Saturday, January 30, 2021

Life being life

 Ginny stared at the ward ceiling.

‘Why am I still here?’

‘Because you flooded my apartment.’

‘I didn’t want to be saved.’

‘And I didn’t want you to die. And nor does anyone else.’

‘It’s not their choice.’

‘You’ve a long life ahead of you. It’ll get better.’

‘My life sucks. My boyfriend dumped me for my best friend. My brother-in-law fired me. And my parents think I’m a lost cause.’

‘They’re the problem, not you.’

‘I’ve always been the problem. I can take the hint.’

‘There was no hint. Just life being life.’

‘Well, I don’t want it anymore.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Review of Cruel Acts by Jane Casey (2019, Harper Collins)

Cruel Acts is the eighth book in the Maeve Kerrigan police procedural series set in London. In this outing DS Kerrigan and her boss, DI Joss Derwent, are tasked with reviewing the case against Leo Stone, a convicted killer. After a juror’s book casts doubt on the impartiality of the original trial, and the evidence of the pathologist is called into doubt, it seems likely that there will be a re-trial with Stone released from prison until that takes place. Stone was convicted for the murder of two women and suspected of killing a third. Examining the evidence, it’s clear to Kerrigan and Derwent that it’s not as convincing as they would like and one of the women’s family is convinced Stone is innocent. Not long after he is released, however, a fourth woman disappears from near to his residence though Stone appears to have an alibi. Kerrigan believes that the third missing woman holds the key to the case, but nobody else is convinced. In my view, this series is going from strength to strength, with a good balance between the mystery and investigation of the cases and the personal development of Kerrigan and her career and fraught relationship with Derwent and other colleagues. Both these elements are compelling and convincing in this instalment. In particular, the plot is very well constructed and storytelling has a nicely judged pace. There are a couple of well placed red herrings and twists and the denouement is very well done, being somewhat extended and unrushed, with decent wrap-up. Overall, an entertaining and engaging read and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review of City of Jackals by Parker Bilal

The fifth instalment of the Makana series set in Egypt. Makana, private investigator and Sudanese refugee in Cairo, has been hired to find Mourad Hafiz, an idealistic student who seems to have dropped out of university. He’s working for the police to try and help uncover the mystery behind two fellow countrymen found murdered. While the student’s disappearance seems like it might be connected to political activity, what lies behind the two deaths is murky. Both cases though lead to a Christian church in the slums which helps refugees fleeing from war in Sudan, a protest camp that is seeking recognition and better treatment, and a pharmacy group and medical institute. Quite how they are all connected is not clear and no-one is keen to share information, though they’re clearly on edge. Adding uncertainty to Makana’s investigation is a shift in his relationship with a pathologist, who may or may not be making romantic overtures. The latter creates a nice shift in character development in the series. As with the other books, there is a strong sense of place and culture, and social commentary concerning family, work and politics. Indeed, Bilal does a good job balancing the mystery elements with observations about the political regime and Sudanese refugees in Egypt. The reason behind the case was somewhat telegraphed, but that little affected the enjoyment of the unfolding plot. However, the denouement did feel somewhat staged and rushed. Overall, another strong addition to a very good series.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Review of Empires of the Sky by Alexander Rose

Empires of the Sky tells the story of the early days of powered flight and whether it would be airships or airplanes that would come to dominate air travel. For the most part it is a fairly detailed, lengthy history of airships, with a particular focus on Zeppelins and the men who would make and fly them. The Zeppelin story is one of triumph over adversity given their massive cost, many early disasters and Count Zeppelin’s political marginalisation. Even after the First World War, the company managed to keep going due to the political and corporate shenanigans of its new boss, Hugo Eckener, who pioneered international and transatlantic flights. With the rise of Nazism, however, Eckener’s vision became subverted for political ends and ended with the Hindenburg tragedy in 1937. Woven into the book is a much less well developed history of airplane development, with the thread evolving from a brief account of the Wright Brothers to focus on Pan American Airways and its cunning and ambitious boss, Juan Trippe. Like Eckener, Trippe was determined to create a network of international air travel and set about negotiating landing concessions and building airports across the Caribbean and Latin America, developing routes across the Pacific, and eventually the Atlantic. While airships initially had the advantage of better safety and passenger comfort, and longer fly times, they were expensive and required massive infrastructure. Despite Eckener’s dream, it would only be a matter of time as planes improved before the airship became obsolete for passenger travel. The story is a fascinating and engaging read, though it is somewhat misbalanced, especially in the context of its subtitle: “Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World”. It is basically a book about the rise and fall of passenger airships. Either the Pan Am material needed the same level of attention as the Zeppelin story, or it needed to be thinned out to keep the focus on the airship story. Nonetheless, an interesting account of early long-distance air passenger travel.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

You're firing me?

‘You’re firing me?’

‘And we’ll be looking to bring charges.’

‘But I didn’t do anything!’

‘Exactly. You turned a blind eye.’

‘But I didn’t know what she was up to. How could I?’

‘You were her assistant. You processed some of the transfers.’

‘Because she told me to!’

‘To her own accounts. Did you not think it was strange?’

‘Every time I’ve raised an issue with you, you tell me to just do what I’m told.’

‘I’m your boss!’

‘And she was my line manager.’

‘You’re an accessory to burglary!’

‘You’re just looking for someone to blame now she’s fled.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

That bastard

‘We need to chat, Therese.’

‘It wasn’t me. I’ve told them to leave her alone.’

‘Let’s sit in the kitchen.’

‘Lying cow.’

‘Come and sit.’ Detective Sergeant Carter skirted past her and filled the kettle.


‘Your brother-in-law left a letter. It’s a confession.’


‘He left the knife and a bloody shirt.’

‘No, no. That bastard killed himself.’

‘He couldn’t live with the hate. The abuse. He had an alibi.’

‘She lied for him.’

‘She didn’t. That’s why we never charged him.’

‘That bastard killed her.’

‘It was your brother-in-law.’

‘But ...’

‘You owe that family an apology, Therese.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Around the world in 365 days

Despite the various lockdowns I did manage to virtually visit 27 countries via fiction in 2020. While my reduced reading meant fewer fiction trips than previous years, thanks to a Netflix subscription I made up for it through television and movies, with nearly all my viewing being non-English titles, mostly set in Asian or South America. Here's my fictional travels.

Austral by Paul McAuley ****.5

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox ****.5
The Lost Man by Jane Harper *****
Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina ****.5

Czech Republic
On Leaving a Prague Window by David Brierley ***

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch ***.5
A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson *****
A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr ***
Joe Country by Mick Herron ***.5
The Portable Door by Tom Holt ***
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey ****
Fires of London by Janice Law ****
Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn ****
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman *****
Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid ***.5
Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Henderson ****
Seventy Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler ***.5
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson ****

The Blood Strand by Chris Ould ****.5

Deep as Death by Katja Ivar ***

The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre ****.5

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon ***.5

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan ***
Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson *****
Holy Orders by Benjamin Black ***

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey ***

The Plotters by Un-su Kim ****

The Merry Misogynist by Colin Cotterill ***

Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky ****
Dead Meat by Philip Kerr ****

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney ****

The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu ****

The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö ***
The Bomber by Liza Marklund ***.5

Arabesk by Barbara Nadel ****

Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall ***.5
A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly ****.5
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha ****.5
Silent City by Alex Segura **.5
One For The Money by Janet Evanovich ****
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke ****
The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly *****
Black Betty by Walter Mosley *****
Finnegan’s Week by Joseph Wambaugh ****
Spook Country by William Gibson ****
Money to Burn by Katy Munger ****.5
The Eye of the Cricket by James Sallis *****
Dixie City Jam by James Lee Burke ***
Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale *****

The Dead House by Harry Bingham ****.5

More than one country
Neuromancer by William Gibson ***** (Japan, Turkey, Outer space
East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman **** (England, Pakistan, Afganistan)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan ***** (England, United States)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz *** (United States, Morocco)
Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver **.5 (United States, England, Germany, Sweden)
Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel ****.5 (Germany, Austria, Russia)
The City in Flames by Michael Russell ***.5 (England, Ireland)
Auslander by Paul Dowswell *** (Poland, Germany)
Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant *** (England, France)
Friends and Traitors by John Lawton **** (England, Austria)
Black Cross by Greg Iles *** (England, US, Germany, Sweden, Scotland)
Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackman *** (China, Iraq)

Fictional place
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller *****

Saturday, January 9, 2021

For a few brief moments everything was okay

‘What the … Miss, get down from there.’

Katya ignored him, staring at the water below.

‘Please. Miss.’

‘What’s the point?’


‘This life. They hated me because I was ugly. Now they hate me because of the plastic surgery.’

‘If you climb …’

‘For a few brief moments everything was okay. I made friends. Went to a party. Danced.’

‘And you can do it again.’

‘Then she recognized me and everything went back to how it was.’

‘It’ll change. You’ll see.’

‘It’ll never change. They’ll never hate me as much as I hate myself.’

Katya stepped off the bridge.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Best reads of 2020

I read and reviewed 68 books this year, quite a bit down on the c.100 I normally read. I did read quite a few others related to work, but the main transfer of reading was to subtitles as I watched a large number of non-English television programs and movies in 2020 (probably over 90% of what I viewed, which was also massively up on previous years as for the first time we ventured beyond the six terrestrial channels). Of the 68 books read, I rated 11 as five star reads and another 9 as four and a half star reads. In part this was because I re-read a number of books that left favourable memories, which I last read over two decades ago.


Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson

A kind of love story for Belfast and its people. The story has a wonderful sense of place and is full of pathos and humour as Chuckie and Jake try to navigate being poor, working-class friends from different religions in a city still riven with sectarian tension and violence. It’s beautifully written and has a strong emotional resonance, with the story switching from laugh-out loud moments to deep melancholy and tears. It has as much relevance for understanding Northern Ireland now, as it did then.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Published in 1984, the tale has aged remarkably well given the centrality of digital technologies to the storyline. It's a cyberpunk thriller that pits Case, a has-been hacker, and Molly, a cyborg, street-smart samurai, against a powerful AI that serves a shady business clan. Along with a whip-smart, intriguing and well-paced plot, the prose is evocative and delightful. It’s easy to see why the book won so many awards and how it became so influential in shaping thinking about networked technologies and the worlds they create. It remains an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking read.


A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson

A fictionalised account of the events at 10 Rillington Place, where two sets of murders occurred in the early 1950s, sending two men to the hangman. The first murderer was convicted in part on the evidence of the second one, casting significant doubt on the initial investigation, trial and guilty verdict. In Wilson’s telling DI Stratton is the lead officer in both cases. The result is a very nicely plotted tale that is very strong on exploring the psychological side of investigating emotive cases with criminals who constantly lie and in charting character development. The pacing, atmosphere and sense of place and time adds to the telling. 

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

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. Harper’s tale charts Nathan’s faltering investigation into his brother’s death. 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.  


Black Betty by Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins 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. He’s been asked by a white PI to find Black Betty, famed for turning men’s necks and wrapping them around her fingers. Easy's search for the aging siren quickly leads him into deadly trouble. 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. Mosley nicely portrays racial tensions and injustices through a hardboiled style with a tender underbelly. A wonderful, noir read.

The Eye of the Cricket by James Sallis 

Lew Griffin is a some-time English literature academic, some-time detective, and always melancholy with a self-destructive streak, scraping by in New Orleans. Now in his 50s Lew finds himself looking for three missing children. He takes his usual meandering path through bars, restaurants, back streets, shelters, and philosophical reflections, meeting a new love on the way. But as usual he finds it difficult to keep everything on track. Sallis spins out the tale at a sedate, reflective pace, pausing to dwell on the nature and meaning of life and the social realities of being poor in the Deep South. I was captivated for the entire story.


Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale 

My introduction to Joe Lansdale, one of my favourite authors. I first read the book in 1996. The tale is told from the perspective of Hap Collins, a middle aged, white field worker, who is best friends with Leonard Pine, a tough, queer black man, as they investigate the disappearances of a number of kids. The style is a kind of porch-told recounting of a mystery adventure, infused with dark humour that is captivating. The nicely spun plot mixes detection, romance and lost love, violent confrontations, and social commentary on race, religion, family and poverty in the Deep South. It has lost none of it vitality or social relevance, and Hap and Leonard are alive on the page. A wonderful, entertaining read.


Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

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. Maughan nicely juxtaposes life before and after the crash, raising thoughtful questions and observations about a world becoming increasingly dependent on digital technologies. The result is an engaging tale about our digital and surveillance present and future.



Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

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. When a woman riding a killer whale and accompanied by a polar bear arrive  it spawns rumours and unease. For four people her presence provides an impetus to resist the present order, with the story tracking their lives. The world building is very nicely done and blended into the mix is a swirl of climate, gender and bio- politics. 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.

The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly

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. Drawing on his experience as a veteran police and courts reporter for the LA Times, Connelly weaves together a well plotted police procedural with a feisty courtroom drama, creating 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.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

We all will

 ‘She should have been yours,’ Lana said.

‘She was never going to be mine.’ Anders emptied the beer bottle.

On the far side of the room Neal and Kerry revolved in a slow dance.

‘True, but you fell for her anyway.’

‘You can’t control your heart, Lana. The best you can do is suppress it, but it still knows.’

‘Who’d have thought you’d have a soft-centre?’

‘The worst of it is; he doesn’t really care for her.’

‘She can’t control her own heart. None of us can.’

‘And she’ll get hurt.’

Lana cast Anders a forlorn glance. ‘We all will.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Last quarter reviews

I haven't posted any monthly summaries of book reviews since Sept, so here's what was read in October, November and December. The standout read was Robert McLiam Wilson's Eureka Street.

The Killing Bay by Chris Ould ****
The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan ***
Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter ****.5
The Merry Misogynist by Colin Cotterill ***
The Dead House by Harry Bingham ****.5
The Plotters by Un-su Kim ****
Deep as Death by Katja Ivar ***
Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch ***.5
The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu ****
Sicily ‘43 by James Holland ***.5
Crimson Lake by Candice Fox ****.5
Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson *****
Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall ***.5
A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly ****.5