers an intriguing story but nicely advances the longer narrative of the Benny Griessel books.  I was hooked from the first page.

The Whisperers by John Connolly

The ninth book in the Charlie Parker series set in Maine.  In this outing, Parker is tasked with discovering why a small group of Iraqi veterans are taking their own lives.  All the key elements were on point, the hook, the social commentary on the Iraqi war and the treatment of veterans, the investigation, the sense of place, the characterisation and social relations, and the plotting.  The result is an engaging, informative and tense read grounded in strong research that contextualises but doesn’t swamp the narrative.  A thoroughly entertaining tale.

Eleven Days by Stav Sherez

In Eleven Days Sherez uses the format of a police procedural and London’s diverse population to shine a light on a couple of fairly weighty issues: the political turmoil and violence in Peru during the 1970s and the role of liberation theology and the contemporary movement of Albanian criminals into London’s underworld and sex trafficking.  The result is an engaging and compelling tale full of gritty realism in which the politics is a crucial element of the story but never overly dominates it at its expense.  I wasn’t entirely convinced by the denouement, which I felt had one twist too many, but nonetheless a superior, thought-provoking, edge-of-seat police procedural.

City of Thieves by David Beniof

City of Thieves is a well crafted coming-of-age story set during the Siege of Leningrad.  The tale has a number of strengths, including an engaging voice and prose, well-paced narrative, a well-developed sense of place, time and context, and a great hook and engaging story line.  What makes the book shine, however, is the characterisation and the emerging relationship between two friends, Lev and Kolya. Benioff nicely blends their quest to find a dozen eggs, with observations about Soviet society and the war.  An engaging and entertaining tale of hardship, friendship and adventure.


The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

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.  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.

Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen

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.  The US had a choice – prosecute scientists who had participated in crimes against humanity, or give them clemency and hire them to work on military science projects and for the US military-industrial complex. It chose the latter and through Operation Paperclip recruited many to work for the US.  Jacobsen does an excellent job of setting out the 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

The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds

A very readable and highly informative account of the battle at Midway in June 1942, including some contextual framing with respect to Pearl Harbour, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the first US air raid on Tokyo.  Unlike previous accounts that suggest that the US were lucky to win the encounter, Symonds argues that the US won due to good intelligence, strong leadership, and the element of surprise.  Given the number of different threads and personalities involved the narrative could have easily become quite jumbled or bogged down in detail, but Symonds manages to blend the various strands into a coherent, gripping and page-turning story told with an engaging voice.

Monday, January 2, 2017

December reviews

After a slow start, December was a good month of reading. The standout read was Joseph Wambaugh's 1975 classic, The Choirboys.  An excellent read to finish the year.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh *****
Holding by Graham Norton ***
Crimea by Orlando Figes ***.5
Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt ****
City of Thieves by David Benioff ****.5
The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan ***
Exposure by Helen Dunmore *****
Black Roses by Jayne Thynne ***

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Happy new year!  I hope that 2017 brings you success and happiness.  As has been the case for the past few years, my aim is to reduce just about everything work-wise and to get better at saying 'no' to requests.  I usually also say that I plan to cut back on reading and to spend more time writing.  I do want to spend more time writing in 2017, but I want the time to come at the expense of travel instead of reading (which seems to be pretty consistent regardless of whatever else is going on).

Following Bernadette at Reaction to Readings love of charts, here is my reading year, with comparison to the previous six (culled from Goodreads). It seems that I am pretty consistent at roughly two books a week, though 2016 saw a surge in pages read on 2015 (over 5k more), averaging just under 100 pages a day.  I'm a bit surprised by that as I didn't feel I was reading more than usual.  I'll post my best of list during the week, as well as list of all the countries/fiction I literary travelled to.

My posts this week
Review of The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Review of Holding by Graham Norton
Review of Crimea by Orlando Figes

There's something down there