Saturday, November 28, 2020

Out the window

 Jamie held his brother out of the window.

‘Don’t let me go!’

‘It’s the only way.’


‘It’s not far.’


‘Come-on, kid!’ A voice shouted from below. ‘Drop him.’

Jamie closed his eyes, counted to three and let go of his brother’s wrists.

When he looked down the man was clutching Tom, lowering him to the ground.

‘Now you.’

Jamie shook his head and coughed.

‘You’ve got to jump, kid. Climb out the window.’

Jamie stood on the window ledge, smoke billowing around him.

‘I’ll catch you.’

‘I can’t.’

‘You can. Jump.’

Jamie closed his eyes and tumbled forwards.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Review of The Plotters by Un-su Kim (2019, Fourth Estate; 2010 Korean)

As a small child Reseng was adopted by Old Raccoon, the keeper of the Doghouse Library. While it seems like an ordinary library, it has few visitors and actually serves as a hub for organized crime, especially contract killings. Reseng was groomed to be an assassin and has grown-up to become one of the best in the business. A secret group of plotters devise who should be killed and how; the library organizes the execution. But it’s a business that eats its own. The Old Raccoon is under pressure from a younger rival and Reseng is also under threat after deviating from a plot. And the opposition have the best killer in the business.

The Plotters is a noir tale set in South Korea. Pulling strings behind the scenes, a shadowy group of plotters orchestrate contract killings in which targets are eliminated and their bodies vanish. Reseng operates at the sharp-end, undertaking the kills and transferring the bodies to a pet crematorium. It’s a competitive business, where a deviation from a plot can place the assassin on the death list. Which is where Reseng finds himself. Only there appears to be more than one plotter at work, as well as rivalry in the underworld, unsettling the usual order. Trying to seize the initiative and save himself and his mentor, Reseng takes matters into his own hands, leading to a bloody set of encounters. Un-su Kim creates a dark, reflexive tale of a young assassin trying to survive in a cut-throat world. He does a nice job of constructing the world of the plotters, their actors and the Korean underworld. In many ways, Reseng is the least colourful character in a book populated by larger-than-life, quirky low-lives, but he has an interesting backstory and pursues his own strategy. The storytelling nicely blends pathos with dark humour, and is told in a literary voice. And while it is a little uneven in its pacing, mixing thoughtful description and reflection with action sequences, there’s never a dull moment in the narrative. Overall, an engaging, entertaining read and I’ll be looking out for other books by the author.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Review of Deep as Death by Katja Ivar (2020, Bitter Lemon Press)

Winter, Helsinki, 1953. Hella Mauzer, the first woman to serve in the city's homicide unit, has been forced out and prosecuted for injuring a suspect. She’s set herself up as a private investigator, but her run of bad luck continues as she’s given a large fine to pay in a short time-frame and her relationship with a radio presenter has run aground. When a prostitute is found floating in the harbour, the brothel’s madam turns to Mauzer to help. The brothel is known to have catered to the city’s elite and the head of homicide is reluctant to investigate given the role of chief of police is up for grabs. However, an ambitious inspector in the unit is reluctant to toe-the-line. Mauzer thus finds herself competing with her old boss to solve the case and as other’s start to perish, the stakes are raised. 

Deep as Death is the second book in the Hella Mauzer series set in 1950s Finland. In this outing, Mauzer has been forced out of the homicide unit and has set herself up as a private investigator. She is hired to investigate the death of a prostitute by a madam who is aware the police are dragging their heels, afraid of upsetting political leaders. As she starts to make some progress, forces seem to conspire to thwart Hella’s efforts. At the same time, a young inspector spots an opportunity to move his career forward, running with the case against his bosses wishes. Ivar tells the story from the point of view of Hella and the inspector. It works reasonably well, providing two perspectives on the case, and creating a sense of competition between the two, and there’s a good sense of place and context. The story unfolds as a who-dunnit, with a rising body count and some twists-and-turns. The denouement, however, seemed to fall apart a bit, being somewhat unconvincing, and was wrapped up very quickly leaving the story without adequate closure.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

It's never too late

 ‘I can’t do this anymore, Ruth.’

‘Do what?’

‘This. Meeting up. Going for walks.’

‘Oh.’ She turned to face him. ‘Why?’

‘Because …’ Brendan shrugged.

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

‘I’m not sure we were ever together.’

Ruth reached for his hand, which he pulled out of reach.

‘What about the last two years?’

‘We’ve been friends.’


‘Yes, companions.’

‘I thought that’s what you wanted? A companion.’

‘I did. I do. But I thought it might lead to something else.’

‘It still can.’

‘It’s too late for us to star in a rom-com.’

‘It’s never too late, Brendan.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review of Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (2013, Gollancz)

A trace of a blood in the boot of a car, the owner a suspected illicit practioner of magic. A locksmith cooked from the inside-out. A town-planner stepping off a platform in front of a train. The appearance of a stolen book on industrial-scale magic of German origin. PC Peter Grant is dashing between cases that appear to be linked to his nemesis, the Faceless Man. The leads point to a notorious sink estate in Elephant and Castle in South London, designed by an infamous German emigre. Not sure what he is looking for, but certain that the estate holds the key, Grant and his colleague, Leslie take up residence, assured that something strange is taking place.

Broken Homes is the fourth book in the urban fantasy meets police procedural, Rivers of London series. The story revolves around an estate in South London, notorious for its strange and fortress-like design that has made it a no-go area for authorities. The local council is seeking to knock it down to build something new. Residents want to be left alone. And another force seems intent on using it for something else. Peter Grant and colleagues, who specialise in policing strange phenomena, are interested in discovering more about the latter, which seems linked to some mysterious deaths elsewhere in London. It’s an enjoyable read, with a nice set of characters, intriguing elements, and usual humour. However, while there is a full story arc, the tale felt a bit too much like a bridging entry in the series, being a little too meandering and open-ended, with a number of threads that are unresolved or not fully explained. And the lack of backstory with respect to all the threads – the unit Grant works for, Lesley’s face, the Faceless Man, the Rivers – would make it a quite confusing standalone read. Nonetheless, an entertaining addition to the series.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Box room

Alysha nervously picked at her plate.

‘She can sleep in your room tonight,’ Frank said. ‘You can have the box room.’

‘We’re both sleeping in my room,’ Peter replied.

‘This is my house.’

‘And Alysha is my wife.’

‘Frank,’ Sylvia said, hoping to head-off a full-blown confrontation.

‘We’ll find a hotel.’

‘Peter.’ Alysha sought out his hand.

‘You’ll stay here,’ Frank said. ‘But in separate rooms.’

‘I’m sorry, mum.’ Peter rose to his feet. ‘You’re a racist prick, dad. Alysha’s pregnant. Twins.’

‘Peter,’ Alysha whispered.

‘He can reject us, but he’ll never get to be a racist prick to them.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review of The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu (2017, Constable)

1936, Singapore. Sixteen year old Su Lin is coming to the end of her time at a mission school. She has ambitions to be a reporter, but her first step to achieving that goal is to avoid being married off to a much older man selected by her uncle. Her teacher has arranged for her to be the housekeeper for Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy. At their initial meeting LeFroy is called away to investigate a suspicious death at the residence of the Acting Governor of the colony, taking Su Lin with him. The nanny has fallen to her death from a second floor balcony. Su Lin quickly spots some oddities with the death and persuades LeFroy to let her offer to replace the nanny, stay at the residence, and try to see what she can find out. He reluctantly agrees, though his enthusiasm dips when a second death occurs. Su Lin though is determined to protect the daughter she is minding and solve the case.

This is the first in a cosy series set in Singapore in the late 1930s. The story is a traditional big house mystery in the vein of the golden age of crime transplanted to the colony, with the majority of the tale taking place in the Acting Governor’s residence investigating the suspicious death of the nanny. Although the police are involved, the primary investigator is Su Lin Chen, a teenager who is asked to temporarily replace the nanny until another can be hired. Su Lin is observant, smart, quick-witted, and kind and is not going to let her polio-crippled leg hold her back. Grand-daughter of a major trader and money-lender, she’s determined not be married off to an associate of her uncle, and has ambitions to make something of her life. Despite the colonial attitudes and racism of the governor’s family she quickly fits into the household as she hunts for clues and uncovers secrets. Yu spins an engaging, well paced whodunit tale that has several twists and turns and leads to tense, though not overly surprising denouement. There’s a reasonable sense of place, though the focus on the residence and domestic relations means the colonial context and island society is somewhat in the background. The charm of the story, however, is Su Lin and the golden age feel of the tale. Definitely a series I’ll be continuing with.

Saturday, November 7, 2020


‘Mr Smith, will you please answer the question.’

‘What’s the point? Everyone in this room thinks I’m guilty. Including my own lawyer.’

‘And are you?’

‘No. I didn’t kill that poor woman; but I have no way of proving it. Can’t we just skip forward to the sentencing?’

‘You haven’t been convicted as yet.’

‘That’s only a matter of time. We’re just wasting tax-payers money.’

‘An innocent man would contest the charges.’

‘This innocent man has been, but nobody wants to listen. Can’t we just end this charade?’

‘This isn’t a charade, Mr Smith.’

‘It is from where I’m sitting.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Review of Sicily ‘43 by James Holland (2020, Bantam Press)

The invasion of Sicily by Allied troops in July 1943 was the first major assault on Fortress Europe. It remains the largest amphibious landing in a single day, with 160,000 troops coming ashore on D-Day, and involved a vast armada, aerial skirmishes, and British and American-led armies taking on Italian and German troops. While the Western half of the island was quickly over-run, the Eastern half involved a bloody series of battles. After 38 days it was all over with most of the Italians surrendering and the Germans withdrawn over the Messina Straits. James Holland provides an overarching description of the invasion and key battles, drawing on the testimony of combatants on both sides and civilians. Unlike other accounts that tend to disparage the Allied efforts, Holland makes the case that Sicily was a major success despite mistakes being made (notably the use of airborne troops and gliders which suffered major losses, including via Allied guns). He argues that the mountainous terrain that favoured defenders and hardened German opponents slowed progress despite total aerial dominance and uncontested sea support, rather than incompetence, poor planning and weak tactics. His contention is well made. In general, one gets a reasonable sense of how the campaign unfolded. However, trying the cram dozens of battles and encounters into a single volume using multiple personal narratives makes for a somewhat bitty and narrow narrative. On the plus side, there’s a sense of what Holland’s main characters went through. On the negative, there’s a lot of jumping about and less sense of how particular actions and the overall campaign unfolded. It’s a difficult balance to achieve and it felt a little out of kilter. It might have helped if the relevant maps were embedded in the text at the appropriate points and there was more of them. Overall, though an interesting account of gaining a key foothold on Axis territory.