Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review of Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta (Vintage, 2013)

Most people are familiar with Japan’s declaration of war against the United States – its infamous attack on Pearl Harbour.  What is not so well known is the pathway to war.  Eri Hotta’s book provides a detailed account of how the leaders of a nation placed themselves on a course towards war that then became a self-fulfilling destiny through delusion, divisive internal politics, poor diplomacy, and vanity.  With the exception of a handful of hotheads, the majority of the cabinet, the prime minister and emperor knew that they stood little chance of defeating the United States in the long term.  Rather than lose face and try to interrupt the unfolding path they allowed the vocal minority to dictate policy and set the timetable for when diplomacy gave way to fighting.  As her analysis of key Japanese sources reveals, there were plenty of opportunities to re-direct and correct poor decisions that were consistently foregone.  To provide wider context, Hotta sets out Japan’s development as a nation from the mid-nineteenth century up to 1941, including her relations with the West.  Most of her analysis though focuses on the years immediately prior to 1941, including the on-going war with China, Japan’s relationship to Germany and the Soviet Union, and its ambitions for a strong Asia under its leadership, and the fateful year itself.  She does this by detailing the key political events and meetings and the views and roles of the main actors.  At times the narrative is a little jumbled, especially in the first third, as the account swaps back and forth across time periods.  Nonetheless, Japan 1941 is a fascinating account of fatal politics in action. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review of A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane (HarperTorch, 1994)

Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angela Gennaro are hired by powerful Boston politicians to find a missing black cleaner who they claim has stolen some important documents from the State House.  It should be a relatively straightforward task to find Jenna Angeline, a resident of down-at-heal Dorchester.  However, Kenzie and Gennaro are not the only ones looking for her and soon they find themselves in the middle of a deadly gang war and of interest to the police.  Kenzie and Gennaro are determined to solve the case, but to do so they need all of their wits to stay alive.

A Drink Before the War was Dennis Lehane’s debut novel and the first of six in the Kenzie and Gennaro series.  The tale is essentially a PI thriller, with Kenzie and Gennaro running the gauntlet of high-powered politicians, two rival gangs, and cynical, hard-nose police while trying to locate a missing cleaner accused of stealing documents.  Kenzie and Gennaro are both damaged goods – Kenzie living in the shadow of his abusive father and Gennaro is trapped in a violent marriage – and there is a strong sexual chemistry between the two that forms a main sub-plot.  Lehane maintains a steady pace and keeps the tension high as they cannonball from one difficult situation to another and the body count rises.  While the essential ingredients of the plot – a missing person, child abuse, extortion, revenge – are nicely blended, Lehane occasionally pushes the action into a little-over-top territory and there are a couple of plot devices that feel a little forced.  The real star of the tale, however, is Boston, with Lehane’s descriptions of the city providing a strong sense of place.  An entertaining read that nicely sets up the series.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a slow week of reading/reviewing as I had a full schedule of meetings, interviews and talks that kept me otherwise occupied.  Whilst walking in Cambridge on my way to MIT I came across this tiny library, part of the Little Free Library movement.  Somehow this is the first I've come across despite their being over 36,000 globally (there are only three in Ireland). Great idea: 'Take a book, leave a book'.

My posts this week:
Review of The Game Must Go On by John Klima
Heading to Pearl Harbour





Saturday, April 23, 2016

Heading to Pearl Harbour

‘We can’t back down now.’ Jennings slapped the table.  ‘There’s too much at stake.’

‘The main thing at stake’s your pride.’

‘Did I ask your opinion?’

Keenan ignored the threatening glare.  ‘If there’s a war, we’ll lose.’

‘Not if we strike first!  Catch them unaware and …’ Jennings thumped the table again.

‘Perhaps, but we’ll still lose the war.  It would be better to establish a mutual understanding.’

‘No!  We strike!’

‘Your father …’

‘Fuck my father!  We need to show strength.’

‘Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  You might get your Pearl Harbour, but they’ll have their Hiroshima.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review of The Game Must Go On by John Klima (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015)

1941 and baseball’s biggest star, Hank Greenberg, is drafted into the army.  The hope is he would serve a short term then return to the game while being retained on the reserve list.  Instead Pearl Harbour happens and the future of the game during wartime is put in doubt as many players are eligible for service and sign-up to fight.  Unsure whether the 1942 season will even be allowed to proceed, the baseball commissioner writes to President Roosevelt who decides the game must go on for the sake of morale.  The difficulty for the baseball clubs is that talented players are being stripped out of the game at all levels and travel between games is restricted.  What’s left are players deemed too young or old or unfit for service or have family duties.  The teams cobble together new starting line-ups and re-jig the timetable to include more night games and double-headers.  One of the players to get his chance includes Pete Gray, who lost an arm as a child, who made his living in the minor leagues constantly pushing against prejudice. 

John Klima tells the story of baseball in the war years, focusing in particular on the stories of Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, Billy Southworth Sn and Jnr, and Bob Feller, with a wide supporting cast of those that went to war and those that stayed in or joined the game.  As well as detail the story of the game at home, he also details the experiences of the players serving in the army and navy both in the states and on the battlefield.  The result is an engaging tale of personal trials and an enterprise under pressure.  Klima tells the wider story by weaving together a set of intersecting narratives concerning individuals, teams and the business of baseball as they unfold between 1941-1945. The result is a wealth of information and an interesting tapestry of stories.  However, the text suffers from a fair amount of jumping between different themes and individual/institutional tales, as well as too much repetition, and would have benefitted from a serious edit.  Nonetheless, The Game Must Go On is a fascinating and accessible read about a turbulent period in baseball history that reshaped the post-war game.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Having read tales by Robert Parker and John Connolly, I'm continuing my New England theme with Dennis Lehane's A Drink Before the War, his debut novel.  In between I read John Klima's history of baseball during the Second World War and yesterday went to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox beat the Blue Jays.

My posts this week

Review of The Whisperers by John Connolly
Review of Worst Enemies by Dana King
Head like a shattered windscreen

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Head like a shattered windscreen

Kenny stared at the shattered windscreen.

‘It’ll be your head next,’ Pike said, swinging the baseball bat.  ‘Mr Lincoln wants the drugs you stole or the money you’ve made selling them.’

‘What drugs?’

Pike smashed a headlight.

‘I didn’t steal any drugs!  Look, that’s my dad’s car.’

A wing mirror flew free.

‘I swear, Pikey, it wasn’t me.  You must have me confused with someone else.’

‘I don’t think so Kenny.’ 

The bat cracked off Kenny’s raised arm.

‘Fuck!’

‘You didn’t do something stupid like flush them away did you?’

‘You’ve broken it.’

‘You’ll be dead if you keep lying.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review of The Whisperers by John Connolly (Hodder, 2011)


When a former US Army soldier who served in Iraq takes his own life his father asks PI Charlie Parker to investigate the death and also how one of his employees is being treated by her boyfriend, one of his son’s Army buddies.  The suicide appears to be one of a small cluster in Northern Maine and linked to a cross-border smuggling operation from Canada.  Parker is not a typical PI, haunted by ghosts and the supernatural, and tends to create as much trouble as he solves.  He quickly comes to the attention of the smugglers and they try to warn him off.  However, Parker is a persistent soul, especially when he’s convinced that there is something more at play than simply smuggling drugs or money.  However, Parker is not the only person interested in the smuggling operation and the stakes and consequences rise as the last shipment nears.  

The Whisperers is the ninth book in the Charlie Parker series set in Maine.  In this outing, Parker is tasked with discovering why a small group of Iraqi veterans are taking their own lives.  Of the series I’ve read so far, this is the strongest tale.  Connolly is a first rate writer who crafts expressive and captivating prose, though sometimes I don’t quite connect fully with the story or supporting characters.  In The Whisperers, however, all the elements were on point – the hook concerning the strange suicides and the smuggling of antiquities, the social commentary on the Iraqi war and the treatment of veterans, the investigation, the sense of place, the characterisation and social relations, and the plotting.  The result is an engaging, informative and tense read grounded in strong research that contextualises but doesn’t swamp the narrative which kept me turning pages into the early hours.  A thoroughly entertaining tale.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Review of Worst Enemies by Dana King (2012)


Borrowing an idea from Patricia Highsmith, Tom and Marty, two strangers who meet in a strip club, are planning to kill each other’s wives.  Under pressure from Marty, Tom goes first.  While he succeeds in killing the unfortunate wife, he makes a mess of the murder.  Local detective Ben ‘Doc’ Dougherty, a former MP and Penns River native, and Willie Grabek, a former Pittsburgh cop are assigned the case and soon have Tom in custody.  Shortly after a second body is discovered in an abandoned house and a connection is made to the first murder.  For a town that rarely sees one murder a year, two in the space of a few days causes consternation.  With Tom protesting that he’s been framed, tricked into committing murder, and Grabek doing the minimal amount before retiring, Dougherty tries to unravel the pair of murders, aware that whatever has transpired is not yet over.

Worst Enemies is the first Penns River novel.  I reviewed the second, the excellent Grind Joint, a while ago.  Worst Enemies cleverly reworks Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, twisting the plot through ninety degrees to create a compelling tale of scheming, double cross and manipulation.  King populates the story with a believable and engaging set of characters and his dialogue and social interactions are astutely and realistically penned, as are the police procedural elements.  What I particularly liked was that the story rooted in everyday realism concerning family interactions, personal relationships, social welfare situations, organized crime, internal police politics, and dealing with the legal system, and there is a strong sense of place focused on a small town in decline near to Pittsburgh.  The denouement was perhaps a little rushed, though it has a nice twist that jars against expectation.  Overall, a very nicely written and plotted tale and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Resurrection Mall

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

My book buying this week had a decidedly baseball orientation.  I first picked up The Entitled, a novel by Frank Deford, then last night I bought The Game Must Go On by John Klima about baseball in the Second World War. 

My posts this week:
Review of Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn
Review of Night Passage by Robert Parker
No Name

Saturday, April 9, 2016

No Name

‘Well, if it isn’t No Name,’ a middle-aged man said, exiting a SUV.

‘Mr Tyson,’ No Name said, veering to the far side of the pavement.

‘Where do you think you’re going, No Name?’ Tyson grabbed his arm.

‘To work.’ 

‘Not today.  Today we’re going for a little drive.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing.  Get in the car.’

‘What … what’s the problem?’

‘You know how in the movies No Name never makes it to the end of the picture?’

The man nodded, shoulder’s slumped.

‘Let’s see if you can at least get to the next reel.’

‘But …’

‘Wrong answer.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Review of Night Passage by Robert Parker (Jove, 1997)

Having lost his wife and job as a homicide detective in the LAPD, and despite being drunk in the interview, Jesse Stone has landed the role of chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts, near to Boston.  In fact, Stone only has the job because he’s an alcoholic and thus perceived to be easily controllable.  Paradise is run by Hasty Hathaway owner of the local bank, commander of the small town’s militia, and a believer in the rights of individuals over government.  To fund the arming of his militia so they can assert their rights, Hathaway has been laundering money for the mafia.  When the previous police chief wouldn’t do as he was told he was eased out of the way.  While Stone has a drink problem, he’s also no push over, and when a set of murders start to occur shortly after he arrives rather than turn a blind eye he’s determined to bring some law and order to Paradise.

Night Passage is the first novel in the Jesse Stone series.  Stone is a typical flawed but dedicated cop, an alcoholic who’s trying to straighten his life out after his wife cheated and then left him.  Hired as the new chief of police he finds himself in a small town that has its share of colourful characters and troubling events.  Parker has an engaging voice and the pace and plot keeps the pages turning.  However, while the story is entertaining it’s also rather fanciful as the delusions of a local kingpin and his bodybuilder enforcer are used to create a series of plot devices.  Moreover, Jesse’s relationship with his ex-wife seemed somewhat forced and the denouement is a little flat.  The result is a tale that rattles along and is enjoyable, but also felt a bit overly contrived.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review of Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn (Washington Square Press, 2012)

October 1953, Drakenberg Mountains, South Africa.  When the beautiful seventeen year old daughter of a Zulu chief, and maid to a rich white farming family, is discovered dead Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper and his Zulu partner Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala are sent to investigate.  Neither the Zulu chief, nor the white family, want the city detectives on the case.  As they search for the murderer they discover that Amahle was headstrong and ambitious with secrets that were potentially explosive in a strongly apartheid society.  The more they probe, the more they place themselves in danger, but neither is prepared to walk away from the case.

Blessed are the Dead is the third book in the Emmanuel Cooper series set in 1950s South Africa.  Nunn has really hit her stride in this instalment, both adding to the overall story arc of Cooper’s life and providing a thoroughly engaging mystery.  The characterisation is excellent, especially Cooper and his colleague Shabalala, but also the supporting cast, particularly Gabriel a white boy who is totally at home in the bush, and Nunn nicely portrays their interactions and social relations.  Indeed, she excels at detailing the complex social structure within and between communities – Black, Indian, Jewish, White Afrikaans, White English – and the politics of policing within such strictures.  There is a nice attention to historical detail and the sense of place is palpable with the reader being transported to rural South Africa and its dramatic landscape.  The plot is absorbing and nicely executed.  Overall, a very good police procedural that delivers on multiple levels.



Monday, April 4, 2016

March reviews

A bit of a mixed bag of reading in March.  My stand out book was Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty.

A Little More Free by John McFetridge ****
Journey to Death by Leigh Russell **.5
Tin Sky by Ben Pastor ***
Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe Lansdale ***
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo ***
A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm ****
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty ****.5
The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson ***
Canary by Duane Swierczynski ***
The Kill by Jane Casey ***

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I started to revise a paper this week.  By Friday evening I'm not sure there was a single sentence that remained the same.  It's kind of the same paper, but has been entirely rewritten and restructured.  I might try this with a short story sometime - rather than make minor edits just rewrite the whole story - and see what the effect is.  I suspect it'll improve as the process will be about the telling not the content.

My posts this week
Review of A Little More Free by John McFetridge
Review of Journey to Death by Leigh Russell
Review of Tin Sky by Ben Pastor
Beauty and the Beast