Friday, April 17, 2015

Review of Blacklands by Belinda Bauer (Corgi, 2010)

Twelve year old Steven Lamb lives in small village on the edge of Dartmoor with his mother, younger brother and Gran.  The home is haunted by the memory of Billy Peters who disappeared after visiting the local shop.  Every day Steven’s gran stands guard at the front window waiting for Billy to return.  The rest of the town believes the boy is dead, killed by a serial killer, Arnold Avery, who admitted to killing six other children and burying them on the moor.  Steven believes that if he can locate the body he can heal the rift between his mother and gran and every weekend he treks up on the moor with a spade and searches for Billy’s burial site.  As he starts to lose hope he conceives of a new idea, drafting a letter to Avery seeking his help.  And so begins a cat-and-mouse game as Avery toys with Steven, both re-energised by their exchange of letters.

The strength of Blacklands is the idea of a young boy from a troubled home exchanging letters with the murderer of his uncle in the hope of discovering the location of the body.  It’s a novel take on the crime fiction oeuvre.  Bauer nicely sets up the premise, charting Steven’s unsettled home life, the bullying he receives at school, and his quest to resolve the doubt in his grandmother’s mind as to what happened to her son.  Then she weaves in the perspective of Arnold Avery, a predatory serial killer of children, and how Steven’s letters re-ignites Avery’s psychopathic fantasies.  However, the tale is rather narrow and linear in its telling and having spent so much time setting up the premise and manoeuvring people into place the ending was somewhat underplayed and underwhelming.  This was a shame as the story really does have a great hook.  Nonetheless, an interesting and innovative read.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)

Up to her ears in college debt and in a dead-end job she loathes, Mae Holland swallows her pride and asks her best friend from college, Annie, to help get her a job in The Circle, an giant internet company that specialises in providing authentication and transparency in online transactions.  The company has a reputation as a great employer, with wonderful facilities, endless parties, free food and accommodation, excellent health packages, and opportunities to pursue the development of novel ideas aimed at making society safer and people more accountable.  Mae’s initial job is in customer experience, dealing with online queries, but she is soon simultaneously fielding hundreds of survey questions.  Her friendship with Annie, one of the executives, provides her with access denied to most newbies and she is soon encountering some of The Circle's top execs and scientists.  It’s an exciting time in the company given its continuing meteoric rise and an endless procession of new product launches.  Mae feels incredibly privileged to be a part of what seems as much a social movement as a company, but nonetheless is unsettled by the disjuncture between her old and new life and the increasing pressure to live her life in ways visible to the company and the rest of the world.

The Circle is an allegorical tale about the perils of creating a large, seemingly for the public good, data aggregator company that controls access to vital social, economic and governmental goods and services.  The Circle is a large internet company that has quickly grown to become a massive, global critical player through it TruYou authentication system that provides a unified identification system for online transactions and interactions (whether that be using social media, playing games, conducting banking, or accessing government services).  It’s effect has been to be to just about eliminate anonymous internet activity, hugely reducing anti-social behaviour and criminality.  It’s ambition is to create open, transparent and accountable society and governance through the elimination of privacy on and offline (for example, by distributing hundreds of thousands of networked miniature cameras throughout landscapes and implanting tracker devices in kids).  The sunlight of constant exposure will prevent crime and corruption, they prophetize.  The tale follows Mae Holland, a young college graduate and her introduction to the company, her indoctrination into its ethos, and her rise through its ranks as she resolves personal reservations and conflicts.  The power of the tale is in exposing the cult and power of information and how it is increasingly being exposed, collated and centralized in the internet age.  Eggers does a good job at shining a critical light onto the California ideology underpinning many such companies.  The main issue with the tale is that Mae is a little too one-dimensional and compliant and there’s too little examination of resistance to The Circle’s ambitions or alternatives, both within and outside the company.  And while the story does raise questions about what an open society created through private vendors means for privacy, democracy and governance, it’s treatment of such issues is rather shallow.  Overall, a thought-provoking read about the supposed utopian promise that information will set us free.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

This time next week I should be boarding a plane for Chicago where I'll be attending a conference for a week.  With that in mind I've pulled Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second in the Harry Dresden series which is set in the city, off the shelf and also ordered Barbara Fister's In the Wind.  The latter has already been in the post for over two weeks, so I'm hoping it will drop through the letterbox shortly.  I must also remember to look out for a Sara Paretsky, V.I. Warshawski tale, whilst there.  If anyone has a recommendation for a good Chicago bookstore, then please share.  I always leave some space in the suitcase to bring a haul of books back.

My posts this week
Review of California Thriller by Max Byrd
Review of Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty
Review of Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum

'Would suit a DIY enthusiast'

Saturday, April 11, 2015

'Would suit DIY enthusiast'

Several bricks thudded to the floor and a cloud of thick dust filled the vaulted space.

‘Flip!’ Frank roared, trying to cover his face.

‘Just think how much more it’ll be worth when we’re done,’ Jane said, flapping her hands.

‘We should have hired someone who knows what they’re doing.’

‘Stop being a grump!  It’s not often I get to wield a sledgehammer.’

Frank peered through the new gap in the brickwork.

‘I think the house price just took a nose dive.’

‘What!  Why?’

‘We’ve just discovered two corpses.’

‘Really!  Oh god.  How are you at bricking up holes again?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review of California Thriller by Max Byrd (1982)

A Bostonian working in San Francisco, P.I. Mike Haller is ex-military and ex-newspaper reporter.  He’s hired by the wife of a missing reporter to find her wayward husband whose last known location was the Central Valley near to Sacramento.  Haller and his ex-cop colleague, Fred, gradually make headway uncovering the story the reporter was working on and tracking his movements, but they soon have their wings clipped and they’re asked to drop the case.  Haller though believes he’s onto something more than simply a missing reporter and is unwilling to let go.

Published in  1982, California Thriller is a fairly average P.I. tale charting the progress of Mike Haller in solving the mystery of a missing newspaper reporter.  Haller has less hang-ups than the average PI, being in a stable relationship and lacking a self-destructive streak and macho bravado.  He is though dogged, tough and smart.  The tale itself mixes a standard missing persons plot with a wider, fairly fanciful conspiracy.  Whilst there is steady stream of action, most of it is reasonably standard PI work and the tale only strays into ‘thriller’ territory in the last quarter, and even then in a fairly low key way. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review of Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail, 2015)

Belfast, 1985, and Detective Inspector Sean Duffy of Carrickfergus CID seems to be spending more time maning riot lines than investigating cases.  Teetering on the edge of burnout he backs his sergeant in a dispute over the jurisdiction of a double murder of a rich bookmaker and his wife.  Solving it will aid McCrabban’s career prospects and it seems like an open and shut case, especially after the son commits suicide leaving a confession note.  Duffy, however, is not convinced, especially when he discovers that Michael Kelly dropped out of Oxford after attending a party where a cabinet minister’s daughter died of a heroin overdose, and Kelly’s best friend has just been sacked from Shorts factory, where six missiles have gone missing.  Then there’s another murder, followed by political pressure to drop the case.  Ever dogged, Duffy and his team stick to their task, determined to discover the truth.

Gun Street Girl is the fourth book in Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.  Duffy is an appealing character, a perennially out of place Northern Irish cop blessed with mordant wit and a self-destructive streak.  Add to this McKinty’s ability to conjure up the sense of time and place and to thread his stories through the real scandals of the period (which given its politics and conflicts, Northern Ireland has in abundance) and you have a very attractive mix.  The wider context in Gun Street Girl is the disappearance of six Javelin missiles from Shorts Factory in East Belfast.  Narrow margins a theme that runs through the book.  At the start, Sean Duffy’s sergeant takes on a murder case as it just about falls into their jurisdiction and Duffy is teetering on the edge of burnout and leaving the RUC, and the book closes with a very nicely judged pair of close shaves.  It was always going to be difficult to top Duffy’s last outing, In the Morning I’ll be Gone (my book of 2014), given its clever story within a story, and whilst Gun Street Girl is an engaging read it lacked the same edge, tension and political intrigue that ran throughout its predecessor.  It is nonetheless, a very decent police procedural that really sparks to life in the final couple of chapters as it nears its double denouement, both of them with a nice bitter twist.  As usual, McKinty’s unique prose style shines throughout.  It’ll be very interesting to see where McKinty takes Duffy next in what is an excellent series.

As an afternote, I wish Serpent's Tail would stop using the Ian Rankin quote of 'An exciting new voice' on the covers of McKinty's books.  Yes, an exciting voice, but he's well into double figures at this stage, is pretty well established, and is far beyond 'new'.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review of Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum (Vintage, 2006; Norwegian 2000)

Gunder Jomann has led a quiet life in the small village of Elvestad in Norway.  Well into middle age he has a steady job at an agricultural machine supplier and a nice house, but no life partner.  After becoming enchanted with India through a book his sister gave to him he decides to fly to Mumbai to explore and to see if he can find a wife.  Shortly after arriving he meets Poona, who works as a waitress in a cafe and shortly before he returns home they marry.  On the day that Poona flies to Norway to meet her new husband, Gunder is prevented from meeting her at the airport.  The next morning her battered body is found in a field, a short distance from his home.  Nobody in the village can believe any of their neighbours capable of such an atrocity and they close ranks, leaving Inspector Konrad Sejer and his team to try and fathom what transpired and who killed the unfortunate Poona.

Whilst ostensibly a police procedural, Calling Out For You has a somewhat different approach to most books in the sub-genre, focusing as much on the local community and how it reacts to a heinous crime in its midst as it does on the investigation.  The result is a narrative strongly focused on exploring various characters and their interactions and the themes of uncertainty, doubt, suspicion and loyalty.  Fossum nicely plays the heartstrings with respect to the doomed relationship between Gunder and Poona, and the tale has a strong emotional register throughout.  Inspector Sejer is a reflexive policeman who steadily goes about his work, trying to build a case with limited evidence and cooperation.  The scenes where he interviews a suspect are particularly nicely done, illustrating the subtleties of his approach.  Overall, an engaging and unsettling read that provides some degree of closure, but leaves the reader with thoughtful questions to ponder.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I've fallen behind with my reviews and hope to catch up with drafting a handful in the next few days.  This is mainly to do with running around a lot in the past two weeks, giving seven talks and undertaking seven fieldwork interviews.  Expect reviews of Calling Out for You by Karin Fossum, Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty, California Thriller by Max Byrd, and The Circle by Dave Eggers shortly. 

My posts this week
Review of A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez
Review of Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block
March reads
I can barely breath, let alone run

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I can barely breath, let alone run

‘Come-on, we need to go.’  Sabine tugged at the limp arm.  ‘There are soldiers in the far field.’

‘You go,’ Josef said, his face pale and damp, his body shivering. 

‘They’ll kill you.’

‘I’m already half-dead.’

‘And in a week you’ll have another forty years to live.  Get out of the bed!  They’ll be here soon.’

‘And then we’ll both be dead.  I can barely breath, let alone run.’

‘Josef, please.  Move!’

He lethargically manoeuvred his legs round onto the floor.

Sabine tugged him upright and dragged him to the door. 

In the distance, two shots echoed in the twilight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

March reads

An interesting month of reading.  The two standout reads were Jennie Rooney's Red Joan and Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors.  Difficult to top The Nine Tailors - there's a reason it's considered a classic.

Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block ***
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez ****
Angels Passing by Graham Hurley ****.5
Mort by Terry Pratchett ****.5
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers *****
The Few by Nadia Dalbuono ***
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene ****
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin ***
Red Joan by Jennie Rooney *****

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Review of Five Little Rich Girls by Lawrence Block (1974, Signet)

Chip Harrison is dating Melanie Trelawney, a rich young woman who is slumming in small apartment in New York, and has taken a job as assistant to Leo Haig, a self-declared genius detective and tropical fish breeder.  Two of Melanie’s five sisters have recently died in unusual circumstances and fears for her life.  Chip arrives at her apartment to find her naked and dead on an inflatable bed, having apparently taken an overdose of heroin.  While the police conclude it was a suicide, Chip is not convinced and nor is his boss.  Together they start to investigate, worried about the safety of the two remaining sisters.

First published in 1974, Five Little Rich Girls was published in the US as Make Out With Murder.  It’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek PI tale, with a fair splattering of in-gags for fans of crime fiction, with the central character’s boss being a mystery novel aficionado seeking to ape the success and notoriety of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe amongst others.  The tale is written in the first person from the perspective of Chip Harrison, a high school drop-out and street smart young man, who investigates the suspicious death of his girlfriend and two of her sisters.  Whilst the story starts out as a parody it progressively takes the investigation more seriously, turning into a genuine whodunnit.  It never quite loses its light hearted, sometimes improbable nature, and at times is quite racy.  Overall, an okay read that got better as it progressed.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review of A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez (Faber, 2012)

DI Jack Carrigan has a troubled personal past and is considered something of a maverick within the London Met, singly obsessed with solving cases in his own way.  His new investigation concerns the horrific death of Grace Okello, a Ugandan student studying at the School of African and Oriental Studies, who was undertaking her thesis on rebel leaders and child armies in Africa.  Carrigan’s boss places the equally marginalised DS Geneva Miller into Carrigan’s team to monitor his actions.  Carrigan and Miller don’t see to eye to eye, with Miller pursuing a different line of enquiry to her boss.  As the murder breaks in the media the team is placed under increasing pressure to solve the murder and it soon becomes clear that others are interfering with the investigation and Carrigan has other personal baggage.

A Dark Redemption is a police procedural with a strong political inflection concerning rebel child armies in Northern Uganda.  The strength of the story is its nice prose and cadence, the contextualisation and the handling of the subject matter, and a nice sense of place with respect to the seedier parts of London.  Carrigan and Miller are both troubled cops who are struggling in their personal lives and at work.  In A Dark Redemption, Sherez focuses in particular on the back story of Carrigan and his approach to the death of a Ugandan student, though Miller has more substance than a one-dimensional side kick.  Similarly other characters are nicely penned, such as a London-based political activist.  The plot was interesting and compelling, though some elements didn’t quite ring true, and there is a reliance of plot devices at times.  There is though a nice twist towards the end that I didn’t see coming.  Overall, an engaging police procedural that tackles a weighty political issue head on.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I see that Philip Kerr has a new Bernie Gunther novel published in early April, The Lady of Zagreb, set in Zurich in 1942.  I'm giving a talk in the city in early May, so the book's dropped into my shopping basket (plus I've read the other nine books in what is a very good series).  Also Ben Pastor's next Martin Bora novel, Tin Sky, is released a week later.  I think that needs to drop into the basket as well.  Expect reviews in a few weeks time.

My posts this week
Review of Mort by Terry Pratchett
Review of Angels Passing by Graham Hurley

Upping the ante

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Upping the ante

‘You’re a liar and a cheat!’ Sammy snapped.

‘And you’re a sore loser,’ James said, stacking chips.  ‘I’d ask if you wanted to play another hand, but I seem to have cleared you out.’

‘You were crazy to bluff on a weak pair,’ Donald muttered.

‘He’s a cheat!  Nobody’s that lucky.’

‘Luck’s got nothing to do with it,’ James said.  ‘It’s good judgement.’

‘Well, you judged me all wrong!’  Sammy flipped the table to one side and lunged forward.

A sharp upper-cut snapped his head back.

‘If you’re upping the ante, Sammy, you’d better be able to play the game.’ 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review of Angels Passing by Graham Hurley (Orion, 2002)

Fourteen year old Helen Bassam has plunged twenty three stories to her death at the base of a residential tower block.  In the months before her death she’d gone off the rails, reacting badly to her parents break-up.  It’s not clear though why Helen was in a strange part of town or whether she jumped or was pushed.  DI Joe Faraday starts to investigate but immediately runs into issues of resourcing and interference from his career focused boss.  Competing for manpower is the head of the Major Crimes Squad after a local lowlife is found hanging from a tree wearing women’s knickers.  Dragged into his team is DC Paul Winters, a cop with a knack for solving cases but a reputation for not always doing so in an professional manner.  Both cases plunge Faraday, Winters and their colleagues into Portsmouth’s netherworlds of abject poverty, broken families, feral and abandoned children, thieving and selling stolen goods, and brutal organised fights.

Hurley is probably the foremost British proponent of gritty, social realist police procedurals.  His books vividly capture the methods, personalities and personal relationships, and the politics of policing, as well as the people, places and situations the police deal with on a daily basis.  Hurley provides a warts and all portrayal of Portsmouth, its micro-geographies and social divisions, and its bleak underbelly.  In Angels Passing, the fourth book in the DI Faraday series, the tale weaves together two main plot lines, one concerning the death of a teenage girl, the other the murder of a low-level criminal.  Where the book excels is in charting the police investigations, noting their complexities and their inherent internal tensions and games, in the characterisation of police, victims and criminals, and in the sense of place.  Both main plotlines were interesting, coupled with a nice subplot concerning Faraday’s domestic life, though the denouement felt a little too contrived.  Nonetheless, Angels Passing is a compelling, gripping and gritty read, though probably not recommended by Portsmouth’s tourist offices.