Friday, July 31, 2020

Review of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower (1999, Penguin)

Starting with Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast to the nation to announce Japan’s surrender, Dower’s account provides a detailed account of Japan under the American occupation post-World War Two until their departure in 1952. In particular, the account focuses on the influence of the US administration on Japanese life in the immediate post-war years and its long-term effects on politics, culture and economy, covering in particular the rejigging of the political system and the introduction of democracy, the reshaping of public governance, strong censorship of the media, communications, literature and entertainment, the black market, the hardship faced by families trying to make ends meet in a country destroyed by aerial bombing and suffering the trauma of defeat, and the war crimes trials. What emerges is a fairly balanced picture told from the perspectives of the US administration and the Japanese elite and ordinary citizens, set within the wider context of a changing world order as the Cold War emerges and the Korean War starts. In particular, there is an interesting discussion of the strategy employed by the US and Japanese officials to exonerate the emperor and maintain his position, and colonialism and imperialism in Asia and the duplicity and hypocrisy in the war crimes trials. While the book is strong on the administrative and politics aspects, it pays less attention to recovery of the economy (just one chapter to bookend the history), the plight of ordinary families, and US military bases and effects on local communities. Moreover, the context leading up to the occupation is quickly sketched and scattered in the text. This is kind of inevitable – it is already a large tome and to insert these to the same level of detail would require an additional volume. Nonetheless, it is thoroughly readable, balanced and detailed overview of the period of American occupation of Japan.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (2018, Orbit)

Post-apocalypse, the world has been shattered geopolitically into a myriad of cities and wandering tribes. Qaanaaq is a floating city powered by geothermal energy constructed above the Arctic Circle by an alliance of Thai-Chinese-Swedish corporations and government bodies. It is structured hierarchically through capital and crime syndicates with seemingly little state-led control. Over a million people call it home, scratching out a living providing services or contract working to gather resources and paying rent to stakeholder owners and protection to crime lords. There’s unrest among the inhabitants and many suffer from ‘the breaks’, a condition where they experience other people’s memories. Then a woman riding a killer whale and accompanied by a polar bear arrive spawning rumours and unease. For four people her presence provides an impetus to resist the present order, though they are unsure about what they are seeking to achieve.

Miller tells the story through the perspective of these four characters, each chapter following one of their lives and the points of intersection with the others. This produces different viewpoints onto the social life and politics of Qaanaaq and provides historical context and world building. Blended into the mix is a swirl of climate, gender and bio- politics. This world building is very nicely done, creating depth and intrigue yet never feeling laboured or separate to the story. The lynchpin to the tale is the ‘orcamancer’, a woman who immediately seems to spawn her own myths and legend, simply through her presence. Gradually the four characters fall within her orbit, discovering hidden truths about themselves and gaining strength and purpose. The story rolls along at a well-judged pace, building to a strong denouement that provides a glimmer of hope without dimming a dark, stratified future. An engaging, enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Comfortable love

‘I just want to be content,’ Lena said. ‘I don’t need thunderbolts.’

Katie turned off the television as the credits rolled.

‘You don’t want to be whisked off your feet? Feel your heart is going to burst?’

‘I want companionship not romance.’ Lena sipped her wine.

‘You don’t want to be madly in love with him?’

‘I want love built on friendship, not desire, big gestures, emotional highs. For it to burn like incense not explode as fireworks.’

‘Sounds like romantic love to me.’

‘But with a small r and less melodrama.’

’Also boring.’

‘Exactly. Comfortable love. That’s my dream.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review of Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (2018, Penguin)

Beth Teller died in a car accident. Now she haunts her broken-hearted father, who’s a detective. When he’s sent to small town to investigate a fire at a children’s home which killed an un-identified person, she accompanies him. While the local police chief is keen to wrap the case up as the result of an electrical failure, Beth’s father is suspicious; more so after he discusses the fire with a witness – Isobel Catching who tells an oblique tale that seems to have little to do with the inferno. Like Beth’s father, Catching can see and converse with Beth. Shortly after, two bodies are found in the town, seemingly dropped from the sky. Beth’s father calls in fellow city cops to help, sensing that other crimes are surfacing.

Catching Teller Crow is pitched as a young adult read, but its story and themes will resonate with readers of all ages. While told as a kind of literary supernatural police procedural, it is probably better to describe it as a meeting of Western and aboriginal traditions of storytelling hooked around two principle characters/voices. Beth Teller is a mixed race teen who has died in a car accident and haunts her grieving father, who’s a detective. Isobel Catching is an aboriginal girl who witnesses a fire that burns down a remote children’s home and kills a man. Beth’s tale sets out the investigation into the fire led by her father. Isobel’s tale is told more obliquely as a kind of dreamlike poem. The two stories cast light on the intersection of two cultures and issues of grief, colonial violence, and resilience. I thought it was a very moving, thoughtful, and thought-provoking tale that nicely blends different forms of storytelling. It’s a little short in the telling, but nonetheless is a substantive and engaging read with some very evocative prose.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review of Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (2017, Orbit)

Earth, 2144. Information has become the key commodity and everything can be owned, including humans. Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate that reverse engineers drugs to make them available to the poor. Her latest batch, however, is creating havoc by making users so compulsively addicted to their work that they’ll do anything to fulfil a task including put themselves and others at risk. She quickly realises that the drug she’s copied and distributed is being illegally produced by a large multinational that is now intent on making her the scapegoat for the deadly hit. While she races to try and find a solution, the company has persuaded authorities to track her down. Tasked with the job is Eliasz, an experienced military agent, and Paladin, a rookie indentured robot. As they try to locate Jack they start to form a close bond that neither is comfortable with but they nonetheless form an effective, deadly team.

In Autonomous Annalee Newitz imagines a world reconfigured into large trading zones, where power and capital are driven by information and patents, and not everybody or everything possess autonomy but are indentured in some way. Pushing back against the monopolies controlling intellectual property are pockets of scholar activists who believe in open knowledge. Newitz’s story follows the exploits of one of these activists, a kind of pharmaceutical Robin Hood who manufactures patented drugs and distributes them to those that need them rather than can simply afford them, and an attempt to track her down by an agent/robot pairing. The book is pitched as a biotech/AI version of Neuromancer. And while it does have a kind of cyberpunk feel, it lacks somewhat on the world-making and depth of story. While the reader is placed in a future world, there’s little sense as to it history or configuration or how it presently operates and is governed other than some kind of alliance between militarized trading zones and large corporations. The story is fairly linear and centred on three main characters (and another who is partially developed), and is more used to explore some ideas relating to informational capitalism and biotech, and identity, autonomy and sexuality, than to spin a more layered and complex chase. The result is some interesting ideas, though some could have been more fully worked through – for example, in relation to human-robot desire/relations - set within a loose framing that leads to an underwhelming denouement. Which was a shame as there was a lot of potential for more.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

She's already dead

Liam stepped over the threshold.

‘Where the hell have you been!’ Beth exploded.

‘I …’

‘I can’t believe that you’d cheat on me!’

‘Beth …’

‘Who is she?’

‘Just …’

‘You’ve been acting suspiciously for the last couple of weeks. But …’

‘Beth …’

‘And now you’ve taken to switching your phone off?’

‘I …’

‘I thought that this was it. That … Jesus. I’m going to kill her.’

‘She’s already dead.’


‘My mother. She passed this evening.’


‘She didn’t want a fuss.’


‘She me made promise.’

‘But …’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Review of Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky (1983, Corgi)

A special investigator for the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, Shamrayev is taking a break in Sochi on the Black Sea when he is urgently recalled to Moscow investigate the suspicious death of Semen Tsvigun, the Deputy Director of the KGB and Brezhnev’s brother-in-law. The KGB have quickly commissioned an autopsy, declared the death a suicide, and arranged for Tsvigun’s burial. Shamrayev soon finds his avenues of inquiry being actively blocked by very senior figures across security and police agencies, with not so subtle threats being delivered to drop the case. A massive round up of senior post holders across multiple agencies involved in the black market is taking place, and Tsvigun’s death is being used to move against Brezhnez’s family, who seem to be at the heart of the lucrative trading, and to conduct a political coup. Shamrayev is not prepared to let murder slide and he has a letter from Brezhnev that provides him with the power to demand whatever is required to solve Tsvigun’s death and protect the head of state from scandal.

Topol and Neznansky’s tale spins the actual reported suicide of Tsvigun by imagining it as murder, populating the story with numerous real-world characters and scandal relating to ‘Brezhnev’s mafia’, which led a high life in Moscow on the back of black market profiteering. Novelist and screenwriter, Topol provides the engaging narrative, while authenticity in the police procedural and internal politics between state agencies is added through Neznansky’s insider knowledge gleaned as an experienced Soviet prosecutor before emigrating to the United States. The result is a political thriller meets police procedural in which the stark realities of Soviet life in the Brezhnev era is revealed: from the heavy state hand, paranoia, discipline and punishment, everyday resistance, black market, political corruption, and institutional rivalries. Added into the mix is anti-Semitism and rampant misogyny. The authors keep the story moving at a brisk pace with plenty of intrigue, tension, and attention to detail as Shamrayev tries to uncover who killed Tsgivun, what game is really being played out, and to actively intervene. It leads to a nice denouement and a couple of good twists, keeping the ‘what really did happen’ framing active to the final line.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review of A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin (2019, Little, Brown and Co)

In the early part of the war Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic with more tonnage of ships sunk, and all of their precious cargo, than it could replace. The situation became more perilous as the U-boats started to attack in packs, with the allies having no effective strategic or tactical response beyond seeking safety in numbers. That was about to change with the intervention of Captain Gilbert Roberts and a team of wrens who formed the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) and devised a strategic game to determine the hunting tactics of the U-boats and how best to counter them. This game was then used to train hundreds of ship personnel in how to protect the convoys and successfully find and sink their attackers. In the following months the balance of the battle had shifted, with the new tactics, along with new weapons giving the Allies the upper-hand.

Parkin’s book tells the story of the game’s devising and deployment, focusing on the role and lives of Roberts and the wrens in his team. He contextualises this by framing WATU within the wider Battle of the Atlantic from the perspective of the convoys and U-boat mariners, internal politics of the British armed forces, and the history of the wrens. This wider context situates the story, though it is a little patchy and in a jumbled temporal order; but it is also necessary because the material for the primary story is also a little sketchy. My sense is Parkin is working from relatively thin material concerning the game and the personalities involved given all the main actors have passed leaving little in the way of personal testimony and the archival material used seems scant. He does a reasonable job with what material he has, producing a social history around the game and its wider impact.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Calling time

Josh closed his eyes. ‘How the hell did I end up living in a soap opera?’

‘Is that a pathetic attempt at gaslighting?’

‘I’m not the only one who slept away, but I’m the only one who’s repented.’

‘Repented?’ Sarah hissed. ‘I got a limp bunch of flowers and an unapologetic apology.’

‘You started this game.’

‘I might have been first to bed, but not to flirting.’

‘Flirting isn’t infidelity.’

‘It signals intent.’

‘So, you thought you’d land a first strike?’


‘We can’t keep doing this; playing the same scene. We need to forgive and forget or call time.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

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.