Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October reads

A varied month of reading, with one stand out book: She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper.

The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott ***
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey ****
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier ****.5
Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto ***
The Innocent by Ian McEwan ****
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey ***.5
Code Girls by Liza Mundy ****.5
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper *****
The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness ***
Basin and Range by John McPhee ****
The One Man by Andrew Gross ****.5

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of The Age of Treachery by Gavin Scott (Titan Books, 2016)

Winter, 1946. Duncan Forrester has resumed his career as a historian at an Oxford College after spending the war working for SOE in occupied Europe. The wife of his best friend is having an affair with a fellow don. When the don is found dead, supposedly stabbed and thrown from the rooms of the cuckolded husband, he is accused of murder. Forrester is convinced his friend is innocent and is determined to proof it. On the night of the murder, his college was hosting a dinner with a number of guests, including a German professor of literature and a Norwegian scholar of sagas. Forrester is convinced that there might be some connection, and this suspicion is heightened when he is attacked himself. The police, however, are uninterested, convinced they have the right man, leaving Forrester to draw on his war-time skills and contacts, travelling to London, Berlin, Denmark and Norway and tangle with dark forces in order to reveal the real killer.

The Age of Treachery is the first book in the Duncan Forrester series that follows the exploits of ex-SOE agent turned historian. In this initial outing, Forrester has returned to academic life as a junior fellow at an Oxford College. When his best friend is accused of murdering a fellow don who was having an affair with his wife, Forrester sets out to find the real killer, slowly uncovering a war-time conspiracy that some are willing to kill for to keep secret. The story is written as a kind of ‘Boys’ Own’ tale of adventure, with Forrester drawing on his historian skills to uncover evidence and his SOE-skills to stay alive as dark forces try to stop his quest. Dropped into the tale are before-they-were-famous cameos by real-life people such as Robert Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher, and Kenneth Tynan. If one treats the story as a Boys’ Own take it’s reasonably engaging and entertaining, despite being somewhat thin and unbelievable throughout. That said, it would have worked more effectively if the identity of the killer wasn’t telegraphed from a very long way out and the solution to the ‘locked room’ element of the murder – that none of a room’s occupants can easily get to the site of the killing – wasn’t ridiculous.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally got another book in the post this week - The Right to the Smart City - co-edited with Paolo Cardullo and Cesare di Feliciantonio. I also published the intro and conclusion chapters as working papers (links below). I think it's an interesting set of essays and hopefully it'll pass smoothly through the production process. In reading terms, I've slowly been working my way through Rain Falls on Everyone, a socially realist portrayal of the struggles of a young Rwandan man in Dublin.

My posts this week
Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey
New paper: Towards a genuinely humanizing smart urbanism

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
New paper: Citizenship, Justice and the Right to the Smart City
Why won’t they leave me alone?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why won’t they leave me alone?

‘Why won’t they leave me alone?’

‘You know why; that video’s gone viral.’

‘But I never asked for it! I don’t even know who took it.’

‘You were being sexually harassed, Sarah. That creep’s life is hell now.’

‘And so is mine. Have you seen the abuse I’m getting on twitter? I was called a whore by a complete stranger yesterday.’

‘Another creep.’

‘A middle-aged woman. Why can’t people mind their own business?’

‘He was attacking you.’

‘And now it’s a global headline. And they’re judging me as much as him!’

‘It’ll soon be yesterday’s news.’

‘But not for me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey (1979, Simon and Schuster)

Christopher John Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee grew up in wealthy, upper middle-class homes in Southern California in the 1950s and 60s. Friends from an early age, they’d been altar boys together and shared an interest in falconry. Both started to dabble in drugs in high school and both were listless, unsure of what they would do after school, trying and dropping out of college. While Lee gravitated from selling drugs in school to forming his own drugs network, making runs to Mexico and regularly in trouble with the law, Boyce got work in a defence contractor through a contact of his father where, aged twenty one, he quickly graduated to handling highly classified spy satellite plans and international CIA communications. Disillusioned with America’s foreign policy and domestic politics in the early 1970s, Boyce decided to express his discontent by passing on secrets to the Soviets. Lee’s role was to act as a courier, taking copies of documents to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City where he was to sell the information. For Lee, the new line in finance offered the opportunity to expand his drugs enterprise. The two passed highly secret information for a couple of years before being caught, kind of by accident. Tried separately, they were both given long sentences for treason.

Lindsey’s book tells the story of Boyce and Lee’s lives and enterprise from childhood up to the end of the court case, exploring why two boys of privilege, whose fathers’ had served in the military or intelligence services, betrayed their country. Published not long after the court case, it is packed full of detailed information, cobbled together from various sources, including the trial, and extensive interviews with the protagonists. Since both Boyce and Lee were serial liars, and both tried to blame and frame the other for their enterprise, there’s always a sense that the account is Lindsey’s best attempt at untangling a muddled and contradictory set of stories. Nonetheless, it’s a comprehensive and engaging read about two young, opportunistic men who took advantage of circumstance, for different motivations, to commit treason. After finishing the book I decided to see what happened to the two men to find that Lindsey went on to write a second book about Boyce, who managed to escape from prison in 1980 and went on to commit 17 armed robberies before being recaptured; something I would have expected from Lee but not Boyce given their respective portrayals in The Falcon and the Snowman.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Atlantic, 2018)

When she was sixteen years old, Georgina Shaw – known as Geo – dated Calvin James, five years her senior. After a drunken party, Geo’s best friend and leader of the school cheerleading team, Angela Wong, disappeared. Fourteen years later, Angela’s remains are found in woods near to Geo’s old home and she and Calvin are arrested. He for Angela’s murder and the deaths of three other women, Geo for aiding and abetting in the death of her friend. The arresting officer is Kaiser Brody, a close school friend who she subsequently shut out of her life. An executive in a pharmaceutical company and on the verge of marriage, Geo’s live is upended and she’s given a five year prison sentence. Not long after being sent to prison, Calvin escapes and disappears. As Geo nears release, a fresh set of new bodies start to be found. While Kaiser hunts for Calvin, Geo is prepared to take her chances and confront her past.

Jar of Hearts takes place near to Seattle and is a spin on the serial killer genre. The tale centres on Geo (Georgina) Shaw, who at the start of the tale is convicted of aiding and abetting in the death of her best friend, Angela Wong, by her then boyfriend, Calvin James, fourteen years previously. Calvin subsequently went on to murder three other women. Geo, an executive at a major pharmaceuticals company, is sent to prison for five years. The story then tracks both back to Geo’s school days and the time prior to and after Angela’s death, and forward through her time in prison to her release when her past and Calvin seem set to catch-up with her. As such, the focus is very much on Geo, a woman living with the consequences of fateful decisions taken when she was sixteen, when she met and fell in love with a serial killer. Hillier does a very nice job of developing Geo’s character and uncovering the layers and secrets of the events fourteen years previously and their after-effects and subsequent years. Indeed, the tale is well structured, with both the historical and contemporary threads leading towards climatic denouements with twists. The book ended a bit too quickly I felt and I’d have liked to get a bit more post-denouement conclusion, but nonetheless an engaging and compelling read.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The last week has been a West Coast US mix of fiction and non-fiction - Jar of Hearts set near Seattle and The Falcon and the Snowman set in the Los Angeles area and Mexico. In both cases, the thought of how did they get away with it for so long comes up; yet, it makes sense in each case. Luck and bravado can go a long way, thought they're often followed by a big fall. Reviews shortly.

My posts this week
Review of Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto
Review of The Innocent by Ian McEwan
Review of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
I told him it was over

Saturday, October 20, 2018

I told him it was over

Paul’s dream had taken a strange twist. An angry tiger had appeared. It leapt at his neck.

He woke with a start.

His neck really was caught in a vice.

He clawed at the strong hands, his legs scrabbling on the bed.

A knee thumped down on his chest.

Suddenly the pressure was gone.

Claire was standing naked at the end of the bed, clutching a golf club.

It whooshed through the air, passing by his side and made a dull thump.

‘What the …’

‘I told him it was over,’ she said defiantly.

Paul glanced down. ‘It is now.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Review of Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Serpents Tail, 2008; original 1996)

A police inspector is sent to a former Portuguese fort in Mozambique, turned refuge for older people, to investigate the death of its director. When he arrives the inspector’s body is occupied by the ghost of a worker who is buried under the Frangipani tree in the compound. The inspector interviews each of the residents, their nurse, and the wife of the director. Each one confesses to murdering the director and each professes to awaiting death. He only has a week to solve the crime before a helicopter arrives to fly him back to the city, but he cannot locate the body of the director and is struggling to determine who killed him.

Under the Frangipani is a curious book. Set in an old Portuguese fort in post-independence Mozambique the tale is part murder investigation, part allegory that is rooted in magical realism. The fort is the locus of the long troubled history of Mozambique, a site that held slaves, was used in the war for independence, and is a microcosm of post-independence society. Its inhabitants reflect the melting pot of different identities - blacks, mulattos and whites – and classes, and the challenge of trying to maintain old traditions and spirit worlds while shedding its colonial past and the violence of war and becoming part of a wider world. In this sense, Couto’s tale is an allegory for Mozambique, where the old ways are dying but the new ways are not fully accepted either and the legacy of the past lives on. While it was a somewhat interesting read, I was never really captivated by the tale. I’m sure there are lots of layers and subtle hidden meanings, but with little knowledge of Mozambique and its history I probably lacked the referents to make sense of them. As such, much of this literary tale probably passed me by.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Picador, 1990)

Leonard Marnham is a telephone engineer posted to Berlin in 1954 to work on a top-secret project to tunnel under the Soviet sector and tap into the Russia’s communication system. The project is being run by the Americans, but in the spirit of cooperation the British have been allowed to play a part. Somewhat naïve, Marnham is a fish out of water in a city carved up after the war, occupied by personnel from four countries, and still in ruins. On a night out with two American colleagues he meets Maria, a divorcee five years his senior. The two begin a passionate affair, but Marnham’s lack of worldliness and his secret work, and Maria’s past and ex-husband, place a strain on their relationship. In a city on the frontline of the Cold War, nothing can be taken for granted, and the two lovers are about to experience an event that will have consequences well beyond themselves.

The Innocent is a psychological thriller set in Berlin in 1954/55 as the Cold War starts to get warmer in the city. For much of the book, there is no thriller element, with the tale an in-depth character study of a naïve British telephone engineer and a German divorcee who works for the British Army, and the anatomy of their relationship. Leonard and Maria meet and fall in love, but their insecurities and circumstances mean their love affair does not run as a smoothly as it might. McEwan is very good at excavating the psychology of their interactions and how ill-judged words and actions have consequences that can sour their friendship. He also does a nice job of portraying the distrust and paranoia of supposed allies as Leonard works of a top-secret intelligence project shared between the Americans and British. It is only towards the end of the tale that Leonard and Maria find themselves in a very difficult predicament and the thriller part kicks in – some of which is not for the faint-hearted – and they are not just in danger, but also the top-secret work Leonard has been conducting, spying on the Russians via a tunnel dug under their sector (based on a true case undertaken by American and British forces). McEwan wraps up the tale nicely, but it is the fraught love affair and loss of innocence that remains after the story closes. An intense tale of love and disaster, with a strong sense of characters, place and time.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Review of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey (Random House, 2009)

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson works for CID in Accra, Ghana. When a young health worker is found dead in the small town of Ketanu far to the north of the capital, Dawson finds himself assigned to investigate at the behest of a government minister, selected by his boss because he speaks the local language. By coincidence, it is where his aunt lives and the last place his mother was seen alive twenty five years earlier, getting into a minibus to return home. Dawson arrives to find a jumpy and headstrong local inspector and a number of suspects who are rooted in old traditions. His style of policing is at odds with local ways of doing things and he is soon crossing swords with those not used to having their authority challenged. To make matter worse, the local inspector has already decided who the murderer is and can see no reason for Dawson to hang around. The visitor, however, is interested in justice, not simply a conviction.

Wife of the Gods is set in Ghana in West Africa and is a pretty much a straight police procedural. The lead character, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is a man who believes in rational science and evidence and he has little time for old traditions, beliefs and customs. When he is sent to a small town to investigate a murder, his world view is bought into direct conflict with old ways, with the locals suspicious of an outsider, especially one who doesn’t share their values. His task is to investigate the death of a health official who has been promoting protection against AIDS. She too was viewed with suspicion. Quartey uses the premise to explore how Ghana is changing and the clash of new and old values. The story is nicely told and Dawson is an interesting character, prone as he is to mistakes and hot-headedness. The plot is engaging and Quartey does a good job of keeping a number of suspects in the frame. The ending is a little telegraphed, but generally works well, although there are a few loose threads at the conclusion that remain unresolved, which was a little frustrating. Overall, an engaging, traditional police procedural that provides an interesting social commentary on Ghanaian society.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I did a quick trip to Germany last week to Bochum to give a talk and contribute to an autumn school. Although I didn't have anything set in the Ruhr on the TBR, I did have a copy of Ian McEwan's The Innocent set in Berlin in 1954/55, a cold war psychological drama/thriller. I'll probably post a review this week.

My posts this week

Review of Code Girls by Liza Mundy
Review of She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
Jumping on a bus

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Jumping on a bus

The man rounded the corner at a quick trot, his tie flapping over his shoulder.

It was obvious that the bus was going to reach the stop well before the man.

Lauren veered from her path to the shelter and stretched out her arm, thinking she’d hold it up for him.

The bus stopped.

A few seconds later the man dashed past.

Embarrassed, Lauren stepped aboard.

This is the story of my life, she thought to herself: jumping on a bus I don’t need and going in the wrong direction for a man who wasn’t interested in the first place.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Review of Code Girls by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017)

Code Girls charts the work of the 10,000 women recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II to crack the Japanese, German and other nation’s encrypted communications. Many were recruited from elite women’s universities and from the ranks of those who had attended college, particularly those with a maths and linguistics background and were employed in teaching, but also more broadly. By the war’s end the vast majority of code-breakers were women and they were responsible for cracking most of the major ciphers.

Mundy tells the tale of these women, both focusing on individual stories and the wider historical context. So, on the one side she details the lives of Dot and Ruth, two women who met in Washington DC working at Arlington Hall breaking codes and became life-long friends, along with a number of other women working for both the Army and Navy. On the other, she details the longer history of women working in code-breaking in United States, the wider context of the women’s work, and the effects their work had on the wider war. This blending makes for a compelling read, providing personal colour mixed with a grounding in the wider history, and it’s clear that there is a substantial amount of oral history and archival research underpinning the narrative. At times, however, it feels a little bit too much of a Dot biography. Moreover, the timeline gets scrambled quite a bit, jumping back- and-forth, making it tricky to keep a track of the order of events. Overall though, this is a fascinating, engaging account of the work and impact of the women who toiled long, frustrating hours to break enemy codes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review of She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper (2017, Simon and Schuster)

Sentenced to twelve years in prison, Nate McClusky is about to be released on a technicality after six when he tangles with and kills a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood. A death sentence is placed on his head, along with his ex-wife and daughter. Within minutes of leaving prison he has stolen a car and raced to his daughter’s school. Eleven years old, Polly can barely remember her father, but agrees to leave with him. Nate is too late though to save his ex-wife and her new partner. As well as avoiding the Aryan Brotherhood, Nate is now also on the run from the police for kidnap and murder. Unsure who to trust, Nate must teach his daughter how to survive in a deadly world as they seek to not only stay alive but take the fight to his enemies. For Polly, who partly communicates through her ventriloquist teddy bear, it’s a high stakes, violent coming-of-age, but neither McClusky is going down without a fight.

She Rides Shotgun is a noir tale of a father and daughter struggling to take on a major criminal gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, and survive. With his ex-wife dead, Nate collects eleven year old Polly and tries to disappear into Los Angeles’ underbelly. Living by their wits and the occasional armed robbery, and exacting bloody revenge, Nate decides that the only way to make the death sentence placed on the two of them go away is to cause so much destruction and lost income that the Brotherhood call quits. Polly transforms from a relatively innocent, bullied school girl into a mini-Bonnie Parker. Polly and her teddy bear are the undoubted stars of the tale. Polly is a mix of innocence and determined cunning who quickly learns to take care of herself and look out for her father. As their exploits grow more audacious and a cop closes in on them, the stakes are raised to another level. Harper provides a very nice balance of character development and action, telling a fresh, modern-day noir that slowly ratchets up the tension to a dramatic denouement. It’s difficult to see how the story could be improved – an excellent, engaging coming-of-age tale with a twist.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Well, it certainly feels like autumn has arrived. Back to wet and blustery days. Spending Sunday hiding inside and reading Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods and updating blog pages.

My posts this week
Review of The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness
Review of Basin and Range by John McPhee
September reviews
Review of The One Man by Andrew Gross
Cross-eyed and tired

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cross-eyed and tired

‘Will you stop hovering, Mike.’

‘What’s that note there?’

‘An idea I’m working on.’


‘I was seeing if … there was a pattern in the additives between ciphers. A double move.’


‘I might have a way in. Or it might be nonsense. Here.’

She handed him a sheet of scribbles.

After a few minutes he placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’re wasted doing this, Helen. You should be running the war.’

‘All I care about is the war ending.’

‘Well, this is going to help with that. You’re a genius.’

‘What I am is cross-eyed and tired.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review of The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness (2018, The Book Guild)

Marian Rejewski is a gifted Polish mathematician and fluent German speaker. He’s recruited from university and tasked with trying to crack the German Enigma machine. Aided by a commercial enigma machine, a set of user manuals, and some intelligence from a German intelligence officer working for the French he sets to work, eventually devising a mechanical machine to help crack the frequently changing cypher. As war breaks out, Marian and the rest of the Polish Cypher Bureau head for the Romanian border hoping they can continue to provide the intelligence that will eventually free Poland and allow him to return to his wife and two children.  

The Cypher Bureau charts the life of Marian Rejewski, the Polish cryptographer who was the first to break the German Enigma codes before the outbreak of the Second World War. Essentially, it is a biography in novel form. And while it tells the fascinating story of Rejewski’s life from his childhood to his death, concentrating on the period from the early 1930s to late 1940s, this its weakness – it is neither an in-depth biography that is situated within the wide social and political context of the time, or the work of Cypher Bureau pre- and during the war, nor a particularly compelling novel. With respect to the latter, the story is told through a series of scenes from across Rejewski’s lifespan. These scenes are short and there is often months or years between them. Key moments are often dealt with in quite a cursory way, for example, the fleeing of Warsaw, entering Romania, the journey into Spain. And some bits jumped over entirely, such as getting from Spain to England, or how Bertrand got from a prison cell to England. The result is a partial set of scenes that form a loose story arc, rather than creating a compelling narrative. Moreover, the dialogue is wooden and staged. What saves this history as story is finding out about Rejewski’s eventful and impactful life, but I can’t help feeling that the tale would have been better told as a straight biography.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review of Basin and Range by John McPhee (1982, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. In 1978 he started a set of journeys across America with geologists that turned into a series of five books published over twenty years. Basin and Range is the first book in the series and mostly concerns the geological landscape from eastern Utah to eastern California. Rather than produce a straight science narrative about the geology of the region, or a conventional history of the science of geology, McPhee instead travels with geologists to explore and write about the landscape. The result is a rather eclectic set of stories and observations about the science of geology, the rocks visible in the landscape and hidden underground, the nature of time and the history of the geologic time scale, the unfolding of the theory of plate tectonics, and the work of geologists. In this sense, it seeks to create a discussion of geology that might appeal to the non-geologist and geologist alike; to create a kind of geo-prose that ruminates on the long history of the development of the Earth’s surface. For the most part, he creates an interesting set of reminisces and thoughtful reflections, though occasionally it loses focus and seems to drift, lacking a clear direction or purpose. Overall though, it’s an engaging read.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

September reviews

A fairly mixed month of reading. The standout book was This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham, the fourth book in the excellent Fiona Griffiths series.

The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross ***.5
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa ***
The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag ***
Defectors by Joseph Kanon ***
Fletch by Gregory McDonald ***
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore ****
The City in Darkness by Michael Russell ****
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham *****
Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle ***.5

Monday, October 1, 2018

Review of The One Man by Andrew Gross (Minatour 2016)

Nathan Blum has managed to escape from the Krakow ghetto and make his way to America via neutral Sweden. There he enrols in the armed services, being assigned to an intelligence office in Washington DC given his language skills, though he longs for active service. The President is about to give him his wish, though it seems like a suicide mission. He’s asked if would parachute back into Poland, break into Auschwitz, find a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, whose knowledge of gaseous diffusion is vital for the Manhattan Project, then break-back out again and get the professor to safety. The odds are massively stacked against him: hundreds of thousands pass through the camp, but only two have ever escaped. Knowing that his family are dead and that the Allies have deemed the mission critical, Blum agrees to go. He’s fluent in Polish and German and he’s the skills and wits to survive and escape a Nazi ghetto, but getting in and out of a death camp will test him to the limits.

The One Man is a historical thriller set in 1944. The premise is quite straightforward: send a man into Auschwitz to locate another and get him out and to safety. Of course, doing that is far from straightforward. That is Nathan Blum’s challenge. And he has three days to do it; the Polish resistance due to ambush a work detail laying railway tracks outside the camp and then a plane from England will land in a nearby field to pick them up. The target is a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, who is vital to the Manhattan Project but didn’t get out of Europe in time. Blum manages to enter the camp, but then everything starts to unravel as he struggles to find Mendl, survive the guards, navigate camp life, and stay ahead of a German intelligence officer who’s hunting for him. Gross does a very nice job of using Auschwitz as a setting for a page-turning thriller without denigrating what happened there. In fact, he gives a good insight into the workings of the camp and life inside, populating it with believable characters and situations, and is respectful to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, he doesn’t forget he’s telling a thriller. The three day time limit and the chase by the Abwehr officer repeatedly ratchets up the tension, plus there are some nice twists that create a strong affective response. Indeed, the plot is for the most part very well put together, the only weak spots for me being how the Abwehr officer picked up Blum’s trail and the intro/outro which felt a little stilted. This is more than made up for by the rest of the story, particularly the denouement and the final twist, which were excellent. The result was a thriller with first-rate historicisation, sense of place, characterisation, and a compelling plot.