Saturday, November 30, 2019

Other world

‘Where are we going, Janie?’

They were far from the main path, moving deeper into the forest.

‘I told you, to the Other World.’

‘Are you sure it’s this way?’

‘Yes! Look there’s the Elven lair.’ Janie pointed at a massive, gnarled oak stump.

Jack smiled and trailed after his daughter.

‘And what’s in this other world?’

‘Small folk and magical beasts. It’s in here.’ Janie disappeared into a small cave.

Jack poked his head in.


It was empty.

‘Are you coming?’ Janie asked.

‘Where are you?’

‘You have to believe, Daddy. Think of a unicorn and step inside.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Review of The First Wave by James R Benn (2007, Soho Press)

Lieutenant Billy Boyle and his boss, Major Samuel Harding, are in the first wave of the invasion of Algeria, tasked with riding ahead of the US Army and trying to persuade the opposing French Vichy troops to surrender without out fight. His quest doesn’t quite go to plan and they are met by French Fascists loyal to Petain and Nazi Germany. As they are thrown in jail, Boyle witnesses local French resistance members being rounded up, including his former girlfriend, Diane, an SOE agent. A few hours later they are released and soon have their hands full investigating a murder and theft at a field hospital. Boyle hasn’t forgotten about Diane though and when an opportunity is presented to go and rescue her he sets off in pursuit.

The First Wave is the second book in the Billy Boyle series set in World War Two. Boyle is a former Boston cop and a nephew of General Eisenhower, on whose staff he serves as an investigator. In this outing he is selected to run a mission to persuade French Vichy troops in Algeria to surrender rather than fight landing American troops. Along with Kaz, his Polish colleague, and his boss, Major Sam Harding, he’s soon turning his investigative skills to a murder at an army hospital and the theft of the first batch of penicillin in circulation, as well as tracing the whereabouts of Diane, his former girlfriend turned SOE agent in Algiers. The story is very much a boy’s own adventure, with Boyle swashbuckling his way around Algiers and the dusty coastal strip, doing battle with French fascists and a rotten apple in the US Army. Benn spins a couple of different threads that intersect at times, and keeps the pace high making sure there’s an action sequence every ten pages or so. The plot is a little thin at times and is held together with spider web of coincidences – especially with respect to characters knowing each other prior to this adventure and being involved in it (because in a global war a number of people from different services, two of them ex-girlfriends, will find themselves in the same spot and conspiracy). But if one can put the shortcomings on a back burner, then it’s a reasonably entertaining Hollywood Romantic/Action version of the initial invasion of North Africa.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Review of The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines (2008, William Morrow)

1943, New York. Rosie Winter is an aspiring actress looking for her big break. When a minor star who used to live in the same boarding house in which Rosie now resides is found murdered and her mob friend, Al, claims responsibility she decides to investigate. Convinced that Al is innocent and is taking the rap for other reasons, she auditions for dance chorus with her room-mate, Jayne, in the play the actress had been cast in a leading role. She quickly discovers that the play is backed by a mobster, there is something shady going on in the theatre, and the play is a flop in-waiting. To make matters worse her fellow actresses are on edge and seem obsessed with a Broadway dance hall for service men, and her boyfriend is missing in action. Along with Jayne, Rosie pokes her nose in where it isn’t wanted, trying to discover who killed the actress, whether it’s linked to the strange events at the theatre, and why Al is taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Winter of Her Discontent is the second book in the Rosie Winter mystery series set in World War Two. Rosie is an actress with Mob connections who used to work for a detective agency and turns her hand to solving murders. In this outing, set in 1943, her Mob-friend Al has confessed to a murder he didn’t commit and she’s determined to find the real killer. The victim is an actress who was set to star in a Broadway play. Rosie and her roommate, Jayne, audition for the dance chorus so they can investigate. It quickly becomes clear that the play is being set up to fail and someone has a vendetta against the lead actresses. Taking the form of a cosy mystery, Miller Haines spins out Rosie’s investigation, which soon splits into a couple of strands and also deals with tensions in Rosie’s boarding house and her attempt to find out more about her boyfriend’s missing in action status. There’s plenty going on, though it’s a little slow at times, all pretty staged (perhaps no surprise given its theatre theme) and reasonably well telegraphed. I never really warmed to Rosie, the story often teetered on the edge of credibility, and Al’s confession made very little sense given the lack of evidence and he could have just gone to ground instead. Nonetheless, it’s engaging and entertaining enough read.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I was updating my CV during the week and it turns out that the 'How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables' was my 30th academic book published (excluding the encyclopedia, which I'm not really sure how to count), which seems a bit of a milestone. The balance between written and edited books used to be even, but with the last six all being edited it's slipped a bit to 12:18. The plan is four of the next five will be written, so that should help even the keel a bit. Just have to write three of them! (one in press).

My posts this week

Review of The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre
New book: How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables
The professional personal

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The professional personal

‘If I’m wrong, it doesn’t mean you’re right.’

‘Why can’t you just admit that you’re wrong?’

‘I have. Why can’t you?’

‘Because I’m not.’

‘Yet, you can’t prove it and your solution hasn’t worked.’

‘Just give it time.’

‘We can give it a century and it still won’t work.’

‘This is about me, isn’t it?

‘No, it’s not.’

‘You’re jealous.’

‘Of what?’

‘That I’m better at this than you.’

‘Why do you have to make the professional personal? This isn’t about us, it’s about fixing this mess.’

‘You’re the one making this about us!’

‘Jesus, Carl, stop being a dick.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

New book: How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables

My new book was released a couple of weeks ago. ‘How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables’ published by Meatspace Press and edited with Mark Graham, Shannon Mattern and Joe Shaw. It is available as open-access download. There’s also a limited print run, with artwork specially designed by Carlos Romo-Melgar and John Philip Sage.

The book consists of 38 chapters, with all but six consisting of speculative short fiction. It started life with one line statement on Facebook - ‘You can probably hear me howling into the void where you are’ - about an article titled 'Cities should act more like Amazon to better serve their cities.' The FB post generated some discussion and sparked the idea for a book exploring the notion of cities run like or by businesses. The post was shared on Friday and by Monday over 30 academic FB friends had offered to write chapters about different companies.    


Should cities be run like businesses? Should city services and infrastructure be run by businesses?

For some urban commentators, policy-makers, politicians and corporate lobby groups, the answer is ‘yes’ to both questions.

Others are critical of such views, cautious about shifting the culture of city administration from management to entrepreneurship, and transforming public assets and services run for the common good into markets run for profit.

The stories and essays in How to Run a City Like Amazon, and Other Fables explore how a city might look, feel and function if the business models, practices and technologies of 38 different companies were applied to the running of cities. What would it be like to live in a city administered using the business model of Amazon (or Apple, IKEA, Pornhub, Spotify, Tinder, Uber, etc.) or a city where critical public services are delivered by these companies?

Collectively, the chapters ask us to imagine and reflect on what kind of cities we want to live in and how they should be managed and governed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre (2002, Penguin)

In the wake of the uncovering of a highly placed mole in the British Secret Service, George Smiley is determined to rebuild the Service's shattered reputation and to go on the attack. Smiley’s small team of trusted confidants search back through the mole’s work, not looking for what was stolen or disrupted but what was overlooked or ignored. What they discover is that Smiley nemesis in Moscow Centre, Karla, has an operation running in the Far East and Hong Kong is its key locus. Former journalist and spy Jerry Westerby – the Honorable Schoolboy – is plucked out of retirement and sent to Hong Kong, notionally as a reporter. From there he follows a trail to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on the trail of two pilots left in the area after the US has pulled out. Playing politics with Whitehall and American colleagues, Smiley senses a reversal of fortunes, though it relies on Jerry staying alive and delivering the plan on his solo run through South-East Asia.

The Honorable Schoolboy is the second book in the Karla trilogy, and the sixth out nine books by Le Carre featuring George Smiley. In this outing, Smiley is trying to assess and repair the damage caused by a mole at the higher echelons of the British Secret Service. The collateral damage is huge, with people and programmes being cast aside in an effort to re-float a holed ship. At the same time, Smiley is also looking for a way to strike back at Karla, the Russian mastermind behind the mole. He finds a potential route to revenge in Hong Kong and some false accounts, and dispatches Jerry Westerby, a rehabilitated victim of the purges, to investigate. Through a fairly complex plot, with a large set of characters, Le Carre charts Smiley’s scheming and Westerby’s trail through the Far East. The storytelling is very nicely judged for much of the tale, though at times it’s a little uneven, with some sections being a masterclass in painting scenes and character development, and others feeling thin and over-extended, and the middle third was a bit plodding. I was also never really convinced by Westerby’s motivation. Overall, though, an intricate, thoughtful spy-thriller.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a slow couple of weeks of reading. I've been busy with trying to finish a project off, and the book I've been working my way through has been a long one (680 pages), The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre. I should get round to writing a review during the week.

My posts this week
Review of Incensed by Ed Lin
Cleaving in two

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Cleaving in two

Julie placed two mugs of tea on the table.

‘You don’t seem yourself these days, Liam. What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know. I just feel like I’m cleaving in two.’

‘Cleaving? Cleaving how?’

Liam shrugged. ‘Like I’m observing my own life from outside myself. That I’m talking with another being.’

‘We all have an inner voice, Liam.’

‘But mine’s swapped to the second person. ‘Jesus, Liam, you need to get a grip,’ instead of ‘I need to get a grip’.’

‘We all talk to ourselves like that sometimes.’

‘But this isn’t sometimes; it’s always. It’s like I’m living with a stranger.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Review of Incensed by Ed Lin (2016, Soho Crime)

After his previous exploits investigating the death of his former girlfriend, Jing-nan is a minor, local celebrity. He’s not let it go to his head though and he still runs a food stall in the Shilin night market. As the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, his gangster uncle asks him to babysit his sixteen year old niece. Mei-ling wants to drop out of school to pursue her dream of becoming a popstar. She also has a biker boyfriend of Indonesian extract who’s active in a gang. Jing-nan brings her north to Taipei, but Mei-ling has a habit of finding trouble and it’s not long until she disappears. In a panic, Jing-nan rushes to find her before she comes to harm and his uncle’s goons take matters into their own hands.

Much like the first book, there’s not much of a plot or mystery to Incensed. Instead, the novel acts more like a fictional travelogue for readers unfamiliar with Taiwan (I have a feeling the endless explanation will distract Taiwanese readers). Using colourful characters and light humour, Lin spends most of the tale detailing aspects of Taiwanese culture and society, especially focusing on food (present on almost every page) and the role and place of criminal gangs. As per the first book, there is also an on-going obsession with the music of Joy Division. The supposed hook for the tale is the babysitting and disappearance of Mei-ling, the daughter of a gangster. Jing-nan was charged with looking after the bratty sixteen year old. Which he does for most of the story. Indeed, it is only in the last fifth of the tale that the mystery element takes place, and that lacks any real puzzle with a weak denouement. If you’re after a real mystery, or plot-driven story, then this may disappoint. If you're happy enough with colourful characters, a few amusing scenes, and a fictional travel guide for Taiwan, then its passable.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I arrived back yesterday from a 10 day trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where I gave a number of talks. Both interesting places to visit and I enjoyed meeting and chatting to folks and trying the different foods. The density and pace of urban life is always an eye-opener compared to Ireland.

My posts last two weeks
October reviews
Review of The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei
Review of Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth
Home but lost
Mixers should always complement

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Home but lost

Kenny was rooted to a spot five paces from the metro entrance. The street was lit up with neon and colourful street signs. People streamed around him: chattering, laughing, gesturing, staring at phones.

Someone thrust a leaflet into his hand, bowed and moved on.

He stepped into the flow transfixed. It was the set from Bladerunner; the Bridge from Virtual Light. A bricolage of sounds and smells; street vendors clustered in front of tiny fashion shops and low and high-end restaurants; strings of complex characters punctuated by Western brand names.

It was strange, yet familiar. He was home but lost.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 8, 2019

October reviews

My read of the month for October was Paul Howarth's coming-of-age tale set in nineteenth century Australia.

Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth *****
Hiroshima Boy by Naomi Hirahara ***
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace ***.5
Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar ****
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott ****
The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves ****
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson *****
The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland **.5

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review of The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei (2014, Chinese; 2017, Head of Zeus)

Kwan Chun-dok lies dying in a hospital, trapped in a coma. He can communicate only through a EEG headset that allows him to ‘say’ yes, no and to hover between the two. His former mentee Inspector Lok is trying to solve a baffling crime in which the head of a successful family has been killed in his own home. There are only five suspects, all present in the house at the time and Lok assembles them in Kwan’s hospital room, preceding to ask them questions. He also refers questions to Kwan. Through a series of yes/no answers, Kwan solves the crime, his famous deductive mind seeing what the others cannot, despite never visiting the murder site. This is the first of six novellas that make up The Borrowed. Each story is set at a critical time in Hong Kong’s history, with the final tale set in 1967. All the stories feature Kwan, the stories reversing his legendary career. 

While each tale is an intricately plotted police procedural, where the mystery is a difficult puzzle that has to be solved by Kwan (and takes an interesting form – locked-room, prisoner-dilemma, jail break, siege, kidnapping, terrorist conspiracy) they are also astute social and political commentaries about Hong Kong as it passes from British colony to the sphere of Chinese rule. Each story is fascinating in its own right, but collectively they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and there are also multiple social and geographical links between the people and places portrayed. And Kwan is an intriguing character, full of humanity and compassion, but ruthless in pursuing justice. One of the tales felt a little weaker than the others in terms of its resolution, but overall this is an engaging, intriguing and thought-provoking novel with excellent plotting, strong character development, and a good sense of place and historical context. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Mixers should always complement

The woman slid onto the stool and signalled to the barman.

‘Gin and tonic. No ice. Leave the tonic in the bottle.’

‘Don’t want to drown the gin,’ the man seated next to her said.

‘Mixers should always complement not swamp. I’m Paula.’

‘J …’

Paula removed her finger from his lips.

‘First rule of hotel bar conversations. No real names.’

‘I’m Harry.’

‘Second rule – no truths. I escort prisoners being extradited overseas.’

She added a dash of tonic to the gin and downed it one.

‘I edit a travel magazine. Would you like another?’

‘I thought you’d never ask.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.