Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review of by Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (Penguin, 2014)

Oliver Ryan has snapped.  Married for over thirty years he hits his wife for the first time.  A couple of hours later he batters her into a coma.  Oliver has always had a cold, enigmatic side to him, but he also has charm and charisma.  Combined they have enabled him to become a very successful author whose books have been turned into play and movies, and to carry-on a series of affairs.  Since early childhood he has also had dark secrets that he has carefully protected, sometimes with deadly consequences.  Now, as Alice lies in a hospital bed, Oliver’s world is unravelling as some of his various secrets are revealed.

Unravelling Oliver recently won the Irish Crime Novel of the year award.  It could have easily won the literary novel award given its prose and style.  Unlike most crime novels, where the central driver is usually a linear plot told from a single perspective and enhanced by strong characters, Unravelling Oliver is an in-depth character study told from multiple perspectives with a non-linear narrative.  The unravelling of the title refers to both Oliver’s snapping and his fall from grace and to revealing the long run up to it that stretches back over his entire life.  In this sense it is very much a form of psychological drama (rather than thriller, though it is full of gripping moments).  The narrative is carefully constructed, each chapter told in the first person by Oliver or by those closest to him, layering in new elements to the story.  And whilst it is clear what is coming next in some instances, their reveal is nonetheless shocking.  I thought the tale was interesting whilst I was reading it, and though I enjoyed the prose and narrative I was not fully captivated, however in the subsequent couple of days it’s been rattling around in my head, kind of maturing after the fact.  Overall, a thoughtful, literary piece of crime fiction, and definitely worth a read for those tiring of the genre’s usual conventions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review of Southsiders by Nigel Bird (Blasted Heath, 2014)

Jesse Spalding dreads going home from school.  He knows he’s walking in a battle zone as his parents fight.  After a particularly aggressive clash Jesse heads home late to find the family apartment in Edinburgh’s Southside empty.  His father has decided to call it quits and has headed to Belfast via hospital to nurse his wounds.  His alcoholic and violent mother has also fled promising to never return.  Already known to social services, Jesse is determined not to end up in care and contrive a pretence until one or both parents return.  Other than fooling the authorities, he knows the main issue is sourcing money.  The rent is due soon and the only solution seems to be to pawn part of his father’s rare record collection -- something Jesse is loathe to do given he’s as much a fan of 1950s and 60s R&B as his dad.  But he needs the money now and he’ll worry about getting them back later.

There’s much to like about Nigel Bird’s Southsiders.  It has a great set-up -- a kid hooked on 50s R&B abandoned by both parents and trying to survive on his own; a nicely drawn set of characters; and engaging prose that manages to be tough and warm-hearted.  I was thoroughly engaged with and entertained by the story and then it just stopped.  If Southsiders is part of a series then I can see the logic of drawing the first instalment to a close.  The issue for me was the point of closure was too early, with only one element closed, admittedly a key one, but all the others left open.  In other words, I didn’t feel we’d got to the end of Act One and moreover I really wanted Act Two there and then as I needed to know how the elements of the first act got resolved - basically Southsiders is a novella that, in my view, would have been more satisfying as a full novel.  Overall, then, a well told but truncated tale.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

For the second weekend in a row I returned from the local bookshop with a bag full of books.  This time I trundled home with nine purchases, including Aly Monroe's 'Black Bear', Belinda Bauer's 'Blacklands', MJ McGrath's 'The Boy in the Snow', Elly Griffiths' 'The Zig Zag Girl' and Ben Pastor's 'A Dark Song of Blood.'   Add the three others that turned up in the post, plus those already on the main and secondary TBR (yes, I've split them into 'those likely to be read some time soon' and 'those that I might read at some point') and I've easily enough reading to keep me going until well into next year.  Since I've already added a couple of other books to my wishlist, I imagine the pile will continue to shuffle. 

My posts this week
Review of A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson
Review of Keystone by Peter Lovesey

Saturday, December 13, 2014


‘Jesus,’ Carter said, pacing up the slope to the white rocks of the passage tomb, ‘she looks like a figurehead; leaning out into the waves.’

The woman was standing guard at the low entrance, gazing out across the landscape towards Benbulben.  Her arms were by her side, her hair dark except for an inch of grey at its roots.

‘Not so much guarding against evil spirits, than the victim of one,’ the pathologist said.

‘How’s she staying upright?’

‘Impaled on a crowbar angled into the ground.’

‘Impaled?  Oh god.’

‘Or gods.  Or fairies.  Níos fearr athnuachan do miotaseolaíocht na hÉireann*.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words. *'Better refresh your Irish mythology'

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review of A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson (Quercus, 2012)

November 1956 and DI Ted Stratton is called to a murder scene in Soho.  Jeremy Lloyd was a quiet young man of no apparent means who was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors, surrounded by hundreds of religious and spiritual texts.  Lloyd had recently left a cultist sect based in Suffolk run by an enigmatic post-war refugee from the continent, disillusioned by his displacement by a young boy, Michael, as the anointed future spiritual leader.  Aware that he was possibly in danger, Lloyd had left a photograph with a neighbour of a beautiful woman.  Following the trail to Suffolk and the Foundation for Spiritual Understanding, Stratton discovers the woman is Mary Milburn, the charismatic mother of Michael, supposedly conceived through immaculate conception.  She has recently disappeared.  As Stratton presses for answers the Foundation closes ranks.  Nonetheless he starts to uncover Mary Milburn’s secret past, one that raises many more questions.  Then the body of a woman is discovered in the woods near to the Foundation and Stratton is dealing with two murders and a secretive sect.

A Willing Victim is the fourth book in Laura Wilson’s historical police procedural series set in and around London the 1940s and 50s.  In this outing, Stratton is investigating the death of a strange young man in a Soho bedsit who is obsessed with spirituality, the trail leading him to a Suffolk village and a secretive, cultist sect.  It’s an engaging story that is nicely contextualised with respect to the religious foundation (drawing on Wilson’s own experiences of being raised in such an environment) and the period, has a strong sense of place, and has well drawn characters, especially DI Stratton, the charismatic Mary Milburn, and author Ambrose Tynan.  The plot is well constructed, with plenty of intrigue, blinds and feints and has a credible and gripping denouement that doesn’t slip into melodrama.  The narrative is a little over-elaborated in places, especially in the sub-plots, but overall it proved an thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review of Keystone by Peter Lovesey (Sphere, 2013; orig pub 1983)

1916 and having worked his way across America to California with his hammy vaudeville act, Warwick Easton decides to audition for a movie career.  He’s hoping for character parts, but the only thing on offer is a role as part of the Keystone Cops.  Given their capers and stunts it’s a dangerous occupation, as the death of one of the cops demonstrates when a stunt goes wrong leaving him dead.  Easton's plan is to build up enough funds then head back to England to join the war, but then he meets and befriends Amber Honeybee, an attractive and ambitious actress.  Despite her obvious lack of talent, Amber jumps from bit parts to leading lady and shortly after her mother is found dead in suspicious circumstances.  Easton is quick to defend her from gossip and accusations, but soon ends up being beaten and his apartment ransacked.  His solution is to turn from Keystone Cop to cop, seeking to exonerate Amber, despite his suspicions that she’s guilty of something, and ensnare whoever seems hell bent on their demise, regardless of how powerful or famous they might be.

Keystone is a historical crime story set in Los Angeles in 1916, specifically focusing on the Keystone Studio.  Whilst firmly a piece of fiction it includes a number of real-life characters including the studio owner, Mack Sennett, and actors Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Mack Swain, and a number of the Keystone Cops.  The two lead fictional characters are Warwick Easton and Amber Honeybee, neither of whom are particularly likeable: Easton being solemn, defensive, snooty, and standoffish; Amber, overly ambitious, lacking in talent, devious and opportunist, and stubborn.  Easton is smitten, but the relationship is mostly platonic, with him trailing round after and defending her.  The tale unfolds at nice pace, the prose is light and breezy, and the plot is interesting without being captivating.  I had a good idea as to the culprits, though not the reason why events were unfolding as they were.  Overall, a good setting and idea, and it help pass a few hours pleasantly enough.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

A quick visit to the local bookshop yesterday added three new books to my to-be-read pile: Liz Nugent's Unravelling Oliver, Jane Casey's The Stranger You Know, and Camilla Lackberg's The Hidden Child.  I also picked up Vidar Sundstol's The Land of Dreams during the week.  I keep telling myself that they only amount to two weeks reading, but the pile nevertheless continues to grow.

My posts this week

Review of The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler
Review of Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Saturday, December 6, 2014


The detective stared at the canal.  The ripples from a passing swan ebbed and the glassy face reappeared just beneath the surface, a pale oval surrounded by a tangle of black hair.

He was joined by a colleague.

‘The divers are on their way.’

‘She looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting.’



‘By Millais.  Daughter of Polonius.’

‘Right.  Except a guy over there thinks she’s, and I quote, “the gobby Australian who was in The Roost last night”.’

‘Who met her Millais.’

‘Who’ll now be shipped ten thousand miles in a box.’

‘First we sent coffin ships, now simply coffins.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2013)

Dick Simnel’s has inherited his father’s fascination for steam and the possibilities of harnessing its power.  Unlike his father, he relies on a slide rule and mathematics to tame and harness it, meaning he doesn’t vaporize himself as he tinkers.  The result is Iron Girder, a train that runs on rails.  Simnel takes his invention to the great city of Ankh-Morpork, seeking the help of self-made man, Harry King, to build a railway network.  The city’s patrician, Lord Vetinari, can see the inherent potential in quick, efficient and comfortable travel, but is also aware that luddites will try to limit progress.  He thus dispatches Moist von Lipwig, master of the Post Office, the Mint, and Royal Bank, to help smooth the way and negotiate routes.  In the meantime, a different kind of revolution is brewing in the Dwarf world, as conservative extremists plot to overthrow the more liberal king and destroy the corrupting influence of new technologies and multiculturalism.

Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld book in Terry Pratchett’s hugely successful fantasy/satire series.  I’ve read all of them bar two.  All of the books are consistently inventive, warmly humorous and satirical, and full of interesting characters and plots.  Raising Steam focuses attention on two main themes and their juxtaposition -- the creation of new technologies and how they can transform societies and produce new issues, and the rise of extremist religious groups that hold highly traditional and conservative views and want to mould society in their vision.  It’s an interesting tension, but in this case the story nonetheless feels like two quite different narratives being jammed together without ever fully blending.  Moreover, while the book is in the fantasy genre, there were inconsistencies or convenient plot devices that felt clunky, some characters felt surplus to requirements, and there are sub-plots that go nowhere.  For example, despite growing up relatively poor, Simnel’s mother just happens to have a fortune in the attic to fund the initial development of an engine.  And when Simnel travels to Ankh-Morpork to demonstrate the engine he has to set up a track to do so; somehow the big, heavy engine made the journey without rails, but now needs them to run.  We’re told of a wedding massacre and a young dwarf visiting his family being attacked, but these then sink without trace.  The result, for me, was one of the weakest books in the series.  Full of nicely penned characters (and there are an awful lot them, many from previous books snuck in for small cameo appearances), and packed with snippets of railway lore, but the plot not quite running on track.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review of The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler (No Exit Press, 2014)

The son of a famous stage actress, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, or ‘Kit’ to his friends, is a war correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express.  After stints reporting from the Balkans and other hot spots he finds himself in Mexico in the spring of 1914.  A civil war is unfolding and the arrest of a handful of American sailors by the Mexican authorities has led to the US seizing the port of Vera Cruz.  The US marines arrive at the same time as a shipment of armaments on a German ship.  The occupation is not entirely peaceful, with a few skirmishes with local forces and a sniper winging collaborators and a marine.  With the help of a young pickpocket Cobb seeks to identify the sniper and the identity and intentions of a man sneaked into the port from the German ship.  He has a nose for a good story and senses he could be onto a major scoop, though the adventure to claim it might cost him his life. 

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer winning literary writer who in The Hot Country turns his talents to historical crime fiction.  The result, for me at least, is a story that has the prose, pace and reflective aspects of literary fiction, but lacks the tightness, edge and intrigue of crime fiction.  The book is billed as a thriller, but the pace is for the most part languid and the tale drawn out with few tension points, especially in the first half where there are some incidents but they lack edge and verve.  Added to this, the historical context is underdeveloped.  I know very little about Mexican history or its relations with the US and having read the story I still know little beyond the two month, narrowly presented slice of the story.  Somewhat ironically given that the lead character is a journalist, the reader is provided with next to no wider context.  The story did not need to be an in-depth history lesson, but it did need to provide a reasonable amount of historical orientation.  Taken together, the pace, lack of context and tension, left me adrift rather than being captivated.  Once the tale left Vera Cruz it picked up pace a little and became more adventurous, with Cobb shifting from reporting history to actively intervening and creating it by adopting the swashbuckling role of an undercover, frontline war correspondent.  It was a shame then that the qualities of the second half of the story did not run throughout.  On the plus side, Cobb is an engaging lead character, I really enjoyed the subplot of his correspondence with his wayward mother, and there is enough potential to suggest an interesting series.  Indeed, despite being a little lukewarm to this outing, I would be interested in reading about Cobb’s next adventure.

Monday, December 1, 2014

November reads

With the exception of the last two reads, November was mainly a month of reading historical fiction and popular history.  My read of the month was The Fires by Joe Flood about New York in the 1970s, an excellent account of how politics and policy can have disastrous effects on cities.

Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 ****
Dataclysm by Christian Rudder **
Potsdam Station by David Downing ****
The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson ****
The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson ***
The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman ***
The Fires by Joe Flood *****
Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser ****

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Another hectic week of running around to meetings, giving talks and trying to catch up on admin.  With regards to the latter, the ultimate irony of neoliberal attempts to undermine, hollow out, and hold to account bureaucracy is that it creates way more bureaucracy through audit and accountability trails.  What that means is a lot of time filling out forms about how I've spent my time filling out forms or attending meetings.  I suspect that we've never had so much bureaucracy and so many bureaucrats as at present.  Is that a good thing?  I guess that depends on whether you're a bureaucrat or not.  Personally, I'd prefer to spend my time doing something more productive, such as delivering on the core mission of the job.  Okay, rant over!  Back to compiling a list of bureaucratic tasks I still need to complete.

My posts this week

After the storm
Review of Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 ****
Review of Dataclysm by Christian Rudder **

Saturday, November 29, 2014

After the storm

As suddenly as the roar of the tornado had been on them, it had vanished, replaced by the staccato of rain on the shelter doors.

Tom Jennings pulled a weak smile and hugged his daughter.  ‘Well that was more exciting than Disneyland.  Come-on, let’s take a look.’

‘Tom,’ his wife warned.

‘I’m just taking a peek.’

He levered open a door and gazed out at the devastation, momentarily lost for words.


‘Well, the bad news is that the house and garage are gone.’


‘The good news is we’re alive and I’ll have plenty of work rebuilding the town.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Review of Bite Harder by Anonymous-9 (Blasted Heath, 2014)

Dean Drayhart is an unlikely candidate for death row.  A paraplegic after a hit and run incident that killed his daughter, Dean turned vigilante, tracking down hit and run drivers and administered lethal justice via the vicious teeth of his helper monkey, Sid.  One of those he dispensed with before being taken into police custody was the son of a Mexican Mafia boss.  Orella Malalinda wants Dean sprung from jail, and Sid and his call-girl girlfriend, Cinda, ensnared.  Then she wants revenge.  And what Orella wants, she is used to getting.

Bite Harder starts pretty much where Hard Bite ended and I think it’s fair to say that the books should be read in sequence.  If you need to catch-up, this is no bad thing as Hard Bite is excellent - original, witty, smart, dark, and hard with a soft-centre (see my review).  Bite Harder has the same traits, though the balance of the plot is more action orientated, with a little less reflection, and told from multiple perspectives as the various characters seek or flee each other, eventually converging on an epic finale.  The pace is high throughout, there’s plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and the narrative is laced with black comedy.  I would have liked the cop thread to be filled out a little, spent a bit more time with the folks in the old people’s home, and also got a little more back story with regards to a couple of characters, but these are minor quibbles.  Bite Harder is a lot of hard hitting fun and hopefully Dean, Sid and Cinda will reunite for a new adventure shortly.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Review of Dataclysm: Who We Are (when we think no one’s looking) by Christian Rudder (Fourth Estate, 2014)

The stated aim of Dataclysm is to introduce lay readers to the era of big data, the possibilities of such data, and the types of analysis used to make sense of them.  The problems with the book start with the title and subtitle, neither of which, I think, make much sense.  Dataclysm, Rudder explains, is a play on cataclysm: the wiping away of one era to be replaced by a new one.  However, big data is set to complement small data, not wipe them away as small data are generated to answer specific questions rather than being a by-product that is then repurposed, and most big data are held by private corporations or government and are not readily open to researchers.  All of the data that Rudder analyzes is from social media; they are data produced precisely because we think someone is looking (for a date, for conversation, for information, to provoke a reaction, etc).  Uploading information to the internet is largely a process of the presentation of the self, as Goffman’s famous theory would frame the activity.  Even if other people cannot see the answers to direct questions, as when filling in questions on a dating site, the answers shape the user profile and the process of matching -- something that users are aware of, consider and present to.

The book then proceeds by discussing social media data and what they might reveal about human behaviour and society.  Crucially, however, there is no systematic discussion of big data per se, its forms and characteristics, no discussion of data analytics, and only a cursory discussion of the many ethical, social and political implications of such data.  There is no discussion of statistics, or statistical tests performed on the data presented, nor data mining, data analytics, machine learning, pattern recognition, profiling, prediction, etc.  The irony here is that Rudder’s company – OkCupid – employs these techniques to be able to process and match potential partners, yet he never explains how this is achieved. 

Instead, the entire analysis is rooted in the empiricist form of data science, rather than data-driven science, and never proceeds beyond description.  As such, the analysis of gender and race he presents are based on a ‘letting the data speak for themself’ approach and constitutes armchair interpretation.  He barely engages with the vast academic literature on quantitative analysis of race and gender that has taken place for several decades using large data sets such as the census or public administration data.  Rudder has access to an enormous set of very interesting data that could be used to conduct some fascinating sociological and psychological analysis.  Instead what we get are a series of descriptive statistics and banal revelations, most of which are already well established. 

The result is a book that hints at the potential of big data and data science but undersells it substantially, and it under-estimates in my view the readership level of its potential audience by never progressing beyond mathematics and data visualisations used in junior school.  In contrast, books such as The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver provide a much wider and deeper discussion.  This is a shame as Rudder is an engaging writer and he has privileged access to an extremely rich social data that could be used to conduct some wonderful and sophisticated social science research.  Such rich research and its policy implications are barely hinted at.