Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

In anticipation of a trip to Hong Kong and Taipei later in the year I ordered a couple of books set in HK which have just arrived. The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre and The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei. I'm still trying to decide on a Taiwan book.

My posts this week
Review of The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty
Life as a movie

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Life as a movie

Serena lent against the doorframe, her shoes dangling from a limp hand.

Jack kept his head down. ‘What’s he done now?’

‘I’m here alone, aren’t I?’

‘Another woman then?’

‘Or two. Or three.’

‘And I’m your revenge?’

‘You’re not a consolation prize, Jack.’

‘It seems that way. The man plays his life as badly as he plays characters on the screen, yet you always go back to him.’

‘We’re married.’

‘That’s a status, Serena, not a reason.’

She let her dress fall to the floor. ‘Let’s talk about this in the morning, Jack.’

‘Now you’re playing life like a movie.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review of The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty (2015, Orenda)

Since his time in the South African army Claymore Straker has been drifting, trying to forget his actions in skirmishes with communists in Angola. Years later he’s working as an environmental and social agent for an oil company in Yemen, testing for pollution and liaising with locals. Petro-Tex is run by a Russian brother and sister who specialise in extracting oil in unstable regions. And Yemen is teetering on the edge of civil war between North and South, with Al Qaeda in the mix. Straker and his driver are captured by the latter. Their leader orders Straker to find out what is killing the children of Al Urush, near to Petro-Tex’s facility, or his driver will be killed. He agrees to do some testing in the area. What he finds is a landscape transformed, with the water drying up, and very sick children. His bosses at Petro-Tex order him to forget the driver and resume his normal work doing minimal testing and bribing local chiefs. Straker is determined to save his friend and also discover what is going on, even if that means getting embroiled in a complex mess of disaster capitalism and the ruthless games different factions will play to realise their ambition. He’s aided by a troubled French journalist, Rania, and Islamic terrorists and opposing military intelligence, and soon finds a price put on his head.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is a thriller tale focused on the disaster capitalism of the oil industry and the environmental and social collateral damage of drilling in a politically unstable region. The tale is mostly set in Yemen at the point where the country is teetering on the edge of civil war. The protagonist is Clay Straker, a man with a troubled past from his time in the South African army, who has been drifting since his discharge. Trying to regain some stability he’s set up his own company doing environmental testing and social liaison work with local communities for oil companies. He’s been hired by Petro-Tex, a company owned by a couple of Russian billionaires, whose deposit in Yemen is running out and is seeking new sources. Straker and his driver are kidnapped, with the driver held hostage only to be released if Straker discovers why children are dying in a village near to Petro-Tex’s facility. Straker’s investigation places in confrontation with his bosses and also Yemeni military intelligence. Unwilling to sacrifice his driver, or the local villagers dying, Straker sets out to discover the truth, unsure who to trust, given just about everyone wants him to fail. Hardisty spins out a decent thriller, keeping the pace and tension high, with plenty of action and twists, and threading through a love interest in the form of Rania, an investigative journalist. While the tale has the usual credibility issues of thrillers, what elevates the book above the pack is the context and setting in Yemen, and the spotlight on the environment, social and political consequences of oil industry. Overall, an engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent a couple of days in Rotterdam during the week at an event. An interesting city and a productive workshop. I was given a nice mug by the organizers made by Laurens Kolks. It reveals the data generated by smart city tech when filled with hot water. It the simple things that keep me amused. On the reading front, I didn't have a Dutch novel on the pile, so I took a book set in Yemen instead: The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty.

My posts this week
Review of Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum
Review of Tightrope by Simon Mawer
Life in second gear

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Life in second gear

‘Mr Jones?’ Carter thumped on the door. ‘Anyone home? Let’s try round the back.’

The two policemen negotiated a narrow alleyway emerging into an overgrown garden.

Surrounded by tall weeds, a man was lying on a sun lounger, a cap covering his face.

‘Mr Jones?’


‘We’d like to ask you some questions.’

‘Whatever it is, it wasn’t me. I’m living life in second gear these days.’

‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’

‘I’d certainly recommend it.’

‘So, you’ve gone straight?’

‘Never straighter. Easy to keep a steady course in second gear.’

‘There’s a difference between a grifter and a drifter, Jones.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Review of Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum (1996, Swedish; 2003 English; Vintage)

Six year old Ragnhild is walking home in a small village where everybody seems to know everybody else when a van stops and the driver offers her a lift. At first unsure, she decides to climb into the van. Six hours later, her mother is frantic and half the local community are out searching. What they discover, however, is the naked body of a teenage girl near to a local tarn. Chief Inspector Sejer begins an investigation with Skarre, a younger cop working his first murder. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about Annie Holland, though they acknowledge that she had changed over the last few months, becoming withdrawn, leaving the local handball team, and running for miles. Sejer and Skarre systematic work their way through interviewing all the local families, but there are few leads. The more they hunt, the more they discover about the lives of inhabitants and their various tragedies – family disputes and untimely deaths – but they don’t seem to warrant the death of Annie.

Don’t Look Back is the second book in the Inspector Sejer series set in rural Norway. In this outing, Sejer starts by investigating the disappearance of a six year old girl, but soon finds himself in charge of a murder investigation. Annie Holland was a fit fifteen year old, obsessed with running, who had become withdrawn over the past few months and was in an on-off relationship with her boyfriend. She was well liked by neighbours and had baby sat for almost every family on her road. Everyone seems surprised when she is found lying naked next to a tarn having been drowned. Fossum charts Sejer’s investigation as he and his younger sidekick, Skarre, try to unearth clues that will lead to her killer. As with Sjowall and Wahloo’s Beck series, there is an everyday realism to the investigation, setting out the patient, persistent footwork without melodrama or invented tension. The characters all feel real, living ordinary lives tainted by the various issues they have to face. Fossum does a nice job of keeping the story moving with engaging prose and manoeuvring various characters into and out of frame. Even to the last part of the book I was unsure who the murderer was and the story builds to a satisfying denouement.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review of Tightrope by Simon Mawer (2015, Abacus)

1943. Marian Sutro, a special operations agent working in France, is arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated, tortured, thrown into prison, then shipped to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There she survives by taking someone else’s identity. Two years later she escapes when her column of workers are strafed by a plane. A couple of days later she stumbles into the hands of the Americans and shortly after she is flown back to Britain. Finding it difficult to adjust to post-war life and to cope with the horrors she’s experienced she takes up a job working as a librarian and quickly gets married. The threat of the nuclear age and the cold war weighs on her shoulders and when an opportunity arises to take up her career as an agent again, she takes her chance, hoping that this time she’ll make a difference that she wants. Making amends, however, is never easy when there are divided loyalties and mixed motives at play.

Tightrope is the second book in a pair about Marian Sutro, a SOE agent dropped into France in 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo a short time later. This book picks up Marian’s story in 1945 at the point where she emerges from Ravensbrück concentration camp. It can be read as a standalone as it gives a good precis of her arrest and incarceration. Marian returns to Britain to be debriefed and to convalesce with the help of her family and a psychiatrist. She finds it hard to adjust to post-war life and the guilt of survival and is horrified by the nuclear age, her role in helping to extract a scientist from France, as well as the work of her physicist brother. SOE find her a job working as a librarian at a left-wing organization and she quickly marries a former pilot, while occasionally having affairs. She still craves purpose and adventure, so when an opportunity arises to slip back into the intelligence world she takes it. This time, however, she’s not simply doing the work for King and country, but also her own agenda. Mawer tells her story via a narrative pieced together by her biographer, Samuel, who’d been obsessed with her ever since he was a boy and she used to visit his home. It’s an interesting approach as it allows for hesitancy and silences where the biographer has to speculate about motives and what really occurred. The tale is effectively an in-depth character study of a complex woman living on the edge through difficult times. It is very nicely plotted, with Marian struggling with loyalties and motives, and her past and her future, as she’s drawn into the cold war intelligence and romance. The result is a thoughtful, engaging, nicely paced story of finding one’s place after a tragic adventure.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Finally decided to invest in a bike and cycle to work now that there is a cycle path nearly the whole way from house to office. The weather will probably dictate how often it gets used. I have little fondness for cycling in the pissing rain after a childhood of doing that on a daily paper round and to school.

My posts this week

Review of The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas
Review of Gravesend by William Boyle

Saturday, September 14, 2019


‘I can’t do this any longer, Sandra.’

She turned from the dishwasher. ‘Are you breaking up with me?’

‘What? No. This.’ He tapped a document. ‘I can’t do this.’


‘Working in the civil service. I spend all day writing policy I hate for politicians I detest who’re determined to enrich themselves and their friends by fucking over everyone else.’

‘We need the money, Michael. If …’

‘They’re destroying the country. I’m destroying the country.’

‘You’re the first line of defence.’

‘I’m a cog in a wheel.’

‘You’re doing your duty.’

‘By selling my soul, Sandra. By selling my soul.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review of The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995 French; 2006, Vintage)

Opera singer, Sophia Siméonidis, wakes to discover that a tree has been planted in her Paris garden overnight. Her husband has little interest in the event, but she cannot put it out of her mind. She turns to her new neighbours, three down-at-luck historians and a disgraced ex-cop, who have rented the dilapidated house next door. They agree to help, digging up the tree to see if there is anything underneath then placing it back. They find nothing, but a few days later Sophia goes missing just before her niece and her son turn-up. There is no sign of her until a woman is found burned to death in an abandoned car. Already directing the case, the ex-cop starts to orchestrate the murder investigation using the detective assigned to the case and the three historians.

The Three Evangelists is the first of a three book series featuring three historians turned detectives - Marc, Mattias and Lucien (named St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke by Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather – hence the book title). In this outing, they initially investigate the appearance of a tree in the garden of their next door neighbour, opera singer Sophia Siméonidis. They are aided by Vandoosler, an ex-cop who resides with them. The case, however, soon turns into a murder mystery with the discovery of Sophia’s remains. The charm of the book are the three evangelists, each of whom specialises in a different period – prehistoric, middle ages and Great War – and has quite different personalities. They are drawn together by circumstance – they are lacking work and need to share to afford rent. Their haphazard approach to the case is given shape by Vandoosler, who was forced to give up his police career after letting a murderer get away. Vandoosler believes in giving some slack to Sophia’s killer to help smoke them out and to see what they do next. Though it gets results, it’s a dangerous strategy as it places people in harm, and it quickly becomes clear that the killer will murder again to avoid being caught. The plot has the feel of a golden age of crime tale, given its relatively small cast, puzzle like set-up, and its twists as different characters are moved into the frame. Through the four main characters, Vargas keeps the tale lightly humorous and engaging. The only real blip is the reveal which just didn’t sit right; while plausible, the clues for the reader were light and not convincing, and the denouement felt clunky. Nonetheless, an entertaining read.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review of Gravesend by William Boyle (2013, No Exit Press)

Conway D’Innocenzio has been waiting for Ray Boy Calabrese to be released from prison so he can exact revenge for the death of his brother. When the day arrives he finds himself ill-prepared, his ex-cop friend teaching him to shoot. When Conway does confront Ray Boy, he finds he can’t pull the trigger, setting him free in their home town of Gravesend. Conway stalks the streets and bars, frustrated with life. Ray Boy returns to his parents and sister, unhappy that Conway didn’t have the nerve to go through with his quest. Another of Conway’s school contemporaries, Alessandra, also returns to Gravesend from Hollywood, where she has failed to make it as an actress. She re-ignites a friendship with Stephanie, Conway’s co-worker and secret admirer. Like Conway and Ray Boy, both women are somewhat lost, unsure how to make something of their lives. Ray Boy’s fifteen year old nephew, Eugene, feels the same way. He worships his uncle Ray and is already plotting to team up with him for a life of crime.

Gravesend is William Boyle’s debut novel set in the neighbourhood of the same name in Brooklyn. The area is somewhat run-down a shadow of its former self, as are its residents. Four high school contemporaries find their lives re-entwined. Conway and Stephanie never left and both work in a local pharmacy. Ray Boy has just been released from prison for the murder of Conway’s brother. Alessandra has returned from Hollywood, where after a decade she has failed to make it as an actress. Conway wants to enact revenge on Ray Boy. Ray Boy wants him to. Stephanie wants a relationship with Conway, and to move out of home with her mother and share an apartment with Alessandra. Alessandra’s not sure what she wants. Eugene, Ray Boy’s nephew, wants to be free of school and to run wild. The story charts the intersecting lives of these five characters as they slowly revolve towards a cathartic and violent set of resolutions. The tale is very much character-driven, with a strong sense of place, focusing on lives and a community abandoned by the American dream. There’s a fatalistic realism to the story, with Boyle painting a fairly bleak picture of troubled lives that are seemingly going nowhere, the narrative shot through with a noir atmosphere shorn of any hope. It’s a well told and engaging tale, but a far cry from light entertainment!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

This week has been one of chasing shadows. Ordered a mobile broadband service. It was meant to be activated Tuesday. A few phone calls and a couple of visits to shops and it's still not live. Apparently I cannot cancel it because it's not been activated and it seems impossible to activate. Dealing with the company has been somewhat Kafkaesque. Hopefully it'll get resolved next week. In other news, I'm working my way through Simon Mawes' tale, Tightrope. Enjoying it so far.

My posts this week

Review of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Review of The Smoke by Tony Broadbent
August reads
No love among traitors

Saturday, September 7, 2019

No love among traitors

Kearney stared at the fast moving water. ‘It’s Seth.’

‘What’s Seth?’ Lowe threw a pebble into the river.

‘The traitor. The mole.’

‘Seth? He can be a self-righteous prick, but he’s loyal.’

‘Loyal to whom though? That’s the question.’

‘Loyal to us. Jesus, Jim, what makes you think it’s Seth?’

Kearney shrugged.  ‘If it’s not Seth, then it has to be you.’

‘Me? Now you have lost the plot! I’ve dedicated my life to this job.’

‘Yes, this job not ...’

‘I don’t …’

The shot sent Lowe down the riverbank.

‘Sorry, Jack. Just one traitor protecting himself from another.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (2018, Soho Crime)

Bombay, 1921. Perveen Mistry, the first female solicitor in the city, takes over the administration of the will of Omar Farid from her father. Having survived a sham marriage and gaining her law degree in Oxford, she is keen to prove her worth to the family business. As she goes through the estate papers of the wealthy Muslim mill owner, she notices that his three wives have signed away their inheritance to a charity. Wanting to be certain of their wishes, she travels to their bungalow in the desirable district of Malabar Hill. The three women are living with their children in strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters, forbidden from talking to or being touched by unknown men. There she is confronted by the guardian appointed by the late-husband to look after the wives’ affairs, who is unhappy that she is questioning how he running the estate. After talking to the women, she is suspicious about the set-up; even more so when there is a murder in the house shortly after she leaves. While the police rush to conclusions, Perveen works with her best friend, Alice Hobson-Jones, the English daughter of a senior government official, and her father to solve the case.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first book in Perveen Mistry series set in 1920s Bombay (now Mumbai). After studying for a law degree in Oxford, Perveen has joined her father’s law firm as the city’s first female solicitor. She’s keen to establish herself and build a successful career, hoping to eventually become a lawyer and undertake court cases, though women are barred from such work. In the meantime, she helps her father prepare cases and undertake more routine work relating to family and commercial affairs. In this initial outing, her father asks her to take over the legal aspects of the legacy of a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three wives and a handful of children. Perveen notices some odd things about how the wives’ guardian is administering the estate and shortly after she leaves the family home a murder is committed. Perveen aids the police, but unhappy with how they are handling the case, she starts her own investigation. Massey does a nice job of historically contextualising the tale with respect to the multicultural nature of Indian society, the position and roles of women within these cultures, the laws that shaped different communities, and governance by the British. There’s also a strong emphasis on the workings of family and food and fashion. The characterisation is nicely done, especially Perveen, who is smart, determined, and politically astute, but also a little naïve, and her somewhat bolshie English friend, Alice Hobson-Jones. The plot with respect to the bereaved family and the murder was interesting, and nicely constructed, though there were a little too many coincident holding it together in terms of connections between characters and places. Where the telling suffers, however, is Perveen’s extended back story, which not only broke the flow of the mystery tale but was drawn out. The back story is important for understanding Perveen and her approach to representing women, but its inclusion as a detailed separate strand took the pace out of the story and meant the key part of the investigation doesn’t start until two thirds of the way through. Nonetheless, Perveen, the setup and context are interesting and I look forward to giving the second book in the series a read.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Review of The Smoke by Tony Broadbent (2012, MP Publishing)

London post-war. After a stint in the merchant navy, Jethro has returned home to work as a theatre stagehand and resume his life as a cat burglar and jewel thief. His work in the West End provides a cover for criminal activities, both as a legitimate source of income and access to wealthy areas of Mayfair and Belgravia. After spotting a valuable necklace set, he decides to set up an escapade to steal them. The job, however, means breaking in to the Soviet embassy, as the set belong to the ambassador’s wife. His successful mission, but narrow escape, brings him to the attention of MI5, who want him to make a second trip to retrieve a code book and help a cipher clerk defect. His first trip, however, has ruffled a few feathers. The Russians want to prosecute revenge, the London mob want him to join their ranks, and the police want him locked up.

The Smoke is the first book in the Jethro, cat burglar series set in post-war London. Jethro is a Cockney likely-lad who’s day job is working as a theatre stagehand, but he makes his real money stealing expensive jewellery. He’s a skilled thief who always spends time casing his target, works alone and uses a single trusted fence to minimize the risk of being caught. In this outing, he breaks into the Soviet embassy to steal the jewels of the ambassador’s wife. His escapade makes him the target of the soviets, the London mob, the police and MI5 and he gets into scrapes with them all, eventually agreeing to return to the embassy for more thievery on behalf of MI5. While the story is reasonably entertaining, I didn’t really warm to it. Written in the first person, I never really connected with Jethro’s voice and perspective. The main issue though was the plot, which just didn’t feel credible enough and was a little uneven in pacing. Yes, it’s a caper tale involving Soviet officials, the mob, police and secret services, but even allowing for that, it felt too contrived and over-the-top while lacking the humour to offset. Overall, the detail on the thefts was interesting, and the story had its moments, but I never felt vested in the story.

Monday, September 2, 2019

August reads

I think this must be my slowest August in terms of reading. Just five books read and reviewed. The stand out book was Hitler in Los Angeles, an engaging account of fascist and pro-German organisations in LA pre-war.

Assembly of the Dead by Saeida Rouass ****
Black Hornet by James Sallis ****
Hitler in Los Angeles by Steven J Ross ****.5
The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor ****
Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo  ****

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A slow week of writing and reading. At least I've got the next few weeks kind of mapped out with the TBR pile. Hopefully some good reads in these two piles.

My posts this week
Review of Assembly of the Dead by Saeida Rouass
Seventeen sodden souls