Monday, December 31, 2018

Review of The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (2013, Touchstone)

1942, rural Tennessee. The US government rapidly acquires 56,000 acres of land, giving farmers and families three to six weeks to leave their land and homes. Inside the new Reservation of Oak Ridge ground is broken on building a set of factories and a new town. Within two years the place is home to 75,000 people, three large industrial sites including the world’s largest building, and various collections of dorms, apartments, prefab huts, houses and service buildings; it is somewhat rough and ready with mud everywhere and overcrowded. Everyone there has been vetted and sworn to secrecy, not even able to tell fellow workers or family what they do every day. The penalty for talking is eviction, job loss and finding new work difficult. Very few people even know what they are working on. The site is consuming vast quantities of material and is costing a fortune to build and staff, but nothing seems to be coming out. It is, however, a vital cog in the Manhattan Project, enriching uranium, the key component of the atomic bomb. It is only after the bomb is dropped that workers discover what they had been contributing to and the place is acknowledged as officially existing.

Denise Kiernan tells the story of the atomic city from the perspective of the thousands of women working and living there. In particular, it follows the lives of eight women who all worked at Oak Ridge, performing different jobs – chemist, statistician, nurse, cyclotron operator, secretary, cleaner, etc. – and who were from different places and backgrounds. Through these women she charts the growth and development of the site, the work taking place there, the living conditions, and how the community developed. In many ways, Kiernan illustrates how Oak Ridge was a social experiment as much as it was a massive, rapid industrial development: a kind of instant city but one that had unusual social rules such as strict secrecy, separation of family members (even on site, as between black families where husband and wife were made to sleep in separate compounds bordered by barbwire fences, and children were excluded entirely), internal spies monitoring staff and security checks to get in and out, censuring of mail, etc. To provide wider context, the text is punctuated with a second narrative that charts the development of the Manhattan Project and key events, detailing the notable contributions of women to the wider science, politics and industry. As Kiernan acknowledges, life in Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project was highly compartmentalised, and her history has a similar telling. To some degree this inevitable given the approach taken. Using eight women to tell the story of thousands of women and also the story of Oak Ridge in the development of the atomic bomb is always going to produce a circumscribed and somewhat sketchy view. The payoff though is in the detail of the experience of living and working in the new city. The result is a nicely written, engaging history of Oak Ridge that manages to create a reasonable balance between the wider context and personal stories and which highlights the key roles that women made.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Service

It's been a lazy week of reading, watching television, and catching up with family and friends. I hope all readers of the blog are having a good seasonal break and all the best for the new year. I've made a start this morning into a book I was gifted, Karin Slaughter's Pieces of Her. It should be the first review of the new year.

My posts this week
Review of The Death Season by Kate Ellis
Review of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Review of The Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter
The number detective

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The number detective

‘All these books start, ‘Once upon a time’, or ‘In a land far away.’ Why can’t they be set now and here?’

‘It’s just how book’s start.’

‘Well, it’s rubbish. I want to be the main character.’

‘The idea is you use your imagination to pretend you’re the hero.’

‘I don’t want to be someone else. Can’t you make up some stories?’

‘I’m an accountant, not a writer.’

‘It could be about warring spreadsheets. You’re always moaning about how they don’t reconcile.’

‘I …’

‘And I could be number detective.’

‘But …’

‘Are you going to tell this story, Dad?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Review of The Death Season by Kate Ellis (2015, Piatkus Books)

A man is found dead in a Devon hotel room. It appears to be a natural death, but bits of the scene do not quite add up. Shortly afterwards a woman acquainted with the man, and the police’s chief suspect in his murder, is also found dead. To add to the mystery, the man’s DNA matches that found under the fingernails of a teenage girl murdered in 1979 at a holiday camp. DI Wesley Peterson sets about investigating the crimes, along with DCI Gerry Heffernan who is meant to be on light duties, convinced there must be a connection to the earlier murder. All the time he’s spending on the case is, however, placing a strain on his home life. At the same time, Peterson’s friend and archaeologist, Neil Watson, is investigating a ruined village that slid into the sea at the end of the First World War and excavating an ice house in a nearby country house. It is throwing up its own secrets that also might involve murder. Peterson and his colleagues start to try to track down workers from the old holiday camp, but whoever the murderer is sticking to the shadows and unwittingly Peterson’s actions are putting his family at risk.

The Death Season is the 19th entry in the Wes Peterson police procedural series set in a fictional town Devon. In this outing he finds himself investigating four deaths; the first present-day victim is connected by DNA to an unsolved murder of a teenage girl in 1977, the second victim provided his alibi, and the third is the second’s mother. His friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, finds himself looking into the suspicious death of a young girl in 1918. The strength of the story are the lead characters and the packed plot. As well as the three main threads – the two contemporary murders and suspicious death, the cold case from the seventies, and the First World War mystery – Ellis splices in another linked cold case and a threat to Peterson’s family. Where the story suffers is with all the coincidental and family links between all the cases, victims and lead characters. While the number of interconnections adds a certain frisson and tension to the plot, it also undermines the credibility of the story rendering it being held together by a web of unlikely plot devices. The archaeological tale also just felt like filler being linear and relatively thin. The result is an interesting, tangled story that felt a bit overly contrived.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992, Bloomsbury)

Italy, 1945. Four people live in a dilapidated nunnery near to Florence as the war draws to a close: Hana, a young, exhausted Canadian nurse; a mysterious, anonymous, English man burned beyond recognition in a plane crash in the Sahara; Caravaggio, a thief/spy who was a friend of Hana’s father who has had his thumbs amputated by the retreating Nazis; and Kip, a Sikh sapper who specialises in bomb disposal whose brother is in jail for being an Indian nationalist. Each is damaged is someway, trying to come to terms with the devastation of the war, the loss of loved ones, and their place in the world. Cut-off from the world they form a set of simmering relationships as each probes the others’ lives. Caravaggio is particularly taken with the English patient’s identity, and Kip and Hana conduct a low-key love affair. Their isolated summer must come to an end at some point, but not before some truths are revealed. Ondaatje tells their story through a fractured narrative of short encounters, shot through with flashbacks to earlier periods. This episodic structure means the story moves forward in quite a stilted way, slowly gaining shape as the various pieces are revealed. There’s no strong narrative arc, and by no means is it a page turner. Rather it is about human nature, relationships, identity and the casualties of war, and creating an affective response aided by poetic prose and a strong sense of place. An interesting, thoughtful, meandering read.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Review of The Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter (Constable, 2016)

Marguerite Etienne, a French woman living on the Inishowen peninsula is found washed up on a shore, her clothes on a beach on the other side of the bay. It appears she has committed suicide by walking out into the sea. Solicitor Benedicta ‘Ben’ O’Keeffe is not so sure. The woman had visited her the night before looking to make a will and was due back to sign it. Surely she would have completed putting her affairs in order before killing herself? The police, however, move to close the case. Unable to believe the death wasn’t suspicious, Ben starts to dig around, discovering that the woman had been acting strangely in the last year and had a troubled past linked to a cult. She becomes convinced there is more to the case, but her meddling exposes secrets and places her in danger.

The Treacherous Strand is the second book in the Inishowen mysteries series featuring solicitor Benedicta ‘Ben’ O’Keeffe. This outing sees Ben investigating the suspicious death of one her clients, a troubled French woman, which the police has ruled suicide. Her unconsummated romance with a local policeman is on rocky ground, so she is pursuing the case solo. Inevitably, her nosing about unearths secrets and unsettles the small rural community. The cosy-feel to the story, the close rural village set-up, the colourful community and mix of characters, and a blow-in lead character reminded me of the TV series Ballykissangel given a mystery spin. The result was a certain charm to the storytelling, with a plot that jaunted along. While there was strong telegraphing as to the denouement, there is also a nice twist. My main issue with the tale was the over-use of two plot devices to make everything work: interruptions that led to information not being passed on or the deliberate holding back of things when they should have been shared regardless of any personal romantic strife. There were also a couple of things that made little sense to me. Nonetheless, this is a story carried along by its charm and lead character and was an enjoyable read.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Somehow I've forgot to mention on the blog that I've had five books published in the last month. Two of them were new books - Digital Geographies and Creating Smart Cities. The other three were translations of older books: Thinking Geographically into Japanese; The Cognition of Geographic Space into Chinese; and Key Thinkers on Space and Place into Turkish. Delighted to see all these now in print.

My posts this week
Review of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut ***
Review of Cop Hater by Ed McBain ***.5
Review of Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs ***
He thinks he’s a writer like Alan Bennett

Saturday, December 22, 2018

He thinks he’s a writer like Alan Bennett

‘He doesn’t want us.’ She hovers over him, holding the cat. ‘He thinks he’s a writer like Alan Bennett.’

‘If I was Alan Bennett,’ he looks up from his laptop, ‘this conversation would become the story.’

‘And I bet it will! If I wasn’t around you’d have nothing to write about.’

‘If you weren’t around I’d be able to concentrate.’

‘Don’t give me that guff! You’re constantly writing in your head. Waiting for me to spew a little nugget. Isn’t he, puss?’

‘If you were a gold mine, we’d be bust.’

‘It’s you mining fool’s gold, darling. Endlessly tapping away.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Review of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 1969)

Billy Pilgrim’s life is fractured by time-shifting; shuttling back-and-forth between the various episodes in his life. Three key moments haunt his existence: the fire-bombing of Dresden, which he witnessed and survived as a prisoner of war; a plane crash from which he was one of two survivors; and his abduction by aliens and time spent in their zoo. Unlike everyone else, Billy knows his fate, he’s witnessed his whole life and he knows he is condemned to live it without being able to change any of the outcomes. He also knows that the fate of Dresden was a crime against humanity and that he’ll experience a succession of bitter-sweet moments.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered one of the great anti-war novels, written at the time of Vietnam war but using the Second World War, and the Battle of the Bulge and the firebombing of Dresden, as a means to consider war’s horrors. Vonnegut writes the start and end in an autobiographical voice and the rest as a witness to Billy Pilgrim’s life. The narrative itself consists of short passages that jump back-and-forth in time, following the logic of non-linear time as professed by the aliens that at one point abduct Pilgrim. Vonnegut explains this through a statement from an alien explaining how their books work: “There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages [swap for passages], except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” In this way, there is a weakened story arc, the full extent and resonance of the tale only coming into focus at the end as all the passages are then seen. To me, this focus on the nature of time, and the non-conventional narrative flow were the most interesting aspects of the story. Billy Pilgrim’s story was engaging enough; partly tragic, partly comic, and partly absurd, but the strong teleological, fated nature of time undermined the anti-war message to me as history is doomed to always repeat itself and cannot be changed, so why bother trying?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review of Cop Hater by Ed McBain (Penguin, 1956)

Detective Mike Reardon is shot in the back of the head while walking to work at the 87th Precinct in New York. Cops abhor a cop killer and all the focus is trained on tracking down a murderer with .45 automatic. Then a second cop is slain. Detectives Steve Carella and Hank Bush are determined to stop the cop hater, as is a local newspaper reporter who has his own ideas as to who is perpetrating the crimes. What seems certain is more cops are going to die unless they catch a lucky break.

Cop Hater was the first book in the 87th Precinct series that stretched to 55 entries. This book introduces Steve Carella, who is the lead character of the series, though different detectives take the lead in each entry. Carella and his partner, Hank Bush, are trying to track down the killer of a fellow detective. Then the first cop’s partner is shot. It seems like someone is taking revenge. McBain tells the story in a no-nonsense narrative, following the detectives as they try to determine who the killer is. The tale is quite sparse and short in comparison to contemporary novels, but is no worse for it in many respects. The twist in the tale is nicely done. However, some of the detective work seems a little haphazard, the plot device used to set up the denouement is a bit clunky, and the wrap up is brief. Nonetheless, it’s entertaining read. Overall, a tightly plotted and told police procedural.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Review of Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs (Arrow, 1997)

Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist for the province of Quebec, based in Montreal. Recently divorced she has arrived from North Carolina and is still getting used to the French/English divisions. When a dismembered female corpse is discovered, it raises alarm bells. She quickly spots similarities with two previous deaths, but the local police are not convinced. Determined to prove that they might be dealing with a serial killer she turns detective. However, her efforts place her and a friend into the killer’s sights. Unnerved by incidents, she tries to convince the police to take her evidence seriously and continues to try and identify the perpetrator before he strikes again.

Deja Dead is the first book in the Temperance Brennan series, Kathy Reich’s hugely successful series following the exploits of a forensic anthropologist cum detective. The tale is a serial killer thriller in which a forensics expert pitches her wits against both a murderer and her police colleagues, who do not take her advice and evidence seriously. Reich’s provides a very detailed account of the work and procedures of forensic anthropology, almost translating a textbook into fiction, but Brennan also moves beyond the lab and on to the streets to prove her points. The story has a lot of forward momentum, the plot is tense and engaging, and the prose is very easy on the eye. The main issue with the tale, however, is that is reliant on a number of plot devices to spin it out, some of which felt thin. In particular, the police act in pretty dumb ways ignoring solid evidence, and Brennan ignores all kinds of warning signals and ploughs on regardless and fails to pass on information on flimsy pretexts. The outcome was the believability got sacrificed to tension and pace, though these were also mollified by strong telegraphing. The result was an entertaining page turner with an interesting lead character that felt overly contrived.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

In the last couple of weeks I've made great progress on a book I'm co-writing. There's no better feeling than when the ideas and text is flowing. I'm looking forward to the seasonal break, but I could do with it being delayed by a couple of weeks to keep it moving along. I've also found time to work my way through two classics, Cop Hater by Ed McBain and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Reviews this coming week.

My posts this week

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Review of City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Second sight

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Second sight

‘I’m telling you, I’ve got second sight and this doesn’t end well.’

‘Just button it, Jaspers.’

They were creeping along a hedgerow. Somewhere to their right a firefight was taking place.

‘At least we’re not over there,’ Kelly whispered.

‘I’d sooner be there than here,’ Jaspers hissed.

‘You’re nuts, man.’

‘Maybe. But I’m going to survive this war.’

Jaspers counted under his breath then dropped.

‘What the …’ Kelly said, side-stepping.

‘Get down.’

The first mortar landed with a thump, then all hell erupted.

Jaspers was already slithering through the hedge. ‘I told you,’ he muttered. ‘I got second sight.’

A drabble is a story exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (2012, Windmill Books)

Joe Spork is the son of a master-criminal, who when he wasn’t conducting daring robberies was running London’s Night Market, a secret place to fence stolen wares. His grandfather was a master-horologist, repairing all manner of clocks and clockwork machines. Joe has chosen to turn his back on father’s mobster world and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, though he remains friends with some of his father’s associates. His world, however, is turned upside down by Edie, an octogenarian superspy, a secret government department, a cultish group of engineers known as the Ruskinites, the psychopathic ruler of an Indian state, and a complex, clockwork Doomsday machine built by a genius Frenchwoman for the British in the 1950s. Unwittingly, Joe re-activates the machine, triggering several international incidents and making himself the number one most wanted man in Britain. Joe is the only person who can save the world, but he’s well out of his depth and everyone seems to be conspiring against him except for his father’s associates, their law firm, and the woman of his dreams.

It's kind of difficult to describe Angelmaker. The publisher goes with “gangster noir meets howling absurdist comedy”. I think ‘science fiction, thriller, spy adventure and romance’ can be added to that. It’s a big, ambitious tale spanning seventy years, rooted in the exploits of Edie Banister, a British superspy, a kind of female version of James Bond, a genius Frenchwoman who sees the world as numbers and constructs fantastic clockwork machines, and a psychopathic ruler of an Indian state who has ambitions to become a god. Into the legacy of their world is dragged Joe Spork, the son of a master-criminal, and grandson of a master-horologist, who would like to live a nice quiet life. Unhappy with how the world has turned out, Edie tricks Joe into re-activating a Doomsday machine that seeks to improve the world but actually causes personal harm and international incidents. Despite being a patsy, Joe is suddenly a marked man, pursued by a shady government department and a group of mad monks. Harkaway tells the story through two main threads: one following the exploits of Joe Spork as he tries to stay alive and fix the mess he’s created; the other providing a detailed backstory of Edie, her spy career and the history of the Doomsday machine. Woven into the mix are a number of subplots. The result is a sprawling tale packed with invention, philosophy and action. The characters are very nicely developed and some of the set pieces are delightfully done. The plot is clever, multi-layered and complex, yet straightforward to follow. If you like to wallow in thick description, then you’ll love the attention to detail and expansive narrative. Personally, I would have liked it to be tightened up a little throughout, especially in the first two thirds, which felt a little uneven, bloated and indulgent, consisting of interlinked set pieces and containing material that had no real bearing on the story and slowed the momentum of what felt like it should be a thriller. Thankfully the latter third was more even and rooted in the tale. Overall, an engaging and fun, if overly long, read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review of City of the Dead by Sara Gran (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Having discovered a copy of Jacque Silette’s ‘Détection’ as a teenager, Claire DeWitt was always destined to be a private investigator. Her path to being the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective has not been straightforward, however. A teenage friend disappeared never to be found, her Silette-trained mentor, Constance, was murdered, and she’s recovering from a major nervous breakdown. When she’s asked to take a job in New Orleans to find a missing district attorney post-Katrina, she knows she’ll be encountering more than the case. DeWitt was schooled by Constance in the city and she still has acquaintances there. She finds the city still in turmoil months after the hurricane. The DA seemingly vanished without a trace. Drawing on her copy of Détection, her dreams, I Ching dice and contacts, she starts to investigate, partly hunting for clues, partly creating noise to see what happens. It seems though that nobody really wants the truth to out.

Claire DeWitt is somewhat of an unusual private detective. She is a devotee of the philosophy and methods of French detective, Jacque Silette, author of ‘Détection’, religiously following his oblique advice, and drawing on her dreams and I Ching dice to cast light on cases. She’s headstrong, abrasive and self-assured, yet is also carrying a lot of emotional baggage and mental health vulnerabilities. Her first case after residing in a retreat after a nervous breakdown is to find out what happened to a missing district attorney in New Orleans after the Katrina floods. It is a city that holds many memories given that is where she trained under the mentorship of Silette-apprentice, Constance. The city is a still a mess and the crime rate sky high. DeWitt starts with the DA’s clients, young black men hanging around on street corners, making friends and enemies at the same time. It took me a bit of time to get into the tale as the storytelling somewhat drifts much like DeWitt’s approach to the case, at times focusing on the detective and parts of her backstory, at times exploring Silette’s philosophy, and otherwise spooling out the case and the city of New Orleans post-Katrina. At about halfway through I settled into the cadence and style and started to warm to DeWitt. The denouement was not a surprise, but this was a story about the journey not the destination. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been working a bit on how digital technologies change the pace, tempo and organization of everyday life, and read the book 'Rest' by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang during the week. If you feel you need to slow your life down and get some balance without compromising on productivity, it might be worth checking out.

My posts this week
Review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
Review of African Sky by Tony Park
November reads
But what about our flight?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

But what about our flight?

The plane was almost empty and they were trapped in a row of three.

Janice waved at an air hostess.

‘Are you okay, Miss?’

‘We think he’s dead.’ Mary pointed at the man next to her.

‘Dead? Sir?’ The hostess shook the man’s shoulder. ‘Sir?’

The man’s head lolled to one side.


‘We need to get off,’ Janice said. ‘We have a connecting flight.’

‘But …’

‘We have a wedding. My brother’s.’

A tall man arrived.

‘He seems to be dead.’


‘Please, we need to get out.’

‘Sir? I’ll call for a medic.’

‘But what about our flight?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2007, Faber and Faber)

After Stalin dies Nikita Khrushchev comes to power. He makes a rash challenge that by 1980 the Soviet Union will have overtaken the United States as the world’s economic power house: a socialist, planned economy he predicts will grow faster and lift all boats, unlike the vagaries and divisions of capitalism. What would make this happen was a shunning of profit as the organising logic and an embracing of cybernetics. For a brief time it appeared as if the Soviets could catch up to the US with year-after-year exceptional growth and scientific and technological breakthroughs with respect to space and the military. But then the wheels started to come off and growth slowed.

Francis Spufford tells this story through a blend of history and fiction. It’s an interesting approach that works remarkably well. It’s aided by some superb prose and inventive, captivating storytelling. Moreover, Spufford does an excellent job of explaining complex science and economics through a fiction narrative (there’s definitely a lot that non-fiction writers could learn from this). The tale is told through a series of short stories, each focusing on a particular situation and character – a scientist/economist, a politician, a party-affiliated worker, a fixer, etc. – and their role in society and economy. The stories are spread over a decade from the late 1950s to late 1960s and they illustrate why the Soviet planned economy and the cybernetic approach failed to deliver on its promise (basically people and politics corrupt any system, and close modelling and planning of literally millions of moving components and variables is analytically impossible). The first two thirds is exceptionally good. The latter third the tale runs out of steam a little and the wrap-up is a little thin, meaning the tale as a whole kind of peters out. Nonetheless, Red Plenty is a fascinating read told through some scintillating storytelling.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review of African Sky by Tony Park (Pan, 2006)

Rhodesia, 1943. Felicity Langham, a high-profile WAAF working at Kumalo air base, is found raped and murdered. Pip Lovejoy, a farmer married to an army officer fighting in Italy and working as a policewoman, is involved in the investigation. Her boss quickly arrests a local man who is active in the black market. Pip is not convinced the man is the murderer and tries to keep the case active. After flying close to sixty missions over occupied Europe and Germany, Paul Bryant is now second in command at the airbase. He knew Langham intimately, but he’s also got problems, including a missing plane and a murdered pilot, and a second plane damaged on landing at the farm of Catherine De Beers, who coincidentally was a very close friend of Langham. Lovejoy and Bryant team up to solve their respective cases, but the evidence points to Bryant having more than a passing interest in the Langham case. Meanwhile, a darker force is at work.

African Sky is part romance, part murder mystery, and part spy adventure tale set in Rhodesia in 1943. The story revolves around two murders related to Kumalo air base, a site where thousands of airmen are trained in skies free of enemy aircraft before shipped to Europe for active service. The first murder is of a young daredevil WAAF, the second a pilot killed after landing his plane in the bush. Pip Lovejoy a local white farmer turned policewoman is investigating the first, Paul Bryant an Australian veteran of bombing runs over Germany the latter. They team-up to investigate their cases. While the romance and murder mystery element work okay, the spy adventure part of the tale is much weaker. In part, it is because the storyline is at the limit of plausibility, and in part, because this aspect of the story has lengthy back story tangents that detract from the main storyline. The result is a denouement that has plenty of action, but is overly melodramatic and far-fetched. Overall, some interesting history, a nice romantic hook-up, but a story that didn’t quite fit neatly enough together.

Monday, December 3, 2018

November reads

I might get one five star read a month if I'm lucky, then three of them come together in quick succession. Two of this month's five star reads relate to corrupt cops, the other is about people struggling to get by in inner city Dublin. Difficult to pick a book of the month, but I'm going with The Force by Don Winslow given the sheer ambition and complexity of the tale.

The Force by Don Winslow *****
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari ***.5
Ghost Month by Ed Lin **
Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian ***.5
The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp ***
Early One Morning by Robert Ryan ****
Sirens by Joseph Knox *****
A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan ****
Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile *****

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I wandered into town yesterday to pick up an order of books, and wandered back with twice as many as planned. I think these look like a good mix and should keep me going a month or two into the new year. I've already made a start on Sara Gran's City of the Dead.

My posts this week:
Review of The Force by Don Winslow
Review of Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari

Heart of Stone

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Heart of stone

‘He has a heart of stone, Jane. I’m glad I left.’

‘Well, it’s like crazy paving now.’


‘I’m telling you, Maeve, he’s missing you.’

‘The only thing he’s missing are his hot dinners and clean clothes.’

‘That’s a bit harsh.’

‘If you’re so worried about him, then you’re welcome to him.’

‘I’m just saying, is all. He still cares for you.’

‘Then he should have shown it when we were together. I’m happier by myself.’


‘Of course. It’s not easy, money-wise, but there’s freedom.’

‘And what about, John?’

‘He sent you; couldn’t even do it himself. Feck, John.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review of The Force by Don Winslow (2017, HarperCollins)

Sergeant Denny Malone runs a special task force in North Manhattan, tangling with various drugs gangs and trying to keep the peace. He believes in facing fire with fire, brazenly policing through fear and violence and doing deals with gang leaders and Mafioso, and he’s prepared to reward himself and his crew by helping himself to criminal assets. Things start to go wrong when he tangles with and kills a drug lord, one his team also dies in the raid, and the crew help themselves to several million dollars and fifty kilos of premium heroin. Now routinely well over the blue line, Malone is cornered by the Feds. They want the names of corrupt lawyers and police. He is not prepared to give up fellow officers, but once you’ve turned rat, you’re on a slippery slope. Malone is a schemer, however, and he knows the secrets of many supposedly upstanding citizens, that everyone is playing a crooked game, and they also have a price.

The Force is a tour-de-force police procedural, with well-drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a complex, multi-layered, intricate plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. These alone deserve five stars, but what elevates the book is its wider political and social reflections. Most crime fiction is also usually a slice of social realism that provides a commentary on society and its ills. That commentary is often incidental, with the focus of the narrative on the crime, the characters and the plot. In The Force, it’s front and centre. Winslow’s ambitious tale of cops on the take in New York is not simply an engaging, compelling tale, but a searing exploration of law and justice in the US. But having got to the end, I’m still not quite sure what the message is; but perhaps that’s the point.

Denny Malone and his crew police North Manhattan with an iron fist, as vicious and brutal as the gangs they take on daily, and the price they extract for maintaining some kind of law and order is skimming money from drug busts and receiving other gifts and favours. Their form of policing is based on fear and doing deals with the gangs and mafia. To the media they are hero cops who make key busts manage to contain the crime and violence in the city. Winslow also plays them both ways – as criminal and corrupt as those they police and also good cops keeping the neighbourhoods safe and providing for their families. Even as Malone goes off the rails, crossing every line a cop should never cross, Winslow has him oscillating between good and bad cop – asking the reader to empathize and sympathize with a man who has lost his moral compass. On the one hand, Malone and his crew are the inevitable outcome of a failed society and corrupt justice system – from dodgy police, to crooked lawyers and prosecutors, bought judges, and slippery politicians – but on the other, they make their own choices and lie in their own beds. They are caught between structure and agency, to borrow from sociology textbooks.

And this is where Winslow’s message gets mixed: we're asked to believe that Denny Malone remains a good man despite his crimes; that society and justice and legal system is so flawed and corrupt that price of some kind of law and order is a police service who can only do good through being crooked. Yet, the story screams out that society and the system needs urgent repair, or indeed a thorough reworking given its biases and flaws; that neither the crimes or the police actions should be condoned. The story is so rich, multi-layered and thought-provoking, however, that I’m sure other readers have varying takes. And this is the real beauty of the novel: it provides a rich tapestry through which to consider the urban society and the state of law and order in the US. Overall, then, a thoroughly engaging novel that deserves to be read and re-read; a great American-novel for the times we live in.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Review of Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari (2009, Unbridled Books)

Peter Niels is an American journalist who used to cover war-torn parts of the world, but has shifted to general interest pieces and has travelled to Taiwan to research a story on religion. He’s accompanied by Pickett, a photographer. The pair travel to the Taroko Gorge, a national park and one of the island’s better known tourist destinations, and one of its Buddhist temples. Resting along a path, three Japanese school girls wander by. It is the last time they are seen and when they fail to return to their coach and class mates the alarm is raised. By the time the police arrive it is dark and the search will have to wait to the following day. Niels and Pickett, along with the Japanese teacher and four class mates remain at the site, staying in the visitor centre. Already tense due to the disappearance of the girls, they start to bicker and simmer, and the approach of a typhoon adds to the strain.

Taroko Gorge focuses on the unfolding drama of three Japanese school girls going missing in a Taiwanese national park. The last two people to see them are a disillusioned American journalist and his drunken photographer. Their class mates did not see them slip away or have no idea as to where they were headed. As night falls, a local police inspector who is wary of the involvement of Americans and Japanese visitors arrives. Unable to search in the dark, the Americans, the teacher and four school children remain on site, staying in the visitor centre.  Ritari explores the disappearance and the subsequent wait and search through four of the characters – Peter Niels, the journalist; Tohru Maruyama, the class rep; and Michiko Kamakiri, a jealous classmate of the missing girls; and Hsien Chao, the detective – using four first person voices. The resulting perspectives enable the reader to piece together what happened and why, which no-one character has a full-handle on. Ritari does a nice job of elaborating the characters and the relationships between them, with the emotional games of the school children replicated amongst the adults, who can’t help but think the worst of each other. The mystery of the disappearance is also nicely revealed. The overall effect is a story that is more like a play, exploring human nature with the characters limited to the stage of the gorge and visitor centre.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Back from a week in Taiwan, where I gave a couple of talks - one at the Contemporary Culture Lab in Taipei and one at Tunghai University in Taichung. An interesting place to visit and a bit of a contrast to Ireland in terms of climate, geography and culture. The island is about 40 percent the size of the island of Ireland, but it has four times the population, most of which is along the west coast as much of the land is very mountainous (some of which also four times the height of any in Ireland). I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and have already agreed to visit again next year some time. I'll need to find some more Taiwanese fiction to read by then.

My posts this week
Review of Ghost Month by Ed Lin
Review of Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian
At last