Monday, December 11, 2017

November reads

Late with noting my November reads.  Difficult to pick between The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Real Tigers by Mick Herron. I think the The Sellout just shades it, but they are both excellent.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty *****
Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley ***.5
Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente ***
Real Tigers by Mick Herron *****
Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann ****
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee ****
Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt ***

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Given winter seems to be gearing up with the first largish (by Irish standards) snow fall, I thought I'd whisk myself away to Siberia where they really know how to do freezing landscapes with Stuart Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise. Making me feel positively warm.

My posts this week:
Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout
New paper: slow computing
Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy
Buried treasure

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Buried treasure

Conor thrust the spade into the glue-like clay, then stomped on it with muddy boots.

He leveraged back the handle, easing a block free. The clay stuck to the face and he slid it off with a gloved hand.

A glint of gold caught his eye. Digging at the soil revealed a solid gold band.

Clambering out of the hole he yelled to his wife. ‘I’ve struck gold!’

‘Don’t be daft, Conor.’

‘Look, see.’

She turned the intricate band over. ‘It looks like it belongs in a museum.’

‘Buried treasure! I guess I better find another spot to bury Lucky!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout (Viking, 1966)

Orrie Cather is in a bind. He’s engaged to be married, but has been having an affair with a woman who is unwilling to let him go. Then she is murdered and Orrie is the number one suspect. Fortunately for Orrie he works for Nero Wolfe, the celebrated private detective. Wolfe believes that Orrie is innocent but the problem will be proving it. Soon a new twist is added to the investigation. The murdered woman was a doxy – the kept woman of rich businessman, and that man will pay Wolfe fifty thousand dollars if he can solve the case and keep his name a secret. Slowly Wolfe, his faithful assistant, Archie, and the rest of the team winkle out some clues. Eventually they have a suspect. But how can they ensnare the murderer, spring Orrie, and keep the sugar daddy’s name a secret?

Death of a Doxy was the forty second instalment of the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1966 (the first in the series was published in 1934). In this outing, Wolfe and the narrator, Archie, are tasked with clearing the name of one of their detectives accused of murder. The case is already a bit of a puzzle when it’s made a little more tricky by the addition of a silence clause – the sugar daddy of the victim will pay handsomely for his name to remain unknown. It’s a challenge they’re prepared to accept. At this stage of the series, Wolfe and Archie are well drawn characters, there’s a deep well of back story, and Stout is versed in crafting a story that has intrigue, a neat puzzle, well-staged set pieces, and nicely drawn characters. The storytelling is tight and all show not tell. Stout keeps the reader guessing as to the ending, which is a little ambiguous, though no less satisfying for that. Overall, a quick, entertaining read.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy (Oneworld, 2016)

In the late 1950s two leading Ukrainian nationalist leaders were murdered in Munich. Both deaths baffled the nationalist groups and West German police. In the fall of 1961, just before the Berlin wall was erected, Bogdan Stashinsky and his East German wife skipped the funeral of their baby and made a dash into West Berlin. Stashinsky headed to the local CIA headquarters and claimed he was a KGB assassin who had murdered Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera using a secret poison gun. The Americans were suspicious that he might be a plant and passed him over to their West German colleagues. Slowly, Stashinsky, also a Ukrainian forced to work for the KGB, persuaded the police that he was who he said he was, and that he had murdered his compatriots. The subsequent trial placed the Soviet Union on trial as much as Stashinsky and the result had long term implications – Stashinsky was effectively deemed a puppet, with the real murderers those who controlled him, creating a legitimate new legal defence for Nazi war criminals; the KGB was forced to change its policy of overseas political assassination; there was a reshuffle at the top of the Soviet political system, with Aleksandr Shelepin’s career cut short; and the plight of Ukrainian nationalist movement was highlighted.

Serhii Plokhy’s book traces the life of Bogdan Stashinsky, particularly from his entrapment recruitment by the KGB through to his disappearance after his short prison stay post-trial. It’s a factual account that tries to cut through all the misinformation about Stashinsky created by the Ukrainian nationalists, the KGB and East Germans, especially at the time of the trial, when the Cold War propaganda machine went into overdrive. While it does seek to provide an objective view, it is also a largely sympathetic account of a man trying to survive inside the KGB and Soviet system that had a habit of severely punishing its own members for supposed and real transgressions. Usefully, it provides an everyday account of Soviet spycraft, Cold War relations between East and West, and the fragmented overseas Ukrainian nationalist movement that sought to highlight the plight of captive nations of the Soviet Union. It is only towards the end that books drifts to speculation given that what became of Stashinsky after prison is publicly unknown. I found it a fascinating read, especially given the present context of strained relations between the Ukraine and Russia.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Since I was heading to London last week I decided to take a read of Christopher Fowler's 'Bryant and May: The Burning Man.' I read the first book in the series when it was first published in paperback, but for some reason never got round to reading any others. Now I'm wondering why as this outing has all the ingredients I love in a story - great characters, interesting plot, social commentary, and strong sense of place. I think the series might become my travelling to London reads for the next few years.

My posts this week

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty
New paper: The timescape of smart cities
Sitting ducks

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Sitting ducks

It took a brief moment for Finnegan to realise a shot had been fired. Then he was diving towards Kelly Meakin.

The actress hit the wet pavement, Finnegan sprawled on top of her.

A second shot had him trying to cover her.


‘We’re sitting ducks,’ he muttered, ignoring her.

‘Finn, my shoulder.’

He risked a look.

Her dress was covered in blood.

‘We need to go.’

Finn scooped her up and started to run.

‘I told you.’

‘Now’s not the time for point scoring.’

A third shot and his legs buckled.

‘I don’t want to die, Finn … Finn?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2015)

The Sellout is the story of how the unnamed narrator – called ‘The Sellout’ by one character, and ‘Bonbon’ by another – becomes infamous through his efforts to place Dickens, a town in South Central Los Angeles, back onto the map and to challenge ideas of race and racism within the black community. Bought up and home-schooled on a small two acre urban farm by his single father, a reasonably well-known psychology/sociology professor, The Sellout has a deep appreciation of the structural violence committed against and by the black community. Drawing on this knowledge his method is to use situationalist-like tactics to unsettle and disrupt deep-rooted thinking and social relations, including painting the old city boundary back onto the landscape, altering road signs, making a city block appear as if an exclusive white school is about to be built there, placing signs on buses to create white-only areas, and generally re-segregating the community, not only between white and black, but also the Mexicans, Asians, etc. Aiding him in the task is Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, a group of black kids who starred in a dozens of short movies from the 1930s-50s playing racist stereotypes, who self-declares himself the narrator’s slave. While his work seems to be having a positive effect on those living in Dickens, through some strange reverse-psychology, his actions land him in hot water and a case that makes its way to the Supreme Court.

I loved The Sellout. It’s smart, sassy, outrageous, knowledgeable, and laugh-out loud funny. It is highly entertaining tale, with a great set of characters and an engaging storyline, yet also makes one reflect and think on a whole bunch of social issues and the history of race relations and places. It might well be the best recent book on race and racism in contemporary United States and I would love to see it taught on the school curriculum. At the same time I’m grateful I don’t belong to a book group as I suspect we’d need a few months to discuss everything going on in the narrative rather than a couple of hours. It’s easy to understand why it has won a number of major awards. Definitely worth reading, and I plan to read Paul Beatty’s other books.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

After a long battle with cancer my father died peacefully on Friday evening. It was a tough old day, but he still found ways to make us all smile at the end as well. I'm going to miss him a lot. The video below was made a couple of months ago to help promote the work of Maggies at Clatterbridge. Both Dad and Mum found Maggies to be a wonderful resource and made some good friends there.

Mervyn Kitchin (19 Nov 1944 - 24 Nov 2017).

My posts this week:
Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley
Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente
New paper: Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things

Saturday, November 25, 2017


‘You want me to do what?’

‘Some of those donut thingys.  Out on the main road.’

‘Granddad, I think …’

‘Everyone knows you nick cars and go joyriding, Tom.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing. I’m eighty three and it’s time I did something stupid.’

‘But …’

‘Just shut the fuck up and drive the bloody car.’

‘Don’t blame me if you have a heart attack.’

Tom revved the engine and dropped the clutch. He handbreaked into the first corner. Out past Jones’ farm he started to spin the car.


‘You mad old bastard.’

‘Where’d you’d think you’re genes came from?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review of Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley (2015, Ebury Press)

Codebreakers tells the story of codebreaking by the British in the First World War and how it impacted on the course of the war and specific actions. The book covers a number of themes, such as the art of codebreaking, which often relied as much on dare-doing elsewhere to recover code books; the institutional politics in and between government agencies, and specifically Room 40 and other units; international politics and especially tackling German spying in America, and attempts to bring the US into the war. The tale is told in a loose chronological order and mainly focuses on particular key individuals, their personalities and stories. The strength and the weakness of the book is that it tends towards the large picture and spying in general, rather than specifically on codebreaking. Clearly, codebreaking is a key aspect of spy work and how it functions and used fits into a larger set of practices. At the same time it would have been interesting to get more insight into the actual day-to-day work of the codebreakers and their strategies and work. As the authors note, this was limited by a lack of written archival sources. Nonetheless, Codebreakers is an interesting and informative read, detailing a number of now little-known but important events and the intersection of codebreaking, politics and military action in the First World War.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente (Quirk Books, 2017)

Nine US comedians, who each perform a different form of comedy and are at varying stages of career fortunes, are invited by legendary Hollywood funnyman, Dustin Walker, to spend a week on a Caribbean island. They are accompanied by a naïve event organizer and wannabe comedian, Meredith. The ten arrive on the island to find it deserted, with their host dead. There is no mode of communication with the outside world, food and drink is in short supply, and soon they are being murdered through a variety of means. As the group shrinks, paranoia and strained alliances form. Will any of them be left alive at the end?

Ten Dead Comedians is a modern day take on Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’. Ten comedians and almost strangers (a number know or have met each other) are seduced to a remote Caribbean island to meet Dustin Walker, a legendary funnyman whose career has hit the skids after several flops. The island is deserted and in turn each is killed as they search to identify the murderer and a means to leave the island. Van Lente’s main twist is to make each character a different type of comedian, who’re at varying stages of their career, to infuse the tale with dark humour. The story unfolds in a linear fashion, punctuated by comedy routines by each of the comedians in which their supposed crime takes place. The concept of the story is a nice one and some of the set pieces are nicely inventive; the issue is the execution. While the tale is full of comedians it is not full of comedy, or at least I didn’t find myself laughing out loud. And the characters are all quite shallow and hollow and do not invite any emotional investment. Also, the perpetrator is kind of obvious, though not necessarily how the murders are being orchestrated. The result was an interesting without being spellbinding or side-splitting tale.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Maggie's at Clatterbridge have made a video about the support they provide for those with cancer starring my Mum and Dad available through their facebook page. They've both found the Maggie's centre a wonderful resource and wanted to help promote their work.

My posts this week

Review of Real Tigers by Mick Herron
Review of Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann
All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Saturday, November 18, 2017

All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel

Flashing red and blue lights lit up the ceiling.

Kathy risked a glimpse over the counter. The store was a mess. Display stands and fridges were toppled over; food, drink and packaging covered every surface.

The man was pounding a fridge with a shelf.

‘Drop the board! Raise your hands and kneel on the floor!’

The man twirled towards the megaphone.

A single loud retort and his head exploded.

Kathy screamed.

‘Mam, put your hands on your head.’

‘All he wanted was a Tahini steak and falafel,’ Kathy blubbered.


‘But we don’t sell them.’ She thrust her hands up.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

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.