Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review of The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson

October 1960 and an East German charmer, Andreas, has started an affair with Katya Alekseev, wife of the head of the KGB in Berlin.  Sensing a way to make money, Andreas steals a personal letter, one that contains an important secret that will shift the balance of power in the nuclear arms race.  He offers a copy of the letter to Will Catesby, Britain’s leading spy in Berlin. Catesby is a working class agent inside an upper class agency that seems to be playing as many mind and dirty games with their American allies as Eastern bloc opponents.  Given American bravado and Russian nervousness, Britain fears it could be obliterated in a lethal game of nuclear chicken.  What is certain is that the letter Catesby now possesses cannot be allowed to fall into American hands, especially those of a hawkish disposition.  Two years later he is stationed in Cuba and Britain’s fears of the cold war becoming hot are perilously close to being realised.  With the change in the political landscape, Catesby’s role has shifted from spy to back-channel negotiator.  However, not everyone trusts him, especially given his history and the company he keeps, and some positively want him dead; an outcome that might well lead to Armageddon. 

In The Midnight Swimmer Edward Wilson re-imagines the Cuban missile crisis.  Whilst many of the characters, incidents and political stakes are real, Wilson places his working class spy, Will Catesby, into the heart of the tale.  Catesby is an experienced operative with a tarnished history, and the British are still not trusted by their American counterparts given the fallout of the Cambridge ring.  What unfolds is a dangerous and complex game between British, American, French, West and East German, and Russian agencies and operatives, some of whom are trying to follow the party line, others pursuing their own agendas.  Even within the same country, different factions are vying to influence the paths taken.  Catesby is a pawn in this landscape, never quite certain of the game being played.  And neither is the reader until the latter part of the book.  What that means is the first half of the tale is a little oblique and stuttering, but as it continues it becomes surer and more compelling as pieces start to drop into place.   As with the first two books in the Catesby series, the narrative is layered, the characters are complex and nicely drawn, the plot has plenty of intrigue and understated encounters and action, and the historicisation is excellent with careful attention to detail.  Wilson’s spy novels are intricate affairs consisting of a swirling mix of greys and shifting allegiances and unexpected collaborations, rather than black and whites and sharply drawn lines.  The result is a thoughtful, engaging and entertaining spy tale.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Potsdam Station by David Downing (2011, Old Street Publishing)

It’s April 1945 and three and a half years since American journalist, John Russell, fled Berlin to Sweden aided by a communist cell, leaving his partner, actress Effi Koenen, and teenage son, Paul, behind.  Russian troops are poised to take the city and Russell wants enter with them to find and protect Effi and Paul from the marauding victors, assuming they are still alive.  He travels to Moscow to try and persuade the authorities that they would benefit from a Western journalist accompanying them.  They initially decline, arresting him as a spy, but then decide to give Russell his wish as long as he carries out a mission for them - parachuting  into the edge of the devastated city with a scientist, and two NKVD minders, tasked with searching for papers related to the German atomic programme.  After surviving for so long under an assumed identity, Effi and the young orphan she’s been caring for, are hoping to see out the war, but the Gestapo seem intent on annihilating all enemies of the state before they are overthrown.  Meanwhile, Paul is fighting a desperate rear-guard action as part of the chaotic retreat to Berlin.  At eighteen he’s thoroughly disillusioned, but also desperate to avoid pointlessly sacrificing himself for a regime he despises.  Russell is not sure how he is going to locate them, especially given the bargain he’s entered into, but he feels compelled to search through the ruins and risk the desperate fighting.

The fourth book in the John Russell/Effi Koenen series, Potsdam Station is told through three points of view: Russell, Effi and Paul, Russell’s son from his first marriage.  Each new scene switches to focus on one of three.  The result is three different views on the fall of Berlin from the perspective of foreign journalist, surviving citizen, and retreating soldier.  This is one of the strengths of the tale, along with engaging prose, nice characterisation, a very vivid sense of place and geography, interesting historic detail, a cloying atmosphere, and a visceral sense of desperation as a regime collapses under a fierce onslaught.  Nonetheless, the plot is a little far-fetched, particularly the scenario of Russell persuading the Russians to get him into the city ahead of their arrival and Effi failing to maintain her cover to the final fall.  That said, despite having a pretty good sense of how the tale would end, Downing keeps the tension high throughout.  Further, the first two books in the series were set in 1939 and the third in 1941 and in some ways it’s a shame that Downing has decided to jump forward three and a half years to 1945 for the fourth as I’m sure a compelling tale could have been inserted in that timeframe.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining read, with a main plot that’s a little fanciful but a narrative that’s compelling.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

After a bit of a hunt I found my kindle yesterday, gave it a charge, then downloaded four books from Blasted Heath.  Three of their authors have been in my yearly top tens over the past couple of years, and I've been reading the short stories of the other for quite a while, so I thought it was time to catch up with them again.  I'm looking forward to tucking into Anonymous-9's Bite Harder, Gerard Brennan's Undercover, Douglas Lindsay's The Unburied Dead, and Nigel Bird's Southsiders.  I've already made a start on the first and it's living up to expectation.

My posts this week
Review of The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson
Hype, hubris, hope, heads in the sand, and some very cool stuff: A report on the Web Summit
Review of The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman
New paper: From a Single Line of Code to an Entire City
Stumped published
Job: Three year postdoc on the Programmable City project
Book 30
Taking on airs

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Taking on airs

‘It’s the air.’

‘What about it?’

‘It reminds me of home.  It’s damp and fresh, with a hint of salt, loam, smoke and gorse.  Like an autumn evening.’

‘Like a battlefield in Normandy.  All I can smell is fear.’

‘I’m not talking about smell.  It’s more elemental.  It’s the actual air.  The stuff we breathe.  Move through.  That swirls around us.  The atmosphere that creates a certain atmosphere.’

‘You should write a poem.’

‘I’m not trying to be a poet.  I’m telling you why this place seems familiar.’

‘Well, we’re not used to lying in a foxholes in Huddlesfield, Jonesy.’




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book 30

Somewhat surprisingly it turns out the Stumped is my 30th book.  It's my sixth work of fiction (four novels and two collections of short stories) and I've had 24 academic books published (or 36 depending on how the 12 volumes of the encyclopedia and 2 volumes of the handbook are counted): 12 written and 12 edited.  (The yellow, red and dark blue blocks on the shelves are issues of journals I've edited).  At one level it seems kind of unreal that I've written or edited all these tomes.  On another it seems quite banal - that's what I'm paid to do; think about things and write them down, or edit other people's thoughts - and if you write a little each day it soon stacks up.  Either way, I think reaching 30 is worth a short post and a toast.  I'd say here's to thirty more, but I'm not sure how realistic that is! If you've bought or read any of them, then thanks and I hope they proved useful or entertaining or both.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stumped published

Today marks the officially publication date of Stumped, my new screwball noir novel published by 280Steps. Here's the back cover blurb.

It is election time in Ireland and a lot more is about to change for Grant, a new arrival from England, and his wheelchair-bound friend Mary, than their political representatives.

Their friend, Sinead, has been kidnapped, and her brother, Pat, has disappeared. Charged with tracking them down, Grant and Mary are soon caught between a vicious Dublin gangster seeking the return of a valuable package and an ambitious politician determined to protect a secret that might harm his re-election prospects. To make matters worse, when someone they confront is found floating face down in the River Liffey, Inspector McGerrity Black, Dublin’s finest rockabilly cop, is soon hot on their trail. 


With election day looming and Sinead’s fingers turning up on a regular basis they race through County Kildare suburbia, Dublin’s saunas, Manchester’s gay village and rural Mayo, crossing paths with drag queen farmers, corrupt property developers, and sadistic criminal gang members, as they desperately seek a way to save themselves and their friends while all the time staying ahead of the law. 


I'm really delighted with the cover design and thankful to 280Steps, especially Kjetil Hestvedt, for all their work on the book.  I'm also very grateful to those that read beta-copies and those that provided advance reader quotes.  I'll share some of those over the coming days, but here's one from Gerard Brennan:

"This novel is frantic, fierce and fabulous. Skip the manicure before reading. Stumped is a head-scratching nail-biter that'll leave your fingers chewed down to the nub."

You can read a short extract at 280Steps.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or other retailers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman (NAL Calibre, 2007)

From 1942 on the Allies started to systematically bomb the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti flying first from North Africa and then Italy.  Given their vital strategic value to the Axis the refineries were heavily defended by flak defences and fighter squadrons and the attrition rate on Allied bombers and crews was high.  Many of the crews bailed out over Yugoslavia, occupied by German and Italian troops and divided by complex internal divisions: the Fascist Ustase, collaborating with the Axis, and the Communist Partisans led by Tito and Royalist Chetniks led by Mihailović.  The latter two had a different approach to fighting the Axis, the Partisans being more pro-active, the Chetniks biding time until an Allied invasion to avoid severe civilian reprisals, and were engaged in a civil war for control of Yugoslavia post war.  From 1943 onwards, the Allies position was to back the more active Partisans and the advice given to airmen was if they bailed out to try and avoid the Chetniks, who were suspected of collaboration. 

The Forgotten 500 tells the story of the airmen who landed into Chetnik hands and were subsequently rescued by a daring mission organised by OSS and the American Air Force.  Despite the warnings given to them, the several hundred airmen who ended up in Chetnik hands were treated as heroes, extended warm hospitality and offered sanctuary.  Nevertheless, many were injured, all were hungry, and their presence threatened the lives of local villagers.  After a lot of in-fighting amongst the Allies, Operation Halyard was formulated by the OSS to extract them.  Three agents were parachuted in and along with the Chetniks and airmen constructed a short runway at Pranjane in the mountains.  On August 9th and 10th 272 men were picked up by C-47 transport planes are flown back to Italy.  Over the next few months more airmen were extracted bringing the total up to 512 rescued.

Freeman’s account of the rescue mission seeks to balance the story of the American airmen in Yugoslavia, with the efforts of the OSS to organize their rescue, and the wider political landscape of Yugoslavia and the Allies relationship to its two main anti-Axis factions: the Partisans and Chetniks.  His telling is heavily weighted towards the first two using extended personal stories of a handful of survivors to tell the tale.  Some of this material whilst interesting is largely extraneous to the story.  On the other hand, the wider framing of the Yugoslav arena and its internal conflicts is quite cursorily dealt with, as is the Communist ring that influenced the Allied position vis-a-vis its engagement with different factions.  The latter part of the book deals with events after the war.  The victorious Partisans put Mihailović on trial for treason.  Those rescued by Operation Halyard petitioned to be able to attend the trial as witnesses for the defence, and even after his execution continued to campaign to clear his name.  However, for political reasons the rescue mission was largely kept a secret and little attempt was made to set the historical record straight.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, but in my view could have done with a bit of an edit to avoid repetition and redundancy and to frame the mission a bit more firmly in the wider political landscape.  The inclusion of some maps (e.g., the flight path to Ploesti, the strongholds of Partisans and Chetniks, a local map of where the rescue took place) would have also been useful.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Review of The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson (Little, Brown, 2014)

Kasper Meier has survived the war and now shares a small apartment with his elderly father in the ruined city of Berlin.  The economy is shattered, people struggling to get by on meagre rations, supplemented with scraps traded for on the black market with other locals and the occupying forces.  Meier spends his days horse-trading, swapping household goods and information for food and tobacco, working his various networks.  One day a young woman, Eva Hirsch, shows up at his apartment wanting Meier to find the whereabouts of a British pilot.  When Meier refuses, she resorts to blackmail.  Meier has his own way of dealing with blackmailers but as he tries to short-circuit Eva’s scheme he comes to realise that he’s caught up in something more sinister, as is Eva -- allied soldiers are being murdered on a regular basis.  Feeling sympathy for Eva and wanting to extract himself from the threats and obligations being placed on him by Frau Beckmann, Eva’s landlady and rubble clearing leader, and her feral twin children, Meier tries to work out how to save himself, Eva and his father.

The strength of The Spring of Kasper Meier is the post-war desolate atmosphere of Berlin, the sense of place, and the details concerning how ordinary people seek to survive amongst the rubble on meagre rations.  Kasper Meier is interesting character, complex, brusque, tough, yet compassionate, who has long lived a secret life, managing to survive in Nazi Germany.  Eva is more open and friendly, a little naive, but with an edge hardened survivor mentality.  Their somewhat awkward relationship is nicely portrayed.  The plot, centring round find a British pilot and supposed revenge killings is an interesting idea, but its telling is not always convincing and often a little drawn out.  The plot hinges on a threat of blackmail that, for me at least, didn’t seem strong enough and the fear exerted by two omnipresent twelve year old twins that did not feel credible, regardless of how feral they’re portrayed.  And for someone who has managed to survive, specialises in sourcing information and trading on the black market, and possesses a gun and physical strength, Meier doesn’t always act in line with personality and circumstance.  The result was the story felt a little uneven and contrived at times.  Overall then, an engaging and atmospheric, but sometimes patchy, story of survival and struggle in the ruins of Berlin.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

A big week coming up with the launch of Stumped, my new novel published by 280Steps on Thursday.  It's a screwball noir set in Ireland and here's what Northern Irish novelist Gerard Brennan had to say about it:

"As far as Irish crime fiction goes, Kitchin delivers all the major ingredients: mystery, psychos and a dash of drag queen farmers. This novel is frantic, fierce and fabulous. Skip the manicure before reading. Stumped is a head-scratching nail-biter that'll leave your fingers chewed down to the nub."

So, as long as you're not too attached to your fingernails, Stumped will hopefully be an entertaining read.  I know it was good fun to write.

My posts this week
October reading
Review of The Fires by Joe Flood
Review of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser
Clearing rubble

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Clearing rubble

One brick, rubble, two bricks, rubble, rubble, three bricks, rubble, four bricks, rubble, rubble, rubble, five bricks ... ... ... buckets full.

Hannah stood up slowly, stretching her back and thin arms.  With cracked and bloody hands she grabbed hold of the bucket handles and shuffled to the waiting carts -- bricks into one, rubble the other -- then trudged back to her spot.

A dozen scrawny women were clearing the collapsed building by hand.

One brick, rubble, two bricks, child’s foot.  ‘Georg, I’ve another.’

She was joined by an elderly man.  ‘Must have got the whole family.  Poor bastards.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser (HarperCollins, 1969)

When Harry Flashman is expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness he opts for a career in the Army, his rich father buying him an officer’s commission in the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons.  They have just returned from India and are unlikely to posted overseas again in the near future.  However, Flashman is a natural at attracting trouble and he is soon sent to Scotland to cool his heals where he beds a factory owner’s daughter.  Forced into marriage by her family he is drummed out of the Dragoons for marrying a commoner and posted to India.  There his talent for languages lands him a meeting with the Governor-General who makes him an aide to General Elphinstone, who is heading to Afghanistan to take over command of the British Army there.  Flashman arrives just in time to participate in the biggest disaster to befall a British Army, the 1842 Kabul retreat that witnessed the death of 4,500 troops and 12,000 supporting civilians.  But Flashman is a survivor and manages to cover himself in glory, despite the calamity surrounding him.

Flashman was published in 1969, purporting to be the first instalment of the recently discovered reminisces of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE.  The story starts with setting the record straight on his expulsion from Rugby School, as recounted in Tom Brown’s School Days published in 1857 by Thomas Hughes, and then follows his exploits from the time he entered the British Army as teenager to when he returns to Britain two years later having taken part in Kabul retreat.  Flashman is an interesting character.  Six foot two and handsome, he’s a self-acknowledged scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, bully, coward, and toady.  Openly misogynist and racist, he claims only three natural talents: horsemanship, an ear for languages, and fornication.  To that should be added luck and cunning.  He has a habit of getting himself moved into harm’s way, but always somehow manages to survive, usually through someone else’s bravery and then claiming credit and glory.  He would be an easy character to dislike except that he is also self-deprecating, brutally honest, something of an anti-hero, his wife has the measure of him, and his account has a nice dose of wit.  The story is undoubtedly politically incorrect, but knowingly so, and also true to attitudes of the time, and it is full of adventure and scrapes.  It is also chocked full of well researched historical detail, Fraser using Flashman to tell the story of the disastrous retreat from Kabul and the First Anglo-Afghan war.  It’s one of those tales that that anyone familiar with political correctness feels they shouldn’t really like, but it’s telling means that one can’t help but doing so.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review of The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City--and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood (Riverhead, 2011)

In The Fires Joe Flood seeks to explain what led to what the NYFD called ‘The War Years’-- 1968-1977 when large swathes of The Bronx and other areas were devastated by extensive fires.  This is no easy task given the complex web of factors at play including the battles between Tammany political culture and reform agendas, the long run consequences of city planning policy, changes to the city’s economic fortunes, social change and upheaval, and tussles within the fire service as it sought to modernize and change organisational structures and working practices, drawing extensively on the systems op analysis of RAND.  Flood, however, does an admirable job of untangling the various forces at play and how they interacted to create a deadly maelstrom.  This is achieved by focusing on the intentions, decisions and actions of a handful of key actors, especially Mayor John Lindsay, Fire Chief John O’Hagan, and the RAND Corporation, contextualising these with respect to particular events and wider economic and political factors.  This analysis draws on extensive archival research and many interviews with key actors, including politicians, public servants, serving firemen, and families. The result is a nuanced and layered story that demonstrates that there is no, and can never be, a magic formula to running a city; that despite good intentions, reams of facts and statistics, and clever models made by very bright people, cities are messy, complex, multi-scalar, open entities that are social, cultural, political and economic in nature, acting and reacting in diverse ways to myriads of factors and competing and conflicting interests.

From the perspective of my own interest in the present drive to create ‘smart cities’, The Fires provides an excellent analysis of one of the first attempts to systematically apply systems analysis underpinned by computer modelling to the management of city services and logic behind using such an approach.  The RAND Corporation were contracted by the city to determine how best to re-organise the fire service to improve its effectiveness whilst saving resources, including identifying what companies to close and where to open new stations.  They were employed with the aim of showing the value of displacing Tammany politics through the introduction of rational, technocratic solutions that employed an impartial scientific method to city governance.  The findings from the models RAND built were implemented in practice altering the management of the fire service and its day to day operations.  Moreover, the models produced earned their developers a host of major international prizes for applied scientific research. 

However, subsequent research has demonstrated that the RAND models suffered from four major problems which had severe knock-on effects on the ability of the NYFD to effectively fight fires, which had knock-on effects to the rate and impact of fires.  The model suffered from poor and gamed data, an information and cultural gap between the modellers and the domain they were modelling, faulty assumptions concerning how to measure company efficiency and effectiveness and poor model building (for example, comparing companies within seven types of areas but not across them so that they were not computing optimization of coverage across the city but within areas it deemed similar), and political influence shaped how the models were constructed, calibrated and used.  In total, 34 of the city’s busiest fire companies were closed, despite warnings from senior fire officers as to the reality of what was going on in neighbourhoods and to the remaining fire companies and suggestions for alternative approaches, and somewhat perplexingly a number of others were opened in sleepy backwaters.  Along with the effects of other social, political and economic forces at work, the result was ‘The War Years’ when ‘hundreds of thousands of people in the Bronx, central Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Harlem neighbourhoods were burned from their homes’ (p. 8).  In the Bronx, seven census tracts lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire or abandonment (in census tract 2 of 836 residential buildings recorded in the 1970 census only 9 remained in 1980), with 44 tracts (out of 289 in the borough) losing more than 50 percent.

Flood concludes the book with a short overview of how such a systems approach has become increasingly adopted by governments, driven by an audit culture, a political reform agenda, and the adoption of business governance practices.  This is the weakest chapter of the book, with the analysis skimming over the rise of new managerialism, neoliberalism, and technocratic approaches to governance.  This is clearly not the central mandate of the book, but it does mean that the legacy of the New York RAND experiment is not elaborated. 

Despite identifying significant flaws in the systems approach to city governance, Floods’ conclusion is not that systems analysis and city modelling research should be avoided by city administrations, but rather that its use needs to be balanced with other forms of knowledge: rather than episteme (scientific knowledge) and teche (practical instrumental knowledge) replacing phronesis (knowledge derived from practice and deliberation) and metis (knowledge based on experience), the insights drawn from all four need to be considered and debated to formulate policy.  In other words, data and algorithms should not be allowed to simply trump reason and experience.  Moreover, cities should not be conceived of as easily knowable and manageable systems that can be steered and controlled in mechanical, linear ways -- input data and then pull levers to get an appropriate response -- but rather cities should be understood as complex, contingent, and relational, that often unfold in unpredictable ways.  In such a view, models might provide valuable insights, but they are not the only insights which should be inherently and slavishly followed.  It’s a conclusion, I think, that holds merit. 

Overall, The Fires is an excellent read -- well written, engaging, and insightful.  It will provide a fascinating story to anyone who is interested in contemporary urban history, and in my view it’s a must read book for all those presently involved in conceiving and building smart city initiatives.

Monday, November 3, 2014

October reading

A quite varied month of reading.  The stand out book was Shuichi Yoshida's Villain, which I found a thoughtful literary crime novel.

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst ****
Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra ***.5
The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin ***
The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter ****.5
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida *****
The Man From Berlin by Luke McCallin ****
All God's Children by Arthur Lyons ***
Because the Night by James Ellroy ***
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald ***


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service




I spent part of last week in Erlangen and Nuremberg giving a talk.  On Thursday morning I had a walk round Nuremberg, a formerly grand medieval city partially rebuilt in its former style after the Second World War, and site of the Nuremberg rallies, laws, and trials.  The old parade grounds are a little odd to wander through.  On the one hand they need to be left as a reminder, on the other they need to be stripped of their symbolic value.  The solution seems to be to let them slowly decay whilst enfolding them into other everyday uses as a park, playing field or a truck car park.  The result is a weird kind of estrangement: of being somewhere mundane and significant at the same time.


My posts this week
The last hurrah!
Review of Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Review of Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
Review of The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The last hurrah!

‘Can you hear that?’

Marie cocked her head.  ‘What?’

‘Music.  A trumpet.’

‘Maybe it’s Herr Koch playing his gramophone?’

‘They took him last week.’

‘Maybe he’s now back?  Maybe he has ...’

She paused as the dull thud of an artillery barrage pummelled a distant district.

‘... food?’

‘Let’s hope the Americans do.  Herr Koch is probably dead.  There, now do you hear it?’

The two sisters sneaked out of the chilly basement and watched seven bedraggled boy soldiers scurrying over the rubble heading toward the suburbs, trailed by two children blowing into battered bugles.

‘The last hurrah!  Poor fools.’




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.