Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Review of The Portable Door by Tom Holt (2003, Orbit)

Paul Carpenter has been abandoned by his parents, who upped sticks and moved to Florida the moment he finished school. Living in a crappy bedsit he interviews for a job at J.W. Wells & Co as a clerk. Much to his surprise he’s offered the post, turning up to the company to find the skinny, angular, distant girl he took an instant liking to at the interview has also been employed. They are paired for their training, which seems to consist of nothing but sorting, filing, long awkward silences and furtive glances, without any clue as to what they are doing professionally or personally. Things are weird enough, but they gradually become odder and when they try to quit they’re informed that the terms of their contract forbid such a move and the consequences. At least Paul has discovered a portable door that enables him to escape for a while, though it too has its downsides.

The Portable Door is the first instalment of the J.W. Wells & Co. urban fantasy series. In this outing, the young, naïve and painfully shy Paul Carpenter joins the company, along with the equally socially awkward, Sophie. Neither seems able to tell the other how they feel and seem determined to sabotage any chance of a relationship for fear of rejection and making a fool of themselves. Instead, they carry out boring, mundane administrative tasks, the purpose of which they don’t understand, for a very odd company. Then Sophie gets a boyfriend and Paul finds a portable door and things start to get stranger. Essentially, the story is an extended rom-com with a bit of fantasy thrown in. And unfortunately it is a bit of fantasy, with the balance weighted heavily towards the strung out failure-to-connect romance. The other part of the story – the mystery and adventurous task they find themselves central to is underplayed and lacks depth and tension. The result was one part of the tale being drawn out and the other underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the characters are engaging in an annoying kind of way, the setup around the company is intriguing, there’s a gentle humour running throughout, and there’s a sense that the series will be worth persisting with.

Monday, July 6, 2020

June reviews

The Concrete Blonde was my best read during June, a book I first read two decades ago, and I think the first of many Harry Bosch tales I've worked my way through.

Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver **.5
The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly *****
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey ****
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon ***.5
Fires of London by Janice Law ****
The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö ***

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Like a trampoline

‘I can’t believe she lied to me. That she cheated and stole my stuff.’

Todd swigged his beer. ‘What, you think that women are all sweetness and light and all things nice?’

Craig shook his head. ‘That they’re better than men, yeah.’

‘Then you’re an idiot. Who do you think men are cheating with? Who do you think bitches refers to?’

‘But not Claire.’

‘Yeah, Claire. Man, she was using you as an ATM.’

‘But she …’

‘And you better be ready for round two.’


‘She’ll be back. She knows you’re a soft touch.’

‘Soft touch?’

‘Like a trampoline.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, July 3, 2020

Review of The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre (2017, Old Street Publishing)

Patience Portefeux works as an underpaid, off-the-books French-Arabic translator for the police and courts, specialising in phone taps. She grew up in a criminal enterprise, living a low-life in France but experiencing luxury on holidays. When she got married her father decided she didn’t need to inherit and now she’s a widow she’s struggling to cover the nursing home fees for her mother, provide for her daughters, and plan a nest egg for her own future given a lack of employer pension. Then an opportunity presents itself through her work – a huge shipment of drugs disappears en route from Morocco to France and Patience knows roughly where it is hidden. So starts her second life as The Godmother. It’s fairly difficult to find a fresh take in the crime genre, but Cayre has managed to produce a novel, dark, engaging and humorous tale hooked around a colourful lead character and her situation. The plot unfolds at a nice pace, with a good balance between backstory, character development, social observation, and the main plot thread. Beyond Patience, the story is populated with other quirky characters and the spins out along an interesting trajectory. It ended a bit too quickly, with a thin wrap-up, but I still thought it was a wonderful noirish read that I rattled through.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review of Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver (2004, Hodder)

1936, Paul Schumann is a German-American hitman in New York. He’s set up and captured and given a stark choice: work for a secret government plot and a handsome payoff or face the death penalty. The plot is to travel to Germany and kill Reinhard Ernst, who's in charge of rearmament, in the week leading up to the Olympics. Even before his boat has docked things start to go wrong. They quickly unravel when he reaches Berlin. It seems that he is expected and he quickly gets into scrapes by acting the plucky hero. He’s determined to fulfil his mission however now that he’s seen the Nazi regime up close.

Garden of Beasts is a kind of boy’s own adventure for adults as Paul Schumann – professional hitman, amateur boxer, and former soldier – tries to assassinate a senior Nazi in the week prior to the 1936 Olympics when Berlin is teeming with additional security. Not only does he have avoid the various Nazi security factions, but also a determined Kripo detective who has little time for the new regime. The story barrels along at quick pace, with plenty of spills, crosses and tension points, and with a bit of romance thrown in. However, it all feels staged and a bit clunky. The story just didn’t seem credible at any point, and scenes seem to exist to showcase aspects of Nazi rule and bits of Nazi trivia, or drop in real characters from the period, rather than simply being part of the story. And the ending felt flat and didn’t ring true. While Schumann had the potential to be an interesting character he felt a bit too much of a caricature, as did most of the other characters. The result was I struggled through the story, which was a pity as the premise and setting around the Berlin Olympics held much promise.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

How’s she meant to know?

‘Just tell her.’

Paul shook his head.

‘How’s she meant to know, if you don’t?’

‘If she doesn’t know by now.’

‘How the hell is she meant to when you keep it bottled up inside?’

Paul shrugged.

‘You can’t keep living like this. You’re torturing yourself.’

‘It’s better than not being with her.’

‘But you’re not with her. You just work together.’

‘Still better.’

‘Sometimes you need to take a chance. Look, here she comes. Hey, Sally.’

‘Hi Mark. Paul.’

‘Paul was wondering if you fancied a drink?’

Paul’s eyes widened.

‘I’d love to.’


‘I thought you’d never ask!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A friend

The wind had picked up.

Luke glanced back. ‘I think we’ve left it too late.’

‘We’ll be fine,’ John replied. ‘We just need to round the headland.’

A gust rocked the boat, nudging it off-course.

John thrust the tiller right and increased the revs.

Rain started to sweep across the craft.


‘Keep low in the boat. We’ll be there soon.’

There was a jolt from the side.

‘What was that?’ John asked.

Luke peered into the water.

A dolphin stared back, then pushed the boat towards the headland.

‘A friend.’


‘A mermaid.’


A wave crashed over them.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Review of The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly (1994, St Martin’s Paperbacks)

It’s four years after Harry Bosch shot dead Norman Church, a serial killer named The Dollmaker. Now he’s on trial for his unlawful death, Church’s wife seeking compensation from the LAPD. On the opening day of proceedings a new body is discovered under the floor in a building burned out in the Rodney King riots. It appears to be another victim of The Dollmaker, but the time of death is seemingly two years ago. It’s not just Honey Chandler, the widow’s savvy lawyer, who is trying to sink Bosch. As the trial unfolds, Bosch investigates the new murder, aware that there are probably more victims out there and the second killer will strike again, and unsure who to trust given whoever the new murderer is must be in or close to the original investigative team.

The Concrete Blonde is the third book in the long running Harry Bosch series. I first read over twenty years ago and it's as good as I remember it to be. Connelly weaves together a well plotted police procedural with a feisty courtroom drama. Bosch is on trial for shooting dead an unarmed man, Norman Church, believed to be the serial killer, The Dollmaker. On the opening day of the trial another body is discovered that appears to be a victim of The Dollmaker, but was murdered after Church’s death. The new body is clearly designed to muddy waters, sink Bosch, and sow distrust in the police, who know that the new killer must have had insider knowledge and might be one of their colleagues. The pressure mounting on Bosch is also placing his current relationship under severe strain. Connelly draws on his experience as a veteran police and courts reporter for the LA Times to produce a highly compelling, tense, and expertly plotted tale. There isn’t a single element out of place and the twists and turns keep coming. Interestingly, given present protests against policing culture and methods, there is a strong critical analysis of the police running through the book, written not long after the Rodney King riots; Connelly describing the force as a paramilitary organization infected with political bacteria. Bosch is part of that culture, while he also wages war on the worst of crimes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014, Penguin)

Maud has become forgetful. She makes endless cups of tea that she then doesn’t drink. Sometimes she doesn’t recognize her daughter. She slips out of her house with a purpose to then find she cannot remember why or quite where she is. But she stoically clings on to the fact that Elizabeth is missing. With a pocketful of post-it notes she keeps hunting for her friend, much to consternation of her daughter, amusement of her granddaughter, and ire of Elizabeth’s son. Somehow the disappearance has got muddled with that of her sister, Sukey, just after the war. Then, as now, she ran her own investigation, but never solved the case.

Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery tale involving the disappearance of two women, seventy years apart. In both cases, Maud has sought to solve the cases, the first concerning her sister, Sukey, and the second, her friend Elizabeth. She was too young and naïve to resolve the first, and she is seemingly too forgetful to complete the second. For Elizabeth has dementia and her thoughts slip, slide and vanish. Relying on notes to herself, a fractured memory, and a fierce determination to at least find Elizabeth, she keeps at the task. Healey tells her tale through two parallel threads, where her present day exploits provide triggers for remembering her sister’s disappearance. She does a lovely job of portraying Maud’s condition and its effect on her relationship to her family, all the while spinning out the mysteries, leading to a reasonably well telegraphed conclusion. A quite moving story that is nicely executed.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The wrong man?

Carter’s hand searched the bed for his phone.


‘You’d better get over here.’

‘What time is it?’

‘This is his work. She’s a perfect fit.’

‘Gerry, start again. What are you talking about?’

‘I’m talking about Quayle. She’s marked with his signature.’

‘One we missed?’ Carter said, heading for the bathroom.

‘Killed in the last 24 hours.’

He halted. ‘What?’

‘You heard.’

‘But he’s …’

‘Maybe we put away the wrong man.’

‘He confessed.’

‘Then a copycat.’

‘We kept his signature a secret.’

‘Then the wrong man.’

‘No. Must be a copycat.’

‘Or the real killer.’

‘Where are you?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (2015, Simon & Schuster)

Prior to the war and his flight to the United States, Alex Meier was friends of the von Bernuth and Engel families. 1948, a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts, he’s now heading to Berlin to try and earn his way back to his adopted home and son as an American spy. The plan is to return as a socialist intellectual and persuade his old flame, Irene von Bernuth, to collect pillow talk from her present lover, a senior figure in the Russian administration. The only way in and out of the blockaded city is by airlift and once there it’s a game of survival inside a moral maze. He’s welcomed as a returning hero, but is quickly drawn into a deadly game amongst old and new friends. It’s clear that the socialist paradise promised by the Russians and their German puppets is a mirage and that he cannot trust anyone. Leaving Berlin alive, with his deal complete, will be a challenge, especially since his mission careens off plan the moment he arrives.

Joseph Kanon tale explores the moral quandaries of a world with little trust amongst friends and allies, permeated by constant state of fear, betrayals, and little battles to gain an upper hand; where friends conspire to keep the past and present hidden, and inform on each other; where an indiscretion such as an ill-placed joke can lead to hard labour. Meier is placed back amongst pre-war friends, each of whom has survived in different ways, and into a society which has unfamiliar rules. However, he’s a natural at intricate plots and spy craft, and he’s quick to adapt. Despite the wider themes of post-war politics and the developing cold war, Kanon keeps the tale at the intimate scale and the tangle of conflicted relationships between old friends and family members. And there’s a nice sense of place and time. The result is a thriller with a small t, where there’s a stream of small twists and turns, and the tension simmers rather than boils over.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

May reviews

Black Betty was my read of May. Walter Mosley in top form.

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey ***
Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn ****
Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackman ***
Black Cross by Greg Iles ***
Black Betty by Walter Mosley *****
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman *****
Arabesk by Barbara Nadel ****

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Protect and serve

‘We risk out lives every day.’

‘That doesn’t give you the right to brutalize people, Tom.’

‘We’re doing our jobs.’

‘By targeting and attacking black people?’


‘Your job is killing unarmed people? Kneeling on necks until they die? Shooting them in their home?
You’re meant to protect and serve.’

‘We honor the badge!’

‘People are meant to trust you.’

‘They can.’

‘And the marches? Police violence at peaceful protests of police violence!’

‘We only responded in kind.’

‘I was there, Tom. I witnessed what you did.’

‘You were there?’

‘And I’ll keep going. The problem here is not me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Review of Fires of London by Janice Law (2012, Mysterious Press)

The artist Francis Bacon works as an ARP warden in the blitz in London and lives with his half-blind and light fingered childhood nanny. He takes advantage of the blackout to cruise for illicit liaisons, party in various bars where other gay men meet, and run his own roulette gambling den. When a young man he knows is found dead he gets drawn into the search for the killer, with two more deaths placing him in the frame as a suspect. Edging round the fringes of a club that provides violent trysts he searches for a way to clear his name and bring the real killer to light.

Fires of London is the first of six books featuring Francis Bacon as an amateur sleuth. The tale is rooted in some biographical context, set before Bacon received any recognition for his work, and it does a nice job of capturing the blitz and the underground gay scene in the city. Written in the first person, Bacon is cast as a complex, clever man who enjoys risk, adventure, infidelity, and a degree of hedonism, and is somewhat of a loner despite the presence of his nanny companion, a steady relationship, a circle of acquaintance and friends. The mystery is nicely plotted leading to a tense denouement.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Review of The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1971, Harper)

Sweden in the early 1970s. A senior police office is killed with a bayonet in his hospital room. The case is dealt with by Martin Beck, the head of the national murder squad, and his team. Nyland was a disagreeable character and there are plenty of people likely to hold grudges, but they quickly hone in on one. But as well as being deadly dangerous, he seems to have little to lose.

The seventh book in the series, the tale is one of police brutality, lack of accountability, and revenge, providing as usual a social commentary on an aspect of Swedish life. The plot is fairly linear with little mystery, more focused on the reason for the attack and the chase to apprehend. And the ending is very abrupt with no wrapping up or examination of the fallout. In my view, while still a good read, it’s the weakest in the series so far.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Review of The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (2017, Harper)

Anthony Horowitz has reluctantly agreed to write a book about Hawthorne, a murder detective expelled from the London Met but who’s retained as a consultant on cases. The case he’s going to shadow is the death of Diana Cowper, strangled six hours after organizing her own funeral. Hawthorne is convinced that the case is more than a robbery gone wrong and sets out to discover the truth, digging into Cowper’s past and the life of her son, a famous actor. Horowitz tags along, trying to make constructive contributions and put up with Hawthorne’s abrasive personality, but is always one step behind the detective.

The first book in the Hawthorne series, The Word is Murder, uses the first person, with the author being the central character, playing Watson the chronicler to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. Horowitz peppers the story with life as a successful author and screenwriter, dropping in snippets about work practices, various real-life book and television series, meetings with producers and directors, and relationship with agents and family. Hawthorne acts as a lofty, somewhat disagreeable foil. The mystery is well plotted, with a couple of nice twists and turns. And while the biographical approach was interesting I just couldn’t really connect with the voice which I found a bit too ingratiating.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The best fires are well set

Mrs Jordan blocked the front door.

‘Back to your rooms.’

‘We’re going out,’ the girl said.

‘Not like that you’re not, not tonight.’

‘They killed a man, Momma,’ the boy said.

‘I know they did and they ain’t killing you as well.’

‘It’s a peaceful protest.’

‘That why you’re dressed like you’re gonna rob a bank?’


‘Don’t Momma me. I’ve been fighting this fight a long time. We need justice not revenge. We need systemic change. We need daylight not night manoeuvres.’

‘We need to …’

‘Plot, plan, strategize, organize, mobilize. The best fires are well set. Rooms, now.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.
'Plot, plan, strategize, organize, mobilize' is taken from a speech in Atlanta by the rapper and activist Killer Mike, https://www.wsbtv.com/video/?id=4914290

Friday, May 29, 2020

Review of Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey (1998, Harper)

Rei Shimura is a Japanese-American living in Tokyo where she has started her own antiques business, hunting down pieces to order for her clients. She’s been given a commission to find a tansu – an ornate chest of drawers – from a specific period, and has a hot tip where to find the item. However, at the store she’s panicked into a bidding war and when the piece is delivered to the apartment she shares with her Scottish boyfriend she discovers not only has she overpaid, but the piece is a fake. When she returns to the store it’s shut up shop. Shortly after the shop owner is found murdered and Rei is convinced the death is linked to tansu. She starts to nose around, her amateur investigation annoying her boyfriend and his freeloading brother, the police, her original client, and those she questions. But despite various attacks on her property and herself she keeps prodding away.

Zen Attitude is the second book in the Rei Shimura series about an antiques dealer who plays amateur detective, without necessarily meaning to. Rei drifts into the investigation more to clean up a mess and save face than to solve any crime and her style of detection is the blundering outsider-insider (a mixed race Japanese-American) amateur who pokes and prods and has misadventures while hoping some useful clues will emerge and the case gets solved. All while trying to deal with a relationship in crisis as her boyfriend’s chaotic brother moves in with them. Massey tells the tale in the first person, giving some warmth and humour to the main character. The story is reasonably engaging and it trips along in a bumbling manner from one event to the next. But as it proceeds it becomes increasingly farcical, held together by a series of plot devices – forgetfulness, coincidence, fortunate blundering – many lacking credibility (the bit with the cigarette paper was particular hollow and the lack of recrimination baffling). The result was a light-hearted, whimsical tale that had a few too many holes in it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Review of Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn (2018, Vintage)

London, 1941. The city is being blitzed nightly, Germany is still in the ascendancy, and some in Britain would like to see them win, or sue for peace. Working for British intelligence, Jack Hoste poses as a Gestapo agent, pulling German sympathizers into his web. Marita Pardoe, wife of an interned fascist politician, and considered the most dangerous agent in Britain remains hidden, however. He turns to Amy Strallen, a friend of Marita’s from before the war to try and make contact. Strallen is co-owner of a Mayfair marriage bureau. Her business is thriving, but she’s yet to find love herself. Hoste intrigues her, but a relationship founded on deception is always going to be a brittle affair, especially when the stakes are so high. Quinn’s tale is as much a character study of Jack and Amy and their tentative and strained relationship as it is about clandestine activity in Britain. Marita acts as the lynch-pin of their dalliance, but remains somewhat of an enigma throughout. Building up the backstory of both, Quinn charts their brief, doomed intersections as Jack pursues Marita at all costs. The telling is understated, painting espionage as fairly mundane with occasional flash points, and there are a couple of twists along the way. The result is an engaging, thoughtful, low-key tale of deception, trust, loyalty and love. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Him, not me

‘What are you doing?’


‘Seriously? Why?’

‘Because I was in a relationship with you, not your brother.’


‘Whatever we had is broken, Steve. It’s certainly weaker than family bonds.’

‘But we’re family.’

‘No. We were lovers. Your brother is family. And he comes first.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Really? He’s a fucking nightmare yet you side with him every time.’

‘He needs time. And I can’t just throw him out! He’s my brother.’

‘So I’m throwing myself out instead.’

‘But neither of us wants you to leave.’

‘Us! Him, not me. Well, now you have him all to yourself.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Review of Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackman (2010, Soho Press)

After recovering from a mortar blast that wrecked her leg, Iraq vet and medic Ellie Cooper followed her husband to China where he’s working for a black ops company after leaving the army. While living in Beijing they separate after Trey starts an affair with a Chinese woman. Ellie works in a bar and falls in with some artists, one of which is an occasional lover whose art is on the cusp of becoming highly bankable. Turning up at his apartment one evening she’s introduced to a Hashim, a dissident Uighur. Soon after the artist and the Uighur have disappeared and some shadowy associates of Trey, and possibly the Chinese security services, want to find them. They believe Ellie is the key to tracking them down and soon she too is on the run, guided by characters in an online game, unsure who to trust offline but aware of the potential consequences after what she witnessed of interrogations in Iraq. In Ellie, Brackman has created a character that is both world weary and a little naïve, out-of-place in China but with sufficient language proficiency and social understanding to survive. The tale tells of her time in Iraq where she drifted onto the fringes of torture interrogations of prisoners, to helping Chinese dissidents evade capture and the same fate. The story provides interesting detail and insight into both worlds, leading to a lengthy chase across China. It’s a pretty engaging story for most of the book, then it runs out of steam and fizzles out without any real resolution, as if Brackman wasn’t sure how to wrap up the intrigue. Which was a shame as it all seemed to be leading to a big denouement that never came.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Review of Black Cross by Greg Iles (1995, Harper)

January 1944. The Allies are preparing for to cross the Channel but there are rumours that the Nazis have a deadly surprise for them – Sarin and Soman gases, both much more deadly than anything the Allies have in their armoury. It is being developed and tested in Totenhausen, a Nazi camp that conducts medical experiments to test and develop the toxic gases. Churchill and the head of SOE, Duff Smith, hatch a plan to halt the use of the gases by bluffing the Germans into thinking that the Allies have the capability to exact revenge at scale. It involves smuggling their own experimental, unstable supply of Sarin into Germany and releasing it at Totenhausen. It will, however, kill both the concentration camp inmates as well as their captors. Churchill reasons that the inmates will die anyway and their sacrifice will save tens of thousands of lives. Eisenhower is set against the mission, but Churchill is convinced it is necessary. One of the men picked for the secret job, Jonas Stern, a Zionist guerilla fighter from Palestine, is prepared to sacrifice his own people for the greater good; the other Mark McConnell, an American pacifist and poisonous gas expert, is much more reluctant to participate in mass murder. They are flown into Northern Germany, where from the start their mission runs into trouble, leaving the two men to improvise, their moral dilemmas multiplying as they seek a way to destroy the camp, save as many inmates as possible, and steal secrets, knowing that the chances of success and escape are diminishing with each hour they are there.

Black Cross is a thriller set at the start of 1944 involving a secret Allied mission into Germany to destroy a camp that is producing and testing deadly poisonous gases. The action adventure of infiltrating Nazi Germany to perform a mission is given a twist through a series of moral dilemmas and Sophie’s choices and the selection of the two men selected to undertake the task. Mark McConnell is a pacifist and conscientious objector who is asked to perform mass murder for the greater good. Jonas Stern is a German Zionist who has no qualms using violence for political ends, but is formerly local to the area and may know people in the camp they are to destroy. Their inside agent is a nurse dedicated to saving lives, not taking them. The three of them are persuaded that since all the inmates are to die in medical experiments anyway, hastening their demise for liberation of the continent is the right thing to do. But executing the plan in practice, especially when you’re in situ and things are not going as hoped, is fraught. Iles spends the first part of the book patiently setting the scene, lining up the characters, building their relationships, and creating empathy for the camp inmates. Once McConnell and Stern are in Germany the pace shifts gears and he quickly ratchets up the tension. It all seems a little far-fetched but the story hook, dilemmas, characters, and twist and turns keep the pages turning with no let up. The result is a thought provoking action thriller, though the moral aspect seemed to get a little lost towards the end, with none of the characters reflecting in any depth on whether they’d pursued the right course of action and its consequences.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Tough love

‘You need to toughen up, Kyle. This is tough love.’

Lonny held out a hand.

Kyle ignored it. ‘What it is, is bullying. You’re a fucked-up prima donna.’

‘I’m a winner. I do what I need to. If that means battering you into shape, that’s what I’ll do.’

‘You’re a tyrant. If you weren’t who you were, someone would have capped your ass long ago.’

‘Exactly. Because of who I am. What I do. Carrying your lazy asses every game. If you don’t want to win get off the team.’

‘We all want to win.’

‘Then goddamn act like it.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Review of Black Betty by Walter Mosley (1994, Pan)

Black Betty is the fifth book in the Easy Rawlins series and it’s a doozey. It’s now 1961. Easy has fallen on hard times; his property business has been hustled out from under him and he’s living in rented accommodation with his mute son and young daughter. To add to his woes his murderous friend, Mouse, has just been released from prison and wants revenge on the man who put him there, and he’s been asked by a white PI to find Black Betty, famed for twisting men’s necks and wrapping them around her fingers. Easy was in awe of Betty back in Houston when he was a kid, now she’s disappeared from a Beverley Hills mansion shortly after the owner died. Easy agrees to find the aging siren, but it quickly leads him into deadly trouble. Between trying to unravel mystery and stay alive, he also works to stop Mouse from murdering innocent men, and turn the tables on the woman who hustled him. It’s inevitable that some folk are going to die, but he’s determined it’s not going to be him. As well as a compelling mystery, with a couple of nice sub-plots, Mosley does an excellent job at charting the social relations and geography of being black in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Kennedy might have been elected, but racism and the race divide is as deep as ever. Easy is smart and canny, he’s managed to build a property business, but he’s still struggling to get by and is often the victim of institutionalised abuse. Mosley nicely portrays these tensions and injustices through a hardboiled style with a tender underbelly, populating the book with a nice mix of conflicted characters. The subplots were perhaps wrapped up a little too quickly, but Black Betty is a wonderful, noir read.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Review of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990, Corgi)

Since the Garden of Eden, Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, have been living amongst Earth’s mortals, along with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They have an uneasy alliance doing Heaven and Hell’s work as they wait for the coming battle between good and evil. Now the anti-Christ is coming and by his eleventh year Judgement Day will arrive and the apocalypse will sweep the Earth. Only there’s a mix-up at the birth and the Young’s have been given the wrong baby. Moreover, Aziraphale and Crowley have grown quite fond of the way thing are. Adam Young grows up in an idyllic village with its own microclimate in a loving family with close friends. During his eleventh summer he finds that his imaginative musings are starting to come true; powers that would do enormous harm in the hands of an evil mind. Aziraphale and Crowley call on the witchfinder army to locate their missing anti-Christ before the legions of heaven and hell do battle; but there’s only two of them and they’re not up to much. And a witch is also searching, guided by The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter.

It’s nearly 30 years since I first read Good Omens. It’s as much fun as I remember it. Pratchett and Gaiman spin an amusing tale that plots the potential end of the world, centred on an angel and demon who have messed up big time, a gang of four kids who are always up to mischief led by a boy with mysterious powers, a pair of witchfinders and a witch who are descendants of duel that has lasted over four hundred years, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The story is very nicely spun, with plenty of action, and engaging dialogue, but what gives it an extra lift is its musings on religion and its role in society. The result is a playful, thoughtful page turner. A wonderful read. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

I want sanity

‘I don’t think I can do this, Ryan.’


‘Live with you. It’s just … you …’

What?’ Ryan looked up from his breakfast.

‘It’s all the small things,’ Mia said. ‘They’re driving me nuts. I can’t stand it anymore.’

‘What things?’

‘The sound of you breathing. The noise you make when you eat. Speaking with your mouth full.’

‘So, basically anything to do with my mouth.’

‘Not everything.’ She smiled weakly. ‘And you live like a slob.’

‘But apart from that, I’m okay?’

‘Apart from that, you’re wonderful. But it’s not enough.’

‘You want Mr Perfect?’

‘I want sanity.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Review of Arabesk by Barbara Nadel (2000, Headline)

When the wife of one of Istanbul’s most popular Arabesk singers is poisoned and his baby daughter disappears, newly promoted Inspector Suleyman is put in charge of the case. The obvious suspect is the singer’s much older mistress, Tansu, an aging star prone to temper tantrums, though the presence of a neighbour with Downs Syndrome in the apartment is muddying the water. In addition, his mentor, Inspector Cetin Ikmen, although ill and notionally off work, can’t help meddling in the case, and one of his officers seems to have more loyalty to the singer than this boss. The third book in the Ikmen series, is as much about the religious make-up of Turkey as the mystery. Indeed, the mystery element is quite thin given the limited cast and the direction of the story. As such, the interest in the tale is driven by interactions between the characters and the sense of place than the mystery. Which works fine if you’re interested in the culture, politics and social relations of life in Turkey, and the interwoven personal lives of a small murder team, rather than simply wanting a compelling police procedural. And that worked just fine for me.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Before it's too late

‘What’re you doing?’

‘Dividing the house in two.’ Kelly stretched the masking tape along the floor.


‘I’ve had enough. That’s your side of this room. You can do what the hell you like with it, I’m not tidying it up.’

‘Are you serious?’ Mike asked.

‘When this bloody lockdown is over, you need to move out. If it’s taught me anything, it’s that I can’t live with you.’

‘But we’re engaged!’

‘That’s off as well.’ Kelly looked up. ‘This whole thing’s been a nightmare, but also a blessing.’


‘At least I found out before it was too late.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review of Finnegan’s Week by Joseph Wambaugh (1993, Bantam)

Forty five, three divorces under his belt, and still searching for his big acting break, Fin Finnegan is half-hearted in life and his work as San Diego cop. His life though is about to get a bit more interesting – there’s a television show shooting in town and he knows he’ll be perfect as the hitman, and a case comes his way that sees him partnering with a Navy detective, Bobbie, and an environmental crimes cop, Nell, neither of whom think he’s a total loser. The crime involves the theft of some shoes by two truck drivers who were picking up hazardous waste from the Navy yard. They take the truck south to Mexico to offload their haul, dumping the waste and selling the truck. After two kids prize open one of the drums their perfect plan starts to unravel. As does the plan of the waste company boss who’d falsified the manifest, omitting the inclusion of Guthion, a lethal chemical. Fin will be pleased to solve the case; landing a part in the television show and one of the women would be the icing on the cake. Wambaugh spins the tale as a darkly comic caper, with plenty of humour, banter dialogue, and dashes of violence, though with few twists or turns. The truck drivers’ mismatched double act, and the Fin, Bobbie, Nell triangle provide strong character dynamics, and there’s a good sense of place and juxtaposition of San Diego and Tijuana. An engaging, often amusing procedural.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review of Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid (2011, Sphere)

Criminal psychiatrist is Dr Charlie Flint is suspended from work after a man she cleared of murder goes on to kill four women. While waiting for her hearing she is asked by one of her old university professors to look into a possible miscarriage of justice. The husband of the professor’s daughter, whom Charlie used to babysit, was murdered on their wedding day. The professor is convinced the man’s business partners are not the murderers. Instead, she suspects successful entrepreneur, Jay Macallan Stewart, also a former babysitter and now her daughter’s new lover, who she believes also murdered somebody else years before. Charlie also has other motivations for wanting to visit, Oxford; a psychologist whom she has found herself romantically drawn to despite being in a steady relationship for seven years. Charlie doesn’t believe Jay is the murderer, yet she discovers a number of suspicious deaths in her past that demand investigation. McDermid spins the story around the tangled relationships of five lesbian women, told predominately through the perspective of two: Charlie and Jay. A large portion of the latter is told through extracts from Jay’s misery memoir, about her tough life growing up and the follow-up she is presently drafting. The investigation often seemed to play second fiddle to the melodrama of these women’s lives, but it’s kept moving forward through an interesting enough plot. And McDermid’s writing is very easy on the eye, keeping the pages turning. The outcome was somewhat telegraphed, but there were a couple of nice twists to offset.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

End of the world party

‘When this is over there’s going to be one hell of a party,’ Barry said, throwing a tennis ball off a wall.

‘If there’s a hell of a party,’ Sally said, ‘it’ll just re-set the clock and we’ll have to isolate all again.’

‘I don’t care. It can be an end of the fucking world party. As long as it’s a party. An epic one.’

‘Trust you to dream of being a selfish prick.’

‘Me and ninety percent of the population.’

‘People will die so you can letch.’

‘God, you’re such a party-pooper, Sally. Lighten up.’

‘Only if you grow-up.’  

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Review of On Leaving a Prague Window by David Brierley (1996, Little Brown and Co)

Eighteen months after The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the country is still finding its feet. The apparatus of the old state has faded into the shadows but are still pulling strings, exerting influence and trying to protect themselves from accusations related to their regime. Melina Prerova is seeking answers to the death of her journalist lover during the last uprising in 1968. Disgraced Father Alois Fulcek has found himself helping her. Broucek, a high ranking official in the Finance Ministry who had been abusing his power hears of their quest and seeks to shut them down, pulling favours from old colleagues. The fulcrum of the three main actors is a concern for Radl, a kingpin from the previous regime keen to retain his power in the new state by reinventing himself. Will truth out or be supressed as the country tries to come to terms with life post-Communism. Brierley’s novel is an allegory of the transition, secrets and power. It kind of works at one level, but the story is very drawn out and not very engaging for much of its telling. It’s kind of difficult to care about any of the characters and the thriller element is quite flat. The result is a story lacks heart and hook.