Monday, April 30, 2018

Review of A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (2017, Down and Out Books)

1952, the American Mid-West. After a bar brawl, former Chicago cop Elliot Caprice wakes in the holding cells under the St Louis courthouse. Caprice is embittered and disillusioned, a Second World War veteran who is now on the run after killing two cops while working undercover for the Feds in the Chicago police to root out corruption; a mixed raced, educated man living in a world of overt and casual racism. Using his one phone call he asks old friends from Southville, Illinois, to come to his aid. Returning to his old town he finds the family farm in foreclosure, his adopted father living in a local flophouse, and the local mobster he used to run with fending off a new gang. Determined to save the farm, Caprice finds work as a runner for a local attorney, tracking down people and serving notices. One of the attorney’s clients is a rich Chicago family who are fighting over the estate after the untimely death of the patriarch. After meeting the beautiful gold digger at the centre of the fight, Caprice decides to enter into a private venture and return to Chicago and resolve the mess, knowing that it’ll drag him back into the underbelly of the city and potentially his own downfall.

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay. At the core of the story is the conflicted life of Elliot Caprice, the light-skinned child of a black man and white woman, brought up traversing the black and white Jewish communities of Southville, Illinois; college educated, a military veteran, a former cop, and on the run after killing two cops when his cover as a Fed informer was blown. The tale follows Caprice’s attempt to save himself, his uncle and their farm after it is foreclosed by the bank by becoming involved in trying to resolve a battle over a rich Chicago family’s estate, which has been built on crime and corruption. At the same time, the story provides social commentary on racism and anti-Semitism pervading life in 1950s America. Caprice’s personal issues and the case are somewhat convoluted and both are a strength and weakness of the story. The strength is an engaging, flawed character fighting personal demons whilst dealing with a handful of simultaneous battles which ensure there’s a non-stop flow of action. The weakness is it is sometimes tricky to following what is happening, often amplified by Gardner’s pared back scenes that sacrifice detail for pace, which led to me re-reading passages to pick up nuances that seemed to skip by. The result was a story that seemed to hurtle along through a maze, when a little less pace and some embellishment at times would have given the reader a better sense of the journey. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to like, especially Caprice and the historical window into 1950s race relations in the US, and the tale is hopefully the start of a series.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a bit of a hectic week of travel, with a couple of days in Liverpool and London, giving talks and meeting folks. Between reading drafts of academic chapters, I did manage to work my way through Walter Mosley's The White Butterfly and Vaseem Khan's The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Reviews soon. I also managed to pick up a copy of Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts in Gatwick Airport, which has gone to near the top of the to-be-read pile.

My posts this week
Review of Dark Town by Thomas Mullen
Review of The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt
House call

Saturday, April 28, 2018

House call

‘I know he’s here, Mrs Brown.’

J.T. shifted his weight and tried to slow his wheezing.

‘And I’m telling you, he’s not.’

‘I appreciate you want to protect him, but I need ...’

‘He ain’t here!’

‘Mrs Brown, you’re a fine woman, a fine woman, but either he comes to the door or I come in.’

A pistol crept round the door frame.

J.T. swatted it aside, grabbed the wrist and pulled. Kept pulling until the young man flew down the stairs.


‘See what comes of lying, Mrs Brown. All I wanted was to talk. Now I’m breaking bones.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of Dark Town by Thomas Mullen (Abacus, 2016)

Atlanta, 1948. The city has just appointed its first eight black policemen to patrol ‘Dark Town’, a black district, though they have no powers of arrest, having to call white officers to perform those duties. Racism in the city is endemic, no institution more so than the police department, with many white cops seeking to push the new men out or under. Lucius Boggs, a preacher’s son, and Tommy Smith, a former soldier, are finding the new role of policing a strain, viewed with suspicion by some of the black community and despised and badly treated by white officers. One evening they try to detain a former cop who has a beaten young black woman in his car. Veteran Officer Dunlow and rookie, Rakeshaw, let him go without charge. The following day the woman is discovered dead, lying in a pile of rubbish. Boggs and Smith are forbidden from undertaking an investigation, but the white cops seemingly have no interest in the case so they start to dig around. Rakeshaw is also uneasy, his partner is meant to be training him, but so far he’s mostly seen corruption and aggressive racism. When the woman’s father turns up at the police station to identify the body and is accused of murdering his daughter it prompts Rakeshaw into action. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw all want justice and reform, but their quest is threatening some powerful people and is in danger of ending before it has really started.

Dark Town is the first book in a historical police procedural set in Atlanta, 1948. The city’s policing is in transition, with corruption within the police force starting to be reined in and the first eight black officers being appointed. Veteran white cops are unhappy at both developments. They want the status quo maintained, the black community to be kept firmly in their place, and the black cops gone. The tension and politics of embedded, overt institutional racism and potential change pervade Mullen’s tale. On the one side are white cops, many of whom are kluxers, who rule the city through violence and corruption, who are supported by white institutions and Jim Crow laws. On the other are the eight new cops, the black community and their leaders, and a handful of white officers who might not be happy with the changes but are uncomfortable with excessive and unwarranted discrimination. At the heart of the story are two partnerships and the death of a young black woman. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two new black cops; Lionel Dunlow is a veteran white cop and Denny Rakeshaw is his rookie partner. Neither partnership is harmonious, but while Boggs and Smith trust and work for each other, Dunlow and Rakeshaw are at odds. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw are all secretly investigating the death, unhappy that it is being ignored by the homicide division. Dunlow is determined to bury the case and preferably Boggs and Smith as well. The three junior officers are playing a dangerous game, one that has larger ramifications than they anticipated. Mullen’s story delivers on multiple levels – strong historicisation, sense of place and contextualisation, nicely drawn characterisation, and a compelling and engaging story. It is not always an easy read, with the explicit racism and violence, but it gives a good sense of social and political relations at the time. The story seemed to run out of steam a little towards the end, and there are a couple of threads that seemed to get lost, but nonetheless this is a story of substance that extends beyond the investigation of a murder to reflect more broadly on society, power and its abuses. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Review of The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt (Broadway Books, 2010)

1945 and the United States and its allies are closing in on Japan. Bypassing Formosa, they decide to invade Okinawa, an island close enough to the main islands to provide a strong air and naval base. Okinawa is heavily defended and well organized and the Japanese military are prepared to use kamikaze flights and ship runs to try and halt the advance. Their plan is to inflict as much damage as possible to make the Americans realise the cost in life of invading the main Japanese islands and hopefully reach some kind of peace on acceptable terms. It’s a strategy that pays some dividends, with 34 US ships sunk, 368 damaged, 763 aircraft lost, 4907 Navy men killed and 4,824 wounded, and 12,520 soldiers killed and 36,311 wounded, and it directly influences the decision to drop the atomic bombs. On the Japanese side, 16 ships and 4000 planes were lost, and 110,000 personnel were killed plus 100,000 civilians. The Twilight Warriors tells the tale from both American and Japanese perspectives and covers engagements on land, air and sea, and the strategies adopted by military leaders, though it provides the personnel experiences by concentrating on the exploits of USS Intrepid’s fighter pilots.

Gandt does a good job of providing an overarching picture of the scope and extent of various battles. However, the battle on the island is covered in somewhat sketchy terms, with the narrative focusing more on the naval and aerial side of the battle, and in particular the kamikaze raids and the sinking of the Yamato and her escorts. Given the wide brief and approach, as might be expected, the narrative chops and changes perspectives quite a bit, flitting between various actions and decisions, and the exploits of a small group of naval aviators. The latter grounds the battle in the everyday experiences of men facing danger head-on, with a number of them killed in action, or ditching into the sea. Snippets are also given of the views and experiences of other US personnel, especially on ships under kamikaze attack and those taking part in such suicide missions. At first, this style is quite jarring, but as the book progresses it finds a rhythm and works quite well to give a sense of scale of operations, yet still be grounded in individual lives. Overall, an interesting, engaging and a little uneven read.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I was very honoured to receive the inaugural Faculty of Social Sciences Research Achievement Award and also the overall Maynooth University Research Achievement Award. Conor Murphy won the early career Social Sciences research prize, so it was a good day for geographers. The other early career winners were Dr Karen English (Fac. Sci & Eng) and Dr Deborah Hayden (Fac. Arts, Celtic Studies & Phil), and the senior winners were Prof. Paul Moynagh (Fac. Sci & Eng) and Prof. David Stifter (Fac. Arts, Celtic Studies & Phil), so many congrats to them. The prizes have been introduced as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations of the split from St Patrick's College to form MU. Just about all of my research is collaborative, so many thanks to everyone I've worked with in making this possible. And big thanks to OH.

My posts this week
Review of Slumberland by Paul Beatty
Review of The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll
Worth every cent

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Worth every cent

‘It’s simple, Tommy; you can jump or be pushed.’

Tommy glanced down at the canyon floor.

‘I’ll do whatever you want, Mr Baylis. I’ll pay everything back, plus interest.’

‘What I want is to watch you plummeting to your death.’

‘I understand that, Mr Bayliss, but that doesn’t get you your money back. I can only do that alive.’

‘You’re expecting me to trust you? After you’ve already broken my trust?’

‘Please. I’ll …’



‘Jack, push him off.’

Jack shuffled onto the plank, which creaked ominously then snapped.

Bayliss watched the two men tumble.

‘Beautiful. Worth every cent!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review of Slumberland by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2008)

Ferguson Sowell is a LA DJ in search of a perfect beat. He thinks he’s found it, stitched together from an eclectic set of sound samples and music, but it’ll only be perfect if the Schwa – an elusive jazz genius accompanies it. The Schwa, however, has disappeared leaving only a handful of recordings. Sowell mysteriously receives a couple of clues which leads him to believe his potential muse might be in West Berlin and manages to wrangle a job as a ‘jukebox sommelier’, charged with creating a perfect set of tunes for a Berlin bar, Slumberland. The bar is a place where German women pick up black men and Sowell joins their ranks, sleeping with a succession of women between working in the bar and DJ-ing around the city. Being black in white city, one with a potent Nazi past but also a vibrant cosmopolitanism at the time when the Berlin Wall falls is unsettling and invigorating. There’s little sign of the Schwa, however.

In Slumberland Paul Beatty tells the story of a musically inventive DJ who is obsessed with sounds, beats, riffs, and music, who travels to Berlin to search for an elusive, virtuoso jazzman. The telling somewhat mimics the sensibilities of the lead character, with Beatty creating verbal riffs, spurts of free-form, scatting prose, and a densely multi-layered narrative. Set in pre- and post-fall of the Berlin Wall the tale is a rumination on music, race, sex and culture, as experienced and considered by the lead character, perhaps one of the most reflexive people on the planet, spending half the time riffing on his own inner-voice. At times shocking and bombastic, often clever and knowing with some interesting observations, the story also has a dark humour running throughout. Some of the passages were a joy to read. At the same time, while enjoyable, ultimately the story doesn’t really seem to go anywhere – there’s no epiphany or sense of closure beyond Sowell fulfilling his ambition. If you like your fiction like a DJ mix of freeform jazz, then you’ll probably enjoy this literary equivalent.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll (W.W. Norton, 2015)

The second installment in a trilogy that charts the Second World War in the Pacific, this book focuses on the period mid-1942 from the Guadalcanal campaign through to mid-1944 and the battle for Guam, and US strategy of island-hopping and bypassing, and the strategic blunders of the Japanese and their overstretched resources. Toll’s aim is to provide a grand narrative, detailing the key decisions and battles, some of the key personalities and inter-service rivalries, and the wider politics of the war from a US and Japanese perspective. The challenge is to balance the broad sweep of history with enough detail to give a sense of the various actions and interactions. For the most part he succeeds, providing an overarching picture of the theatre, strategies politics, and rivalries, while also describing the views and experiences of key personnel and ordinary servicemen. He also manages to balance the perspectives of the US and Japanese. While it’s an interesting and engaging read, it suffers a little from an unevenness in coverage, with some campaigns or specific experiences getting fuller treatment than others, for example the extended description of three cruises of one submarine and concentrating on the Mariana Islands approach rather than the hopping up the Solomon Islands to towards the Bismarck islands and engagements in Papua New Guinea. The ending also seemed somewhat directionless, giving a general view of Japanese society at that point of the war, but giving little sense of the Allies plans for the final phases. Overall, a decent though uneven, overarching narrative of the mid-phase of the Pacific War.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Since the start of the year I've been taking a literary world tour, reading fiction set in Canada, China, England, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Laos, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United States, and Wales. It's been good to mix up the settings more consistently. For the next set of reads I'm going to take a different path, focusing on a handful of historical crime tales that take race as a core theme, starting with Paul Beatty's Slumberland (set in late 1980s Berlin), then Thomas Mullen's Dark Town (set in Atlanta in 1948), Pete Dexter's Paris Trout (set in 1949 in Georgia), Danny Gardner's A Negro and an Ofay (set in 1950s Chicago), and Walter Mosley's White Butterfly (set in Los Angeles in 1956). That set is all US male writers, but they're all already on my to-be-read pile and I'll see if I can track down some others to mix it up a little.

My posts this week
A life, not a life sentence
Review of Capture by Roger Smith

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A life, not a life sentence

The suitcase hit the bottom step, then landed with a thud.

'Are you okay?'

'Just about,' Cath said, regaining her balance.

Paul glided into the hallway, his electric wheelchair jerking to a halt.

'Where're you going?'

'My mother's.'

'You're leaving me?'

'I just can't do this anymore. I'm twenty-seven. I want night’s out. Kids. A life, not a life sentence.'

'Is that all I am now - a burden? What about until death do us part?'

'If I stayed that's probably what would happen.'

'You'd kill yourself?'

'I'd kill you.'

‘Perhaps I should’ve died in the accident.’

‘I’m sorry, Paul.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Review of Capture by Roger Smith (Serpent’s Tail, 2012)

Nick Exley is a software developer who specializes in motion capture. He’s something of a nomad, globetrotting as he looks to sell his product. He’s ended up in Cape Town, where he’s rented a plush, isolated beach house just yards from the ocean. On the day of his daughter’s fourth birthday, Nick is getting stoned on the deck while his wife is flirting with her lover in the kitchen, as Sunny heads to the sea to play with her new boat. From rocks nearby Vernon Saul watches the girl topple into the sea. Instead of heading to rescue her he waits, then rushes in to attempt CPR, console the family, and help deal with the police and funeral arrangements. Vernon used to be an opportunist cop until a gang shot him when he got too greedy and he was bounced out as unfit to serve, both on physical and moral grounds. Now he’s a security guard, but he’s still always looking for an angle for self-enrichment. His plan is to inveigle his way into Exley’s life and see where that takes him, knowing that he has security camera footage showing the developer smoking dope as his daughter drowns. One of Vernon’s other projects is Dawn Cupido, a former hooker and meth-head who now works as an erotic dancer and tries to protect her young daughter from the terrible upbringing she had in The Flats. That she has her daughter at all is down to Vernon, who got her back from social services. Vernon has not quite worked out how to leverage Dawn, but she owes him. And so does Nick Exley. As Exley tries to cope with the death of his daughter, Vernon manipulates the situation, which gradually turns into a nightmare of murder and lies.

Capture is thriller crime tale set in Cape Town. The tale revolves around three main protagonists: Nick Exley, a rich, white software developer visiting the country with his wife and young daughter; Vernon Saul, a coloured former cop, who is always looking for an angle to leverage power and opportunities; and Dawn Cupido, an erotic dancer and former meth-head and hooker who owes Vernon for retrieving her daughter from social services. Each character is flawed, but while Exley has lived a so-far charmed life, Vernon and Dawn have been living nightmares from a young age. Smith’s hook is for Exley to join them, his daughter drowning in the sea and his troubled relationship with his wife disintegrating. Vernon, a psychopathic chancer whose go-to solution for every problem is to kill whoever is in the way, inveigles his way into Exley’s life, which rapidly descents into hell – a blur of drink, drugs, lies, coercion and murder. And in Vernon’s wake is Dawn. Smith sets a dark, nasty tone in the first few pages and rarely lets any light into the tale, keeping the pace and tension high throughout. And he brings into sharp contrast the rich enclaves and the grinding poverty and violence of The Flats, and the inability of overstretched services to keep a lid on all the crime. While some of it seems far-fetched – it’s really not clear why the police don’t bring Exley or Vernon in for questioning or take a more active interest in their shenanigans, and there is a plot reliance on Exley’s work – it doesn’t really matter too much. This is like an action-thriller film, with a cartwheeling plot, rather than the considered realism of a police procedural drama. It’s bold, lurid and dark, with vivid characters, and not at all subtle. My main issue was that the denouement was signalled from quite a long way out, and after the noir running throughout felt a little bit of a cop-out. As I’ve said before, the South African tourism board is probably praying for Roger Smith to find his inner Enid Blyton; hardboiled crime readers will happy to take his work as it is.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Turns out my review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham was my 900th on the blog. I guess that's worth noting. May the good reading continue.

My posts this week:
March reads
Review of The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager
Hold her steady

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Hold her steady

‘This is crazy!’

Two flak shells burst nearby.

‘Nearly there. Hold her steady.’

‘Drop the fucking fish!’

The air was full of small explosions; the guns of the ships ahead spitting fire. Up above was a melee of fighters and dive bombers.

‘Drop a little.’

‘We’re already catching waves!’

A wing sheared off a plane to their right and it smacked into the sea.

'Keep her steady.’

The plane lifted as the torpedo dropped.

Hoskins let the plane float up, roaring over the cruiser.

Moments later a blast ripped through the ship.

‘Poor bastards.’

‘Save your tears for our lot.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager (Three Rivers Press, 2006)

The demon the title refers to are bacteria, which when present in wounds can often lead to death when not treated by antibiotics. Prior to the 1930s there were no effective cures for many forms of bacterial infection, such as strep, staph, meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhoea, gangrene and tuberculosis, other than to hope the body’s own defences managed to fight back and overcome the invaders. That meant high rates of death from infected wounds for soldiers and for women giving childbirth, but also that what seemed like fairly innocuous cuts could lead to death within a few days. After serving as a medic in the First World War and seeing thousands of men have limps amputated to try and stop the spread of infection or die from their wounds, Gerhard Domagk wanted to change that. After training as a doctor he moved in to pathology research, first in a university team, then in the industrial giant, Bayer. If Bayer could produce a chemical solution to bacterial infections, it could reap a vast fortune. Domagk headed up the research lab to identify an effective drug, working with chemists to create and test on mice hundreds of new synthetic compounds. They hit on a line of research that linked sulphur to azo dyes, discovering that a few of their new concoctions worked, enabling mice infected with strep to fight back and remain well. So was born a whole family of sulfa drugs, the first antibiotics, which massively improved survival rates from bacterial infections.

Hager tells the story of the invention of sulfa, predominately by focusing on the life and work of Gerhard Domagk, though there are plenty of sidebars where other parts of the tale are filled in. The result is a book that is not told in a linear fashion. Indeed, the book pings around the calendar like a pinball machine in the first half in particular. It starts, quite oddly, at December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbour (presumably to orientate the book for an American audience), then swaps to 1914-18, then the 1920s interspersed with 1084, the seventeenth century, the 1870s, the eighteenth century, nineteenth century, and also travelling from Germany to France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, the US. From around page 70 it starts to settle down into a more linear narrative, progressing from the late 1920s through to late 1930s, mostly located in Germany, with a few forays to England, France and the US. The story also starts to diversify from Domagk and medical tales to the wider political economy of the pharmaceutical industry and science, as not only did sulfa products lead to a revolution in treatment, but also how the drugs were developed, tested and approved, after one particular drug had catastrophic effects. Prior to sulfa, pretty much anyone could create and market a health product without highly regulated testing or naming ingredients or side effects. Indeed, Hager goes as far as to argue that the nature of health care was fundamentally changed, with physicians moving from being caregivers to technicians, and the predominant site of care moving from home to hospital. Having been forced to reject his Nobel prize by the Nazis in 1938, Domagk finally received it in 1947. Despite the fractured narrative, created by trying to centre the story on Domagk when it is really a multi-threaded tale, Hager tells a fascinating history in an engaging voice.

Monday, April 2, 2018

March reads

A nice month of reading. There were two standout tales - The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham and The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle. It's a tight decision, but The Strange Death shades it as my read of the month.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham *****
Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith ****
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart ****.5
The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle *****
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan ***
The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill ***
Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer ***
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson ***

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

After last week mourning the death of Philip Kerr, this week it's Peter Temple - who actually died before Kerr, on the 8th March. I've read all nine of Temple's novels, first discovering him through his Jack Irish series. The books were often published in this part of the world years after release in Australia, an issue that still drives me nuts. The only two reviews I have on the blog are White Dog and Truth as I'd read all the other before I started posting reviews. In his honour I've been watching Bad Debts, one of the two feature-length television adaptations featuring Guy Pearce as Jack Irish.

My posts this week

Review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham
Review of Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith
Lessons for smart cities from the Programmable City project
Dead and gone