Friday, May 31, 2019

Review of Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana (2013, Simon Schuster)

Simón Bolivar (1783-1830) is a figure surrounded by myths and legends. Loved and reviled in his lifetime, his character and achievements were subsequently invoked both positively and negatively by politicians of every hue. Bolivar freed much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule through a series of battles and conquests, creating a united Greater Colombia founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, and the abolition of slavery and racial/class hierarchies. In subsequent years, in the aftermath of war and the collapse of existing political and administrative systems, this divided into six new nations: Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivar, Ecuador and Panama. The campaigns he fought were extremely bloody affairs, accompanied by fragile alliances and fraught politics. Not only was he a great military leader, but also a canny statesman. Nonetheless, while recognized as an exceptional leader, he was ultimately rejected by each state and died destitute, alone except for a handful of loyal friends and family, as he waited for a ship to take him into exile.

Given his achievements and his many conflicts with foes and allies, it’s no wonder that he’s remembered in a variety of ways. Writing his biography in a relatively neutral way is no easy task. Marie Anana does an admirable job, however, of trying to chart his life, drawing extensively on historical sources, including surviving letters and testimony of various kinds. She’s careful to question dubious sources or note speculation when the historical record is missing. The story she tells is captivating, full of adventure, romance, conflict, and messy politics. Bolivar travelled 75,000 miles, mostly on horseback as he criss-crossed the northern part of South America, as well as sailed its coast, canoed its rivers, and journeyed around Europe. His wife died shortly after marriage and he subsequently had several affairs, often simultaneously. He built many alliances with men and armies that swapped sides several times and were quite happy to undermine his authority. He drafted constitutions, laws, and decrees, and founded parliaments. He understood that a democracy could not have a dictator, yet he craved and also rejected power. He lived a full, eventful and consequential life and his achievements are still having consequence.  Anana’s narrative is highly readable, told with engaging voice. She covers his full life story, balancing detail with brevity, keeping the pace relatively swift. It’s still a fairly large tome, but to do justice to the life lived it cannot be any other way. The result is a lively, well-told biography.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review of The Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen (2017, Atria)

Atlanta, 1950. It’s two years since the first black men were recruited into the Atlanta police department. They have limited powers, are largely confined to the black areas of the city, and are under the command of a white officer. Acting on extracted information, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith stake out a handover of liquor and drugs between white and black men, keen to try and tackle the gangs blighting their neighbourhood. However, their bust going wrong, with bullets flying. The responding white cops seek to frame them for murder. But that’s just one of their problems. Boggs is engaged to a woman his preacher father rejects and the father of her child has just got out of prison and wants to pick up where he left off. Smith’s sister and brother-in-law have moved into a white area and are being threatened by existing residents and Klux members. Smith’s sister is living on the same estate as white cop, Denny Rakestraw. He has a history of reluctantly helping Boggs and Smith, but he has trouble of his own – his brother-in-law Klansman has got himself into trouble by attacking a fellow Klux member, which left one of his friends dead. He’s also actively involved in trying to keep the estate white-only. Against his better judgement, Rakestraw has tried to use his position to protect his bigoted in-law. All three officers are trying to protect family as they tangle with Klansmen, an organization full of racist white cops on the make. Reluctantly, Rakeshaw agrees to help Smith’s in-laws, though it could mean white flight and having to sell-on his own home.

The Lightning Men is the second book in the Darktown series set in post-war Atlanta that follows the exploits of cops on either side of the racial divide that pervades the city. Set in the Deep South, the era of Jim Crow is not fully over, many white cops as members of the Klan, and racial bigotry and discrimination is still actively practiced. Lucius Boggs is the principled son of a preacher who has fallen for a domestic maid with a young son. His partner is the street-wise Tommy Smith, whose sister and brother-in-law have escaped overcrowding by moving into a white neighbourhood. Their white boss, Sergeant McInnis is being punished for opposing police corruption and is a reluctant advocate for his team. Denny Rakeshaw holds similar views, but he has his own problems after his Klansman brother-in-law gets himself caught up in a deadly affair. Most of other cops act in openly racist ways and often have schemes to exploit their position. Mullen spins out an engaging crime tale focused on rival gangs in the city, the activities of the Klan, and attempts to drive blacks from white neighbourhoods. In so doing, he also provides a searing commentary on the racial divisions and conflict in the city and their effects, and in particular the phenomena of white flight and the profiteering and politics around its playing out. There is no pulling of punches in his social critique and the story is all the better for it. The telling becomes a little ragged towards the end as sections become much shorter and tighter, but its nonetheless a compelling read.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Service

It's been a very quiet week. On the reading front I've been slowly working my way through Bolivar by Maria Arana. Talk about living a full and consequential life; one gets tired just reading it - the man must have been permanently exhausted from all the travel, politics, war and in-fighting.

My posts this week
Review of The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay
Doubly dangerous

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Doubly dangerous

Carter sighed. ‘Pete, I don’t …’

‘I know what I’m doing.’ Kiley rolled his neck.

‘People are most dangerous when they’ve got nothing to lose.’

‘No, they’re not. People are most dangerous when they could lose everything.’

‘So in this case it’s doubly dangerous. He has nothing to lose but his life.’

‘Stop talking double-speak, Harry. Just make sure you’re covering me when I kick the door in.’

‘We wait for back-up.’

‘No, we don’t.’

Kiley launched himself at the door.

Three shots punctured the wood. Kiley slid to the floor.

Carter returned fire.

‘I told you, meathead, doubly dangerous!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review of The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay (2012, Aurum Press)

There are now plenty of histories of Bletchley Park and its coding breaking endeavours. However, Bletchley was reliant on thousands of radio listeners who would tune in to enemy broadcasts, copy down the stream of Morse code, and send on for decryption. While many listeners were located in the UK, many were scattered across the globe and sometimes worked locally to break into signals traffic. McKay tells the stories of Y Service and the men and women who served as listeners, spending long hours scanning the dial and transcribing messages without any knowledge of what they were listening to or whether their work was making any difference. He very much focuses on individual experiences drawing on personal testimony and biographies.

The topic is a fascinating one, and important complement to the work on war-time code-breaking. The problem is that McKay’s telling is thin in substance, and his narrative sketchy and repetitive. He clearly wanted to tell the story through a biographical lens, rather than providing a more detailed historical or technical overview of the formation and workings of Y Service. The latter could have provided rich context, but is largely absent. Worse though is the string of anecdotes that are used to tell the story. They are light, disjointed, fragmentary, and quite poorly organized, delivered through a breezy-style of narrative. The result was I didn’t really get to know any one character or a detailed idea of their work and life as part of Y Service, or the intricacies as to how Y serviced operated. Overall, a somewhat disappointing read that lacked depth and insight.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A week of travel and work, but little reading. Enjoyed my visit to Galway and catching up with old friends even though I didn't manage to wander in to any book shops. Which is probably just as well as the pile is in a reasonably wobbly state already.

My posts this week
Review of The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman
Review of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
No pleasing some humans

Saturday, May 18, 2019

No pleasing some humans

‘Finn, no!’

Sally started to chase the tall dog across the field.


The chickens scattered, half-running, half-flying.

‘Finn! No!’

The dog span right, snatching up a hen.

‘Finn! Drop! Drop!’

Sally lost her footing, pitching forward.

‘Shit! Finn!’

She scrabbled to her feet, her knees stained green.

The hen was squawking, one of its wings flapping.

Finn started to trot towards her.

‘Drop the chicken, Finn! Bad dog!’

She grabbed his collar and slapped his nose.

The chicken hit the ground running.

Finn looked up confused – the bird had been a perfect present. There was no pleasing some humans.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review of The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (2016, Allen & Busby)

It was meant to be an evening celebrating her wedding anniversary to her husband, Kevin, attended by her grown son, Jack. Instead, Carla Reid comes round the following morning having been raped and beaten to find her husband in a coma and her son dead. The two young gang members who committed the crime are caught shortly afterwards and sent to prison. As Ben Toroa begins life behind bars, Carla is left to come to terms with losing her son and farm, and caring for her brain-damaged husband. She needs answers from Ben, but he’s reluctant to engage, wary of motives, and focused on surviving inside prison. As the years pass, their lives remain entwined, neither able to move much past the outcome of that fateful night.

Set in New Zealand, Fiona Sussman’s The Last Time We Spoke explores the aftermath of a crime on both the victim and perpetrator. Former teacher, Carla Reid, has been beaten and raped, her husband left a shadow of his former self, and her son murdered. She has to sell their farm to pay for her husband’s care. Ben Toroa, one of the two perpetrators, is a Mauri teenager from a broken home, his mother a mess and her boyfriend a violent thug; his membership of a street gang providing friendship and an outlet for his frustrations. He’s sent to maximum security prison where he struggles to survive unscathed. Sussman plots the years following that night and the tentative relationship between Carla and Ben as each struggles to come to terms with life’s hardships and transform themselves in the aftermath of grief and regret. There’s also a kind of postcolonial line running throughout that tries to set Ben’s Mauri heritage in the context of colonialism that gave the story a bit of a literary twist. The plotting and character development is nicely executed, though the narrative felt a little bit shallow at times, describing events rather than diving deep into thoughts and emotions, and the second criminal disappears entirely from view. And the end just sort of petered out. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging and thoughtful read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review of The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (1951, Doubleday)

Willie Sewell Keith is a rich kid fooling around as a nightclub pianist after getting a degree from Princeton. Shortly before being drafted into the Navy he meets and falls in love with May Wynn, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Keith struggles through Navy school, in part through folly, in part distracted by May, before being shipped out West. He misses the connection to his ship the USS Caine, a destroyer minesweeper, and spends six months on admin duties in Pearl Harbour, playing piano at an Admiral’s parties. When the USS Caine does arrive he discovers it’s a rusty, dilapidated wreck with a lacklustre crew and a cranky captain. Worse follows, with the skipper replaced by Captain Queeg, a cowardly, incompetent, disciplinarian with an inferiority complex and a vindictive streak. So begins fifteen months of hell for the officers and sailors of USS Caine as Queeg becomes increasingly paranoid, persecutes his crew, and blames everyone but himself for various mishaps. Things come to a head in a typhoon, with the ship at risk of capsizing, when the executive officer, backed-up by Keith, relieves Queeg of his command. The act of mutiny leads to a court-martial hearing, just at the point where Keith’s relationship with May is floundering. The officer’s futures are on the line, but there’s a difference between seizing control because a captain is believed to be mentally ill and because he’s sane but deeply unpopular, spiteful and inept.

Published in 1951, just six years after the end of the Second World War, Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is considered one of the best expositions of the moral complexities of wartime service. The tale is a coming of age tale of Willie Sewell Keith, a rich, Princeton-educated, young man who is drafted into the Navy and sent to serve on the USS Caine, a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific. Keith is confronted with a number of moral issues during his three years of service, principally centred on his relationship to May Wynn, a nightclub singer from a different social class and religion, and dealing with his scheming, malicious boss, Captain Queeg who makes the lives of everyone serving under him hell. Wouk’s novel excels at both character development and plot. He creates rich, multi-layered portraits of Keith, May Wynn, Queeg, and the crew of the USS Caine, and the evolving relationships between characters. While the opening is somewhat drawn out, once Keith is at sea the plot is very nicely constructed with a series of incidents that builds tension and momentum to the critical showdown, the Caine mutiny. What follows is an excellent set of court scenes. Rather than wrap things up neatly at this point, Wouk spins out the tale to the end of the war, nicely rounding out the tale. The prose and dialogue is excellent. The result is an engaging, thought-provoking story that provides a real sense of life in the navy (clearly informed by Wouk’s own time serving on destroyer minesweepers in the Pacific) and the characters who populate the story.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Another delivery of books turned up during the week - mostly history, with a couple of novels: The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth. In other news, we had a new addition to the household yesterday. A German Shepherd/Collie cross from a local rescue. The other three dogs seem happy enough to welcome him in despite his size. The chickens are reserving judgement.

My posts this week
Review of August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones
Smart spaces and smart citizens?
Review of Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten

Saturday, May 11, 2019


‘Hey, son, are you okay?’

Paddy dropped down to his haunches.

The boy was curled up under a privet hedge.

‘You alive?’

A leg started to stretch.

‘Well, at least you’re breathing. You need help?’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘You can’t lie there, son. You’ll catch your death with cold.’

‘I’ll be gone in a minute.’

‘Here, let me help you up.’

‘I’m fine.’ The boy shuffled out onto the pavement.

‘Jesus, you don’t look fine.’

The boy’s face was badly bruised.

‘You need to see a doctor.’

‘I need you to leave me alone.’

‘No-one wants to be alone, son.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review of August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones (2017, Soho Crime)

August Snow has returned to Detroit after a year of travel in the wake of winning an unfair dismissal case against the police, bringing down a corrupt mayor and several officers in the process. He’s now back living in Mexicantown in the house he grew-up in with his Mexican mother and black father and investing his $12 million pay out in revitalising his street. Shortly after arriving he’s summoned to the home of Eleanore Paget, the prickly oligarch of a wealth management bank. When he was a cop, Snow investigated the murder-suicide of her husband and a young woman. Now she wants him to look into the strange happenings in her bank. Snow declines and three days later Paget is dead, supposedly by suicide. Despite warnings not to look into Paget’s death, Snow finds himself drawn to the case, quickly discovering an international criminal conspiracy and tangling with the FBI. Despite the obvious dangers, he’s never been one to back out of a challenge and he wants justice whatever the cost.

August Snow is the first book in a new series featuring an ex-marine sniper, ex-Detroit cop turned vigilante. Independently wealthy from a large pay-out from a wrongful dismal case, Snow is trying to rebuild his life and his neighbourhood. In this outing he starts an investigation into the death of Eleanore Paget, the owner of a wealth management bank, who dies three days after he was summoned by her to look into what was happening in the bank. It’s clear that strange forces are at work inside the bank and that the perpetrators have no problem protecting their interests through violence, and that the FBI also has the bank in its sights. So starts Snow’s quest to take-on the bad guys, tangle with the FBI, and further piss-off his former colleagues, all the while eating gourmet meals and building a local community in Mexicantown. The result is a vigilante tale of a compassionate man waging a mini-war on an international criminal gang, aided by Paget’s ex-Army security guard, a local ex-Robin Hood, a shadowy master-hacker, and an ambitious FBI agent. By the end, a lot of weaponry has been used and the body-count for the baddies is high despite the odds being in their favour. Taken within that frame – a kind-of blockbuster crime thriller where the good guy has a bunch of specialist skills, knows ‘good criminals’ that will use their skills for the greater good, and the baddies badly underestimate their foe – its an entertaining read, with a nicely constructed plot and plenty of action. August Snow is a strong lead character, as is the city of Detroit, with Jones creating a strong sense of place. Overall, an engaging tale of compassion and vengeance.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Review of Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten (1998, Swedish; 2003, English; Soho Crime)

Richard von Hecht, a rich businessman, falls to his death from his apartment balcony, landing a few yards away from his wife and son. The Göteborg police are called, but the initial prognosis is suicide. The preliminary investigation though indicates foul play and the police start the process of discovering the identity of the killer. Inspector Irene Huss is part of the team, a former national judo champion who is happily married with twin teenage daughters. Her instinct is that it's a family matter and the police’s probing reveals some skeletons in the closet, but a bombing exploding at the man’s office suggests that there might be more to the case. Attention is soon focused on a well-known local criminal and a chapter of Hells Angels, but their relationship to the family is not clear and everyone seems to have something to hide.

Detective Inspector Huss is the first in a ten book police procedural series set in Göteborg, Sweden. While the title focuses attention on Huss, the investigation into the death of a rich businessman is very much a team affair conducted by a set of inspectors under the guidance of a superintendent.  The story then is as much about the dynamics of the team and general police work as it is about solving the murder of Richard von Hecht. The case itself is a little bit of slow burner, gaining pace and tension as it unfolds as various elements are uncovered and those connected to the case manoeuvre to try and protect their interests. Tursten does a nice job of spinning in blinds and feints and keeping a number of potential suspects in the frame, revealing family secrets and adding in an intriguing connection to organized crime. The team-driven investigation and the realism and mundanity of the procedural elements and cop’s lives reminded me of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Detective Martin Beck series. One thing that seemed a little odd is that the team seems to consist entirely of inspectors that are all frontline investigators with no lower ranked personnel seemingly involved; that jarred with the seeming realism otherwise. Also at times the prose was somewhat clunky; I’m not sure if that was a translation issue or a feature of the original text. Otherwise, this was an engaging and entertaining read and I intend to try the second in the series.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Stories we live by

‘Jack, just stop.’

‘Stop what?’

‘Your performance. Just be yourself.’

‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘You’re playing a role; acting as you think others expect you to.’

‘Stop talking rot.’

‘Then it’s to your own hackneyed script.’

‘Seriously, Jane, what the fuck are you talking about?’

‘Now that’s more like it! There’s the real Jack.’

‘Fuck-off, bitch.’

‘You’re living your life through stories rather than just being who you are.’

‘So are you. So are all of us. We're all character actors.’

‘But is it worth it? Always compromising?’

‘Chloe isn’t a compromise.’

‘When you really want Tom?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 3, 2019

April reviews

A relatively slow month of reading, but a good mix of entertaining tails. My read of the month was Renee Patrick's Design for Dying.

Design for Dying by Renee Patrick ****.5
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier ***
Evil Things by Katja Ivar ****
IQ by Joe Ide ****.5
Overkill by Vanda Symon ***.5
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama ***.5

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (2018, Viking)

Oleg Gordievsky’s life was defined by the KGB. He was born into a KGB family. His father was a KGB officer active in the Stalin purges. His older brother was a KGB agent. His first wife was a KGB agent, his second one the daughter of a KGB general. He was guided into the KGB, recruited while at university. With his skill in languages he progressed through the ranks of foreign intelligence serving in Germany at the time the Berlin wall was erected and in the Soviet embassy in Denmark. Despite outward appearances he was also deeply unhappy with the Soviet regime and the oppression of its people. He was recruited by British intelligence in the early 1970s while in Denmark and quickly proved to be an adept and valuable spy. Playing the long game, the British refrained from contact when he rotated back to Moscow, and were delighted when his next posting was to the embassy in London. Conspiring with their most important spy, MI6 removed Gordievsky’s opponents in the embassy by getting them ejected back home. In turn, he was appointed as the head of UK KGB operations, but was suddenly recalled back to Moscow ahead of formally taking up the role. Despite the faint tinkle of alarm bells, rather than defect Gordievsky returned and was placed under investigation. The spy raised the alarm, holding a Safeway’s plastic bag outside a Moscow bakery. The British sprung their escape plan into operation aware that that they’d never previously smuggled a Russian out of the country and their charge would the most wanted man on the run in the state. The British plan was both relatively simple in conception and dangerous – two couples would head for the Finnish border, picking up the spy on the way, and cross with him in the trunk. They even bought a baby with them. The problem was that they had a KGB escort the whole way.

Ben Macintyre tells Oleg Gordievsky’s life story, focusing in particular on his years as a British spy in the 1970s and 80s, and his defection to the West. As the account reveals, Gordievsky was as important to the British as Adolf Tolkachev (The Billion Dollar Spy) was to the US. Both spies were betrayed by US citizens working as Soviet spies, although Gordievsky managed to escape Moscow and flee to the West. As a member of the KGB foreign intelligence service Gordievsky had access to key internal intelligence and overseas operations and at the time of his defection was a colonel about to take up the job of KGB resident in London. Macintyre charts in detail his recruitment in the early 1970s, his eleven years of spying, through to his daring escape from the Soviet Union, and the important effects of his intelligence gathering and personal insights. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were strong admirers of his diplomatic and political suggestions for guiding how they handled the Soviet leadership. For research Macintyre interviewed Gordievsky multiple times, as well as former colleagues, his MI6 handlers, those involved in his escape, and others involved in his life. He then spins his evidence into a compelling narrative, detailing Gordievsky’s motivations and actions, how he was handled, and the value of his spying to the West. The result is an engaging account of a man driven by a desire to see the fall of a regime despite the personal cost.