Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, 2016)

Slough House is where disgraced British spies are put out to pasture; whiling away their hours doing pointless and soul-destroying admin in the hope that they will call it quits and leave the service. Each resident, however, hopes that they might put their career back on track and make it back to Regent’s Park. Catherine Standish, secretary and recovering alcoholic, doesn’t seem a likely candidate to be kidnapped, but when she’s snatched from the street by an ex-soldier, her colleague River Cartwright impetuously leaps into action, which is the reason he’s no longer trusted with operations any longer, and tries to steal a secret file to ensure Standish’s release. Slough House’s misfits play into the ambitions and scheming of the kidnappers, but also into a three-way power play between the home secretary, head of MI5, and one of her deputies. But there’s life in the slow horses yet and their boss, arrogant, bullying Jackson Lamb, is an old hand at department politics and scheming himself.

Real Tigers is the third book in the Slough series that follows the exploits of the slow horses – spies who’ve been put out to grass because of some major blemish in their careers. While the first two books in the series are good, Herron really hits it out of the park with this outing. The two key elements – plot and characterisation – are excellent. The slow horses are pawns in a much larger game between a vengeful ex-army senior officer, a clownish but ruthless politician, the head of MI5 and her internal rival. There’s plenty of scheming, backstabbing, action, and twists and turns, and Herron ratchets up the tension with the slow horses stumbling and fumbling towards a resolution, led by Jackson Lamb, who respects his charges just as little as the rest of the organization but believes the only person who should make their lives a misery is himself. Rather than being a simple linear tale, Herron creates a multi-threaded and layered story with the strands being drawn to a climatic showdown and intriguing fallout. Along with the insufferable, abrasive Lamb, the slow horses are a delight – Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, Shirley has a coke habit, Marcus has a problem with gambling, River acts before thinking, and Roddy is a delusional geek with zero social skills. Added into the mix is a home secretary clearly modelled on Boris Johnson, and two scheming, hard-headed spymasters in the Stella Remington mould. The dialogue and social relations between characters is nicely done as is the storytelling in general. There is also a delicious streak of dark humour running throughout and I laughed out loud at several points. Overall, a wonderful read.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann (Short Books, 2012)

Birds in a Cage tells the story of four keen birdwatchers - Peter Conder, John Buxton, George Waterston and John Barrett - who met in a German prisoner of war camp and spend their days undertaking scientific research on bird migrations and behaviour.  Post-war the four men each became part of Britain’s wildlife conservation movement, maintaining professional and personal relationships for the rest of their lives.  As is often the case with popular history books the subtitle is somewhat misleading – “Four secret birdwatchers, the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation”: (1) their birdwatching was not secret either from other prisoners or guards, many of whom helped, (2) nor was it the unlikely beginning of British wildlife conservation, which was already underway pre-war, including by the protagonists, and was driven by many more actors than just these four.

Nonetheless, the book is an interesting account of both life as a British prisoner of war in Germany and the practices and comradery of birdwatching. Although isolating, demoralising and full of hardship and danger, prisoners regularly exchanged correspondence and parcels with family and friends at home, meaning that food and books made their way to the camp and poems, drawings, scientific papers went the other way. In addition, the men corresponded with the head of avian zoology at Berlin zoo, receiving homing tags and books from him. Given the long hours with little to do, the four men made pioneering, in-depth studies of certain birds and general counts and migrations. They often enrolled the help of other men, treating the whole enterprise as scientific study. Studying birds also gave them cover to act as lookouts for escape attempts, including participating in the wooden horse scheme. All four endured five years as a prisoner, overlapping in different camps, but often were alone from the others as they were moved about.

Niemann tells the tale with a sympathetic voice, drawing on diaries, letters, drawings and other secondary sources, to tell each man’s story as well as how they intertwine. The result is an engaging tale of how birdwatching suffused each man’s life, particularly during the war.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Having only read/reviewed four books during October, I suddenly find myself with three reviews to write and another book nearly finished. Expect reviews of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann, Real Tigers by Mick Herron, Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente, and Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley shortly. A slight review spoiler - Real Tigers was a cracking read.


My posts this week

The moon is extra bright today
Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
Slow computing: A workshop on resistance in the algorithmic age
October reads

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The moon is extra bright today

‘Here he comes!’

‘He’s cheating! He’s using fans.’

‘And shoes.’

The lumbering, naked figure of John Carter danced around startled shoppers, tracked by several smartphone cameras.

Someone shouted, ‘Go-on Boy!’

He didn’t notice Jane’s presence until the fan was snatched free.

Instinctively he moved the fan covering his arse to his shield his cock.

‘You’re meant to be naked! That was the forfeit.’

‘I am fecking naked!’ He was caught between wanting to argue and flee.

‘Cheat!’ Jane grabbed for the other fan.

John leapt sideways and resumed his run.

‘The moon is extra bright today,’ Jane yelled after him.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (Vintage)

1919, Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, has arrived in India after surviving the trenches of the Great War to return to an empty home, his wife dead from influenza. Only a week in the city and he is asked to investigate the death of a senior British civil servant found stabbed in an alley behind a brothel. He’s partnered by Inspector Digby, a long-time police officer in India, and Sergeant ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, a Cambridge graduate who has defied his family wishes to join the police. While trying to orientate himself to colonial rule and policing, and local, national and cultural politics, Wyndham makes slow progress, made more difficult by the interference of the military police. To add to his load he’s also asked to investigate a train robbery. The evidence suggests that the murder and robbery are related, the work of Indian separatists, but Wyndham is not convinced.

A Rising Man is the first book in the Captain Wyndham series set in Calcutta just after the First World War. A historical murder mystery, there are a couple of compelling strengths to the story. First, the story is a nicely told crime tale, with the perpetrator and reason for the crime reasonably well covered until the reveal. Second, there is a good sense of place, culture and political context. Mukherjee details the segregated geography of the city, the power-laden architecture of the British Raj, and streetscape of Indian neighbourhoods. He also does a nice job of detailing the inherent racism and expressions of colonial British power, and forms of violent and non-violent resistance of Indians, as well as the complex social relations between British, Indian and Anglo-Indians. Where I struggled a little was with the character of Wyndham, who I couldn’t quite pin down – somehow he seemed both worldly and naïve, resolute but uncertain. This was perhaps personified by being a drug-addict-cum-recreational user – he lost control to the cravings, yet was still in control of his habit. He should have had depth, but somehow seemed a little hollow. The ending was also reliant on a plot device I’m never really comfortable with, which I won't discuss as it'll provide a spoiler. Nonetheless, the positives really outshone my nitpicking and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A Necessary Evil.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

October reads

Another slow month of reading. My read of the month was Moth by James Sallis, the second Lew Griffin book set in New Orleans.

Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser ***.5
A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston ****
Moth by James Sallis ****.5
Whisky in Small Glasses by Denzil Meyrich**.5

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

On my way to Brighton to present at a workshop and to launch a new centre at the University of Brighton. Haven't been visited Brighton for a few years, so looking forward to having a stroll around the town. I didn't have a novel set in the town on my TBR so I've bought Mick Herron's Real Tigers instead.

My posts this week
Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt
Collecting failed dates

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Collecting failed dates

‘Seriously, you go bird watching?’ Tanya said, glancing at her watch.

‘You think it’s a waste of time?’

‘It just seems so …’

‘Boring.’ David said, sensing the change of mood.

‘Well, I wasn’t going to put it like that.’

‘Though that’s what you’d mean. And yes, it can be a bit tedious, but it has its moments.’

‘Such as?’

‘Seeing a rare species, or a bird behaving unusually. Many of them are really quite beautiful.’

‘And would you expect … a partner to watch as well?’

‘Not really. Do you have a hobby?’

‘Does going on failed dates count?’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (2010, Granta)

In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by tracing the lives of its key actors – David Watson, William Roy, William Mudge, Thomas Colby and others. Throughout the narrative there are a series of asides, with some context relating to politics, military conflict, scientific advances, philosophy, popular culture, and social relations, some of which aid the tale, some a bit of a distraction. Hewitt’s starting point is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the inability of English soldiers to navigate the Highlands, which led to a government-led mapping survey. Additional surveys were undertaken throughout the late eighteenth century, with the British collaborating with the French to create an accurate triangulation survey to document the precise location of key sites. These trig points became the basis for a national survey starting in 1791, under the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance, to underpin new, accurate maps. The survey first covered South East England leading to the first OS map in 1801 of Kent, and then continued across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century.

While it is evident that there is a substantial body of research underpinning the narrative, and there is a richness of detail, for my liking the account is somewhat an uncritical in charting Ordnance Survey’s history. There are very brief references to a more critical reading of how OS was a political body doing important work to maintain the Union and certainly no attempt at a postcolonial reading of OS’s work, particularly with respect to Ireland and Scotland. Instead the OS is framed as a somewhat neutral, yet civilising and Enlightenment endeavour, with some fairly weak defence of its colonial work. The result is an account that presents people, events and endeavours in a straightforward, face-value way but largely skims over the wider subtext. Overall, an interesting history of the formation of Britain’s national mapping agency, but lacking a critical edge.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It would have been nice to attend the Noireland, An International Crime Fiction Festival in Belfast this weekend, but family commitments prevented me from making it. From social media it seems to have been a success, so hopefully it will continue and I'll make it next year.


My posts this week:
Review of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser
New paper: A smart place to work? Big data systems, labour, control, and modern retail stores
Forgotten in his own life time

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Forgotten in his own life time

‘This is it?’ Turner put the photograph of a young woman back on a shelf and picked up a folder.

‘Yes,’ the duty manager replied. ‘He arrived with a suitcase and one box.’

‘And he’d no relatives?’

‘Not that we know about. No-one’s visited since he arrived three years ago.’

Turner pulled a sheet of paper free. ‘It says here he won a Gairnder Award.’

The manager shrugged.

‘It’s a major international award for medical science. A stepping stone to a Nobel prize.’

‘He never talked about himself.’

‘Jesus. Forgotten in his own life time.’

‘Even by himself. Alzheimers. Poor bastard.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser (1977, HarperCollins)

Harry Flashman is back in London and has been asked to reprise his cricketing prowess at Lords. Unwittingly he’s dragged into a gambling racket and into the orbit of Don Solomon, a man with great wealth but an unclear past rooted in the Far East, who has taken a shine to Elspeth, Flashman’s beautiful but ditzy wife.  Solomon wants to take Elspeth and her doddery, scheming father on a cruise to the far-side of the world. For once, Flashman acts with chivalry towards his wife and when Solomon gets his way he tags along to keep an eye on her. The journey takes them down the African coast, round the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean and to Singapore. There, Flashman is set upon and Elspeth kidnapped. Flashman hooks up with James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, to pursue his wife into the wilds of Borneo and a battle with pirates, ending his adventure on the island of Madagascar where he’s enslaved by despot, Queen Ranavalona.

Flashman’s Lady is the sixth book in the Harry Flashman series, but the second in chronological order, set in 1843-45. As usual, Fraser interweaves Flashman into real-world events and places from the time – in this case, cricket in London, James Brooke’s battles with pirates in Borneo, and the tyrannical reign of Queen Ranavalona in Madagascar, a deadly place for Europeans to visit. To a large degree these are three separate adventures just about held together by Flashman’s global chaperoning and pursuit of his air-headed wife, Elspeth. Moreover, Flashman almost slips out of character, for although he is his usual bawdy-self for once he is chivalrous to Elspeth, seeking to make sure she is safe rather than simply looking after himself as normal.  Of course, that doesn’t stop him getting up to high-jinks with other women. And Flashman continues in his misogynist, racist, imperialist ways – very much reflecting a certain British, nineteenth century mentality that feels somewhat uncomfortable in today’s politically correct times. Fraser plays the bawdiness and humour to good effect to deliver a swashbuckling adventure with plenty of social and historical commentary. Overall, an enjoyable if a little uneven addition to the series.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've not travelled that much in the last six months; just to the UK a couple of times.  Heck, do they need to sort out their rail system. It's a mess. Whatever the timetable says double the time. I might write a short story at some point about a man who loses the plot on a train - but actually externalizes it rather than it unfolding only in my head. The only thing keeping me sane was first 'Flashman's Lady', then 'Map of a Nation', a biography of the Ordnance Survey.

My posts this week
Review of A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston
Wanting to scream

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Wanting to scream

The two shopping bags hit the floor. A yoghurt pot jumped free, landed and split.

Tom was hanging naked above the stairs.

She wanted to scream – inside her head and body that’s all she could hear and feel – but couldn’t externalise it.

Instead her legs collapsed under her, though she fell still gazing up, unable to avert her stare.

‘Mummy! Rachel won’t let me play.’

Some primordial instinct broke the spell.

‘Stay outside’: Said as she landed.

‘But mummy …’

‘Just stay there.’ She tried to scramble up and towards the door, slipped on the yoghurt.

Then the screaming started.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston (2006 by Ballantine Books)

Having moved from a man on the run in Mexico to reluctant hitman for the Russian Mob in Las Vegas, Hank Thompson only seems to function if he’s swallowed a cocktail of drugs. Other than the drugs, all that is keeping him going is the need to serve his debt to keep his parents alive, but he knows that his boss’s patient is running thin. He’s somewhat surprised then when he’s asked to babysit a rising baseball star and gambling addict who's visiting the city to blow some of his signing-on-fee from the New York Mets. Hank’s task is to keep the player partying and out of trouble. It’s a bitter pill for the ailing hitman to take given that he was also a hot baseball prospect before events overtook him. Nonetheless despite his resentment he can’t help liking Miguel Arenas. When Miguel heads to his new life, Hank is sent as his chaperone; back to the city where he’s still a wanted man.

A Dangerous Man is the final instalment of the Hank Thompson trilogy. After the trials and tribulations leading up to his present predicament, it’s no surprise to find him struggling as a conscience-wracked, drug-adled hitman for David Dolokhov, a Russian mobster. Dolokhov specialises in fleecing gambling addicts and running rackets, taking the ultimate sanction as a warning to others when they fail him. He keeps Hank on a short tether with a threat to murder his parents. At a low ebb and waiting to find himself in the firing line Hank’s surprised to be asked to mind a rising baseball star with a gambling problem. Huston uses the introduction of Miguel Arenas to inject some hope into Hank’s life, but also more danger as he’s sent back to New York where his descent started. Told in the first person the narrative is pretty bleak throughout with Hank stumbling from one incident to another, constantly shifting from paranoia to scheming for a way out. It’s a little uneven in the telling, but still a solid piece of contemporary hardboiled pulp and it has a very apt noir ending.