Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (2010, Little Brown and Co)

The Disappearing Spoon is a collection of essays about the development of the periodic table and the discovery of the elements and their various uses. In large part it is a history of science, but told through a series of stories relating to scientists, and their work and rivalries. But it also details the science related to the periodic table, the constituent elements, their properties and useful characteristics. Kean also mixes in other anecdotes relating to mythology, medicine, industry, war, etc.

In terms of organisation, Kean loosely structures the book into four parts and focuses each chapter on a group of related elements. It creates a somewhat jumbled arrangement (and in some ways the essays could be read in any order), but it does mean that just about every element is discussed in some fashion. It is difficult to see how else to give the book its wide scope given overlapping timelines of discovery – a straight chronology would have been difficult, but the structure does make the book feel somewhat bitty at times.

The writing can also be a bit dry and impenetrable for someone who has little chemistry, physics or biology knowledge, though Kean does a reasonable job at trying to introduce and explain various science breakthroughs that won numerous Nobel prizes, and gives it a human edge by discussing the lives of those who made the telling discovery. Nonetheless, there were passages that will mean a helluva lot more to those with a science background than the average reader.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

The latest addition to the garden - a bee hotel. A lot of sawing, drilling and puzzling how best to put all the logs in. There's sawdust everywhere in the shed! A bit late for this season but we'll bring in over winter and put out again next spring. Hopefully it'll survive any strong winds between now and winter hibernation.

My posts this week

Review of The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney
Review of The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum
You, Me, Always

Saturday, July 27, 2019

You, Me, Always

‘How many times do we need to tell you? Stay away from that boy!’

‘His name’s Niall.’

‘And he’s nothing but trouble.’

‘You mean he’s a taig.’

‘I mean he’s … not for you.’

‘Dad, it’s 2001. The war’s ended.’

‘The Good Friday Agreement’s just a piece of paper. This is real life.’

‘And what we have is real love.’

‘What you have is infatuation. Lust!’

‘That’s it, I’m off out.’

‘You’ll go to your room!’

‘I’m nineteen, Dad, not nine.’

Ellie paused at the garden gate, smiled, and mouthed the words chalked on the wall opposite.

‘You, Me, Always.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review of The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney (2017, Sphere)

Susan Sullivan tries and fails to contact the police before heading to Ragmullin cathedral to confront her past. She’s found a few hours later at the foot of a pew strangled to death. Detective Inspector Lottie Parker is assigned as the lead investigator. Shortly after interviewing Susan’s boss, local planner James Brown, he is also found strangled at his home. Besides working together, the two victims both have identical tattoos on their inner thigh. Lottie’s investigation leads her to St Angela’s, a former children’s home that is slated to be re-developed as a hotel and golf course. A cabal of powerful interests are behind the project, and with the planning application pending they’re determined to protect their investment. But Lottie’s digging suggests that the murders are rooted as much in the past and the victim’s childhood as the present.

The Missing Ones is the first in the DI Lottie Parker series set in Ragmullin, a small Irish town. In this outing Parker tangles with two issues that have dominated Ireland’s recent history – Church scandals concerning children’s homes, child abuse and adoption, and cronyism, clientelism, and planning and development scandals. Set over a freezing winter, Parker and her team investigate the deaths of two planning officers and their links to former children’s home, St Angela’s. In so doing, she tangles with several influential people with interests in the site including a bishop, a developer, a local government manager, and a bank manager, each of whom knows her superintendent, who tries to rein in her confrontational approach. Lottie, however, is determined to get to the truth, even if that means neglecting her three teenage kids, and when a priest from Rome is found dead the pressure to bring the killer to justice mounts. Gibney’s strategy for holding the reader’s attention is to keep the pace and tension high throughout, the body count and abductions mounting, and to create as much drama in Lottie’s life as in the case itself. It works well in terms of maintaining interest and keeping the pages turning, but also works to mask the unlikeliness of much of the plot. Almost the whole of Lottie’s family are integral to the case – her son and daughter, her mother, her brother, her best friend. She’s also in an will-they-won’t they relationship with her sergeant and is jousting with her boss. Gibney uses a series of obvious plot devices to keep things on track – not answering phone calls, talking in front of suspects, idiot boss – and the denouement was somewhat contrived and over-the-top (but then that’s common enough for the genre). My one other quibble was Ragmullin was so obviously Mullingar (as the anagram denotes) why not just use the real name? As long as one suspends belief and doesn’t press too hard on conspiracy plot, or Lottie’s tangled personal connections to it, and thinks of the story as a thriller rather than realistic police procedural then it’s an engaging and entertaining read.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum (2016, Harper)

Amy Elizabeth (Betty) Thorpe was born on November 22, 1910, in Minneapolis. Her father was a career soldier and her mother a socialite and they moved around and spent time in Europe before settling in Washington DC. Betty understood her allure as a young teenager and soon discovered sex, becoming pregnant as at nineteen. She quickly latched onto Arthur Pack, a British diplomat twenty years her senior, and married him. She then moved to England to have the child, which the Packs placed into foster care before heading to Chile where Pack was newly posted. The Packs moved in vaulted company and Betty took an interest in polo, had a couple of affairs, and also had a daughter. They then moved to Spain, where again she fell in and out of bed with senior nationalist figures and first drew the attention of British intelligence services. After the civil war breaks out and she moves to France but makes forays into Spain to help extract the British embassy and also to save a lover, using her charms to ferry in medical supplies and negotiate his release from a Republican prison. Her next move is to Poland, where she is formally recruited as a spy and instructed to develop contacts with senior government officials and starts an affair with the personal assistant to the foreign minister, gathering vital information in the lead up to the outbreak of war and also took part in an operation in Czechoslovakia to steal vital documents. Next it is back to Chile where her marriage breaks down and, after a couple of adventures via boat and airplane tracking diplomatic delegations, she ends up in Washington where taking the role of a journalist she practices honey trap operations against the Italian and Vichy embassies to steal cipher books. Having successfully obtained the information she was hoping to go behind enemy lines in France, but the operation was dropped after her cover was blown. After the war she lived in France with her new husband, telling her story to a fellow former spy in 1962, dying of cancer a year later.

Blum tells the story of Betty Pack’s life, who’s work as a spy was recognized by Roosevelt and Churchill and was declared by OSS chief Bill Donovan as ‘the greatest unsung heroine of the war.’ Operating under the codename ‘Cynthia’, Betty used her charm and sex to not only gather secrets via pillow talk, but also to set-up and participate in daring thefts and aid escapes. She was so determined to succeed that she would often run great risks to repeatedly try to get what her spymasters desired, and often defied their counsel. Blum charts her various adventures and offers some speculation as to her motives and psychology. While she clearly was highly charismatic, she was also quite self-centred, bloody-minded and manipulative. She fell easily in-and-out of love and had no compunction in betraying lovers. The telling is almost like a novel, though one that is a little dry and stilted, and is told as if the narrator was present and witnessed the events, yet clearly the dialogue and much of the action is speculation based on some testimony. The book is also a little oddly organized. The biography doesn’t always run chronologically and the main narrative is interdispersed with Betty’s interactions with her biographer, a former fellow spy, and their trip to Ireland. The main purpose of this thread seems to be to reveal how her story came to light and the key source of material for Blum (Hyde, her biographer, had gathered together her testimony, many letters, and other documents depositing them in a university archive on his death). It’s as if Blum has a sense that the reader will not believe some of the story and wants to reassure the reader of its veracity (at the start and end he is keen to assert it is a true telling), but in a lot of ways it’s a distraction. Despite Blum’s statements, there is little getting around the fact that the documentary sources are somewhat sketchy and based mostly on self-testimony and the story needs framing in a more circumspect and critical way than simply asserting that it is the truth. Nonetheless, Betty Pack did live an incredible life and did make vital contributions to the Allies intelligence operations before and during the Second World War.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A nice morning talking about books. I've been persuaded to try one of Robert Macfarlane's books about place, landscape and nature. Having a quick browse, I'll probably start with Landmarks and see how I get on.

My posts this week

Review of The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson
Review of Metropolis by Philip Kerr
Dry land

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dry land

Paul leveraged the spade into the soil.

Another year, another crop.

Except the previous two years had been fallow.

First, Cathy had died shortly after diagnosis.

Then three weeks later, he’d been made redundant.

He'd been cut adrift from his two key anchors.

Lost at sea for almost two years; bobbing around in grief and self-loathing.

He’d almost drowned in sorrows and given up hope of seeing the shore again.

But then he’d been caught in a loose net and pulled gently towards the coast.

Friends who ignored his drunken hubris.

Now the dry land was preparing to flower again.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review of The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson (2008, Penguin; 2004 Swedish)

Rebecka Martinsson is still traumatised from her last visit home to Kiruna in northern Sweden when she ended up fighting for her life. Her law firm has retained her services, but has her on light duties. When the firm is approached by a set of churches in Kiruna for legal services one of the partners thinks its opportunity to aid Rebecka’s rehabilitation. She journeys home with her boss, planning to stay on for a few days after the Church business is conducted. When they arrive, however, they find the Church is reeling from the murder of one of their women priests. A staunch feminist, Mildred Nilsson had managed to polarise the community with her self-defence classes for women, an all-female Bible study group, and establishing a church fund to protect the local she-wolf from being hunted. The local police are not short of potential suspects, but they are short of any evidence. Rebecka unearths a fresh lead, handing it over to the police and hoping it’s the end of her involvement in the case.

The Blood Spilt is the second book in the Rebecka Martinsson series set in northern Sweden. Martinsson is a corporate lawyer with mental health issues after an encounter that left three people dead. In this outing, she travels back home two years after the traumatic events of the first book, still licking her wounds and trying to get her life back on track. She stays in an off-the-track bed-and-breakfast, visits her grandmother’s house, and makes friends with a teenage boy who has a mental disability. She has a bit of work to do for a local church, but that is quickly concluded. The local community is reeling from the death of female priest and Rebecka discovers some evidence and passes it on to the police, but as far as she’s concerned that’s the end of her involvement. However, she has an unfortunate habit of crossing paths with murderers. There’s a good sense of place, the characterisation well drawn, and portrayal of the complex web of connections and local rivalries is nicely done. The investigation into the death of the priest is the main thread of the story, but there are a couple of subplots relating to Rebecka’s personal life and the journey of a she-wolf. While nicely written, the latter added little to the story and was a bit of a distraction. Martinsson builds the tension well and the final section of the book has a couple of chilling climaxes, and a couple of the events made me quite annoyed (but not in negative way) in terms of how they turned out (they just had a powerful affective punch). Overall, an engaging read that left me worrying about what trauma Larsson will put Rebecka through in future books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Metropolis by Philip Kerr (2019, Quercus)

Berlin, 1928. Germany is still trying to recover from the bloodshed and crippling penalties of the First World War, the Weimar Republic is at its decadent height, the Nazis are starting to gain political influence and power, and anti-Semitism is on the rise. Bernie Gunther has been promoted from vice to the Kripo murder squad. His first task is to review the Silesian Station killings in which four prostitutes are murdered and scalped in quick succession. He’s barely acquainted himself with the case when a fifth murder takes place, the victim the daughter of one the city's criminal king-pins who wants to administer his own justice. Then a second set of murders start targeting crippled war veterans who beg on the city streets. Bernie has a theory that the two sets of murders are linked, but his two bosses are unconvinced. He's never one to shy away from a hunch, however, and is determined to solve the cases even if that means taking a path that deviates from the straight and narrow.

Metropolis is the 14th and final book in the Bernie Gunther series, and the last by Philip Kerr who died of cancer last year. I’ve been caught between wanting to jump in and not wanting the series to end, having read the initial trilogy twenty years or so ago, but last week took the plunge. This outing takes the reader back to Bernie’s first case as a member of the murder squad in 1928 and his attempt to solve two sets of murders, one targeting prostitutes and the other crippled war veterans. Bernie’s first wife is already dead, he’s living in a boarding house, and his somewhat wonky moral compass and cynicism are already in place, though his perspective shifts somewhat in the book from a fatalism to looking out for oneself to get by. It’s a view he adopts over the next thirty years as he tries to survive a murderous regime and its aftermath. Unlike some of the other books that span years, this outing is a relatively straightforward, self-contained police procedural. As usual, Kerr drops in a number of well-known historical figures in the police and movies, and peppers the story with historical facts and a good sense of place and time. And Bernie stoically tracks down clues and takes his own path to get to the truth. A fitting end to an excellent series, with a charismatic, anti-hero lead character who lived a life full of twists and turns that rarely went well, despite him trying roughly to do the right thing. I’ll no doubt revisit the early books in the coming years.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been re-reading interviews as I write a paper. This quote is sage advice.

"I think your problem is that you think about things in terms of whether they make sense. That is the problem. We have got to abandon this idea of making sense, because the fact that it makes sense doesn't seem to make any progress at all with these guys."

The world only starts to make sense if you stop trying to think about it rationally!

My posts this week

Review of Last Call by Paula Matter
Review of The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Like father, like son

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Like father, like son

‘I don’t like him serving us,’ Kath said, dropping down into seat at the long table.


‘Mr Sour-puss there.’ She nodded at a silver-haired man spooning veg onto plates.

‘Let me guess, you’re worried he’ll poison you.’

‘His son killed five other kids.’

‘Yeah, his son. Not him.’

‘Like father, like son.’

‘Stop talking blather woman. I heard he used to be a respectable lawyer.’

‘And now he volunteers in a soup kitchen.’

‘To pay back his son’s debt and avoid the worst of the abuse. We’re as fucked-up as him.’

‘We’re not murderers.’

‘And nor is he.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Review of Last Call by Paula Matter (2018, Midnight Ink)

Maggie Lewis works as a bartender at the local VFW in a small town in northern Florida. On her night off Korean war veteran Jack Hoffman is murdered in his truck in the car park after closing. The next morning she’s brought in for questioning by the local police chief given her hair band was found in the truck and her passcode used to enter the bar in the early hours. Released after questioning Maggie knows she’s still the chief suspect despite the wider evidence. She has little faith in the police to discover the real killer given that they failed to solve the murder of her husband two year’s previously and turns to her lodger, a former policeman who’s waiting on his PI license, for help. The two set out to discover who is trying to frame Maggie for murder, a course of action that neither the police nor the real killer appreciates.

Last Call charts Maggie Lewis’ attempt to prove she is innocent of the murder of one of her barflies in a VFW bar in northern Florida. The front cover describes the story as smart and funny, but unfortunately the tale is neither. The plot is a rather mundane whodunit set around the clientele of a bar and there’s no clever misdirection or twist, and the writing is rather workman-like and flat. Maggie Lewis comes across as angry and antsy and lacks a razor sharp wit needed to inject the needed humour. Which was a shame as there’s a lot of potential in the character – she’s down-to-earth, she lives hand-to-mouth barely keeping her head above water financially, and she’s hard-edged but vulnerable after the murder of her husband. She’s not too bright however, she lacks emotional intelligence, she’s not particularly likeable, and she blunders her way through a case she doesn’t actually solve leaving a trail of ruined lives through revealed secrets in her wake. None of that was exploited to its full potential. I was expecting a bit more sass and bite, but it was all too pedestrian and humdrum.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review of The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002, Doubleday)

It’s the anniversary of the Lilac uprising and the more senior members of the Night Watch make their annual pilgrimage to the Cemetery of Small Gods and the grave of John Keel and the six other watchmen who gave their lives. Commander Sam Vimes was a week-old lance-corporal at the time of the revolution that saw the fall of a tyrant patrician and the end to his secret police. Thirty years later he’s head of the Night Watch and a Duke and about to become a father for the first time. He’s also in pursuit of a charismatic psychopathic killer, who’s been cornered at the Unseen University. As Vimes pursues Carcer over the rooftops a terrible storm is brewing and with a large lightning strike the duo find themselves back at the time of Lilac revolution. Carcer’s first act is to kill John Keel leaving Vimes to step into the role to make history unfold roughly as intended while a group of monks seek a way to get him back to the future. Making history repeat, however, is not straightforward, especially with Carcer doing his best to stop the revolution and Vimes having to keep an eye on his younger self.

The Night Watch is the sixth book in the City Watch series, and #29 in the Discworld series. In this outing, Commander Sam Vimes has to contend with quantum physics, revolution, and a serial killer as he’s hurtled back in time to the Lilac uprising. It is a time when Sergeant John Keel of the Treacle Mine Road Watch House sought to barricade the surrounding streets to protect citizens from the secret police and a mad patrician seeking to cling onto power. Only Keel is dead at the hands of Carcer, the serial killer he’s pursuing, and Vimes has to take his place to ensure that history maintains it approximate course. While he does his best to organize his old watch house and lookout for his youthful self, a monastic order of time-altering monks work on a way to send him back to the future. As usual, Pratchett uses the Discworld series to explore (pseudo)scientific ideas such as quantum physics, time travel and craniometry, and social themes such as secret police and social revolution, through a lens shot through with humour and observational insight. The story is a little slow to get going, but by the latter half it’s found its stride gaining verve, pace and wit. Vimes is in his element as he organizes his lacklustre Night Watch, seeks to ensure that the Lilac Revolution takes place, and that he’s a future to return to. It’s engaging and entertaining fare, light-but-big hearted, with a good dose of incidental, thoughtful, reflexive social commentary.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

If you like discussing crime fiction than Mystery Scene magazine has started a community forum. It's early days yet, but hopefully it'll lead to some interesting discussion.

My posts this week
Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Review of Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan
June reviews
Coup de grace

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Coup de grace

‘You wouldn’t kill a dying man now, would you officer?’

Carney was propped up against a wall, clutching a bloody wound just below his shoulder.

‘I’m happy to make an exception for you, Carney.’

Kelly stepped cautiously into the room, his gun hanging by his side.

‘I need a doctor.’

‘You need a priest.’

‘No thanks. They need to get their own souls atoned for Saint Peter.’

‘You’ll not even get to meet him.’

‘I think we’re all afforded a hearing.’

‘That’s more than you deserve.’

Kelly raised his gun.

‘Seriously? I’ll be dead soon anyway.’

‘But not soon enough.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013, Black Swan)

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910 and promptly dies. History repeats but she lives, the doctor having made it through the snowstorm. It is a pattern that Ursula is set to repeat dying multiple times in several different ways, sometimes a sense of déjà vu saving her from the same fate in a subsequent life. Mostly her lives follow a very similar trajectory, occasionally they diverge and take a different track. At some point, she realises that she could potentially save the world from the darkness of the Second World War. But can one person stop fate?

Life After Life follows the multiple lives of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five of an upper-middle class family. She’s born at Fox Corner, a large detached house in a small village on a commuter line to London and grows up – except when she dies early in childhood – with her family, and a maid and a cook. Her father is a banker and serves as a captain in the First World War. Her mother is a somewhat a snob and her aunt is a flirtatious socialite. Her elder brother becomes a senior civil servant. Ursula sometimes attends secretarial college and sometimes university, studying languages; sometimes she takes a year to travel to Germany, Italy and France. She nearly always has the same friends and takes the same lovers, though sometimes she has a disastrous relationship. In none of them does she have a long-term happy relationship or her own family. If she reaches her twenties she nearly always ends up in London working in the civil service and as an air raid warden during the Blitz, though occasionally she ends up in Germany. She seems destined to keep living variations of the same life, each living having echoes of those previous. All of her lives are somewhat ordinary as Ursula is not destined for fame; indeed, she lives a relatively small life.

Atkinson uses the repeating lives idea to explore the notion of history as a palimpsest, constantly being re-written over the top of itself where the previous iteration echoes through, as well as the tension between fate and contingency. A small alteration sets a different path, but the overall trajectory always remains similar since so much stays constant – family, home, friends, personality, education, etc. Thrown into the story is a mix of literature and philosophy on the nature of life (and death). By tracking Ursula’s various lives, the reader is asked to reflect on whether their lives would be roughly the same if they lived it over again? Would they seek to derail fate and seek something radically different? And would they sacrifice themselves for a greater good? It’s an interesting narrative form, with obvious echoes with Groundhog Day. It occasionally gets a little tedious always resetting to the day of her birth, though Atkinson does a good job of telling that event from many perspectives, but overall it works well. The temptation must have been to run major events through ‘what if’ scenarios, but keeping the focus on a small life makes the reflective questions more personal and grounded. The result is an engaging, thoughtful literary novel that asks big questions but not in a highbrow, inaccessible way.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

June reviews

Two back-to-back five star reviews in June. Difficult to pick between them, but I'll go with Adam Sternbergh's The Blinds as my read of the month.

The Liberator by Alex Kershaw ***.5
Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell ***
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris *****
The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh *****
Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin ***
London Rules by Mick Herron ****
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez ****

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (2012, Simon Schuster)

Although now well beyond normal service age Dr John Watson has re-enlisted to serve a front-line medical doctor in the Great War. He’s role is to assess and treat wounded soldiers in a casualty clearing station and to teach the new method of blood transfusion to other doctors. The carnage is terrible, with an endless stream of bloody victims to attend. When one of his charges dies, his jaw clamped shut, eyes bulging and his skin tinged blue, Watson suspects foul-play. His suspicion is further aroused by a number carved in the victim’s chest and rumours of similar deaths among the same regiment. He might be without his friend, Sherlock Holmes, but Watson has learned from his time with the master detective and he’s determined to get to the truth even if that means risking his life in the trenches.

Dead Man’s Land is the first book in the Dr Watson series set during the First World War. After parting ways with Sherlock Holmes, Watson has re-enlisted as a medical officer and headed to the trenches of Flanders where part of his mission is to extol the virtues of the new method of blood transfusion. His first post is in a relatively quiet section in a casualty clearing station where he discovers the Leigh Pals, a regiment he met a couple of months earlier in Egypt, are serving. When one of the pals dies after a blood transfusion Dr Watson suspects foul play. His initial investigation suggests this is not the first such death. Someone is using the cover of battlefield carnage to commit murder and Watson sets out to identify and capture him. Ryan does a nice job of building a story around Dr Watson and bringing him to the fore of the story, and in constructing a serial murder tale in the frontline area of Flanders. There is a good sense of place and historicisation as to conditions and operations at the front and medical services, and the dimensions of class and hierarchies within services (military and medical) are nicely realised. Beyond Watson, the nursing staff and the Leigh Pals are well realised and engaging, especially suffragette voluntary aid detachment nurse Mrs Gregson. The core of the plot is a nice murder mystery that has a good twist to it, however it has a couple of subplots that were a bit of a distraction involving a German sniper and Winston Churchill that felt like interest padding, and it was a shame in many ways for Holmes to be pulled into the story. Overall, an engaging tale that does a reasonable job of continuing the canon without it feeling overly pastiche.