Sunday, June 30, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A weekend of digging a french drain between showers, playing with the dogs, and reading an old Terry Pratchett novel, The Night Watch. I could get used to this kind of life.

My posts this week
Review of The Liberator by Alex Kershaw
Review of Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell
Normal family

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Normal family

‘So your mum and her dad are married?’


‘And you’re married?’


‘But you’re brother and sister?’

‘Step-brother and step-sister. We’re not blood relations. We’re the same age.’

‘But you grew up together?’

‘From the age of twelve when my mum moved in with her dad.’

‘So, you were living as siblings and then you started dating?’

‘When we were sixteen.’

‘Even though your parents were married?’


‘But you have a younger step-sister who is related to you both?’


‘And you have two kids?’

‘We’re not hillbillies, y’know.’

‘You’re not a normal family, either.’

‘Yes, we are.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, June 28, 2019

Review of The Liberator by Alex Kershaw (2012, Crown)

Felix Sparks wanted to study law at college but his poor background led him to ride the railroad before enlisting in the Army. Having saved enough to pay the fees, he left the army and enrolled in a law degree only for World War II to intervene. In July 1943 he is coming ashore in Sicily as a second lieutenant in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th ‘Thunderbird’ Division. As Alex Kershaw’s history reveals, his journey to the end of the war involves three more beach landings at Salerno, Anzio and southern France, fighting in the Vosges Mountains, battles across Germany ending with the liberation of Dachau. For 500 days his regiment was almost constantly on the front-line and suffered some of the highest casualty rates amongst the Western allied armies. Sparks rose through the ranks and unlike many other commanders led from the front, taking part in fierce frontline fighting in Italy and Germany, miraculously surviving for so long when few others did (though he is seriously wounded and spends some time in hospital). Sparks’ service was not, however, without controversy. Devoted to his men and their welfare he was prepared to challenge and defy his superiors when needed. Ordered to liberate Dachau, his unit is horrified at what they find and some of his officers line-up and shoot SS men. Shortly after, he bars a general and a journalist from entering the site. The two events haunt his career and reputation post-war.

Kershaw tells Sparks’ story from childhood to his post-war career as a lawyer, judge, National Guard general, and gun control campaigner, concentrating on his Second World War experiences. At times the story is a little sketchy and thin, both with respect Sparks’ experiences and the wider context of his regiment/division and the broader war effort and politics, but trying to tell a life-time and especially 500 days of conflict in less than 400 pages was always going to be a tricky task. Kershaw’s tactic is to provide a light overview of all stages of the journey and focus in particular on key events, especially Anzio, entering Germany, and liberating Dachau. Generally, the balance is right, but it does leave the first half of the book a little anaemic at times, with the story growing in interest and detail as it progresses. The result is a fascinating tale of a determined man and those that he fought with and their remarkable and bloody journey from Sicily to Munich.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review of Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell (2018, McFori Ink)

Two bodies are discovered buried in the Wicklow Mountains. Former policeman, Bunny McGarry, knows that the evidence trail will eventually lead to his door. Always somewhat unhinged and further traumatised from ten days at the hands of a mad-man the previous year, Bunny begins to come apart at the seams, talking to ghosts, seeing trackers everywhere, and acting more erratically than usual. Bunny’s two business partners are not fairing much better. Having built a successful investigations company, Paul seems determined to destroy it through a pointless tit-for-tat rivalry with a competitor that quickly escalates into all-out war. Brigit is in despair over Paul’s actions, the perilous state of the company, and Bunny’s mental health. Both situations are spiralling out of control and neither seems set to end well.

Last Orders is the third book in the Dublin trilogy, plus prequel, and marries both together, with the events of the prequel catching up with Bunny McGarry and effecting the fate of MCM Investigations, which is already hanging in the balance due to a feud with another company. McDonnell runs the tale as two strands – the investigation into the deaths of two men found buried in the Wicklow Mountains, and Paul and Bridget’s war with the Kelleher brothers – that become entwined through Bunny administering a dose of rough justice to a cheating gigolo. It should have been great fun, but the story felt too staged and contrived, moving from one set-piece to another, the humour a little flat with few laugh-out-loud moments, and the denouement was pretty much signalled from the start. The characters are somewhat pale shadows of themselves – Bunny is missing some verve, Paul seems to have become someone else – and the bionic FBI agent Alana Dove is straight from the ‘larger-than-life and completely unbelievable’ casting couch. Comic crime capers often suffer from stagey-ness and oddball characters, but in the best of them – as with earlier books in this series – they are inherent or incidental to the story rather than being its crux. While the story has its moments, for me it’s the weakest of the books so far.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Reasonably rare to read back-to-back five star reads and the two from this week will make picking a book of the month in a week's time tough. I doubt they'll get much competition from yesterday's haul from the local book shop, not because they won't be good reads, but because I'm unlikely to have read them by next Friday. Looking forward to reading this pile.

My posts this week
Review of Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Review of The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
They'll be another if you blabber

Saturday, June 22, 2019

They'll be another if you blabber

Leahy was three steps along the corridor when the shot sounded.

He spun back and threw open the door.

The prisoner had slumped to the floor, dark blood gathering round his head.

‘What the fuck!’

A pistol was hanging by Kelly’s side.


‘You told me to get rid of him.’

‘I told you to get him out of here, not blow his fucking brains out!’

Kelly shrugged. ‘He deserved what he got.’

‘Since when did you become judge and executioner?’

‘Since this fucker and his pals killed Bates.’

‘This is murder.’

‘And they’ll be another if you blabber, Leahy.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Review of Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris (2008, Mariner)

Sixteen year old Nouf Shawari is due to get wedded in a couple of weeks when she disappears from her family’s island-based mansion along with a truck and her favourite camel. The family asks Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide, to search for her. Ten days later, just as he is losing hope, her body is discovered in a desert wadi. The coroner determines that she died not of dehydration or sunstroke, but by drowning, and that she was pregnant. However, a payment from the family returns a verdict of accidental death. Nouf’s brother asks his fiancé, Katya, who works in the coroner’s office, along with Nayir, to secretly investigate his sister’s death. Nayir is conservative in his views on gender, strictly observing cultural traditions, and is deferential in his manner. In contrast, Katya is more forthright, has a doctorate and wishes to continue to work when she marries, though she follows her father’s wishes and social norms and is always accompanied by a chaperone. The two form an uneasy alliance as they try to trace Nouf’s last few hours and determine who might have wanted her dead.

Finding Nouf is the first book in the Nayir Sharqi and Katya Hijazi trilogy of crime mysteries set in Saudi Arabia. Nayir works as a desert guide, and this outing starts his career as an investigator, and Katya works as a lab technician in the coroner’s office. They are paired together through their shared acquaintance with the brother of Nouf Shawari, Katya being his fiancé and Nayir an old friend. Nouf is found dead in the desert having drowned in a flash flood and the brother asks each of them to investigate her death. The sixteen year old girl was due to be married shortly after she disappeared and it soon transpires that she planned to flee her new husband in New York, where they were due to honeymoon. She was also pregnant when she died. Ferraris uses this premise to tell a compelling murder mystery tale that is firmly rooted in the culture and place of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, she creates a palpable sense of place with respect to the landscape, terrain, architecture and weather, and carefully sets the cultural context especially with respect to gender, religion, wealth and family. The contrast and awkward tension between Nayir and Katya nicely unfolds, as does the investigative elements of the plot that has plenty of intrigue and leads to a satisfying denouement. I’ve already added the second book to my list of future reads.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Review of The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (2017, Faber and Faber)

Sheriff Calvin Cooper overseas the tiny population of Caesura, West Texas, located in the third least populous county in the United States. The residents all chose to live there, not sure whether they are criminals or witnesses in need of protection, but knowing that their key memories have been wiped as a part of new experimental programme. Afraid of the consequences, rarely does anybody leave what they call ‘The Blinds’. Supplies arrive once a week and occasionally a new resident shows up, picking a new name based on those of movie stars and vice-presidents. After eight years of relative mundanity there’s been a suicide and a murder in quick succession attracting the attention of outside federal agents. The residents are nervous, the deputy sheriff smells a conspiracy, and Cooper wants to use the fear to get Fran Adams, the only resident with a child, to leave. The uneasy peace starts to unravel as the truth of The Blinds starts to be revealed and it appears that nobody is as innocent as believed. And with a town full of criminals who fear the truth more than death, and outside interests interfering, Cooper is going to struggle to maintain order.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find crime novels with a fresh take on the genre with most fitting into classic moulds and are derivative in storyline and twists. The Blinds, however, does manage to create a new angle blending together aspects of a Western with a SF memory loss tale. Caesura, West Texas, is a dusty, isolated town of second chances. All of its residents except for an eight year old boy and the three-person police team are either criminals or key witness who’ve had their memories altered so they cannot remember what led to them being there. What keeps them in place is a fear of what will happen if they leave, but a suicide and a murder have them worried about danger closer to home. Sheriff Calvin Cooper is charged with keeping the peace, but the two deaths have attracted outside attention, which along with the arrival of four new residents threatens to destabilise the community and reveal truths that nobody wants to rediscover. Sternbergh uses this premise to spin-out a compelling yarn in which the past gradually intrudes on the present leading to betrayal, violence, redemption, and desperate fight to survive. The story immediately grabs the reader’s attention and maintains its tight hold until the final page. The plot is very nicely constructed with plenty of intrigue and tension, the characterization is excellent, and there’s a strong sense of place and context. A wonderful, engaging, fresh tale of corrupted justice. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I've still a dozen books on the TBR but it felt like it needed a bit of better mix to choose from so I've put in another order with the local bookshop. Hopefully the following will be wending their way to me shortly to be shuffled into the pile: Antonio Hodgson, The Devil in the Marshalsea; Paula Matter, Last Call; Saeida Rouass, The Assembly of the Dead; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; Ann Cleeves, The Crow Trap; Sara Gran, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Asa Larsson, The Blood Spilt; Karin Fossum, Don't Look Back; Patricia Gibney, The Missing Ones; Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Murder at the Savoy; Laura Wilson, An Empty Death.

My posts this week
Review of Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin
Review of London Rules by Mick Herron
What kind of question is that?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

What kind of question is that?

‘Fifty kinds of love? Seriously, why do you read these things?’

Matt threw the magazine onto the floor and dropped on the sofa.

Chloe crossed her legs and glared at him. ‘Because they entertain. They enlighten. They comfort.’


‘Yes, comfort. They let you know that you’re not the only woman living with a Neanderthal.’

‘You needed a magazine for that?’

‘Matt, do you love me?’

‘What kind of question is that?’

‘A pointed one.’

‘Because I criticised your magazine?’

‘Because you don’t understand why I read them.’

‘This is ridiculous.’

‘What’s ridiculous is that you haven’t answered the question.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review of Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin (2018, Gill)

During the Second World War Ireland declared itself neutral and sought to stay out of the conflict. Its strategic location on the edge of the Atlantic and sharing a land border with Britain meant it was under pressure from both the Allies and Germany to favour and aid their cause. As McMenamin details, while the Irish government cooperated covertly with the British, especially on intelligence work and enabling flights over Donegal, it stuck rigidly to neutrality with Germany. The government maintained diplomatic relations and let its legation operate throughout the war, but also actively policed spying and jailed German spies, and sought to limit German influence on domestic politics and activities that might lead to the Allies to occupy the country. The IRA, on the other hand, hoped collaboration with Germany might lead to a united Ireland and the organization actively aided German spies sent to Ireland, notably Hermann Gortz. In response, section G2 of the Irish intelligence service sought to actively limit German communications and capture spies, and the Irish government interred IRA members. The Abwehr and SD sent a relatively small number of spies to Ireland including a handful of Irish nationals, a couple of South Africans, and an Indian. All but Gortz were caught shortly after landing or never made it ashore, and most seemed ill-suited to the task with the exception of Gortz and Gunther Schutz.

McMenamin provides a relatively broad account of Ireland’s relationship with Germany and Britain and its quest to remain neutral, focusing on the various spies Germany sent to Ireland and the work of G2. In particular, he spends some time detailing the work of Richard Hayes, the Director of the National Library, who was recruited on a part-time basis by G2 to crack German ciphers and help interrogate prisoners. Hayes was a polymath, skilled as both a linguist and a mathematician. His approach to cryptography was mathematical, but also social and technical, spending time talking to spies, riflling through their possessions for clues, and using forensics on burned paper. He made a number of contributions to cracking German ciphers including being the first to identify the use of microdots and solving agent in-field radio and legation ciphers, the latter of which were used in the Ardennes offensive. After the war his work was officially recognized in a secret meeting with Churchill and MI5, and he continued as director of the National Library until 1967 when he took up a position of librarian for the Chester Beatty Library.

While the book is nicely written and interesting, it’s timeline jumps around a bit, much of the material about German spies in Ireland has been told previously, and the new focus on Hayes is a little thin, in part due to the lack of source material. It would have also been nice to get more technical explanation of how the ciphers worked and were cracked, and the text linked to its sources. It would have also been preferable if the hyperbole could have been dropped. Hayes work was important, and his story worth telling, but he was not all that ‘stood between Ireland and Nazi Germany’ and ‘the fate of the country and the outcome of the war’ did not rest ‘on his shoulders’. His work was far from ‘crucial’ to the war (though it no doubt influenced Irish position and policy), and had marginal effect on turning the tide in the Allies favour (by late 1944 the tide had long turned). And some statements simply don’t stack up. Gortz was arrested in November 1941 and the idea he could have tipped the Germans to the double-cross system or the plans to land in Normandy as claimed make little sense. This hyperbole aside the book provides a readable overview of Ireland’s approach to Germany and its spies and the efforts of Richard Hayes and his G2 colleagues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of London Rules by Mick Herron (2018, John Murray)

A terrorist attack in Derbyshire and a pro-Brexit MP with designs on his job and a tabloid journalist for a wife has the Prime Minister on his toes, and by association Claude Whelan the new head of the Secret Service. Whelan will soon have more trouble to deal with, including a Muslim MP who is acting strangely and his own service being implicated in the attack. Slough House, the dumping ground for washed up spies, is never far from the Secret Services woes and one its occupants soon find themselves the target of a murder and the team chasing terrorists despite them supposedly being locked-down. Slough House might be home to the slow horses - capable of making any situation worse - but they still play with London Rules.

London Rules is the fifth book in the excellent Slow Horses series about the exploits of a bunch of has-been spies, each with a personal problem, who’ve been sent to Slough House to see out the rest of their career. In this outing, the gang of misfits are trying to get to the bottom of why Roddy Ho, a narcissist hacker with a personality bypass, is the target of a murder attempt and tangling with a terrorist cell enacting an old British secret service plan designed to destabilise a country. As usual, they are only partially equipped to deal with the threat and quickly make matters worse by accidentally killing a person they’re trying to protect. What makes the book shine are Herron’s cast of dysfunctional characters and their interactions that mix farce, slapstick and politically incorrectness. The dialogue often sparkles, especially any conversation involving Jackson Lamb, a man who treats everyone with disdain and condescension; a man who thrives mansplaining mansplaining and is comfortable telling cripple jokes to a disabled woman. The plot thread involving the terrorists would have worked better I felt if they weren’t more incompetent than the slow horses: the only thing that kept them from being caught quickly was luck, momentum and picking non-obvious targets. In a way the plot almost felt like a foil designed to enable Herron to spin some farce and create character situations, and poke fun at politics and the establishment, rather than being the central concern. Nonetheless, another clever, witty addition to a must-read series that is crying out for adaptation for television.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday was publication day for 'The Right to the Smart City' book edited by Paolo Cardullo, Cesare Di Feliciantonio and myself published by Emerald. The book focuses on the interrelationship of smart cities, rights, citizenship, social justice, commons, civic tech, participation and ethics, and includes chapters by Katharine Willis, Jiska Engelbert, Alberto Vanolo, Michiel de Lange, Catherine D'Ignazio, Eric Gordon, Elizabeth Christoforetti, Andrew Schrock, Sung-Yueh Perng, Gabriele Schliwa, Nancy Odendaal, Ramon Ribera-Fumaz, and the three editors.

My posts this week
Review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Generally being the operative word
May reviews

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Generally being the operative word

McStay’s gaze settled on the hands clutching the crucifix.

‘Copycat killing,’ Logan said. ‘Poor cow.’

‘Unless Tasker is innocent.’

‘Tasker killed those three women. A court convicted him.’

‘So? Judge and juries get it wrong. We get it wrong.’

‘Don’t let Carmichael hear you say that.’

‘Carmichael’s a great believer in Occam’s Razor.’


‘He likes easy solutions.’

‘Because they’re generally right.’

‘Generally being the operative word. Tasker has always protested his innocence. Never confessed. Didn’t even hint at it.’

‘You really think this is the same killer?’

‘Or it could be a copycat.’

‘Jesus, Gerry, make your mind up!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2018, Riverhead Books)

At a party the author is introduced to Carlos Carballo, a man obsessed with political assassinations. He wants Vasquez to write a book about the assassination of the Colombian liberal, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, murdered by a lone gunman on the 9th April 1948, plunging the country into a ten year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people died and a million were displaced. Like the rumours surrounding the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, and the assassination of John Kennedy, Carballo is convinced that there was a wider conspiracy behind Gaitán’s death involving at least one other gunman backed by a group hiding in the shadows manipulating events. Vasquez gets into an argument with Carballo, accidentally breaking his nose in the altercation. A few years later Vasquez meets Carballo again, giving away information that would be of interest for his conspiracy theory, which leads to a theft. Vasquez promises to try and recover the object by promising to write the book Carballo wants written. The material Carballo produces captures Vasquez’s imagination making him question accepted history despite him being resistant to revisionist claims.

The Shape of the Ruins is an auto-fiction account of how Vasquez comes to write a novel concerning the assassinations of two twentieth century Colombian politicians that had lasting consequences for the country. The first death is the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and the parallel inquiry conducted by a young lawyer, Marco Tulio Anzola, who published a book in 1917 setting out an alternative account to the official investigation. The second murder is the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and the obsessive investigation by Carlos Carballo who wants to produce a book that replicates Anzola’s work. Carballo has assembled what he believes is extensive evidence of a conspiracy concerning Gaitán’s death, but he wants a professional writer of Vasquez’s stature to write the book. Carballo meets Vasquez at a party, but Vasquez wants no part of the venture. Circumstances, however, conspire to make Vasquez take on the job. His investigation leads him to question the nature of history and conspiracy theories, and the obsessions of those that seek to challenge and re-write the past. It’s a fairly lengthy tale, with much philosophical wandering and autographical asides, and long passages recounting Anzola’s and Carballo’s stories. Given the mix of official history and conspiracy theories it’s difficult to know the extent to which the tale is fiction and faction, which matches in many ways the contested nature of Colombian history. And that’s the point of the story, I feel, given the politics and violence that haunts the country. In that sense, the book makes an engaging, reflexive and thoughtful intervention regarding Colombian identity, memory, and living with the past. It’s a little too long in places, especially recounting Anzola’s quest, but is nonetheless an interesting read.

Monday, June 3, 2019

May reviews

May was mostly a good month of reads. Bolivar was an excellent book, but my read of the month was Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, who coincidentally died a couple of days after my review.

Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana *****
The Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen ****
The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay **.5
The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman ***.5
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk *****
August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones ****
Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten ****
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre ****.5

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent last week in Medellin, Colombia taking part in a workshop and taking a look around the city. A vibrant, interesting place that's trying to put its troubled history behind it. The workshop was excellent and the city well worth a visit. I didn't spot a novel set in the city, so settled for Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Shape of the Ruins set mainly in Bogota. I'll try and post a review during the week. 

My posts this week
Review of Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana
Review of The Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Holy cow

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Holy cow

‘I don’t think this is going to work, Wes.’

‘You’re breaking up with me?’

‘We’re chalk and cheese.’

‘You are breaking up with me. Holy cow.’

‘I mean, who says ‘holy cow’ anymore?’

‘You’re breaking up with me because I say holy cow?’

‘No. Yes. It’s symptomatic of what’s wrong.’

‘Wow. And I thought it was going swell. Shows how much of a dupe I am.’

‘I’m just saying that we aren’t suited. We like different things.’

‘Except each other.’


‘Not even each other? Wow. You’re some actress.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘None of this seems fair, Diane. Holy cow.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.