Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Silent City by Alex Segura (2016, Polis Books)

Dumped by his fiancée and his newspaper career on the skids, each day Pete Fernandez drinks himself into a stupor. When a writer for the paper asks him to look into the disappearance of his daughter, a reporter, Pete reluctantly agrees. It pretty quickly becomes clear that something is awry, though the police don’t seem to want to know. The journalist had been investigating a series of underworld murders committed by a mysterious hitman known as The Silent Death and it seems she might have been on the cusp of revealing his identity. He might be a mess, but Pete used to be a bloodhound reporter, and he’s soon ruffling feathers as he tries to track down the missing journalist. And as he digs deeper, he’s drawn into the world of his father, a homicide detective who’s recently died, and the body count of The Silent Death rises.

Silent City is a journalist turned PI tale set in Miami, following the attempt of a drunken, washed up reporter trying to track down a colleague who’d been working on a big story for the crime desk. It’s one of those tales where just about every character, regardless of their role, is already a part of the lead character’s life, the trajectory and mystery of the story is telegraphed from a very long way out, and the tale is driven forward by plot devices. And the characters were a little too typeset and one-dimensional. The result is a derivative crime thriller, told through workman-like prose, which has a decent pace, intrigue and tension, but is wholly unbelievable yet predictable. It passed the time, but sparked little else. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

You deserve each other

 ‘I don’t think he’ll ever ask me out.’ 

‘He will. Eventually.’ 

‘I’m just a friend to him.’

‘A friend he wants to do naughty things with.’

‘He’s never even hinted at naughty.’

‘He sees you naked most of the time,’ Sarah said.

‘What? No!’

‘He’s practically drooling.’

‘Stop! He doesn’t see me that way at all.’

‘Well, you see him that way, so what’re you going to do about it?’

‘Nothing. He has to make the first move.’

‘It’s the twenty-first century, Emma.’

‘I’ll die of shame.’

‘You won’t.’

‘I probably will.’

‘Well, one thing’s certain. You deserve each other.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Review of The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2018, Abacus)

Deep in the Australian outback Cameron Bright’s body is discovered by his two brothers at Stockman’s grave, a bleak, isolated spot, having perished in the searing heat. His vehicle being parked some kilometres away suggests foul play, but other circumstantial evidence indicates misadventure or suicide. It’s not uncommon given the rural isolation and Cam seemed off-colour for weeks before his death. Nathan, the eldest of the siblings and social outcast, wants answers but the rest of the Bright family and ranch hands are more concerned with his mental wellbeing, their own problems, and preparing for the funeral and Christmas. And the police are several hours away, busy, and unconvinced that the death was anything more than a tragic incident. Nathan hasn’t spent this much time with others in a decade and he’d sooner retreat to his own failing ranch, but something about Cam’s death has got under his skin. 

Harper’s tale charts Nathan’s faltering investigation into his brother’s death, slowly revealing secrets and dark moments that shadow the Bright homestead. The telling is nicely evocative, with a strong sense of place, realistic rendering of ranch and family life, and tensions and social relations among an isolated, resilient community, and well-painted characters. The real strength of story is the tight crafting of plot, which is free of awkward or contrived plot devices; mixing reminisce and mystery it creates a slow burn sense of unease and intrigue, leading to an understated and satisfying denouement. The result is an engaging tale of a lost man wandering back towards redemption.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review of A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr (1992, G.P. Putnam)

London, 2013 (at the time of publication, twenty years in the future). Society has become more uneven and unequal with capitalism devouring the state and prison sentences have been replaced by ‘punitive comas’. The Lombroso project uses brain scans to identify men lacking a Ventro Medial Nucleus, who are more likely to commit violent crimes, and places them in an anonymous programme designed to limit their tendencies. Only someone seems to have accessed the secret database and is murdering the men, focusing in particular on those given philosopher names as pseudonyms. Detective Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz is assigned the case. Jake has her own demons related to violent men and she’s determined to track down the killer. But ‘Wittgenstein’ is a smarter than the average killer and she might have found her match. 

Kerr spins the tale out through two intertwined threads, the first the tracking police investigation, the second reproducing the journal entries written by the killer. The procedural elements are inflected with philosophical musings related to crime and punishment, with Jake increasingly questioning the ethics of the criminal justice system. The second apes Wittgenstein’s style and ideas, setting out the logic and reasoning of the killer and reflecting on the crimes committed. The result is a police procedural thriller that is thoroughly saturated with ethical and normative reflection, sometimes to the point of drowning the procedural side of the story. The issues raised are thought-provoking, but at times they seem forced centre stage, especially through the use of Wittgenstein’s notebook, and the tale feels too clever for its own good. As a result, while I found many of the ideas underpinning the book interesting, and it was quite an engaging read, it seemed a little too contrived and stilted.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Better than messing up?

‘Stop glancing over; go and ask her for a date,’ Tom said.

‘I can’t.’ Jack stirred his coffee.

‘Won’t, more like.’

‘We work in the same office.’


‘And me too.’

‘So, work romances are banned?’

‘Yes. I don’t know. I don’t want to make her feel … uncomfortable.’

‘It’s everyone else that’s uncomfortable, the pair of you doing that flirting not flirting thing.’


‘Sitting together, glances, shy smiles, small talk. It’s excruciating.’

‘You’re right, I’ll leave.’

‘Now you’re really talking nonsense. I’ll sound her out.’

‘That’s worse.’

‘You’re going to do nothing?’

‘Better than messing up.’

‘Is it?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Review of Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (2017, Mulholland)

Darren Mathews’ career as a Texas Ranger looks like it could be over, as well as his marriage. While both are in hiatus, an old friend points him to a pair of murders in the tiny settlement of Lark, which is little more than a pit stop on Highway 59. The first murder was a black lawyer from Chicago, the second a couple of days later, a local white woman. The local sheriff doesn’t want a Texas Ranger looking over his shoulder, especially a black one, and the locals are not happy he’s there either, especially those who attend a local bar where members of the Aryan Brotherhood hang out. Undeterred and determined to discover the truth before he loses his badge, Mathews starts to poke around, annoying just about everyone he encounters, including the wife of the dead lawyer. There are secrets in Lark, however, that nobody on either side of the racial divide wants revealed.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a police procedural set in East Texas centered on the investigation of a pair of murders by Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews. Race, family and community are its central hooks, explored through the killing of a black lawyer and a white woman in a small, rural settlement, and the turmoil in Mathews own life. Mathews is battling a number of issues at work and home – a career being derailed, a marriage on the rocks, a guardian pushing for a career change, a dysfunctional mother, an obstructionist local sheriff, and drink. The murders in Lark are a chance to redeem his career, and also to potentially contribute to the ongoing investigation to Aryan Brotherhood operating in the state. But little goes well after his arrival in Lark. Racial tension is high, and a black ranger is unwelcome. Locke nicely balances Mathew’s personal life with the investigation of an intriguing mystery, using both to provide an insightful social commentary on institutionalised racism in the Deep South. The story is well paced, the prose evocative, and the there’s a couple of nice twists. A strong start to the series.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

If you could see the future

 Jack downed the whisky.

‘What would you do if you could see the future?’

‘Find out that week’s lottery numbers.’ Greg refilled the glass.

‘But what if you were going to die?’

‘Then Gemma would be a rich widow.’

‘I’m being serious. What if you could foretell your own death?’

‘Then I’d change my future.’


‘By avoiding whatever kills me; steering clear of the place and activity.’

‘What if you can’t?’

‘Then you’re fucked. Relax; none of us know our future.’

‘I knew you’d say that.’

‘Déjà vu.’

‘I know a truck is about to plough through that wall.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Review of Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan (2019, FSG)

In reaction to the ever-growing dependency on digital technologies and the tyranny of surveillance capitalism, the predictive state and autonomous systems, a small enclave in Bristol has cut itself off from mainstream networked life, setting up an alternative counter-culture, the Croft. It’s not popular with everyone, creating inconveniences for those living in or nearby who do not aspire to its ideals, but it does demonstrate that an alternative digital life is possible. But then a radical anarchist group takes down the global internet and every connected device. Global capitalism is halted in its tracks and every production, logistical and consumption system descends into chaos. Instead of creating a better society, the world seems to implode, people scrambling to survive.  The Croft’s is targeted, it’s inhabitants battling to protect their turf and scattering. Years later, Anika – one of its former leaders – is making her way back attracted by stories of a girl who can see ghosts. At the same time, the architect of the Croft’s alternative network is making his way to Brooklyn to track down his lover. 

Infinite Detail tracks life before and after a catastrophic cyberattack that takes down the global internet and permanently disables every digital technology and system, following two threads, one set in Bristol, the other New York. In the time before and during the crash, the excesses of the global capitalism and technocratic governance in Bristol and New York is contrasted to the idealism of the Croft, a community that disconnects from the global internet, building its own communitarian network. In the time after, the folly of imploding the global system with no plan or bridge to maintain social systems is exposed, with the focus mostly on Bristol and the lives of a handful of the Croft’s inhabitants. Maughan nicely juxtaposes life before and after the crash, raising thoughtful questions and observations about a world becoming increasingly dependent on digital technologies to drive and control the global economy and state practices (and all the tech and systems discussed currently exist and are deployed rather than being speculative, though some are more embedded in the story than at present) and what happens if they are suddenly and permanently switched off. At the same time, the story relating to the Croft’s current and former inhabitants, and their own trials and memories, remains centre stage. The result is an engaging tale about our digital and surveillance present and future.


Saturday, August 8, 2020

There’s a difference between stupid in love and stupid

‘He’s in the shower then?’ Cathy asked, entering the kitchen.


‘You don’t sound too happy about it.’

‘Well, y’know.’ Jane shrugged.

‘Well, I know I was kept up half the night.’


‘What are you sorry for? Oh, god! Oh, god!’ Cathy mimicked. ‘Oohhhh, fuck. Don’t stop!’


‘What is it, buyer’s remorse? Got a face like a slapped arse?’


‘At least it wasn’t that fucker Gary.’

‘Shhhssh. He might hear.’

‘Wait …’

‘I know.’

‘He cheated on you. Gave you a fucking black eye!’

‘I …’

‘Jesus, Jane! There’s a difference between stupid in love and stupid.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Review of One For The Money by Janet Evanovich (1994, Penguin)

Jersey girl Stephanie Plum has been let go from her job as a department store lingerie buyer. She can’t find another job, her car has been repossessed, and she can’t afford the rent. In desperation, she turns to her cousin Vinny and blackmails her way into becoming a bounty hunter. If she can bring in Detective Joe Morelli, out on bail for murder, she’ll be able to stave off homelessness. However, Morelli is a seasoned detective who doesn’t want to be caught and he’s also Stephanie’s weak spot – the man who took her virginity, broadcast the details to the neighbourhood, then disappeared. She’s also clueless about the bounty hunter business and she’s about to tangle with a lot more than Morelli – a psychotic boxer with a shot at a title who gets his kicks hurting women. She’s soon well out of her depth, but pride, bloody mindedness and the chance of revenge mean she’s determined to get her man. 

One for the Money was the first book in the Stephanie Plum series, now at book 27. I first read it in 1996. It was a breath of fresh air at time – a tale that was breezy and humorous, laced with a dark streak, crossing a rom-com sensibility with violent crime. The juxtaposition of the fish-out-of-water former lingerie buyer working as a bounty hunter, the sparky relationship between Plum and Morelli as she chases him as he seeks to clear his name chasing witnesses and someone else chases them both, work well to produce an entertaining caper. Added to the mix is Stephanie’s exasperated family. Reading it again it’s still a good read, but it’s not quite as a I remember it, partly clouded by an expectation to spend more time with characters that are developed further in subsequent books (I got to about book 12 before giving up on the series, which at that point seemed to be rehashing the same story and had lost its spark). Nonetheless, it retains its freshness and sassiness. A fun read.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

July reviews

July provided a good mix of interesting reading. Four stand out books, but the read of the month was Blackfish City.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller *****
Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina ****.5
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz ***
Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky ****
A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin ***
The Portable Door by Tom Holt ***
The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre ****.5

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Review of Joe Country by Mick Herron (2019, John Murray)

River Cartwright’s grandfather, the Old Bastard and master spy, has died and an old foe shows up at the funeral. The ‘slow horses’ of Slough House – intelligence officers that have messed up their careers – have unfinished business and set off in pursuit. Except for Louisa Guy, who has requested leave to track down the missing son of a fellow former horse and now dead lover, and Lech Wicinski, a new transfer to Slough House who is busy trying to work out who sabotaged his career and personal life. Meanwhile, the head of the Service is too busy fighting political battles to worry too much about what her rejects are up to in Joe Country, and their boss Jackson Lamb is happy to give them their heads, even if it means they might lose them.

Joe Country is the sixth instalment in the wonderful ‘Slough House’ series that follows the exploits of a set of washed-up intelligence agents who’ve been put out to pasture, consigned to meaningless, menial tasks. In this outing, while each of the 'slow horses' continues to deal with their own personal demons, they also set off into Joe Country – entering the field as active agents – in order to track down an old foe. But this is somewhat of a solo run, without the back-up and resources of the Service, against professional opposition in a remote corner of Wales in the depths of winter. It seems certain that not everyone is going to make it home. Which is a hallmark and strength of the series – Herron creates a wonderful set of characters, lets the reader invest in them, and then kill off them off in subsequent books, always in service to the story. It’s a remarkably effective in terms of adding emotional resonance to the tale, but also keeping the series fresh as new misfits are cycled through Slough House. And half the fun is trying to guess who’ll be for the chop. While Joe Country is an engaging and entertaining read, with Lamb’s acerbic commentaries, snide commentary of contemporary politics, and the chase in the snow a delight, in my view it was one the weaker books in the series, with the thread linking the various elements somewhat tenuous, coincidental and underdeveloped. This gave the plot a contrived feel, held together with relatively weak plot devices. Nonetheless, it was still an enjoyable read and provides a nice setup to the next instalment.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A stranger

Hayden stared at the mirror.

The man gazing back was a stranger who seemed vaguely familiar, yet couldn’t quite be placed. A reflection in a carriage’s window of a man who caught the same train each morning. Someone otherworldly, yet somehow an echo. No, a simulacrum. Or something distant, but tenuously connected. Whatever, it wasn’t himself he was seeing. Or at least a self he recognized.

He closed his eyes and pressed the bridge of his nose, then ran his finger and thumb down across his cheeks.

How could be find himself again when he’d forgotten what he’d been like?