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,

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.