Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Review of Bloody January by Alan Parks (2017, Canongate)

Glasgow, 1973. Detective Harry McCoy is told by a violent criminal in the city’s prison that a young woman is to die by the morning. After a drunken night, and with his new partner in tow, McCoy waits at the bus centre for the young woman’s bus to arrive. When it does a teenage boy shoots the woman dead then turns the gun on himself. The boy worked in the grounds of the Dunlops, a rich, well-connected family, one that is well-known to McCoy. He had a run-in with them a couple of years ago, his former police partner now works security for them, and the mother of his dead child lives in their house. After making a hames of his visit the Dunlops, McCoy’s boss constrains his investigation. McCoy is soon trailing round brothels and homeless hangouts trying to find other leads, but he’s sure the Dunlops are involved somehow even if they appear untouchable and few people are willing to help. He also has other problems, namely a psychotic gang leader, Stevie Cooper, who will occasionally help out his boyhood friend, but always at a heavy price.

Detective Harry McCoy is an anti-hero cop cut from a familiar set of tropes – a man who grew up in institutional care, who’s boyhood friend is a major criminal, who’s own child died young, who has a drink and authority problem, is a Catholic in a sectarian institution, and who regularly strays beyond the bounds of acceptable policing practice. He has a moral compass of sorts and believes in justice, even if it’s occasionally rough in nature. In this first book in the series he’s investigating the murder of a young prostitute who seems to have been catering for violent tastes. He suspects a link to a rich family, but has been warned to stay away. But Harry isn’t very good at following orders and his new partner, Wattie, seems prepared to tolerate his unorthodox methods. It seems, however, that he’s straying too far from the path, both professionally and personally, as he mixes with criminals and prostitutes and habitually gets drunk and takes soft drugs, as well as taking regular beatings. It’s a good job he’s got a semi-understanding boss that he respects. Parks spins the tale in a hardboiled style, keeps the story moving at a decent clip, and does a good job of capturing Glasgow in 1973 and the criminal underbelly of the city. There’s no great surprise in the resolution, but that matters little as it’s as much a tale about the journey as destination. Overall, a well told, dark slice of Scottish noir.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week of travel with trips to London and Tilburg in the Netherlands. Arrived home to find an order of books had arrived at the local bookshop. The TBR has crept up in size in recent months, so will splice these into the mix. Looking forward to reading in due course.


My posts this week
Review of Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs
Review of The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason
Most read authors
Falling

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Falling

The world was amazing from this height; spread out like an enormous map.

Conor was diving in, his arms outstretched.

They linked up; smiled at each other.

A minute later they separated and Annie released her parachute.

It deployed but didn’t properly unfurl. The secondary chute failed to appear.

Conor was below her, still falling. Then his chute opened.

She was catching up; screaming his name.

At first she thought he’d missed her, but then felt him snag the collapsed canopy.

She was crying and laughing, hope blossoming.

Then she was falling again.

Knowing now why her chute had failed.




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review of Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs (2002, HarperCollins)

1938. Winston Churchill is in the political wilderness and almost bankrupt. In his wake is a series of political disasters, he’s bet heavily on the stock exchange, and his anti-appeasement rhetoric is deeply unpopular with colleagues and the public. Churchill though has little time for the opinion of others; he can see another war looming and the actions of Chamberlain and Halifax are not going to divert that but rather leave Britain unprepared. Guy Burgess is a journalist for the BBC. He shares Churchill’s view and he wants to help the politician. Burgess has plenty of dodgy contacts, including a barber who cuts the hair of senior politicians and civil servants and is privy to private conversations, as well as access to money to alleviate Churchill’s debts. The two men meet on October 1st 1938. Eighteen months later Britain is at war, Churchill, despite the odds, has succeeded Chamberlain, and Burgess has burned bridges with the new prime minister. The rest is history.

In Winston’s War, Michael Dobbs tells the story of Winston Churchill’s rise to power, concentrating on the eighteen months between his meeting with Guy Burgess, later infamous for being unmasked as a Soviet spy, to when he takes office. Given Churchill’s marginal political position in 1938 and the fact that very few politicians in his own party, let alone the opposition, wanted him to become prime minister even at the point that he does (Halifax was the preferred option), that he gained control was a minor miracle. Or as Michael Dobbs portrays it, a fortuitous set of events and a lot of political skulduggery, aided by the actions of Hitler and Mussolini. Reading the book as the UK political system implodes with Brexit was interesting as there are many parallels – Britain’s relationship with Europe, bitter political infighting in the Tory party, the media throwing shapes. Dobbs’ story blends the historical record with fiction to tell Churchill’s tale, focusing on the underhand actions of both Churchill and Chamberlain as they vie for power, throwing in the role of Guy Burgess, who has been airbrushed from the history of the early years of the war. It’s a very readable and engaging tale, if a little over-long at 690 pages. As with similar books, I’m always a little hesitant about history as fiction, as it’s difficult to know what actually happened and what is pure fantasy, especially when just about every character was a real person. Nonetheless, an entertaining political story about a critical moments in British history.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Review of The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason (2017, Vintage; Icelandic 2013)

1944, Reykjavik. A young woman’s body is discovered behind the new national theatre, currently being used as a store by the occupying allied forces. The murder is investigated by a local detective, Flovent, and a Canadian military policeman with Icelandic roots, Thorsen. Their initial suspects are an American soldier and his Icelandic girlfriend who discovered the body and fled the scene, but their investigation soon moves on. The present day, a ninety year old man is found suffocated in his bed. In the house are newspaper cuttings related to the war time case. A retired detective, Konrad, remembers the case having grown up in the district and his father trying to profit from it. He starts his own investigation with the blessing of the police, tracking the last movements and actions of the dead man and simultaneously trying to piece together the original war-time case.

The Shadow District is the first book in a new series by Arnaldur Indridason charting the cases of Flovent and Thorsen and set in war-time Iceland. Somewhat unusually, this first instalment concerns their last case together before Thorsen moves on with the occupying army to continental Europe then returning to Canada, and also has a second main thread set sixty five years or so later. The story pivots between the two periods tracking the investigation into the murder of young woman in 1944 and the death of an elderly man decades later. The lynch-pin is Konrad, a retired CID detective, who remembers the original case as a child and is intrigued by the man’s suspicious death. As such, there are two police procedural tales being told in parallel, with the chapters alternating between the two periods as Flovent and Thorsen work their investigation and Konrad also re-pieces it together as he tries to work out the connections across time and people between the cases. As usual, Indridason tells the tale in an under-stated way without relying on overly-contrived plot devices or melodrama, letting the two stories unfold in a credible and engaging way. The result is an intriguing story populated with realistic characters, scenarios and police work, with a strong sense of place and time.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Most read authors

Since I've been compiling some stats on reaching a 1000 reviews on the blog I thought I'd also take a look at the distribution of authors read.

Overall, I read books by 697 authors. Of these I read two books by 82 authors, 3 books of 34 authors, 4 books of 20 authors. There were just 18 authors where I read five or more of their books. These were:

10  Adrian McKinty
8    Philip Kerr, Joe Lansdale
7    Arnaldur Indridason, James Sallis
6    Colin Coterill, David Downing, John Lawton, Terry Pratchett,
      Duane Swiercynski
5    Belinda Bauer, Jane Casey, Ann Cleeves, Alan Furst,
     Carlo Lucarelli, Ben Pastor, William Ryan, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

It seems that there's only a 22% chance that if I've read one book by an author that I'll read another. Which somehow doesn't seem quite right as I feel I would read another book by a good proportion of the authors I've read. I guess I'm still veering towards discovering new authors rather than sticking with those I've enjoyed. A difficult balance to achieve given the thousands of authors being published and lure of new discoveries.

A task for this year is scour back through my reviews and then catch-up with books by those I've already discovered. It's pretty certain books by those above will make it on to the to-be-read pile in the future. In fact, there'll be a review of an Arnaldur Indridason book tomorrow and I've Ben Pastor's latest installment on order.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I got a couple of recommendations for books set in countries that I've not yet visited in crime fiction, so I've ordered a handful. If you've suggestions for books set in the grey shaded areas on the map further down the page I'd be grateful to hear them.


My posts this week
Review of Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
Around the world in 1000 books
February reviews
Reaching 1000 reviews
Review of Clinch by Martin Holmen
Lost card

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Lost card

Neil rolled his eyes as John patted his pockets.

‘I can’t find my credit card.’

‘Have you checked your wallet?’

‘It was in my shirt pocket.’

They’d already enacted a pantomime of finding his passport.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Pretty sure.’ John re-started the circuit of his pockets. ‘But, it isn’t there now.’

‘Why don’t you keep it in your wallet?’

‘In case I lose my wallet.’

‘But you have your wallet; not your card.’

‘Which means I’ve only lost one card.’

‘Have you looked inside your passport?’

‘Why would it be there?’

‘Why was your passport hidden inside a sock?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Review of Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (2018, Harvill Secker)

Calcutta, 1921. Police officer Captain Sam Wyndham has a serious opium habit which he feeds by visiting dens in the early hours. When members of the vice squad raid one of his haunts he escapes up onto the roofs and hides. En route he encounters a body, his eyes cut out and stab wounds to his chest. A couple of days later he is assigned to investigate the death of a nurse who exhibits the same wounds. Unable to formally link the two murders, he and his trusted India sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee start to dig for answers, despite the fact that military intelligence would clearly like them to stop. To add to Wyndham’s woes he’s also charged with persuading the local Indian nationalist leader, Chitta Ranjan Das, to drop his non-violent campaign given the impending visit of Prince Edward to the city. With tension rising, a murderer on the loose and the local population being whipped up into a frenzy ahead of the state visit, Wyndham finds himself at the centre of a potential explosive situation.

Smoke and Ashes is the third book in the Wyndham and Banerjee series set in Calcutta in the years after the First World War. In this outing the pair find themselves trying to solve a series of brutal murders, while also trying to suppress the activities of Indian nationalists campaigning for independence. They are under pressure to fulfil both duties before the visit of Prince Edward, the heir to the British crown, on Christmas Eve. To complicate matters, Wyndham’s opium habit is exposed and military intelligence would prefer it if he drops his snooping with regards to the murders. Mukherjee tells the tale utilising real historical events and a couple of real-life characters. While it is an interesting story, it is held together by some coincidence plot devices, such as Wyndham happening to be in an opium den that is raided, and Banerjee being a close family friend of the Indian nationalist leading the local demonstrations. Moreover, while the story does build to some tension points, it is more linear than the previous two outings, and felt more staged. That said, it’s still an engaging and entertaining tale.



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Around the world in 1000 books


The title of this post is a little misleading. It's actually around the world in 865 books, since 117 of my 1000 reads are non-fiction (and I've not kept a record of where these relates to) and 18 are fictional places. As you can see from the above map, I've managed to visit quite a bit of the globe via fiction (most in the crime genre) since starting reviewing on the blog. In total I've visited 75 countries. In 787 cases, the story was set solely (or nearly the entire story) in a single country and in 78 cases the story spanned countries.

The journeying has not been very even, however. 511 of the stories were set in just three countries - the US, England and Ireland. Here's the breakdown of fictional visits to that country and a list of all books/reviews for each country can be found here:

275:    USA
150:    England
86:    Ireland
61:    Germany
42:    Scotland
35:    France
28:    Italy
27:    Australia
19:    Russia/Soviet Union
16:    Iceland
15:    South Africa
14:    Canada, Sweden
12:    Spain
10:    Norway, Poland
9:     Wales
8:     China, Greece, Thailand
7:     India, Turkey
6:     Czech Republic, Cuba, Laos
5:     Egypt, Japan, Mexico, Yugoslavia
4:     Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Netherlands, Palestine
3:     Belgium, Finland, Hungary, South Korea
2:     Botswana, Bulgaria, Burma, Cambodia, Ghana, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, Vietnam, Zimbabwe
1:     Afganistan, Benin, Columbia, Estonia, Faroes, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Krygyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Togo

There's a few notable gaps in the map - the Caribbean, South America, Africa and the Middle East. I'm going to have to work at filling these in.  

Recommendations for books set in countries shaded grey in the map above very welcome!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

February reviews

Difficult to pick a book of the month for February. Some nice reads, but not one that really shone. I think I'll go with Snap by Belinda Bauer.

Snap by Belinda Bauer ****
City Without Stars by Tim Baker ***
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark ***.5
The Defence by Steve Cavanagh ****
The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt ***
Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe ****
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu ****
Moskva by Jack Grimwood ****
Corpus by Rory Clements ***

Monday, March 4, 2019

Reaching 1000 reviews

This morning's review was the 1000th on the blog. I've just spent a little while looking at the stats - which given the day job I'm inclined to do. It's taken 502 weeks to reach 1,000 books (all reviews available here), which is pretty much spot-on averaging two books a week (1.99). The books total some 325,846 pages according to Goodreads (though a couple are missing page counts in their database), or just shy of 93 pages per day. Both of those seem about right, with some fluctuation across weeks and days.

Of the books, 883 were fiction and 117 non-fiction. 128 were by Irish authors. 166 were historical fiction set between 1930-1960. I bought nearly all of them, with a handful being review copies and a dozen or so gifts - I'm happy to make sure authors get some royalties and I don't want to feel obliged with respect to what I'm reading. I'll give a breakdown of location later in the week, but via the fiction I visited 75 countries, and a few more via non-fiction.

Here are some graphs from Goodreads (click to enlarge).

Books per year


Pages per year


Books per month
 

Pages per month

 


Review of Clinch by Martin Holmen (2015, Pushkin Vertigo)

Winter, Stockholm, 1932. Ex-boxer Harry Kvist makes his living as a debt collector, recovering items not yet paid for or the outstanding balance. Violence is his preferred method of persuasion, often hitting first and asking questions after. It’s a marginal existence, but he manages to get by. As the first snow of the season falls he takes a job recovering an outstanding balance of a car sale from a man named Zetterberg. Harry leaves his mark a heap on the floor, but very much alive. The following day he’s arrested by the police for murder. A few hours later he’s released on the basis of witness testimony, though he’s still in a person of interest. A prostitute who he spoke to when he was casing Zetterberg’s apartment building can validate his alibi – that he’d left the before the time the murder was committed – but she has disappeared. Harry sets out to find her in the underbelly of the city, hooking up on the way with an ex-film star intent on slumming it with a brawler.

Harry Kvist is a perfectly cast anti-hero. A sailor turned champion boxer, turned debt collector who sometimes drinks too much to forget the death of his daughter. He has a preference for sex with men, cruising Stockholm’s parks and shady bars, but will settle for a woman. And he has no problem using violence to get answers to his questions, whether woman, child or man, often leading with his fists first and asking afterwards. And he doesn’t mind if there are a couple of collateral deaths along the way. In this opening book in a trilogy, it’s the winter of 1932, and Harry has been framed for murder, with a man he has just visited in order to collect a debt found dead shortly afterwards. Initially arrested, then freed by witness testimony though still a person of interest, Harry sets about trying to clear his name and determine who is setting him up. He goes about this task with grim bloody-mindedness, hooking up with a fading but rich ex-film star and drug addict who seems glad to be slumming it with a once-renowned boxer. With its noir-ish styling, storytelling and atmosphere, aided by the Swedish winter and the contrast of poverty and riches, Holmen charts Harry’s journey. It’s fairly grim in places, and Harry tests the limit of the ‘hero’ part of ‘anti-hero’, but it’s an engaging and compelling read that is nicely plotted. Overall, a taut slice of Swedish noir and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.



Sunday, March 3, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm not quite sure what kind of book I'm in the mood for right now. I've picked up and put down a dozen, but none of them are sparking an interest. It might be time to close my eyes and randomly pick one and just dive in! The problem of too much choice; which is not necessarily a bad thing ...


My posts this week
Review of Snap by Belinda Bauer
Review of City Without Stars by Tim Baker

Saturday, March 2, 2019

You’ll have to jump

‘Just climb back down the way you got up.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Stretch down your leg.’

‘Mum! I’m stuck.’

‘Why did you have climb so high?’

‘I just kept going. It was easy.’

‘You sound like your father. We’ll have to get the fire brigade.’

‘No, no, no; I’ll never hear the end of it.’

‘And you think that’s the case now? Hey, Gary?’

Gary stared at his feet, not wanting to get drawn into the exchange.

‘Gary managed to get down.’

‘He only climbed up halfway.’

‘Then you’ll have to jump.’

‘Mum!’

‘Well, I’m not coming up there after you.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review of Snap by Belinda Bauer (2018, Black Swan)

When their car breaks down on the motorway, Jack’s pregnant mother sets off in search of an emergency phone leaving her three children in the car. Eleven year old Jack is left in charge of nine year old Joy and baby Merry. After half-an-hour they set off in pursuit, but their mother has disappeared. A few days later her body is found, but her murderer is not identified. Three years later and Jack is head of the household, his father having walked out, the three children acting out a fantasy for their neighbours that everything is okay. To make ends meet, Jack has turned to a life of crime, breaking into houses for food and goods to sell-on, turning himself into Tiverton’s most wanted criminal. In another part of town, Catherine While is expecting her first baby. She wakes one day to find a knife by her bed with a message that states ‘I could have killed you.’ Instead of calling the police, she decides to nothing. But the messages continue and she’s unsure what to do. Jack and Catherine’s worlds are about to coincide, with Jack sure he might be on the trail of his mother’s killer.

While Snap does contain Detective Inspector Marvel, a character from a previous Bauer novel, this can very much be read as a standalone story. The story focuses on two households – the Brights and the Whiles – and snap decisions that link them. The Bright’s have been devastated by the murder of Eileen Bright, who was pregnant when she was stabbed to death. Three years after her death, her grief-stricken husband has abandoned his three children, with her fourteen year old son Jack looking after the family, determined that they are not going into the care system. The While’s are expecting their first child. Adrian is away a lot as a travelling salesman, leaving the expectant Catherine at home waiting for her due date to arrive. Her world though is about to be turned upside down by a stalker who seems intent on scaring her and demonstrating how vulnerable she is. Rather than go to the police, or tell her husband, she decides to keep the incidents to herself. The tale is very nicely set up and Bauer spins it out, adding a third spoke in the form of the police intent on finding a serial burglar who has hit over a hundred houses in the previous couple of years. The way the story is told there are no major surprises or twists, with the identity of the murdered well-telegraphed. Instead, it is the characters and their intersections that drive the narrative along. Indeed, Bauer does a very fine job of creating a set of interesting and believable characters, especially the three Bright children, Jack, Joy and Merry (which as a trio were a delight). Overall, an entertaining, nice written coming-of-age crime drama.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Review of City Without Stars by Tim Baker (2018, Faber and Faber)

In Ciudad Real, on the Mexican border with the US, corruption and murder is endemic. Drug cartels vie for power, a fraudulent church is laundering cash, sweatshops are exploiting workers, and women are being murdered at an unprecedented rate. Pilar, a union activist, has travelled to the town to fight for the rights of women workers despite the dangers from the bosses’ thugs. Detective Fuentes is meant to union-busting, but is more interested in taking down the local cartels, despite the warnings from his bosses to steer clear. Both want justice and are determined to achieve it, even if it means putting their own lives on the line. Wary of each other and are unsure who to trust they form an uneasy alliance against forces that seem too deep rooted to topple.

There’s a lot going on in Tim Baker’s tale of crime, corruption and murder, City Without Stars, much of it depressing and lacking hope. Set in modern-day Mexico, close to the US Border, the story explores the unrelenting exploitation of women workers in sweatshops, the vicious rivalries between drugs cartels, a rotten church that harboured child abuse and now runs a criminal enterprise, endemic police corruption, and the rape and murder of women on an epic scale (at nearly a 900 at the time the story is set). Baker weaves these threads together through the work of union activist, Pilar, and honest cop, Feuntes who are both seeking justice and to expose and purge the cancer in the city’s society. It’s an ambitious story, but it is not an easy read given the focus, the scale of the violence, and the depth of institutional corruption. For the most part, it is also thought-provoking and engaging, but it starts to derail towards the end, the sections becoming shorter and the story petering out, avoiding a final denouement and leaving the resolution to the reader’s imagination. I don’t usually mind ambiguous endings, but my sense was that this story ended about thirty to fifty pages too short, which was a pity. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting tale that casts a light on the logics and consequences of a dysfunctional society.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

While creating a new 'non-fiction reviews' page I discovered that I'd not posted a review of Nathalia Holt's The Rise of the Rocket Girls, which I'd read and written a review of back in October. Somehow I forgot to post the review, making me wonder what other books I've read and written reviews of and then not posted ...

My posts this week
Review of Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark
Review of The Defence by Steve Cavanagh
Review of The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt
Pulling underpants

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Pulling underpants

‘What the hell are they doing there?’ David muttered, reaching down to scoop up his underpants.

A puppy appeared out of nowhere, snatched them from him, and disappeared round a corner.

‘What the …’

He found the dog sitting at Sally’s feet chewing on the elastic.

‘Is he your dog?’

‘The neighbours. They’ve gone away for a couple of days; Rhod agreed to look after him.’

‘Without asking us?’

‘Yeah.’

‘The little fucker’s eating my pulling underpants.’

Sally glanced down. ‘Only thing you’d pull with them is yourself.’

The puppy darted off, trailing the pants.

‘And dogs. Neither pun intended.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Review of Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark (1981, Virago Press)

1949, London. Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist who lives a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle. Through a contact she secures a job working for the Autobiographical Association, a project of Sir Quentin Oliver. The aim is for members to write a frank account of one’s life to be locked away for seventy years. There are only ten members, but that is more than enough to keep Fleur busy rewriting their notes into more coherent narratives. Sir Quentin wants her to embellish the stories, but she is reluctant to do so, sensing that he is up-to-more than just making the stories more interesting. What is more disconcerting is that the members seem to be acting out passages from Fleur’s novel or passages are appearing in their autobiographies. Just as the novelist takes inspiration from their surrounds, life seems to be imitating art. And there’s a concerted effort to block her book from being published. Fleur is not a wallflower, however, and she is prepared to take the battle to Sir Quentin and his Association, aided by his elderly mother.

Loitering With Intent is told as the reminiscences of a successful novelist, Fleur Talbot, about the time she wrote her first novel at the exact halfway point of the twentieth century. The main focus is on the strange happenings at the Autobiographical Association where Fleur worked as the story was being written, as well as being a treatise on writing, publishing and what makes for a good story that creates a strong metafictional aspect. Fleur is somewhat of a free spirit, sleeping with a married man and befriending the man’s wife, and is well able to look after herself, drawing on the aid of her friends when necessary. She finds herself in a situation where life starts to imitate her novel through the lives of Association’s members and entering a tug-of-war game with Sir Quentin Oliver its leader. The story is packed full of colourful characters and is told with a dry wit. And the tale is interesting enough, though it’s hardly enthralling – while there’s the potential for intrigue, tension and confrontation, Spark keeps it all low-key, civilised and somewhat humdrum. The result is a reflexive and thoughtful farce meets metafiction that for me didn't quite spark into life.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review of The Defence by Steve Cavanagh (2015, Orion)

Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist and hustler before he went to law school and became a lawyer. Then one of his defendants destroyed his faith in his practice, he hit the bottle, and his marriage broke up. Eddie thinks he’s given up being a lawyer, but the head of the Russian Mob in New York thinks differently. His henchmen bundle Eddie into the back of a limo, strap a bomb to his back, tell him they are holding his ten-year old daughter hostage, and that he has 36 hours to beat a murder charge or he and his daughter are dead. Not long after he’s trying to bypass security into the courts building and familiarize himself with several thousand pages of documents before Olek Volchek’s trial starts. All his has to do is persuade the jury to acquit the accused when the all the evidence points towards guilt. For Eddie there was never much difference between being a hustler and a lawyer and now he’s going to test his theory in the highest stakes trial of his career.

The Defence is the first book in the Eddie Flynn legal thriller series. Whereas most legal thrillers concentrate on the tension and games in the courtroom, Cavanagh strays towards a more conventional thriller route as he tussles with senior figures in the Russian mafia in New York. They have strong-armed him into representing the boss, who is on trial for murder, by holding his ten year-old daughter hostage and strapping a bomb to his back as motivation. What they didn’t anticipate, however, is Flynn being a former amateur boxer and being street-savvy from his time as a con artist and hustler before he re-routed himself through law school to become a lawyer. He’s smart, quick witted, light-fingered, and a master at making solid evidence look shaky. He’s also well connected, being a boyhood friend with the present head of an Italian mafia family, and his mentor being a senior judge who served in Vietnam. The Russians might have very strong leverage, and the the FBI might be determined to convict their suspect, but Flynn has the motivation of saving his daughter and he’ll do anything to avoid her death. What transpires is a courtroom drama meets Die Hard, with escapades, hustles, crosses and double-crosses, mind games, and bust-ups up-and-down the court building and surrounding streets. The plot holds together, despite creaking under the weight of many plot devices and events that stretch credibility, and Cavanagh keeps the action moving and tension high throughout. The result is an entertaining thriller that is crying out for a movie adaptation or TV series.



Monday, February 18, 2019

The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (2016, Little, Brown & Co)

In the late-1930s a trio of young scientists were playing around with rockets on the Caltech campus in Pasadena. As the Second World War began in Europe, they received funding to explore the military uses of rockets, setting up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of their first recruits was their friend, Barby Canright, a gifted mathematician. Her role was a computer, calculating the trajectories of missiles with varying characteristics (speed, weight, etc). She was joined by a handful of other women and over time the computing department became an all-female domain. Over time, the work shifted from hand-calculation to using a digital computer to computer programming. While the women conducted vital work, and they often contributed key ideas rather than simply undertaking calculations, their role was generally under-valued, though by the 1960s they were starting to break through the glass ceiling and taking on the role of engineers.

Nathalia Holt tells the story of the role played by women calculators/engineers in JPL from the 1930s through to the present, including their contributions to missile research and to space exploration. In particular, she follows the lives and contributions to a selection of these women, with the narrative being based on a series of personal interviews, as well as documentary sources. While the topic is fascinating, the telling is somewhat weak. Holt opts for a style that is almost purely descriptive and a voice that seems aimed at young adults. The result is a narrative that provides a potted history of the women’s lives and the development of JPL, but pretty much outside of any social or political framing. And the extended timespan thins the description. As a consequence, while revealing the important work of the women, the telling lacked depth, analysis and critical commentary on institutional and gender politics and the wider social and political climate, and women in scientific careers in the second half of the twentieth century. Which was a shame, as JPL is clearly a very interesting site of basic and applied scientific activity, where women have and continue to play a vital role.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Service

A quick back and forth to London on the same day this week, so took a quick, short read set in the city with me: Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark. A kind of farce meets metafiction tale. The next journey over in a few weeks will be, I think, with a May and Bryant book, Seventy-Seven Clocks.

My posts this week
Review of Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe
Review of The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
Stolen story

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Stolen story

They practically had the cinema to themselves. A mid-afternoon, late Valentine’s treat. Slumming on a rom-com.

‘This is my story,’ Pete said.

‘When did you lose your legs?’

‘I wrote this. It’s my characters, my dialogue. It’s from Saving Siobhan.’

‘You write crime. Unsuccessfully.’

‘Someone’s done an adaptation; from my first unpublished book.’

‘It’s a coincidence.’

‘I can show the manuscript! It’s my book. The next scene will be on a plane.’

‘They’re in an airport!’

‘I don’t believe it! We have to find out who did this.’

‘You know this conversation sounds like the set-up for a movie, right?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review of Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe (2018, Black & White Publishing)

Jig is ten years old and already enrolled as a foot soldier in a Dublin drugs gang. When he’s not doing dirty work for Ghost and his crew, he’s skipping school, avoiding his abusive father and blitzed mother, skulking around the canal with his dog, Bowie, and playing football for a local team. Shay, the coach, believes Jig could escape to a better life through his football skills, but Jig is enthralled by Ghost and his power. When a small job Jig performs leads to the death of an elderly woman the police start asking questions. Detective Tara Crowe wants promotion and taking down Ghost is a route to that. But nobody is prepared to risk talking to the police, least of all Jig and his family. But that isn’t going to stop Crowe trying to serve justice.

Set in inner city Dublin, Black Water is Cormac O’Keeffe’s assured debut novel. The focus is very much on poor, working class communities dominated by a drugs gang that operates largely with impunity, the police struggling to exert any control. The story revolves around four main characters – Jig, a ten year old boy living in an abusive household who has already started to work for the drugs gang as a gofer; Ghost, the ruthless visible power in the drugs gang; Shay, a local football coach and reluctant police informer; and Tara, an ambitious detective who wants to make her mark. The catalyst for the story is a job by Jig going wrong, with an elderly lady who is being intimidated for her son’s drug debt dying. The strength of the story is the strong sense of place through the portrayal of a poor neighbourhood being ruled by a drugs gang and the struggle of local actors and the police to counter their influence and the effects of the drugs, as well as depiction of the dysfunction of Jig’s family and his upbringing. My sense is that there's a strong degree of realism in all the social relations – the family situation of Jig, Shay and Tara, the operations and effects of the local gang, and the power games inside the police. The result is a well-told, engaging - if somewhat depressing - story of a cat-and-mouse game between a criminal gang and the police, with local folk caught in the middle and suffering the consequences.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu (2016, Atlantic Books)

For Tim Wu an attention merchant is a firm that seeks to capture and maintain the attention of an audience and to monetize that attention through advertising. He traces the development of such merchants back to the 1830s and the first adverts appearing in newspapers, which quickly became an important income stream. With the invention of every new media he documents how advertisers found ways to colonize it – magazine ads, sponsoring radio and TV shows, commercial breaks, product placements, celebrity endorsements, ads on websites, etc. – along with other spaces such as posters on streetscapes. He makes the case that we are now constantly bombarded with advertisements and media tricks (e.g., clickbait) designed to nudge us towards consumption. This forced diet of ads has not been accepted without resistance, however, with consumers fighting back in various ways such as switching channels and using ad blockers.

As with The Master Switch – Wu’s history of information industries – the book provides a fairly long history of the relationship of media and advertising through a series of short, accessible chapters full of interesting stories and facts. It’s wide-ranging in coverage discussing a broad sweep of attention merchants and their work, though it’s very US-centric despite a couple of brief forays to the France, UK, Nazi Germany, Canada and Japan. While no doubt the US has led the way in driving the attention merchants business model, media and advertising has been pushed forward elsewhere and also taken different forms and been resisted in varying ways. While up-to-date, including Trump’s use and pursuit of attention, I was somewhat surprised that the present role of data extraction and data brokers in profiling consumers is barely discussed. Overall, an engaging, informative read.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm finally getting round to reading a couple of books by Irish authors who've been on the to-be-read pile for a few months - Black Water by Cormac O'Keeffe and The Defense by Steve Cavanagh. Not quite sure why they never quite reached the top of the pile, but they've fared a better than some. I've a couple of books that have been waiting for a year or more that I still intend to read but I've never quite been in the mood, or I've been saving them as companions for if I ever re-visit a country. I'll get to them eventually ...

My posts this week
Review of Moskva by Jack Grimwood
Review of Corpus by Rory Clements
The shotgun is missing

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The shotgun is missing

‘Louise!’

‘What?’

‘Can you come here?’

‘What is it?’ Kenny’s wife said from the doorway.

‘Have you been in the gun cabinet?’

‘No. What’s wrong?’

Kenny stood up, opening the cabinet wide.

‘The shotgun is missing.’

‘Missing? But only you have a key.’

‘And the spare hidden in the shed.’

‘The door hasn’t been forced?’

‘No. And it was there yesterday. Do you think … Aidan?’

‘He’s twelve. What would he want with a shotgun?’

‘That’s what I’m worried about.’

A shot blasted in the distance.

‘Oh, God.’

Kenny bolted into the yard.

‘Aidan!’

Crows were rising in the woods.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review of Moskva by Jack Grimwood (2016, Penguin)

December 1985, the body of a teenage boy is found in Red Square clutching a wax angel. A week later, Alex Marston, the precocious teenage daughter of the British Ambassador disappears. Major Tom Fox, newly arrived in the embassy after the death of his daughter and a work-related incident, agrees to try and locate her. For Fox the mission is more than simply offering to help, it is a chance to redeem the death of his daughter. It’s soon clear that Alex was taken and is being held against her will, but there is a larger game going on between a senior group of Russian officials that has its roots in the last days of the Second World War. After working undercover in Northern Ireland, Fox is used to moving through the shadows, but navigating the intricacies of Russia’s politics and personal rivalries is a tricky business, especially with a young girl’s life on the line.

Moskva is the first in the Tom Fox series, following the exploits of a British military intelligence officer at the tail end of the cold war. Fox is a damaged soul, a man who abandoned life as a priest for a wife and family and undercover in Northern Ireland; a man who has recently lost his daughter and is about to be divorced. He’s been shipped to Moscow to keep him out of the way of a select committees questions, but he has a habit of finding trouble. In this case it comes in the form of the kidnapping of the British Ambassador’s daughter. Fox starts his own investigation, which is facilitated by senior Soviet figures, both sides wanting to keep the incident out of the media and political spotlight. Unwittingly he has also stumbled into a wider conspiracy. What unfolds is a cold war thriller set in the early days of Perestroika. Grimwood keeps the pace and tension high as Fox careens from one situation to another, and there is plenty of intrigue and twists and turns. The result is a gripping page-turner, especially towards the end. I was swept along with it, rushing over a number of plot devices used to keep the story on track. I lost the thread a little at the denouement as while most of the elements of the unravelling conspiracy made sense, there were a couple of aspects that seemed a little obtuse. Nonetheless, it was a captivating read and I’ll be reading the next in the series.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Review of Corpus by Rory Clements (2017, Zaffre)

1936. Nancy Hereward, a young woman with communist sympathies, travels to Berlin to deliver papers to a Jewish scientist seeking to escape Nazi Germany. A few weeks later she is discovered dead from a heroin overdose. Despite the police and coroner ruling accidental death, her friend Lydia and her neighbour, Cambridge history don, Tom Wilde think it might be murder. A few miles away, a politician and his wife are brutally murdered, seemingly by communist agents. Wilde visits the scene with Philip Eaton, a Times journalist. He senses that the murders have been staged and that there might be a link with Nancy’s death, given they were the parents of one of her best friends. Old friends seem to be gathering in Cambridge, including a senior member of Stalin’s intelligence service fresh from the civil war in Spain, and an ardent Nazi who is a member of Hitler’s bodyguard. In London, pressure is mounting for the King to abdicate over his affair with Wallis Simpson. Wilde seems to have stumbled into an unfolding conspiracy of some kind, which he’s determined to unravel.

Corpus is the first book in the Tom Wilde series set in the years leading up to the Second World War. Wilde is a history professor at Cambridge University specialising in the key figures and practices of intelligence in the Elizabethan and Jacobian era. He’s somewhat of an outsider, being American by birth and citizenship, with an Irish mother, but has spent a lot of his childhood and adult life in England. He has a kind of Indiana Jones persona, using his knowledge, position and boxing skills to help solve mysteries. In this case he stumbles into a web of conspiracies involving communists, Nazis and British intelligence, and missing Spanish gold, the saving of Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany, and the abdication of King Edward. It’s very much a Boy’s Own tale of adventure, with Wilde pitching his skills against professional nasties of various political hues. The story rattles along with Wilde calmly taking on all-comers as he helps his neighbour Lydia get to the bottom of a trio murders and in so doing prevent a major political incident. The story is populated with a wealth of colourful characters and has plenty of intrigue and escapades. And if one can park the fact that it is largely unbelievable throughout and if pressed some of it makes little sense, it’s an engaging read. (For me, the logic and execution of the conspiracies, in which key actors and acts deliberately drew attention to themselves, ran counter to a secret mission and seemed unlikely, though it did create tension, action and kept the pages turning.) Overall, an entertaining slice of speculative, if fanciful, historical fiction.


Monday, February 4, 2019

January reads

A good month of reading to open the year. Difficult to choose between Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino for read of the month, but I'm going with the latter for the cleverness of the plot and excellent denouement.

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell ***
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino *****
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell ***.5
Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe *****
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak ***
Let The Dead Speak by Jane Casey ****.5
Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave ***.5
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr ****
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly ****.5
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter ****.5


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A week of running around, meetings and a quick trip to Germany, with a bit of time left over for reading. Now working my way through Jack Grimwood's Moskva set in the city in the mid-1980s.


My posts this week
Review of From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell
Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Review of Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell
Forget the plane

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Forget the plane

‘Bev.’

‘Is Rachel with you?’

‘No. I’m on my way to the airport.’

‘I can’t find her, Tom.’

‘She’s probably with one of her friends.’

‘I’ve rung round. None of them have seen her since yesterday afternoon.’

‘You rang her friends before me?’

‘Now’s not the time! Our daughter’s missing.’

‘Have you spoken to the school?’

‘Yes. Maybe she’s gone to your place?’

‘I’ve just left the apartment; she wasn’t there.’

‘Something’s happened. I know it.’

‘She’s probably just playing silly buggers.’

‘I need your help.’

‘I’ve a plane in two hours.’

‘Forget the plane! Rachel is missing. Your daughter!’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Review of From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell (1964, John Lang)

When the prim and proper Margaret Parsons disappears Inspector Burden reassures her husband that she will in all likelihood be back by morning. However, the following day her body is found in a nearby wood. The only clues at the scene is a tube of expensive lipstick and a burnt match. At the marital home they find a set of rare books inscribed from a secret lover called 'Doon'. The books date back to when the victim was a local school girl before she moved to London. It seems that her recent move back to the village might have led to a rekindling of the relationship. But who is the mysterious Doon? Chief Inspector Wexford marshals his team and starts to investigate, though their pursuit is hampered by unwilling witnesses.

From Doon With Death is the first book in the Chief Inspector Wexford series that eventually ran to 24 instalments between 1964 and 2013. I’m surmising that the series must be locked pretty much in the time period since Wexford was 52 in 1964. The story is a straight-up police procedural plotting the investigation into the death of a dowdy thirty year old woman. The story sticks to the case, with little elaboration of the policeman’s lives, and might be considered a novella by contemporary standards given my version only ran to 183 pages. The voice is engaging, with Rendell quickly painting a scene and giving a good sense of the characters. The plot is intriguing, but is linear with a handful of potential suspects that are eliminated in turn, and it kind of runs out of steam a little at the end with an unsurprising twist and a bit of a flat denouement. Nonetheless, a nice, tight whodunit.



Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (2012, Abacus; 2005, Japanese)

Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother. A former nightclub hostess she now works in a local takeaway where her neighbour, a high school mathematics teacher, Ishigami buys his lunch each day. One day her former husband, Togashi, turns up looking for money and threatening continued harassment. The confrontation spirals out of control, ending with mother and daughter killing Togashi. Hearing the commotion, Ishigami offers to help get rid of the body and to plot the cover-up. All Yasuko and her daughter need to do is stick to the story Ishigami creates for them when questioned by the police. Detective Kusanagi can find no holes in Yasoko’s alibi, but there is something about the case that un-nerves him and he turns to his friend, Manabu Yukawa, a university physicist, for help. Yukawa was a friend of Ishigami at university and knows him as a mathematics genius. He’s somewhat surprised that Ishigami is a high school teacher, but knows that if he is involved in the case that it will be fiendishly difficult to solve.

Set in Tokyo, The Devotion of Suspect X is a police procedural with a difference. The reader is presented with the murder at the start of the novel. Yasuko Hanaoka and her daughter murder her abusive former husband. Their neighbour, Ishigami, who is smitten with Yusuko, hears the fight and offers to help them dispose of the body and create a cover-up. A body is subsequently found, quickly identified and the police turn up at Yashuko’s door. It appears though that she has a verifiable alibi for the time of the murder and she’s sticking to pleading ignorance. The unfolding story then revolves around the police probing the alibi and trying to trace Togashi’s last movements, with the mystery essentially being whether they’ll be able to get to the truth given Ishigami’s carefully plotted cover-up. There are two unaccounted element in Ishigami’s machinations. The first is Yashuko, who takes up with an old flame in the days following the murder. The second is Ishigami’s former university friend, Manabu Yukawa, a physicist who occasionally helps the police. Yukawa knows that Ishigami is a genius. What ensues is a battle of wits based around a mathematical philosophical question: what is harder – devising an unsolvable problem or solving that problem and knowing if it is correct? A cat and mouse game evolves, with Ishigami tweaking his plan in light of unfolding events. The police, however, remain baffled. The story and characters make for interesting reading, though the tale slows to a crawl at times with only the hook of wanting to know if they’ll be caught keeping the pages turning. The patient build-up is, however, worth it. Despite having sight of all sides in the game, the pay-off for the reader is the double-twist in the denouement, the first of which is somewhat unexpected and breath-taking, despite the fact that the book is marketed heavily on its existence. It’s relatively rare to come across a twist so clever that is not a blindsiding but makes perfect sense in relation to the rest of the plot. And the ending is just perfect. Overall, an absorbing, clever tale of clever scheming; a mostly four star read elevated by a philosophical spin and a very well executed denouement.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Review of Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell (1990, Scribner)

Richmond, Virginia. A serial killer is breaking into houses and strangling young women. Kay Scarpetta, the city’s medical examiner, is determined to try and help end the killer’s spree. Pete Marino, the lead cop on the investigation, prefers honest detective work rather than the theories of a pathologist. And the city’s commissioner and an aggressive investigative journalist seem to be waging their own campaign against her office. Scarpetta is used to making her way in a man’s world and she’s prepared to use all the forensic tricks her office has to try and make sure there’s no next victim. The killer, however, always seems to be one step ahead.

Postmortem is the first book in the Kay Scarpetta series following the investigative exploits of Richmond’s medical examiner. While Scarpetta has a soft underbelly, she is tough, uncompromising and dogged, used to having to fight battles with misogynists. In this outing, everybody seems to be out to besmirch her character and office as she tries to help catch a cunning serial killer who has been strangling a seemingly random set of women. Scarpetta is convinced that the secret to the case lies in forensic evidence. However, DNA is somewhat in its infancy and each scene seems to be compromised in some way. Moreover, her office and potentially herself are seemingly making mistakes. To add to her stresses her niece has come to visit for a couple of weeks. Cornwell spins the plot out, keeping the personal tensions and rivalries, along with the forensic details (which are occasionally overly-laboured), to the fore. The story is relatively linear, with few surprises and only a couple of twists and turns, and the denouement is somewhat inevitable. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging story held together by inter-personal rivalries, rather than the mystery of the killer’s identity.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Picked up a new order from the local bookshop on Friday, which I've added to the TBR. Expect reviews of the following in the next couple of months or so (unless they get lost on the pile!): Corpus by Rory Clements, The Defense by Steve Cavanagh, Bloody January by Alan Parks, City Without Stars by Tim Baker, Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee, Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell, Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark and Snap by Belinda Bauer. I need a phase of reading more than I'm buying!



My posts this week
Review of Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe
Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Meeting an angel