Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Reviewing reviews

As well as posting my reviews onto the blog, I also record them on Goodreads, and put most of them up on Amazon.  I've just noticed that my Amazon reviewer ranking has fallen out of the top 1000 and had a browse of how people have rated the reviews.  86% of the 'votes' deem the reviews helpful, which means almost 1 in 6 thought them unhelpful.  Interestingly, a review of a book I gave five stars to seems just as likely to receive an unhelpful vote as a three star review.  This, I think, is good as it suggests that the review is being judged on its merits as a review, and not on how strongly is favours the book.  Or at least I hope that's what is going on giving how the reviewing system is often gamed.  It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind 'votes', not so they can be challenged (everyone after all is entitled to an opinion), but to see if there is any useful observations that might feedback into my reviewing.  Reviewers rarely get such feedback beyond 'nice review' comments - well this reviewer doesn't - but it would be incredibly useful input.  So, if you've any observations and constructive critique about my reviews, please leave a note in the comment section.  Thanks!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review of Red Joan by Jennie Rooney (Vintage, 2013)

1937, aged 18, Joan heads to Cambridge University to study science.  There she meets the confident and exotic Sonya Galich, a refugee from Russia, and her dashing cousin, Leo.  Enchanted by Sonya and swept off her feet by Leo, Joan is pulled into their orbit and their communist agitating for worker rights and Spanish republicans.  Nearly seventy years later one her acquaintances from that time, Sir William Mitchell, is being investigated for espionage, committing suicide before being exposed.  Having carefully protected her past, a knock at her door threatens to expose Joan’s secret past.

Red Joan is loosely based on the story of Melita Norwood, the Soviet’s longest serving British spy who was exposed in 1999.  Unlike Norwood, Joan is not a committed communist, but rather went to Cambridge University in the late 1930s as an idealist, raised by a socialist father.  There she meets cousins, Sonya and Leo, falling in love with the latter and joining their political circle.  Together they groom Joan and once the Second World War has started and she has finished her degree they arrange a job for her as a secretary at an atomic research centre.  Red Joan tells her story through two interwoven strands, one set in the past, the other detailing Joan’s interrogation by MI5 whilst simultaneously trying to deal with her barrister son who has taken on the role of her legal brief.  It’s a narrative structure that works very well, aided expressive prose, nicely crafted characterisation, and a carefully constructed plot.  A particular strength of the story is how Rooney unsettles any straightforward black and white reading of being a traitor, providing a layered, nuanced and poignant account that gradually exposes a long held secret and its consequences, and explores themes of motive, ideology, conscience, guilt, regret, and protection.  An engaging and thought provoking traitor’s tale.

Monday, March 2, 2015

February reads

February was a pretty good and varied month of reading.  My read of the month goes to an oldish PI tale by Bill Pronzini, The Vanished

The Yard by Alex Grecian ***
The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim ****
The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan ****.5
The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman ***
The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen ***
Runaway by Peter May ***.5
The Vanished by Bill Pronzini ****.5
The General Danced at Dawn by George Macdonald Fraser ***
The Korean War by Max Hastings ***.5

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I launched Stumped and The Data Revolution on Thursday at an event in Maynooth University Bookshop.  Of course, I managed not to take a single photograph!  Oh well.  I always feel somewhat out of place and uncomfortable at these events, but I enjoyed this one.  And for once, I think I managed to thank all the people I was meant to.  I've spent part of the weekend working on the next two in the pipeline, both of which are edited collections - Code and the City and Understanding Spatial Media - and are scheduled for publication in 2016.  At some point I need to get back to the fiction.  Usually I'm pretty good at making time, but it's difficult when it's already being used!

My posts this week

Fifty shades of black and blue
Review of The Yard by Alex Grecian
Review of The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim
Chinese translation in the works
Video: ProgCity at Smart City Expo and Congress

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fifty shades of black and blue

‘What a way to go,’ Carter said, staring at the two hands sticking out from under the toppled bookcase and scattered books.  ‘Crushed to death by an avalanche of erotica.’

‘Battered into fifty shades of black and blue,’ the pathologist added.

‘Instead of running off into the sunset with Mr Darcy.’

‘I didn’t have you down as a literary type.’

‘I prefer mysteries and this looks like it could be straight out of one.  Bookcases don’t just fall down on bookshop assistants.’

‘Just remember what a mess throwing the book at someone makes.’ She handed a paperback to the detective.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review of The Yard by Alex Grecian (Penguin, 2012)

1889, a year after the Jack the Ripper murders, and Scotland Yard has established a dedicated murder squad.  One of its members, Inspector Little, has been found murdered, bound-up in a trunk at Euston Station.  The newest member of the squad, Inspector Day, is given the task of solving the case.  Recently promoted and just having just arrived from Devon, Day is keen to prove himself.  He’s aided in the investigation by Dr Kingsley, who has taken it upon himself to establish a forensically-led morgue, Inspector Blacker, and Constable Hammersmith.  Between them they start to gather clues, but then another murder is committed, a bearded man who has been shaved before having his throat cut, and a second policeman killed.  As they come under increasing pressure to bring the perpetrator to justice, the killer starts to interfere in the investigation, seeking to persuade Day to give up his pursuit.

The Yard is a curious kind of crime novel.  From near the start the identity of the killer is made clear, as is the reason for the crime, as is the process of investigation.  The story is then not a whodunit, whydunit or howdunit.  Indeed, there is really no mystery to the tale at all, much of the historical detail is dubious or inaccurate, and the villain is no Jack the Ripper or Moriarty, making the work for the police relatively easy.  Instead the narrative is propelled along by a mix of breezy writing, colourful scenes, and some interesting characters and their interplay, the pages turning mainly to see if it is resolved as it inevitably should be.  Inspectors Day and Blacker, Constable Hammersmith and Dr Kingsley are all engaging characters, each with a certain vulnerability but determined to solve the case, though the villain and lesser characters, such as the two whores who appear throughout, are more caricature in nature.  Given its various flaws, The Yard, is a book I would ordinarily find somewhat annoying, but in this case actually enjoyed - kind of like the low-brow movie you know you should dislike, but watch and like regardless.  Overall, then, a flawed but enjoyable tale of murder in Victorian London.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review of The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim (Arrow, 2013)

September 1941.  Special Agent James Nessheim has been sent to Hollywood where he somewhat reluctantly works in a movie studio screening scripts.  Supposedly working out of the Los Angeles FBI office, he actually reports directly to Assistant Director Harry Guttman.  One of Nessheim’s informers, Billy Osaka, a Japanese-American journalist and translator with a gambling problem, has gone missing after asking to see him urgently.  Nessheim sets out find Osaka, but soon discovers that others are also searching for him.  His boss has also been dragged into murky waters when a State Department employee with youthful communist sympathies approaches him to reveal that Russians have been seeking to activate him as a spy.  The next day the man is found dead in the park in which they met.  As Nessheim tracks Osaka’s trail, Guttman discovers that a sizeable amount of Russian-owned money has been transferred from New York to a Japanese bank in Los Angeles and asks his agent to find its destination.  Neither Nessheim or Guttman realise the significance of their respective cases, but both are acting beyond their remit and have hunches that they should keep digging away despite the warnings to the contrary.

The Informant is a historical political thriller set immediately prior to America entering the Second World War.  It’s the second book in the James Nessheim series, but can be read as a standalone.  The strength of the story is the plot and contextualisation.  The tale is told through a set of alternating perspectives of James Nessheim in Los Angeles, and is his boss, Harry Guttman in Washington and New York, and centres on finding a missing Japanese-American informant, uncovering the work of Soviet agents, and establishing if there is a link between the two and its significance.  Whilst, the timeline is linear, the plot weaves together a number of strands and subplots to create a complex, if somewhat fanciful, stew.  Nevertheless, Rosenheim makes sure the reader stays orientated and that the story keeps moving forward.  Moreover, he evokes the tense atmosphere, politics and political landscape of the time and nicely places the story in its locales, with a strong sense of place with respect to the film studio, Little Tokyo in LA, and the hills above Santa Barbara, and context with respect to the marginalised position of the Japanese in America and political sympathies with communism and the plight of the Soviet Union as German troops advance on Moscow.  The result is a thoughtful, engaging and well told tale.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chinese translation in the works

The Chinese rights to my book with Mark Blades, 'The Cognition of Geographic Space', have been sold by the publisher, IB Tauris.  It should be published in the summer of 2016.  I'm not holding my breath about getting rich from this since I've not received a cent in royalties from my other two books that have been translated into Chinese, despite one of them being in its third edition (which is interesting in itself since it's only in its first edition in English!)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm launching two of my books this week - Stumped and The Data Revolution - in the Maynooth University Bookshop, Thursday 26th at 4.30pm.  It's a joint event with my colleagues Mark Boyle and Chris Brunsdon who are launching their own tomes.  More details can be found here.  If you are in the vicinty and fancy coming along then please do.

My posts this week

Review of The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan
New paper: Continuous geosurveillance in the smart city
Review of The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman
Book launch: The Data Revolution and others
Wherever the road takes us

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Wherever the road takes us

‘Okay, this is it.  Buckle up, kid, this might be one heck of ride.’

Tommy turned the ignition key.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea, T?’ Sally asked.

‘Are you sure that staying is a better one?  We need to get away, Sal, spread our wings, see the world.’  He gunned the engine.

‘But where are we going?’

‘Wherever the road takes us.  I don’t care as long as it’s far from here and your father.’

‘He’s just worried about me.’

‘And now he’ll have a reason.’  Tommy let out the clutch, pulling out slowly into blinding snow.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman (Berkeley, 1999)

February 1959.  After watching Buddy Holly in concert lawyer and investigator Sam McCain drives home to Black River Falls, Iowa, through a winter storm with the unrequited love of his life, Pamela.  He wakes the next morning to twin disasters: his rock and roll idol has perished in a plane crash, and Kenny and Susan Whitney have been killed in an apparent murder-suicide.  To make matters worse, McCain was present when Kenny blew his brains out, having been sent to the mansion by his boss, the acerbic Judge Esme Anne Whitney.  McCain is not convinced Kenny killed Susan, but local police chief Cliff Sykes Jnr thinks it’s an open and shut case, and what’s more is delighted given his rivalry with the judge.  McCain finds himself stuck in the middle both professionally and privately.  The judge wants McCain to prove Kenny’s innocence, the police chief wants him to stop poking around in the investigation; he’s in love with the lovely Pamela, the judge’s personal assistant, whilst Mary Travers is in love with him and her fiancée detests him.  And to add a complication, McCain’s younger sister has got herself in trouble.  All McCain needs to do is solve the murder-suicide and resolve his personal life and his sister’s problem in the full glare of small town America.

The Day the Music Died is a P.I. novel set in a small Iowa town in the late 1950s and is the first book in the Sam McCain series.  In many ways it is the mirror of the typical hardboiled P.I. tale set in a big city.  McCain is smart, pleasant and good, lacking physical presence and menace, and is unlucky in love.  Black River Falls is a small, conservative town run by a handful of families, where everyone seems to know everyone.  The story revolves around an apparent murder-suicide.  It’s a strong hook, but after opening the story lacks impetus and tension until near the end despite the various rivalries and the themes of race and abortion subverting the conservative values of small town America.  The sense of place and characters also seemed a little one-dimensional, and it was a mystery to me as to why McCain was mooning over Pamela, when he clearly had more affection for both Mary and his beatnik lover.  Where Gorman did hit the mark was with the sense of time and culture, evoking the music, and race and class politics of the mid-west in the 1950s.  Overall, a pleasant enough read and a nice twist on the typical P.I. tale.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review of The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan (Headline, 2014)

Forensic psychologist Paula Maguire thought that she’d left Northern Ireland for good.  But after helping solve a case in her native Ballyterrin she finds herself still attached to a specialist missing persons unit, living at home with her father, pregnant but unsure who the father is, and still wondering what happened to her mother who disappeared in 1993.  She has limited time to dwell on her own problems, however, as a new born baby has been snatched from the maternity ward of the local hospital and the doctor running a local women’s centre that provides advice to those considering travel to Britain for an abortion has disappeared.  As the team search for the pair, and battle with a local police station for control of the investigation, another baby goes missing, followed by a pregnant woman.  With the pressure mounting to solve the cases Paula becomes emotionally invested in the investigation and inevitably ends up doing more than producing a profile of the abductor.

The Dead Ground is the second book in the Paula Maguire series set in the small, fictional border town of Ballyterrin, which in my head at least is Newry.  The storytelling is much more assured than the previous outing and less melodramatic, though it has plenty of drama.  Along with a compelling main plotline, McGowan interweaves a handful of interesting subplots that add to, rather than detract from, the story.  I was hooked from the start, the book quickly becoming a page turner, given the succession of abductions and the rising tension.  In this sense the plot worked well, although as the story progressed the mystery element receded as the identity of the perpetrator and the inevitable ending became obvious though no less tense.  Paula Maguire is a strong, complex, conflicted and engaging lead character, and McGowan surrounds her with an interesting mix of characters with different backgrounds and viewpoints.  The result is a swirl of alliances and rivalries depicted through some nice interpersonal exchanges.  Indeed, I imagine most readers will want to read the next book in the series as much to keep up with Paula’s soap opera personal life as to see how she solves the next crime.  There’s also a strong sense of place and history, with the Troubles still casting a shadow over the Irish borderlands.  Overall, an engaging, page turner, with an interesting lead character and subplots.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

During the week I posted the 600th book review on the blog.  I also popped into Hodges Figgis bookstore in Dublin after missing a train and the experience drove home how many thousands of crime fiction books are in circulation.  So many books, so little time!  I picked up three more, despite my plan to buy less in the first half of this year and reduce the TBR.  They were Red Joan by Jennie Rooney, The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim, and The Yard by Alex Grecian.  I also purchased Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl yesterday.  That means that so far this year I've bought more than I've read.  Oh well, better get back to reading.

On other news, Stumped was reviewed in Irish Times yesterday by the doyen of Irish crime fiction, Declan Burke.  He writes: "... a delightfully preposterous tale ... Kitchin maintains a cracking pace and generates plenty of humour by switching rapidly between the perspectives of a swarming host of outlandish characters." I'll take that.

My posts this week

Trouble in aisle four
Review of The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen
Review of Runaway by Peter May
Review of The Vanished by Bill Pronzini

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Trouble in aisle four

Tom stared absently at the shelves of healthcare products.

‘I’m just going to find some cream crackers,’ Sarah said.

Tom grunted in response.  Eventually he spotted the condoms and dropped two boxes into the shopping trolley.

An old lady rounded his back and pushed the trolley down the aisle.  Up ahead Sarah turned the corner.

‘Oh, flip!’ 

Tom shuffled after the lady, grabbed the boxes, and dropped them into Sarah’s passing trolley.

‘And I thought it was my lucky day,’ the woman said.

‘You’re welcome to him,’ Sarah replied cheerily.  ‘He’s just as hopeless when it comes to using them.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931, Grosset & Dunlap)

Ellery Queen, the amateur detective son of a New York police inspector, is visiting a friend at the Dutch Memorial Hospital, where he gets invited to witness the removal of a gall bladder.  However, when the sheet covering the patient is pulled back, it reveals that the elderly millionaire, Abigail Doorn, has been strangled during pre-op.  Quickly sealing the hospital, Queen calls for his father and starts to investigate his most difficult case to date.  It appears that someone with nerves of steel has impersonated a leading surgeon and murdered the woman in a busy hospital.  With plenty of suspects but few clues to work with Queen struggles to solve the mystery.

Published in 1931, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is the third book in the Ellery Queen series, jointly written by cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, under the pen-name of Ellery Queen.  The series was considered one of the finest examples of a ‘fair play’ mysteries, with the reader presented with all of the clues available to the fictional detective so that they might solve it for themselves.  Indeed, the book includes a ‘challenge to the reader’ page inserted near the end of the book, prior to the denouement, that asks them to try and identify the killer based on the clues revealed in the plot.  The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a variation on the locked room mystery in that one of the workers, patients or visitors within the vicinity of the pre-op room must have perpetrated the crime and was almost certainly still present on its discovery.  And the investigation soon reveals plenty of people present with the motive to murder the victim.  The strength of the story is the intricate plot, which charts the detective’s investigation and reasoning.  However, this offset somewhat by the dryness of the read, the fact that Ellery Queen is quite a difficult character to warm to, being somewhat aloof, snobbish and self-obsessed, and the fact that whole premise felt somewhat contrived in order to produce the puzzle.  Nonetheless, an interesting read for the puzzle and challenge of solving it.