Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review of A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott (2018, Corgi)

Present day and an elderly woman is found shot dead in a car park. To Capitaine Inés Picaut it appears to be a professional hit. The only clue is a business card sown into the lining of the victim’s coat. Picaut and her team discover that the victim's name appears to be Sophie Destivelle and a local film company was making a documentary about her involvement with SOE, a British-American Jedburgh team and the French Marquis in the Jura Mountains in the days leading up the D-Day landings and liberation. Other members of that group’s war-time leaders are present in Orleans, as is a special conference attended by high ranking American intelligence officers. When a second killing takes place of the son of one of the Marquis members, Picaut realises she has two mysteries to solve: who is killing Marquis members and their descendants and what happened during the war to prompt the murders so many years later. The remaining Marquis are not talking, determined to complete unfinished business and discover the identity of the suspected spy within their close knit resistance group. What started in the early 1940s is seemingly about to come to a bloody end.

A Treachery of Spies is the second book in the Capitaine Inés Picaut series, but can be read as a standalone. Manda Scott expertly weaves together two inter-related plots that are separated by seventy years. The first concerns a battle of wits between a master Gestapo agent who cleverly turns resistance members and a group of SOE agents and French Marquis that last much of the war. The resistance cell never quite gets the upper hand, even in victory, and the tight core of leaders are unsure if and who might be a spy. The second charts the present day investigation by Picaut into the assassination of one of SOE agents, Sophie Destivelle, herself turned and turned back again and also an assassin of traitors and collaborators during and after the war. Both threads make for compelling stories in and of themselves, with nicely crafted and well told plots, but when twisted together the result is a page-turning thriller. The characterisation is very nicely done, there’s good historical contextualisation, and the underlying premise in terms of the post-war era is interesting. Scott peppers the plot with twists and turns, and keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the Marquis traitor and why the killing has resumed. An excellent read to finish up 2019.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Nobody hears silence



‘Did you say something?’


‘Oh, I thought you …’


‘Okay, sorry.’

‘No, you’re not.’


‘You’re not sorry.’


‘Why say you’re sorry when you’re not.’

‘I was being polite.’

‘You were trying to start a conversation.’

‘I thought you’d said something.’

‘By making no sound?’

‘I heard something.’

‘Probably the voices in your head.’

‘Are you saying I’m crazy?’

‘You said it, not me.’

‘Because you were implying it.’

‘I’m not the one who heard silence as noise.’

‘Nobody hears silence.’

‘Except you, apparently.’

‘For someone who doesn’t want to talk …’

‘Quiet, please.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review of Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones (2012, MP Publishing)

Rural West Texas in the 1980s; generations of farmers making a living from cotton. One harvest the small community smells smoke, over twenty hoppers burning slowly, with no means to put them out. Rushing to one of the sources, Rob King finds the local high school basketball star and beats him half-to-death. The fire had been burning several hours and it was unlikely he was the culprit. Over the next few weeks a series of tragedies unfold, a boy shot on a school bus, a girl aquaplaning to her death. The police struggle to identify who is responsible. The author, a young teenager at the time, revisits the community a quarter of a century later and using his own memories and interviews with others tries to piece together what actually happened, its place in familial and local history, and who was responsible.

Growing Up Dead in Texas casts the author in the role of a detective about an event in his own life. Cast as part memoir, part mystery, the author revisits the place where he grew up to investigate events over a few months in the 1980s that have haunted him, and the rest of the community, ever since. The crux is who started the fires that destroyed the cotton crop, and who is responsible for a subsequent shooting, and the death of a girl. Drawing on memories and conversations with key actors, the author tries to piece together what the police failed to do, though they did secure a conviction, and to place events in historical context. Jones provides a hesitant account with hints of an unreliable witness, sometimes talking directly to the reader. If it is entirely fiction, then the troubled memoir is very nicely constructed; if it is actually partially a real memoir, then it has an air of authenticity. The author reveals secrets, while also protecting others; drags up history without sensationalising it, and paints characters as they are. It’s a fresh, literary take on telling a mystery tale. At times it is tricky to follow and occasionally raises questions that are not answered, but it maintains intrigue and attention.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I started writing a new book on Monday. It was meant to be in three books time, but has jumped the queue. A little unexpected, but I felt like I needed to get some of it down. I'm already 9,000 words in, so it's going reasonably well, and I sense I'll just keep going until it's done. Funny how plans can get up-ended. I guess I'll need to look for a contract soon; though that can wait until I've got a firmer idea of the shape of things. I started with middle chapters, as you do.

My posts this week
Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
Stupid charade

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Stupid charade

The security area was chaos. Too many people, not enough open lines.

‘I’ve had enough of this!’ A middle-aged woman near the front of a queue drops her skirt to the floor and pulls her shirt over her head so she’s standing in her underwear. ‘There, will this speed things up?’

‘Ma’am, can you please put your clothes back on. Ma’am.’

‘I’ve probably missed my flight because of this stupid charade!’

‘Ma’am, please. Calm down and put your clothes back on.’

‘Do I look like a terrorist to you? Do I?’

‘More like insane,’ a girl in the queue mutters.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935, Orion)

A stranger interrupts a conversation between Dr Grimaud and his friends in a London pub. He says he’s an illusionist and that his brother is a more powerful one and will call on Grimaud and take his life. A few days later the brother seemingly performs that feat, entering the room of Grimaud, shooting him, then vanishing. On the same night, the illusionist is also killed, shot at close range in the middle of an empty street, two men just a few steps ahead and a policeman nearby. In both cases, there are no footprints in the snow. The killer seemingly appears, commits murder, and vanishes. Trying to solve the case is Superintendent Hadley and criminologist Dr Fell. Fell is convinced there is a logical solution, the difficulty will be in identifying it.

The Hollow Man was the sixth book in the Dr Gideon Fell series than ran to 23 instalments. In this outing, Fell and Superintendent Hadley seek to solve two puzzles – one a traditional locked room mystery in which a murderer seemingly vanishes from a closed room with only one viable exit, the other a play on the theme, in which a man is shot a close quarters on a street by a seemingly invisible man. In both cases it has been snowing, but there are no footprints in the snow surrounding the house or on the street. It is clear there is a direct link between the murders and the reason for the deaths are rooted in events many years before in Europe. Solving the mystery, however, is far from straightforward. The story is all about the plot and puzzles, and the writing is quite functionary, the characters one dimensional, and the sense of place pretty lifeless. The story is one long plot device and the puzzles convoluted and contrived to the point of parody. Carr is seemingly aware of this, even slotting into the story a chapter long treatise on locked room mysteries. In some ways, that is the most interesting and believable section of the book. The story itself was far from credible, though it is held together and propelled by the fantastical spin of events.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up a copy of Patterson's Roads this morning in the local market. Edition Seventeen, printed in 1824, it provides detailed descriptions of the principle roads across England, Wales and parts of Scotland. The descriptions of places are very detailed and it looks like it'll be a fascinating read. It's in poor condition and on the verge of falling apart, so I'll have to handle with care.

My posts this week
Review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran
Golden goose

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Golden goose

‘You can’t just kill him!’

‘Why not?’

‘Because people love him.’

‘We’ve been through this a dozen times. It’s the only way I’m going to be free of him.’

‘Just take a break; come back to him in the future.’

‘He’ll be lingering in the background. I need to draw a hard line.’

‘But he’s your lead character! He is the series.’

‘And I’m sick of having to always structure my stories around him. He’s a millstone. I need the freedom to experiment. Be creative. Write something fresh.’

‘You’re killing the golden goose.’

‘Maybe. But that goose is killing me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (2013, Faber and Faber)

Claire DeWitt is a PI working in San Francisco. When Paul Casablancas, a guitarist and Claire’s ex-boyfriend, is found dead in his home she decides to investigate. The police think that it’s a robbery gone wrong. Claire suspects that there is more to it. Grounded in the philosophy and teachings of French detective, Jacques Silette, Claire’s detective technique can be a little unusual, but it gets results. The problem is the answers can be somewhat unpalatable and like many Silettians she has a host of quirks and personal problems. Paul’s death has hit her hard and she’s also having flashbacks to another personal case from her teens when a friend disappeared in New York. To cope she’s taking increasing amounts of cocaine and whatever prescription pills she can lift other peoples’ medicine cabinets. Sometimes barely functioning she relies on her assistant, Claude, to chase clues and look after other cases, but she doesn’t give up on finding the truth.

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is the second book in the DeWitt series following the cases of a messed up but brilliant detective. In this outing, Claire is investigating the murder of an ex-boyfriend – the one that was meant to be but she let get away. Half debilitated by drugs, grief, and the memories of a past case, she slowly seeks clues over the following months, while also dealing with a couple of other cases and personal issues. As with all detectives trained in the Silettian tradition, her pursuit is truth rather than justice, though the truth can be painful and burdensome. In DeWitt, Gran has created a wonderful, flawed, complex, anti-hero character with a self-destructive streak. While the first book in the series was a good read, I thought the second instalment was excellent, with a nice mix of philosophy, dead-pan and dark humour, and two interesting mysteries (the death of the ex-boyfriend and the disappearance of a friend many years earlier). I was hooked from the get-go and my interest never waned as Claire stumbled through her investigation. In my opinion, this multifaceted, engaging and quirky tale would be perfect for a movie treatment, or better still a TV series.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

During the week I revealed on social media the cover for the new book now in press. 'Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives' with Alistair Fraser. It'll be out next June with Bristol University Press and Univ of Chicago Press. It's a 'scholarly trade' book that makes the case for a digital ethics of care, and time and data sovereignty, and details individual and collective political and practical interventions for achieving. Next stage copyedit queries.

My posts this week
Review of Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
Failing forward

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Failing forward

The plastic bottle bounced off the wall.


‘Are you okay,’ Julie asked.

‘Do I look okay? I just died. Painfully.’ Josh pointed to the stage.

‘Are you kidding me? They thought you were hilarious.’

‘Except it wasn’t a comedy! He’s lost his job, his wife, his house. Even his dog hates him!’

‘Well, no-one noticed. It seemed perfect.’

‘It was an unmitigated disaster! It was meant to illicit sympathy not sniggers.’

‘Josh!’ The company director boomed. ‘Who knew you had it in you? Pathos, wit, timing.’

‘You liked it?’

‘Loved it! What’s it called?’

‘How to fail forwards.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Review of Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (2015, Hamish Hamilton)

We have a varied vocabulary for naming and describing landscapes. Words abound for particular natural features and phenomenon, varying between localities. Robert MacFarlane is a nature writer with a passion for collecting such words and for the prose of other books that focus on our relationship with landscape and nature. His thesis is that as we become more urban and distant from the land our vocabulary about place is shrinking with words and phrases dying out. As a result, we are losing touch with the places that have long sustained us. In Landmarks he provides a series of essays about the particular aspects of the British landscape (mountains, woods, coast, etc.), hooking the discussion around the work of another naturalist and the authors own journeys and experiences, and providing a glossary of words related to that landscape.  

It’s clear from MacFarlane’s own expressive prose that he is in love with words, landscape and nature, and he finds pleasure in exploring all three and their relationship with each other. Moreover, he is fascinated by other peoples’ attempts to make sense of our connection with places and is passionate about the writings of others. The essays that make up the book are nicely expressed and constructed, telling a set of interesting meditations on words, landscapes and lives. The initial essays are longer and more well developed, with some of the latter chapters being quite short and less substantial. The glossaries provide a set of interesting words, some recognizable, most local vernacular, unfamiliar to those not from the area. Combined these alternating essays and glossaries provide a joyous celebration of place and nature. And it’s all but impossible to read without noting down several other books that MacFarlane praises for future reading.

Monday, December 2, 2019

November reads

I only read five books in November, though a couple were much longer than usual. The stand out book was Chan Ho-Kei's The Borrowed, a set of five interlinked police procedural novellas set in Hong Kong, spanning 1967 to 2013.

The First Wave by James R Benn ***
The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines ***
The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre ****
Incensed by Ed Lin **.5
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei *****

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I’ve been mulling over my academic writing voice for some time. It’s okay. It works, but it’s not as I’d like it to be. During the week I took the decision to do something about it by looking for a creative fiction writer or essayist to help me re-craft my prose and narrative style. I’m hoping they are going to guide me to write non-fiction differently, but also to incorporate fiction more into my academic work. I'm going to use the process to develop the draft for a new book that I'm presently planning. All being well, it'll be an interesting journey that'll pay dividends for future writing projects.

My posts this week

Review of The First Wave by James R Benn
Review of The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines
Other world

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Other world

‘Where are we going, Janie?’

They were far from the main path, moving deeper into the forest.

‘I told you, to the Other World.’

‘Are you sure it’s this way?’

‘Yes! Look there’s the Elven lair.’ Janie pointed at a massive, gnarled oak stump.

Jack smiled and trailed after his daughter.

‘And what’s in this other world?’

‘Small folk and magical beasts. It’s in here.’ Janie disappeared into a small cave.

Jack poked his head in.


It was empty.

‘Are you coming?’ Janie asked.

‘Where are you?’

‘You have to believe, Daddy. Think of a unicorn and step inside.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Review of The First Wave by James R Benn (2007, Soho Press)

Lieutenant Billy Boyle and his boss, Major Samuel Harding, are in the first wave of the invasion of Algeria, tasked with riding ahead of the US Army and trying to persuade the opposing French Vichy troops to surrender without out fight. His quest doesn’t quite go to plan and they are met by French Fascists loyal to Petain and Nazi Germany. As they are thrown in jail, Boyle witnesses local French resistance members being rounded up, including his former girlfriend, Diane, an SOE agent. A few hours later they are released and soon have their hands full investigating a murder and theft at a field hospital. Boyle hasn’t forgotten about Diane though and when an opportunity is presented to go and rescue her he sets off in pursuit.

The First Wave is the second book in the Billy Boyle series set in World War Two. Boyle is a former Boston cop and a nephew of General Eisenhower, on whose staff he serves as an investigator. In this outing he is selected to run a mission to persuade French Vichy troops in Algeria to surrender rather than fight landing American troops. Along with Kaz, his Polish colleague, and his boss, Major Sam Harding, he’s soon turning his investigative skills to a murder at an army hospital and the theft of the first batch of penicillin in circulation, as well as tracing the whereabouts of Diane, his former girlfriend turned SOE agent in Algiers. The story is very much a boy’s own adventure, with Boyle swashbuckling his way around Algiers and the dusty coastal strip, doing battle with French fascists and a rotten apple in the US Army. Benn spins a couple of different threads that intersect at times, and keeps the pace high making sure there’s an action sequence every ten pages or so. The plot is a little thin at times and is held together with spider web of coincidences – especially with respect to characters knowing each other prior to this adventure and being involved in it (because in a global war a number of people from different services, two of them ex-girlfriends, will find themselves in the same spot and conspiracy). But if one can put the shortcomings on a back burner, then it’s a reasonably entertaining Hollywood Romantic/Action version of the initial invasion of North Africa.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Review of The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines (2008, William Morrow)

1943, New York. Rosie Winter is an aspiring actress looking for her big break. When a minor star who used to live in the same boarding house in which Rosie now resides is found murdered and her mob friend, Al, claims responsibility she decides to investigate. Convinced that Al is innocent and is taking the rap for other reasons, she auditions for dance chorus with her room-mate, Jayne, in the play the actress had been cast in a leading role. She quickly discovers that the play is backed by a mobster, there is something shady going on in the theatre, and the play is a flop in-waiting. To make matters worse her fellow actresses are on edge and seem obsessed with a Broadway dance hall for service men, and her boyfriend is missing in action. Along with Jayne, Rosie pokes her nose in where it isn’t wanted, trying to discover who killed the actress, whether it’s linked to the strange events at the theatre, and why Al is taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Winter of Her Discontent is the second book in the Rosie Winter mystery series set in World War Two. Rosie is an actress with Mob connections who used to work for a detective agency and turns her hand to solving murders. In this outing, set in 1943, her Mob-friend Al has confessed to a murder he didn’t commit and she’s determined to find the real killer. The victim is an actress who was set to star in a Broadway play. Rosie and her roommate, Jayne, audition for the dance chorus so they can investigate. It quickly becomes clear that the play is being set up to fail and someone has a vendetta against the lead actresses. Taking the form of a cosy mystery, Miller Haines spins out Rosie’s investigation, which soon splits into a couple of strands and also deals with tensions in Rosie’s boarding house and her attempt to find out more about her boyfriend’s missing in action status. There’s plenty going on, though it’s a little slow at times, all pretty staged (perhaps no surprise given its theatre theme) and reasonably well telegraphed. I never really warmed to Rosie, the story often teetered on the edge of credibility, and Al’s confession made very little sense given the lack of evidence and he could have just gone to ground instead. Nonetheless, it’s engaging and entertaining enough read.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I was updating my CV during the week and it turns out that the 'How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables' was my 30th academic book published (excluding the encyclopedia, which I'm not really sure how to count), which seems a bit of a milestone. The balance between written and edited books used to be even, but with the last six all being edited it's slipped a bit to 12:18. The plan is four of the next five will be written, so that should help even the keel a bit. Just have to write three of them! (one in press).

My posts this week

Review of The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre
New book: How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables
The professional personal

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The professional personal

‘If I’m wrong, it doesn’t mean you’re right.’

‘Why can’t you just admit that you’re wrong?’

‘I have. Why can’t you?’

‘Because I’m not.’

‘Yet, you can’t prove it and your solution hasn’t worked.’

‘Just give it time.’

‘We can give it a century and it still won’t work.’

‘This is about me, isn’t it?

‘No, it’s not.’

‘You’re jealous.’

‘Of what?’

‘That I’m better at this than you.’

‘Why do you have to make the professional personal? This isn’t about us, it’s about fixing this mess.’

‘You’re the one making this about us!’

‘Jesus, Carl, stop being a dick.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

New book: How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables

My new book was released a couple of weeks ago. ‘How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables’ published by Meatspace Press and edited with Mark Graham, Shannon Mattern and Joe Shaw. It is available as open-access download. There’s also a limited print run, with artwork specially designed by Carlos Romo-Melgar and John Philip Sage.

The book consists of 38 chapters, with all but six consisting of speculative short fiction. It started life with one line statement on Facebook - ‘You can probably hear me howling into the void where you are’ - about an article titled 'Cities should act more like Amazon to better serve their cities.' The FB post generated some discussion and sparked the idea for a book exploring the notion of cities run like or by businesses. The post was shared on Friday and by Monday over 30 academic FB friends had offered to write chapters about different companies.    


Should cities be run like businesses? Should city services and infrastructure be run by businesses?

For some urban commentators, policy-makers, politicians and corporate lobby groups, the answer is ‘yes’ to both questions.

Others are critical of such views, cautious about shifting the culture of city administration from management to entrepreneurship, and transforming public assets and services run for the common good into markets run for profit.

The stories and essays in How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables explore how a city might look, feel and function if the business models, practices and technologies of 38 different companies were applied to the running of cities. What would it be like to live in a city administered using the business model of Amazon (or Apple, IKEA, Pornhub, Spotify, Tinder, Uber, etc.) or a city where critical public services are delivered by these companies?

Collectively, the chapters ask us to imagine and reflect on what kind of cities we want to live in and how they should be managed and governed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre (2002, Penguin)

In the wake of the uncovering of a highly placed mole in the British Secret Service, George Smiley is determined to rebuild the Service's shattered reputation and to go on the attack. Smiley’s small team of trusted confidants search back through the mole’s work, not looking for what was stolen or disrupted but what was overlooked or ignored. What they discover is that Smiley nemesis in Moscow Centre, Karla, has an operation running in the Far East and Hong Kong is its key locus. Former journalist and spy Jerry Westerby – the Honorable Schoolboy – is plucked out of retirement and sent to Hong Kong, notionally as a reporter. From there he follows a trail to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on the trail of two pilots left in the area after the US has pulled out. Playing politics with Whitehall and American colleagues, Smiley senses a reversal of fortunes, though it relies on Jerry staying alive and delivering the plan on his solo run through South-East Asia.

The Honorable Schoolboy is the second book in the Karla trilogy, and the sixth out nine books by Le Carre featuring George Smiley. In this outing, Smiley is trying to assess and repair the damage caused by a mole at the higher echelons of the British Secret Service. The collateral damage is huge, with people and programmes being cast aside in an effort to re-float a holed ship. At the same time, Smiley is also looking for a way to strike back at Karla, the Russian mastermind behind the mole. He finds a potential route to revenge in Hong Kong and some false accounts, and dispatches Jerry Westerby, a rehabilitated victim of the purges, to investigate. Through a fairly complex plot, with a large set of characters, Le Carre charts Smiley’s scheming and Westerby’s trail through the Far East. The storytelling is very nicely judged for much of the tale, though at times it’s a little uneven, with some sections being a masterclass in painting scenes and character development, and others feeling thin and over-extended, and the middle third was a bit plodding. I was also never really convinced by Westerby’s motivation. Overall, though, an intricate, thoughtful spy-thriller.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a slow couple of weeks of reading. I've been busy with trying to finish a project off, and the book I've been working my way through has been a long one (680 pages), The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre. I should get round to writing a review during the week.

My posts this week
Review of Incensed by Ed Lin
Cleaving in two

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Cleaving in two

Julie placed two mugs of tea on the table.

‘You don’t seem yourself these days, Liam. What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know. I just feel like I’m cleaving in two.’

‘Cleaving? Cleaving how?’

Liam shrugged. ‘Like I’m observing my own life from outside myself. That I’m talking with another being.’

‘We all have an inner voice, Liam.’

‘But mine’s swapped to the second person. ‘Jesus, Liam, you need to get a grip,’ instead of ‘I need to get a grip’.’

‘We all talk to ourselves like that sometimes.’

‘But this isn’t sometimes; it’s always. It’s like I’m living with a stranger.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Review of Incensed by Ed Lin (2016, Soho Crime)

After his previous exploits investigating the death of his former girlfriend, Jing-nan is a minor, local celebrity. He’s not let it go to his head though and he still runs a food stall in the Shilin night market. As the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, his gangster uncle asks him to babysit his sixteen year old niece. Mei-ling wants to drop out of school to pursue her dream of becoming a popstar. She also has a biker boyfriend of Indonesian extract who’s active in a gang. Jing-nan brings her north to Taipei, but Mei-ling has a habit of finding trouble and it’s not long until she disappears. In a panic, Jing-nan rushes to find her before she comes to harm and his uncle’s goons take matters into their own hands.

Much like the first book, there’s not much of a plot or mystery to Incensed. Instead, the novel acts more like a fictional travelogue for readers unfamiliar with Taiwan (I have a feeling the endless explanation will distract Taiwanese readers). Using colourful characters and light humour, Lin spends most of the tale detailing aspects of Taiwanese culture and society, especially focusing on food (present on almost every page) and the role and place of criminal gangs. As per the first book, there is also an on-going obsession with the music of Joy Division. The supposed hook for the tale is the babysitting and disappearance of Mei-ling, the daughter of a gangster. Jing-nan was charged with looking after the bratty sixteen year old. Which he does for most of the story. Indeed, it is only in the last fifth of the tale that the mystery element takes place, and that lacks any real puzzle with a weak denouement. If you’re after a real mystery, or plot-driven story, then this may disappoint. If you're happy enough with colourful characters, a few amusing scenes, and a fictional travel guide for Taiwan, then its passable.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I arrived back yesterday from a 10 day trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where I gave a number of talks. Both interesting places to visit and I enjoyed meeting and chatting to folks and trying the different foods. The density and pace of urban life is always an eye-opener compared to Ireland.

My posts last two weeks
October reviews
Review of The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei
Review of Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth
Home but lost
Mixers should always complement

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Home but lost

Kenny was rooted to a spot five paces from the metro entrance. The street was lit up with neon and colourful street signs. People streamed around him: chattering, laughing, gesturing, staring at phones.

Someone thrust a leaflet into his hand, bowed and moved on.

He stepped into the flow transfixed. It was the set from Bladerunner; the Bridge from Virtual Light. A bricolage of sounds and smells; street vendors clustered in front of tiny fashion shops and low and high-end restaurants; strings of complex characters punctuated by Western brand names.

It was strange, yet familiar. He was home but lost.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 8, 2019

October reviews

My read of the month for October was Paul Howarth's coming-of-age tale set in nineteenth century Australia.

Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth *****
Hiroshima Boy by Naomi Hirahara ***
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace ***.5
Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar ****
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott ****
The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves ****
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson *****
The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland **.5

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review of The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei (2014, Chinese; 2017, Head of Zeus)

Kwan Chun-dok lies dying in a hospital, trapped in a coma. He can communicate only through a EEG headset that allows him to ‘say’ yes, no and to hover between the two. His former mentee Inspector Lok is trying to solve a baffling crime in which the head of a successful family has been killed in his own home. There are only five suspects, all present in the house at the time and Lok assembles them in Kwan’s hospital room, preceding to ask them questions. He also refers questions to Kwan. Through a series of yes/no answers, Kwan solves the crime, his famous deductive mind seeing what the others cannot, despite never visiting the murder site. This is the first of six novellas that make up The Borrowed. Each story is set at a critical time in Hong Kong’s history, with the final tale set in 1967. All the stories feature Kwan, the stories reversing his legendary career. 

While each tale is an intricately plotted police procedural, where the mystery is a difficult puzzle that has to be solved by Kwan (and takes an interesting form – locked-room, prisoner-dilemma, jail break, siege, kidnapping, terrorist conspiracy) they are also astute social and political commentaries about Hong Kong as it passes from British colony to the sphere of Chinese rule. Each story is fascinating in its own right, but collectively they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and there are also multiple social and geographical links between the people and places portrayed. And Kwan is an intriguing character, full of humanity and compassion, but ruthless in pursuing justice. One of the tales felt a little weaker than the others in terms of its resolution, but overall this is an engaging, intriguing and thought-provoking novel with excellent plotting, strong character development, and a good sense of place and historical context. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Mixers should always complement

The woman slid onto the stool and signalled to the barman.

‘Gin and tonic. No ice. Leave the tonic in the bottle.’

‘Don’t want to drown the gin,’ the man seated next to her said.

‘Mixers should always complement not swamp. I’m Paula.’

‘J …’

Paula removed her finger from his lips.

‘First rule of hotel bar conversations. No real names.’

‘I’m Harry.’

‘Second rule – no truths. I escort prisoners being extradited overseas.’

She added a dash of tonic to the gin and downed it one.

‘I edit a travel magazine. Would you like another?’

‘I thought you’d never ask.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review of Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth (2018, Harper)

1885 in the Queensland interior. The McBride family are trying to survive a drought that is killing their cattle. When the rains finally break, teenage brothers Tommy and Billy head to a swimming hole. They return to find their father and mother shot dead and their sister Mary unconscious, a shot to her stomach. Nearby they find the revolver given to a former Aboriginal stockman. The two brothers place Mary on Tommy’s saddle and head north to the home of John Sullivan, the wealthiest landowner in the region and their father’s former employer. Sullivan persuades the brothers to embellish their story in order to convince the Queensland Native Police to pursue the suspected culprit and his tribe. The posse who heads into the Outback is headed by Edmund Noone, a clever, ruthless man influenced by Darwin’s ideas of evolution. It’s a coming of age trek for Billy and Tommy, one slipping under the influence of Sullivan, the other starting to see the family tragedy and Australia’s colonialism for what it is under the tutelage of Noone. And it’s a nightmare for any Aborigines the group finds.   

Only Thieves and Killers is a coming of age tale set in the settled outback of Australia in 1885. Life is tough for the McBride family and it’s gotten worse with a drought. For Tommy (14), and his older brother Billy (16), it takes a further savage turn when their parents are murdered and their sister left for dead. Seeking help for their sister from a local, wealthy landowner quickly turns into seeking retribution against the suspected Aboriginal killers. The boys head off into outback as part of a posse. While one embraces the bigotry and violence of the landowner and native police, the other starts to regret what they have started and resist rough justice. Howarth creates an engaging story rooted in a credible history of Australian colonialism and the relations between settler and Aborigines without it swamping the story or becoming preachy. While the overall arc of the tale is well telegraphed, the story retains its insistent pull, there is strong character development and interplay between the characters, and a good sense of place and time. The denouement and the wrapping up is particularly nicely done. At times, it is not a pleasant read and is often unsettling, but then the outback and its violent expression of politics and capitalism in the nineteenth century was often not a pleasant place. Overall, a compelling tale of coming of age and its after-effects.