Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review of A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott (2018, Corgi)

Present day and an elderly woman is found shot dead in a car park. To Capitaine Inés Picaut it appears to be a professional hit. The only clue is a business card sown into the lining of the victim’s coat. Picaut and her team discover that the victim's name appears to be Sophie Destivelle and a local film company was making a documentary about her involvement with SOE, a British-American Jedburgh team and the French Marquis in the Jura Mountains in the days leading up the D-Day landings and liberation. Other members of that group’s war-time leaders are present in Orleans, as is a special conference attended by high ranking American intelligence officers. When a second killing takes place of the son of one of the Marquis members, Picaut realises she has two mysteries to solve: who is killing Marquis members and their descendants and what happened during the war to prompt the murders so many years later. The remaining Marquis are not talking, determined to complete unfinished business and discover the identity of the suspected spy within their close knit resistance group. What started in the early 1940s is seemingly about to come to a bloody end.

A Treachery of Spies is the second book in the Capitaine Inés Picaut series, but can be read as a standalone. Manda Scott expertly weaves together two inter-related plots that are separated by seventy years. The first concerns a battle of wits between a master Gestapo agent who cleverly turns resistance members and a group of SOE agents and French Marquis that last much of the war. The resistance cell never quite gets the upper hand, even in victory, and the tight core of leaders are unsure if and who might be a spy. The second charts the present day investigation by Picaut into the assassination of one of SOE agents, Sophie Destivelle, herself turned and turned back again and also an assassin of traitors and collaborators during and after the war. Both threads make for compelling stories in and of themselves, with nicely crafted and well told plots, but when twisted together the result is a page-turning thriller. The characterisation is very nicely done, there’s good historical contextualisation, and the underlying premise in terms of the post-war era is interesting. Scott peppers the plot with twists and turns, and keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the Marquis traitor and why the killing has resumed. An excellent read to finish up 2019.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Nobody hears silence



‘Did you say something?’


‘Oh, I thought you …’


‘Okay, sorry.’

‘No, you’re not.’


‘You’re not sorry.’


‘Why say you’re sorry when you’re not.’

‘I was being polite.’

‘You were trying to start a conversation.’

‘I thought you’d said something.’

‘By making no sound?’

‘I heard something.’

‘Probably the voices in your head.’

‘Are you saying I’m crazy?’

‘You said it, not me.’

‘Because you were implying it.’

‘I’m not the one who heard silence as noise.’

‘Nobody hears silence.’

‘Except you, apparently.’

‘For someone who doesn’t want to talk …’

‘Quiet, please.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review of Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones (2012, MP Publishing)

Rural West Texas in the 1980s; generations of farmers making a living from cotton. One harvest the small community smells smoke, over twenty hoppers burning slowly, with no means to put them out. Rushing to one of the sources, Rob King finds the local high school basketball star and beats him half-to-death. The fire had been burning several hours and it was unlikely he was the culprit. Over the next few weeks a series of tragedies unfold, a boy shot on a school bus, a girl aquaplaning to her death. The police struggle to identify who is responsible. The author, a young teenager at the time, revisits the community a quarter of a century later and using his own memories and interviews with others tries to piece together what actually happened, its place in familial and local history, and who was responsible.

Growing Up Dead in Texas casts the author in the role of a detective about an event in his own life. Cast as part memoir, part mystery, the author revisits the place where he grew up to investigate events over a few months in the 1980s that have haunted him, and the rest of the community, ever since. The crux is who started the fires that destroyed the cotton crop, and who is responsible for a subsequent shooting, and the death of a girl. Drawing on memories and conversations with key actors, the author tries to piece together what the police failed to do, though they did secure a conviction, and to place events in historical context. Jones provides a hesitant account with hints of an unreliable witness, sometimes talking directly to the reader. If it is entirely fiction, then the troubled memoir is very nicely constructed; if it is actually partially a real memoir, then it has an air of authenticity. The author reveals secrets, while also protecting others; drags up history without sensationalising it, and paints characters as they are. It’s a fresh, literary take on telling a mystery tale. At times it is tricky to follow and occasionally raises questions that are not answered, but it maintains intrigue and attention.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I started writing a new book on Monday. It was meant to be in three books time, but has jumped the queue. A little unexpected, but I felt like I needed to get some of it down. I'm already 9,000 words in, so it's going reasonably well, and I sense I'll just keep going until it's done. Funny how plans can get up-ended. I guess I'll need to look for a contract soon; though that can wait until I've got a firmer idea of the shape of things. I started with middle chapters, as you do.

My posts this week
Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
Stupid charade

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Stupid charade

The security area was chaos. Too many people, not enough open lines.

‘I’ve had enough of this!’ A middle-aged woman near the front of a queue drops her skirt to the floor and pulls her shirt over her head so she’s standing in her underwear. ‘There, will this speed things up?’

‘Ma’am, can you please put your clothes back on. Ma’am.’

‘I’ve probably missed my flight because of this stupid charade!’

‘Ma’am, please. Calm down and put your clothes back on.’

‘Do I look like a terrorist to you? Do I?’

‘More like insane,’ a girl in the queue mutters.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Review of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935, Orion)

A stranger interrupts a conversation between Dr Grimaud and his friends in a London pub. He says he’s an illusionist and that his brother is a more powerful one and will call on Grimaud and take his life. A few days later the brother seemingly performs that feat, entering the room of Grimaud, shooting him, then vanishing. On the same night, the illusionist is also killed, shot at close range in the middle of an empty street, two men just a few steps ahead and a policeman nearby. In both cases, there are no footprints in the snow. The killer seemingly appears, commits murder, and vanishes. Trying to solve the case is Superintendent Hadley and criminologist Dr Fell. Fell is convinced there is a logical solution, the difficulty will be in identifying it.

The Hollow Man was the sixth book in the Dr Gideon Fell series than ran to 23 instalments. In this outing, Fell and Superintendent Hadley seek to solve two puzzles – one a traditional locked room mystery in which a murderer seemingly vanishes from a closed room with only one viable exit, the other a play on the theme, in which a man is shot a close quarters on a street by a seemingly invisible man. In both cases it has been snowing, but there are no footprints in the snow surrounding the house or on the street. It is clear there is a direct link between the murders and the reason for the deaths are rooted in events many years before in Europe. Solving the mystery, however, is far from straightforward. The story is all about the plot and puzzles, and the writing is quite functionary, the characters one dimensional, and the sense of place pretty lifeless. The story is one long plot device and the puzzles convoluted and contrived to the point of parody. Carr is seemingly aware of this, even slotting into the story a chapter long treatise on locked room mysteries. In some ways, that is the most interesting and believable section of the book. The story itself was far from credible, though it is held together and propelled by the fantastical spin of events.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up a copy of Patterson's Roads this morning in the local market. Edition Seventeen, printed in 1824, it provides detailed descriptions of the principle roads across England, Wales and parts of Scotland. The descriptions of places are very detailed and it looks like it'll be a fascinating read. It's in poor condition and on the verge of falling apart, so I'll have to handle with care.

My posts this week
Review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran
Golden goose

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Golden goose

‘You can’t just kill him!’

‘Why not?’

‘Because people love him.’

‘We’ve been through this a dozen times. It’s the only way I’m going to be free of him.’

‘Just take a break; come back to him in the future.’

‘He’ll be lingering in the background. I need to draw a hard line.’

‘But he’s your lead character! He is the series.’

‘And I’m sick of having to always structure my stories around him. He’s a millstone. I need the freedom to experiment. Be creative. Write something fresh.’

‘You’re killing the golden goose.’

‘Maybe. But that goose is killing me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (2013, Faber and Faber)

Claire DeWitt is a PI working in San Francisco. When Paul Casablancas, a guitarist and Claire’s ex-boyfriend, is found dead in his home she decides to investigate. The police think that it’s a robbery gone wrong. Claire suspects that there is more to it. Grounded in the philosophy and teachings of French detective, Jacques Silette, Claire’s detective technique can be a little unusual, but it gets results. The problem is the answers can be somewhat unpalatable and like many Silettians she has a host of quirks and personal problems. Paul’s death has hit her hard and she’s also having flashbacks to another personal case from her teens when a friend disappeared in New York. To cope she’s taking increasing amounts of cocaine and whatever prescription pills she can lift other peoples’ medicine cabinets. Sometimes barely functioning she relies on her assistant, Claude, to chase clues and look after other cases, but she doesn’t give up on finding the truth.

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway is the second book in the DeWitt series following the cases of a messed up but brilliant detective. In this outing, Claire is investigating the murder of an ex-boyfriend – the one that was meant to be but she let get away. Half debilitated by drugs, grief, and the memories of a past case, she slowly seeks clues over the following months, while also dealing with a couple of other cases and personal issues. As with all detectives trained in the Silettian tradition, her pursuit is truth rather than justice, though the truth can be painful and burdensome. In DeWitt, Gran has created a wonderful, flawed, complex, anti-hero character with a self-destructive streak. While the first book in the series was a good read, I thought the second instalment was excellent, with a nice mix of philosophy, dead-pan and dark humour, and two interesting mysteries (the death of the ex-boyfriend and the disappearance of a friend many years earlier). I was hooked from the get-go and my interest never waned as Claire stumbled through her investigation. In my opinion, this multifaceted, engaging and quirky tale would be perfect for a movie treatment, or better still a TV series.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

During the week I revealed on social media the cover for the new book now in press. 'Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives' with Alistair Fraser. It'll be out next June with Bristol University Press and Univ of Chicago Press. It's a 'scholarly trade' book that makes the case for a digital ethics of care, and time and data sovereignty, and details individual and collective political and practical interventions for achieving. Next stage copyedit queries.

My posts this week
Review of Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
Failing forward

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Failing forward

The plastic bottle bounced off the wall.


‘Are you okay,’ Julie asked.

‘Do I look okay? I just died. Painfully.’ Josh pointed to the stage.

‘Are you kidding me? They thought you were hilarious.’

‘Except it wasn’t a comedy! He’s lost his job, his wife, his house. Even his dog hates him!’

‘Well, no-one noticed. It seemed perfect.’

‘It was an unmitigated disaster! It was meant to illicit sympathy not sniggers.’

‘Josh!’ The company director boomed. ‘Who knew you had it in you? Pathos, wit, timing.’

‘You liked it?’

‘Loved it! What’s it called?’

‘How to fail forwards.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Review of Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (2015, Hamish Hamilton)

We have a varied vocabulary for naming and describing landscapes. Words abound for particular natural features and phenomenon, varying between localities. Robert MacFarlane is a nature writer with a passion for collecting such words and for the prose of other books that focus on our relationship with landscape and nature. His thesis is that as we become more urban and distant from the land our vocabulary about place is shrinking with words and phrases dying out. As a result, we are losing touch with the places that have long sustained us. In Landmarks he provides a series of essays about the particular aspects of the British landscape (mountains, woods, coast, etc.), hooking the discussion around the work of another naturalist and the authors own journeys and experiences, and providing a glossary of words related to that landscape.  

It’s clear from MacFarlane’s own expressive prose that he is in love with words, landscape and nature, and he finds pleasure in exploring all three and their relationship with each other. Moreover, he is fascinated by other peoples’ attempts to make sense of our connection with places and is passionate about the writings of others. The essays that make up the book are nicely expressed and constructed, telling a set of interesting meditations on words, landscapes and lives. The initial essays are longer and more well developed, with some of the latter chapters being quite short and less substantial. The glossaries provide a set of interesting words, some recognizable, most local vernacular, unfamiliar to those not from the area. Combined these alternating essays and glossaries provide a joyous celebration of place and nature. And it’s all but impossible to read without noting down several other books that MacFarlane praises for future reading.

Monday, December 2, 2019

November reads

I only read five books in November, though a couple were much longer than usual. The stand out book was Chan Ho-Kei's The Borrowed, a set of five interlinked police procedural novellas set in Hong Kong, spanning 1967 to 2013.

The First Wave by James R Benn ***
The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines ***
The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre ****
Incensed by Ed Lin **.5
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei *****

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I’ve been mulling over my academic writing voice for some time. It’s okay. It works, but it’s not as I’d like it to be. During the week I took the decision to do something about it by looking for a creative fiction writer or essayist to help me re-craft my prose and narrative style. I’m hoping they are going to guide me to write non-fiction differently, but also to incorporate fiction more into my academic work. I'm going to use the process to develop the draft for a new book that I'm presently planning. All being well, it'll be an interesting journey that'll pay dividends for future writing projects.

My posts this week

Review of The First Wave by James R Benn
Review of The Winter of Her Discontent by Kathryn Miller Haines
Other world