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?’


‘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



‘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.


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


‘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.