Monday, 21 December 2009

Thinking about John Irving

A few weeks ago my wife came home with a copy of John Irving's "Last Night in Twisted River", which has had really good reviews, and its arrival was a lovely and much appreciated gesture. A few years back I'd have been over the moon and I would have been able to cite chapter and verse of it and look forward to talking lots about the nuance in it. So why is it that it's still lurking by the bed, and sometimes creeping into the briefcase to come to work, but largely remaining unread?

I first encountered John Irving when a friend, conscious that I was going through a phase when I wanted to read books that were both haunting and sad, gave me a copy of "The Cider House Rules". That led to a summer when I raided all the local second hand bookstores for his work, and read all of them, loving some of them more than others, but unquestionably seeing him as the sort of author I wanted to have on my shelves,

When John Irving's good he's very very good. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is still perhaps the best anti-war book, that doesn't really mention war, ever written. I've started to come think however that he's not quite the utterly reliable standby I used to think he was.

I say this for two reasons. First, a few years ago, stuck in the cultural wasteland of Washington Dulles I bought "The World According to Garp", thinking I could reread it in the back of a rickety United 767 as it bumped me back across the Atlantic. Second time around I didn't get on with it in the slightest, and discarded it in exasperation not long after Canada was left behind. This might have been whim, or circumstance, but then I came across "Until I Find You", which I enthusiastically bought, and have singularly failed to finish, finding it more tawdry and unpleasant than I wanted. It's still on the shelf, but to be honest it's on borrowed time before it makes its way to a charity shop.

With any other author I might think that this was just a case of me falling out of tune with him and move on, but I've since revisited others by him ("A Widow for One Year" working on a pretty consistent basis) and the memories I have of that summer mainlining his work is still a time I remember fondly.

So - should I launch into "Twisted River"? The first few pages seem promising, and its had genuinely good and thoughtful reviews, but there's still a reservation in the back of my mind.

Any thoughts gratefully received.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

“The Assault on Mavis A”, Norman Stahl

Lately I've been revisiting a whole number of books read a long time ago. Norman Stahl's “Assault on Mavis A”, long out of print, and properly obscure, was last read in my mid-teens, when I would devour thrillers at a ridiculous pace. Now, after 25 or so years, a second look seemed appropriate.

Sparked by now working in the shipping industry, and the discovery of an engaging if dormant list of nautical related fiction, eBay readily yielded a cheap, to be honest fairly tatty copy of it, and over the course of this wintery Sunday afternoon, it's been duly polished off. One striking thing about it however, is monumentally annoyingly eight pages had been removed from the book at some stage in its life, not enough to seriously impede understanding the plot, but nonetheless a reflection that at times when you pay more or less nothing for a book there are downsides!

Any book that can be hurtled through in the course of a few hours is going to be both undemanding and sufficiently interesting to keep attention. This isn't high literature, but then you can probably work this out by the tagline, which describes it as being “overflowing with violence, treachery, sex … a terrifying suspense story”, certainly a contender for most overblown subtitle in fiction.

The central premise, hijacking an oil tanker and crashing it into an oil platform is reasonably engaging, and Stahl brings a convincing level of detail to the way he writes about the ship itself. The scale of a very large crude carrier and its peripatetic existence moving from the Persian Gulf to Europe or North America is atmospherically brought to life to the extent that the vessel almost qualifies as a character in its own right.

While the plot cheerfully rattles along, it's both too busy and inherently suffers from being pretty full of holes, and the majority of the characters lack a much in the way of depth. More troublingly, it's unpleasant and needlessly violent on a number of levels. As the cover hints, there's a lot of sex in here, and none of it is well written, instead being more prurient than it needs to be. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with sex in a novel, but the level to which it's written in here doesn't quite work.

Ultimately once every quarter of a century is probably frequently enough to read a book like this. It's amiable enough nonsense to while away an afternoon, but it's not something that leaves you particularly fulfilled or informed.

Sometimes it's best to leave books read and enjoyed long ago in the past where they belong.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

“Second Violin”, John Lawton

Warning – there might be a spoiler or two in here, if you haven't read "Second Violin" and want to preserve suspense, might be best to look away now…

Sparked by a great blog post on Crime Scraps I was reminded how great John Lawton is as a writer, and there's an extra appeal to his style of prose in a London winter. His reinterpretation of mid 20th century history is also powerfully seductive, having weaved a complex universe with characters touching on the heart of power throughout. In this light he can be compared to other chroniclers of the 20th century such as Simon Raven and Anthony Powell.

I had initially wanted to reread his non-Troy book, "Sweet Sunday", which isn't London at all, and one coming on top of what initially had been the Troy trilogy felt dramatically different. In the intervening years however, Lawton's style of writing has changed, and I've got a lot more used to this new way of writing, which made me wonder if I'd now discover additional layers to the almost forgotten "Sweet Sunday".

It a humbling confession, but my fiction shelves aren't organised at all. There's a big pile under the bedside table, there are a few interspersed among more serious tomes in the study, and there's a big bookshelf in the guest room, where I should have a system, but don't, and all that's really clear is that it's overfull. As a result of this filing chaos, on Sunday evening, when casting around trying to lay my hands on "Sweet Sunday" it was nowhere to be seen. So, I thought, why not slake my Lawton thirst with something else, and "Second Violin" readily came to hand.

As such this isn't really much of a review, much more a case of some musing on Lawton and his core creation, Fred Troy. It's not intended to be definitive, and at some stage someone should write something really impressive in terms of literary criticism about them, but now is not the time for me to do so. Bearing these comments in mind I must reiterate my comments about caveat emptor. Not being a review means there may be spoiler contained – I think Lawton's long since moved beyond a typical suspense novel, but if you want to read him, in particular with his earlier works, as such, maybe you should click the back button now and come back when you've read them. I mean this, little is worse than having the pleasure of speculation stolen away, and I'd hate to diminish your enjoyment of Lawton's work.

This is a crime novel – murders happen, police feature, and Troy is central, but like most of the later Lawtons, the crime isn't at the heart of it. It's much more a novel about time and place and atmosphere, and as such it really works. For those looking for a pacey murder mystery, this is not the book for you, indeed almost 100 pages in and you'll still be searching for the crime or murder that a typical police procedural would concern itself with.

This shift in writing style is something Lawton is clearly aware of, and I particularly liked his self-deprecating denunciation of the 'whodunnit', as Troy says to his father

"Who-dunnits are the lowest form of fiction. Somewhere between whelks and snails." (p.365).

The absence in the majority of the story of much in the way of a common or garden English murder may frustrate one who is explicitly looking for 'traditional' crime fiction. This is a shame and, I think, misses the point. Here crime is not about the usual petty jealousies that lead to death, but about the crime of the century and the attempted extermination of an entire race by Nazi Germany. Contained within this there is also the still open case of the murder of God by rationality and science. This is still a contested issue, as the likes of Richard Dawkins readily shows, but in telling how the early phase of the holocaust stripped away faith while juxtaposing accounts of how numbers were starting to worry at the secret of the universe. As such it buys into the same territory occupied by Ian Rankin's really rather good and often forgotten BBC drama, "Reichenbach Falls", where God is seen as 'dying' sometime during the mid 1800s.

Troy remains a fascinating character. Most notably we see his easy womanising, as he juggles femme fatale Zette Borg and Kitty Stilton (and as such explaining their somewhat sparky relationship in "Riptide"). Yet for all the selfishness, of him clearly stating that he wants a relationship with both women, there's no glamourising of it as a lifestyle. The finality of his interaction with Borg, simply explained as "he never saw her again" is full of pathos, and can't really be called a happy ending.

Most significantly for the series, in the conclusion "Second Violin" talks of Troy in 1975, which comes as a relief. It offers the fact that Troy found life after the bleakness of 1963 and the ambiguous ending of "A Little White Death".

There is a conspicuous absence of closure, the murderer goes unidentified, his motive unexplained, yet this is still an enormously enjoyable book. If you want to get to grips with Lawton and Troy, despite this being the first chronologically of the books, in no circumstances should you start here - it won't make any sense – instead read Lawton like you would Raven's "Alms for Oblivion", jumping around time with pieces of narrative being filled in almost entirely non-sequentially. It doesn't work for everyone, and it may frustrate, but it's very British, and when it works, it's very good.


Friday, 11 December 2009

“The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest”, Po Bronson

Written in 1997 Po Bronson's second novel has, unusually for a tech novel, stood the test of time remarkably well, feeling as fresh now as it did in the heady period before reality crashed in and ruined the party. A lot of this is down to the fact that Bronson focuses on the human aspects of starting a business and doesn't allow the wonders of the technology to obscure the story.

Most of all however "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" is a highly prescient novel. Positing a world where computer hardware becomes considerably less significant and cheaper, where software and content no longer comes on disc but is delivered over the web, and ultimately where open source development can legitimately worry major manufacturers. Fast forward to 2009, where the majority of PCs are netbooks, where processor speed (does anyone know what the clock speed of their machine is?) is considerably less important than broadband connection speed, and where open source software such as Firefox can capture a major market share, and it becomes clear what Bronson was talking about all those years ago.

There are some anachronisms in here, as well as some points that firmly anchor it in the late '90s. By 1997 the Fiat X1/9 would have been very long in the tooth (if still a rather cool car), the clothing the characters wear is indescribably awful, and it still causes a wry nod of the head when the reader is reminded that in the late twentieth century Apple was a basket case of a company, suffering a lingering death before Jobs' return, the iMac, and iPod all served to reinvent it as, for some, the acme of cool.

Despite all this, there is a real tech story in the subtext. The quest to develop the next big chip in the late 1990s led to Intel's Pentium Pro, which despite a lot of brave words from Intel, was regarded as being slower than the previous '586' Pentium chips in running Windows application – even if this stutter in processor development has been long forgotten. Bronson skilfully picks up this somewhat geeky story and uses it as an underpinning the politics and business realities behind his fictional La Honda research institute.

"The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" could very easily have been a dry niche story, loosely fictionalising events of interest to technophiles and MBA students, but what transforms it is the dry understated humour that suffuses the text. The interplay between the generally very likable characters rings true to life and at times some of the casual vignettes are laugh out loud funny.

Undoubtedly running a start up technology company is hard work, but if you have to go through it, you could do a lot worse than be guided by Po Bronson fictionalised account, in fact, I'd go so far as to say it should be required reading.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

“The Wrecker”, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

In reading terms, I owe a lot to Clive Cussler. Aged 13, a gift of his “Deep Six” from an indulgent aunt transformed my reading world from the children’s section of Aberdeen library to one where more ‘grown up’ adventures took place. The conversion was rapid, and like many new to a faith, my dedication to thriller writing became utterly zealous, seeking out Cussler, then Craig Thomas, and a succession of others. This was fed on my return to Dublin by the seeming endless selection offered by Dalkey’s Exchange bookshop – an alladin’s cave of cheap paperbacks which, I am happy to say, seems still to be in existence.

Cussler remained a favourite. Dirk Pitt was a hero worthy of the title, and the plots, merging pseudo history with genuinely exciting set pieces, never disappointed. Amidst this sea of ‘literature’, Justin Scott came on the scene. His “The Man who Loved the Normandie” and “A Pride of Kings” were memorable adventures that still would warrant a read today. Unlike Cussler, Scott seemed to vanish from the scene, lamented somewhat, because there really was something engaging about his writing.

Since those heady reading days in the 1980s, Cussler has faded a bit. I still buy at least some of his books and enjoy them, but I see now that they’re not literature, and in expanding beyond the Dirk Pitt universe, into an array of co-written franchises, a certain amount of the real appeal to his output has gone. The first of the Isaac Bell books, 2007’s “The Chase” was one of the better offshoots, the early 20th century setting, the suitably outlandish plot, and the backdrop of the San Francisco earthquake all served to work well together, and made for a good, in undemanding read.

Coming across the second of the Isaac Bell books, and discovering its co-author has thus been a genuinely pleasurable experience. “The Wrecker” still isn’t high literature, in fact it’s very silly, but that’s not the point. It’s an atmospheric adventure with a rich setting (predominantly the railroads of the American West) and a likeable cast of characters.

Despite the fact that there's a lot of predictability to the book, and that the identity of the wrecker is revealed comparatively early in the plot, which removes a degree of tension from the business, there's a nice cleverness to the novel. Most enjoyably there's a nod towards Justin Scott's own novels, with a reference to Lt Ash giving Bell a refresher lesson in fencing – a pleasing nod towards “A Pride of Kings” and one which I hope leads to greater convergence between the Van Dorn and Scott's Ash universe.

“The Wrecker” is much akin to its predecessor, “The Chase”, in that it's an entertaining romp that ultimately isn't about to change your world, but you know what? The world's still a better place with books like this in it. “The Wrecker” brought me back to the time when I loved Cussler's books, and that can't be wrong.

More please.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Armistice Day

11 November is a significant day in the UK, having moved beyond being just an anniversary of then end of the Great War, to being a point when everyone can engage in quiet, dignified reflection about the sacrifice of others for what is felt to be the greater good.

In a week when "The Sun" has seen fit to appropriate loss to make petty low political points it would be all too easy to jump on a soapbox, try and explain why "The Sun" is wrong, why Tom Newton Dunn isn't going to win either any friends or journalistic prizes with his account of the Jamie Janes issue, and why, for all its flaws, the approach of Gordon Brown and UK government is, in many ways, defensible.

Instead of doing that, it's more a day for speaking softly, and as such we can learn a lot from Australia and the poignant way they get the message across in the link below.

As they say, it doesn't matter who you are, or what you drink, but today's a day to raise a glass to those who are no longer here.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

“The Complaints”, Ian Rankin

How fast the departed fade from view. For so many years Rankin and Rebus were synonymous, almost impossible to imagine one without the other, and even Rankin's other works, such as "Watchmen", were comprehensively outshone by the cases of his signature detective. Since Rebus exited stage left with 2007's "Exit Music" it is interesting the level to which he has faded from consciousness. While the careful reader could spot a passing side reference to him in "Doors Open", "The Complaints", Rankin's first 'proper' book in the post Rebus era, has wiped him completely from the scene.

Ably stepping into the shoes of lead protagonist, Inspector (as he says, we lose the 'detective' in PSU) Malcolm Fox is a very different character to Rebus, both in temperament and background, but it is testament to Rankin's ability, that very quickly the reader identifies with him, cares about him, and gives not a thought to the absence of Rebus. Interestingly, the initial impression of him is as a healthy almost ascetic figure, perhaps encouraged by him being a reformed alcoholic, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Fox is overweight, struggling to sit comfortably in Breck's Mazda RX-8, and unfit, being tested by running up stairs in Edinburgh's Waverly station. Strangely this comes as a surprise, and it significantly complicated building up a picture of Fox in my mind.

One area where Rankin's writing has sometimes not quite sat write is when he tries to immerse himself in 'cyberspace'. Writing about online computer games it doesn't seem to fit properly with him. It didn't come across convincingly in "The Falls" and somehow, even although there's more veracity and it's more plausible, it doesn't quite sit right with "Quidnunc" in "The Complaints". I appreciate there may well be copyright issues, and given that Breck, the player of "Quidnunc", is introduced as a suspected user of child pornography one can accept that the makers of "World of Warcraft" or similar may have had reservations, but somehow I can't help feeling that Rankin could have written around this problem in a slightly more effective way.

If the novel does have a real fault, it is that the ending somehow feels too pat. There is an absence of loose ends, which some might see as a good thing in terms of textbook crime writing, but it lacks the ambiguity that keeps a book in your mind long after the final page is read, and almost feels like an "and they all lived happily ever after", which I don't think is what people are looking for from Ian Rankin.

This isn't a significant criticism really, more a mild disappointment. Nothing can detract from Rankin's sheer ability to quickly weave a plot, populate it with intriguing characters, and immerse the reader in time and space. Edinburgh in February 2009 feels right, in just the same way the cops and criminals both appear real; with this in mind Rankin can be forgiven for maybe only getting the narrative execution 90 per cent right.

Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest”, Stieg Larsson

Since bringing it home from the bookstore a couple of days before its official release it took quite a lot of restraint to not start reading "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" immediately. It's testament to the phenomenon that Stieg Larsson has become and the power of his writing that this is a consideration at all - countless other authors are destined to languish for far too long on the bookshelf, waiting attention, for me this was never likely to be the case with this, the final Larsson book.

Let's get the negatives out of the way to start with. I had thought about doing a complete run through of the trilogy, revisiting the first two works before launching into "Hornets' Nest", and on reflection I should have done. In no way is this a standalone book, indeed without a detailed awareness of what happened in "The Girl Who Played with Fire" it probably makes no sense whatsoever. Compounding this, the way the reader is flung into the events immediately following the end of previous book jars, and it takes the first hundred or so pages to get your bearings and reset yourself in Larsson's universe. The effect of this is initially disconcerting, and I found myself wondering if somehow this might end up as a disappointment. Perseverance is however rewarded, and ultimately this is revealed as every bit as engrossing a tale as his previous works.

Larsson has long challenged easy categorisation, and this is much more a political thriller than crime novel. At its heart is the existence of "The Section", a counterespionage element of Swedish intelligence who, more than most, have been captured by the wilderness of mirrors making up the intelligence community. The namechecking of the now infamous CIA spycatcher, James Jesus Angleton shows how they have come to see secrecy as an end in itself that they immerse themselves in and subvert ordinary legality to what is seen as being of pre-eminent importance. Even these spies however carry with them a sense of world weariness and an awareness that society has passed them by. As reluctant Section Chief Wadensjoo opines:

"There's a new realpolitik in Europe since the Soviet Union collapsed. Our work is less and less about identifying spies. It's about terrorism, and evaluating the political suitability of individuals in sensitive positions." (p.105)

The Section may be at the heart of the crimes perpetrated in the novel, and in their moral relativism are absolutely the opposite to everything the idealistic crusading journalists on Millennium stand for, but somehow one can't help thinking that they too are victims, this time of circumstances largely of their own making. Their ultimate downfall, while satisfying, pales alongside the much more personal story acted out by Lisbeth Salander.

The character of Salander here is more accessible. Over the course of the novel she is much less the Nikita / Petra Reuter like machine, and much more the vulnerable character who has to fall back on her wits and what she's best at to survive. This is a much more satisfying and real existence, and perhaps parallels the psychological journey portrayed in the book, transforming her from the mentally unstable ward of the Swedish state to more fully fledged citizen.

Of the other key characters, they all enjoy the sort of complex and very Swedish relationships that have made Larsson's universe so interesting to read. They're all flawed, but engagingly so, from Blomkvist's endless romantic entanglements to Berger's inability to bring a traditional newsroom to heel, they all build a set of subplots rich in detail and fascinating to read.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a sprawling ambitious narrative that gives the lie to the notion, peddled to death by Dan Brown, that to be a fast paced novel it has to take place over 24 hours acted out by characters who never sleep. Here the story takes place over 8 months from April to December, with a rhythm that ebbs and flows in intensity towards the dramatic courtroom denouement, and throughout shows characters that throughout are thoroughly human in their frailties. In contrast to the somewhat disorienting opening, the signature Larsson dramatic coda brings with it a welcome sense of closure, which makes the narrative ultimately work.

Chatting to the bookstore owner while buying this, we concluded that there were mixed feelings about it coming out. Yes it's enormously looked forward to, but there's a tinge of regret, because we know it's the last of these books that we will read. Without wishing to delve into mawkish sentimentality there is a sadness to reading the last pages, because we will never get to find out what Larsson had mapped out for the rest of his 10 volume series.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a brilliant book; I still can't quite believe it's all over.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Profitable Direct Marketing and Blogging in the Big Time

Having been posting for just shy of a year now it's almost pleasing to have managed to get my idle thoughts on books noticed by the "make me a millionaire from doing virtually nothing on the internet" brigade.

The receipt of the following clearly indicates I've hit the big time...

Hey Blogger - My name is David,

I have been searching the Internet for blogs that fit our criteria. Yours does. I wanted to invite you to become a paid blogger at Blog Distributor. (Please understand that I do not send this invitation to every blogger I come across.)

Roughly 25% of bloggers are now being paid to write postings on their blogs, that are linked to websites. The value here is that, when a blog posting is linked to a website, that website will get higher rankings in the search engines, such as Google and Yahoo. You can write anything you think about the website, positive or negative.

Here is a link that describes how it all works in a little more detail:


Our system is set up so that bloggers can make more money with us than with any other blog-for-pay firm. In short, we are the middle man between you and the advertiser. We match the correct blogs with the correct advertisers, who pay us to do so. And then we pay you, the blogger on behalf of the advertiser. You only take the advertisements that you want and are comfortable with. In no way does this alter the owersship of your blog. You simply get paid to write postings on your blog that you choose to write. You do what you want, when you want. You decide what content to accept or decline.

To submit your blog, go to Redacted

If you have any questions, do visit the FAQ's area of the site: Redacted

If you have more than one blog, you are more than welcome to sign those up as well. If you have any other questions, please contact me at: Redacted. I know some people might be worried, getting some random e-mail, so please do write me if you have any questions or concerns. Also do a search for us on Yahoo or Google and look for reviews.

P.S. - I should note that we take great concern in the blogs that we allow into the system, so it's not possible for a full evaluation of the blog and/or its content until it reaches our categorizers.



I can chuckle about this happily - blogging isn't what pays my bills, it's something I do out of interest, and more selfishly, to try and keep track of what I've read (although this hasn't worked as well as it should have!) but it is a mildly depressing insight into what the WWW has become. Last year in Beijing Tim Berners-Lee made the point that there are now more static pages on the web than there are neurons in the human brain - flipping this on its head, if the web is a reflection of our brains, most of us aren't going to be appearing on "In Our Time" with Melvyn Bragg anytime soon.

I was going to deconstruct what "David" had written to me, with handy reference to my admittedly not particularly well thumbed copy of Jim Kobs' "Profitable Direct Marketing", and thus conforming to my attempt to keep everything on here solidly book related, but sadly the light in the study's gone out, and it's far too early in the morning to go hunting for fuse wire. Suffice to say, in contrast to the nice phone call from Lexus yesterday, it's not really doing anything to persuade me.

Normal book related service will be resumed in due course - perhaps connected to managing to lay my hands on some fresh coffee beans.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

“Wasp-Waisted”, David Barrie

Flippantly while refering to "Wasp-Waisted" I spoke of it being hard to resist, as it was a book simultaneously about murder and pants, however this is to do it a considerable disservice. Scottish author David Barrie has drawn on his experience of living in Paris to pull off that most accomplished of feats, an authentic feeling roman policier penned by someone other than a Frenchman.

"Wasp-Waisted" provides a fusion of murder and couture amidst an achingly fashionable Parisian setting. A series of murders connected by the extremely upmarket lingerie the victims are clad in and artistic photographs of their bodies supply all the raw materials needed for a crime novel suffused with Gallic charm and insouciance. The police are believably natural, Paris fashionistas and artists are chic and interesting in a Julie Delpy sort of way, and the murders richly depicted in a plot that steadfastly resists being predictable.

Franck Guerin is as engaging a central character as one could wish for. A former spook with DST, recovering from a controversial operation in Corsica, he neatly ticks many of the crime fiction 'must haves' as a loner, a man of action, and ill at ease with the more mundane aspects of police work. On the contrast between the resources available to the secret world (and the liberties taken with them) and the due process demanded by police work, he muses that "[p]laying by the rules might be good for one's conscience, but it could prove wearing on the nerves."

Personally Guerin's literate character is ambiguous in his relationships. Throughout the book he displays affection for a multitude of female characters, from an appreciation of model Sonia Delamazure's beautiful shoulders, the sparky relationships with investment banker Sylvie Thomas, and his frank interest in art professor Anne Subrini. Most striking is the lesson in lingerie supplied to him by magazine publisher Maryam Sehati. Throughout Barrie leaves the detail of Guerin's relationships almost completely unsaid, which all serves to add to the reader's interest in him.

As a novel it benefits from a bit of reflection, and the fact that you are thrown into Guerin's life very much at the deep end jars, but by Timothy this is good. It's the sort of book that left on your desk after a lunchtime indulgence calls out to you, and you feel obliged to stifle its siren song in a briefcase or drawer (not at all connected to the titillating pseudo erotic novel cover at all) and hanker to revisit it. As crime fiction it's different, engaging, well written, and deserving of all the attention it can possibly get.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Stieg Larsson and Self Restraint

My relationship with Stieg Larsson has been one of ever deepening engagement. I came late to "Dragon Tattoo", and loved it. "Played with Fire" was bought in hardback soon after release and in many ways it was even better. Thus "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" qualified for one of the most anticipated books of the year. Long on order when I got the phone call on Tuesday evening telling me that my marvellous local bookshop had it in stock it was a prompt to leave work promptly and eagerly collect it. The book store owner's comment, that this was the book everyone's been waiting for, is about as true a comment as one could imagine.

Walking back to the car I ran through some existential dilemmas in my mind. Do I take the sensible approach, using this as an opportunity to revisit the previous books, making sure the context was set in my mind, and long belatedly write down the thoughts I've had on "Girl Who Played with Fire"? There's also the issue that I'm in the middle of a book I'm really genuinely enjoying (David Barrie's "Wasp-Waisted"), lent to me by a friend keen to hear my opinion, and both they and the author deserve not be gazumped by a Swedish best-seller.

Or do I give in to temptation, relishing this as one of the comparatively few times you really want to get a book on day of release? It's complicated by the self knowledge that knows that this is likely to be the sort of book that will steal sleep, tempt me to pull a sickie on Thursday, and an awareness that the coming long weekend is going to be completely taken up with family and not hallmarked by conspicuous amounts of peace and quiet. It's the sort of time that makes you yearn for a long flight (like last year when Ian Rankin's "Doors Open" kept me company on the run out to Hong Kong) or an anonymous European hotel room.

Pragmatically Stieg Larsson's final flowering is going to have to wait...

Monday, 28 September 2009

“The Kingdom of Light”, Giulio Leoni

Set in 14th century Florence “The Kingdom of Light” presents the poet Dante Alighieri as a clerical investigator probing the mysterious appearance of a ship aground in the Arno, its crew all dead, with the sole clue being a strange broken machine.

From this beginning a complex story involving the Guelf and Ghibbeline conflict that dominated much of medieval Italian history, the clash between secular and religious power, and the legacy of the Emperor, Frederick II, unfolds, all set against the rich background of Florence in the middle ages. Leoni appropriates an intriguing set of historical characters to populate his story, Dante being joined by Cecco Angiolieri and Guido Bigarelli, embellished by artistic licence, but adding genuine colour to the story.

Leoni is also not above the occasional historical joke allowing the reader, with the benefit of wider hindsight, the periodic wry smile. Perhaps best of these is the throwaway comment by the philosopher Arrigo, when Dante fells a urinating member of a rival family with a well thrown stone, that Florence should consider erecting a statue of David.

The fusion of magic and reality in medieval Europe is vividly captured, with 'miracles' such as the Virgin of Antioch presented and the genuine puzzlement of intellectuals such as Dante when faced with what they feel should be impossible but cannot rationally explain is fascinating. As the story progresses, and 20th century physics merges with the scientific exploration inspired by Frederick II the background to the murder story grows more engaging and the broadening of the medieval mind becomes the real interest, almost dwarfing the central crime story.

In linking to Frederick II Leoni has access to one of the more intriguing and mysterious aspects of medieval history. As a ruler fascinated by scientific exploration that bordered on heresy, with a turbulent relationship with the Papacy, and through his Sicilian background, a ready openness to both Eastern and Western cultures, he provides a wealth of background material to work with. To those familiar with the history of the period the references to octagonal structures will bring to mind the strangely spectacular Castel Del Monte in Puglia, and it will be no surprise when this building does indeed come to play a role in the story.

The Frederick II story does however present a challenge for Leoni. The life of Stupor Mundi and the tragic tale of his successor, Conradin, told to gripping and moving effect by Steven Runciman in “The Sicilian Vespers”, is a considerable act to follow in fiction and it is to Leoni's real credit that he has managed to take this raw material and shape it into an utterly absorbing novel. It's a more vivid and lavish world than that populated by other medieval crime writers such as Michael Jecks or Bernard Knight, and in its Italian setting cannot fail to be likened to “The Name of the Rose” - to those that like their crime fiction in a distant historical setting, it should be on their must read list.

Monday, 21 September 2009

“The Dead of Winter”, Rennie Airth

Sometimes you come across a book that try as you might defies description beyond a somewhat bland "quite good". Rennie Airth's latest work was eagerly anticipated. His previous two John Madden mysteries were highly effective historic crime novels, combining a developed sense of tension with the bucolic idyll of Britain shortly after the Great War.

It's been some time since John Madden's previous outing, in 2005's "A Blood Dimmed Tide", and this, the final book in the trilogy sees time passing in Airth's universe too, with much of the book set in London during the winter of 1944. This inevitably invites comparisons with John Lawton's magisterial "Black Out", and sadly it doesn't quite live up.

"The Dead of Winter" suffers from what seems like a very slow start - taking a while before you're really gripped and multiple strands of the story being introduced without really making reader particularly care about the characters or the crime. This may be a reflection of John Madden's relatively low profile in the initial parts of the novel. His character is a rich and absorbing creation, and it's something of a shame that more isn't made of him. Admittedly this is rectified later in the work, but the slow start may make the reading experience more of an exercise in perseverance than it should be. This is compounded by dialogue which at times feels stilted and a feeling that Airth is trying too hard to set the wartime scene of rationing and bomb damage.

In parts two and three, there is a steady increase in pace and tension with a perceptible notion of building menace towards the inevitable dramatic denouement in the snow. The final 200 pages go a long way towards redeeming the book's earlier shortcomings. There is an ominous feel to it, and you feel that Airth is returning to where he really has form, threatening horrific violence amidst a peaceful countryside and finally making the book a lot harder to put down.

On reflection this is a troubled book that isn't quite as good as it should be. The core problem is the question as to whether the criminal is really believable? Layers of complexity are piled on, yet strangely it's unsatisfying, and slowly, steadily elements of credibility are easily unpicked in the readers' mind, ultimately leaving you somewhat flat. This means you're relying a lot on Airth's ability to portray the distant world of 1940s England, and here there's not quite enough.

The pace towards the conclusion saves "The Dead of Winter", but to be seen as a really good book this should have started much earlier. Sadly, while "quite good", it's not really a patch on the previous two books and not quite the conclusion to the Madden trilogy hoped for.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

“Rules of Vengeance”, Christopher Reich

Over the past 10 years or so Christopher Reich has made the progression from an author of somewhat erudite fiction (such as “Numbered Account” or “The Runner”) to the rather more populist and fantastic terrain of “The Patriot's Club”. As a frequent reader of his work I was surprised that I managed to miss the release of “Rules of Deception”, the first of the Jonathan Ransom books, and a chance purchase in Gatwick's WH Smith of “Rules of Vengeance” was all that alerted me to the existence of the predecessor and the “Rules” series.

“Rules of Vengeance” stands on its own and not having read its predecessor did not overly hurt, however there are sufficient references back to the previous book that one suspects a lot of the tension would be stripped out of it through knowledge of what takes place in book 2.

Undeniably fast paced and engaging “Rules of Vengeance” is a fine example of the chase thriller genre, taking its nod from classics such as “The 39 Steps” or “North by Northwest” with elements such as mistaken identity and a mysterious dynamic femme fatale. The way it overlays layer upon layer of action keeps up the relentless velocity of the story, and this in many ways serves to paper over the cracks that undeniably exist in the plot. The conspiracy at the heart of the novel is perhaps a touch over complex and stretches credibility when really thought about.

What Reich has in mind for core protagonist Ransom is somewhat enigmatic. Is he a subtle pawn of Connor, ensuring the core plot is foiled – but only just – to further high espionage aims? If so then why is so much left to chance and the whim of some of Connor's disillusioned agents? In terms of how the plot unfolds some of the core events, such as the opening murder of Robert Russell, ultimately pose questions as to why they had to take place in furthering the central story – or whether they were simply well executed set pieces that were inserted to keep the attention of the reader.

The character of Emma – another superhero like female character in the vein of Nikita, Stephanie Patrick, or Lisbeth Salander is also hard to completely unpick. Multiple levels of complexity in her background and motivations are revealed which causes the reader's sympathy towards her to swing radically over the course of the book, and ultimately one is left wondering how such a creation came to pass.

Interestingly, a degree of kudos must go to British political consultancy Oxford Analytica for managing to get quite such a significant plug in the course of the book. While not mentioned in the credits, as a real-world organisation this must constitute a highly successful piece of product placement.

As an erudite spy thriller there are simply too many holes in “Rules of Vengeance” for it to be truly satisfactory. It does however function superbly as a fast moving thriller. One cannot help however thinking that a touch more effort put into polishing the manuscript and ensuring loose ends were tied up and that a clearer narrative pathway to the highly surprising conclusion were provided. This aside, it's still a competent work that happily fulfils the needs of a relatively undemanding holiday read.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

“Halfhead”, Stuart MacBride

Over the last few years Stuart MacBride has become one of the authors whose output is anxiously awaited and enthusiastically read, having moved from the pool of writers who I'll happily pick up in the library or as an airport paperback to one whose hardbacks grace the shelves soon after release. As such it was a particular pleasure when Harper Collins Voyager saw fit to send me a copy of “Halfhead” in advance of release, and equally gratifying to discover that MacBride reveals himself to be so much more than a Logan McRae one trick Aberdonian pony.

Highlighting the problem posed by penning a largely successful series set in a particular milieux the complete departure from the contemporary Aberdeen of his previous work, “Halfhead” initially surprises the reader with its tone and setting. As such it will almost certainly irritate a number of hitherto loyal readers by being so fundamentally different to what has come before.

MacBride has often made the point of how if one writes about a murder in the middle ages this is seen as historical crime fiction, write about the present day, and it's crime fiction, yet set crime in the future and all of a sudden it's science fiction. I can see his point, science fiction carries with it a label that restricts its audience and has a lot of geek related intellectual baggage coming along with it. All this notwithstanding, despite “Halfhead” at heart being a remix of the police procedural versus serial killer theme the setting, role of technology, and manner in which society works all serve to justify labelling it as, at the very least, futuristic fiction.

Leaving labels aside “Halfhead” works very well at painting a picture of Scotland somewhere in the future. If you've wondered what Glasgow would be like cast by Philip K Dick (think Bladerunner or Total Recall) where the police are armed by someone who's spent lots of time playing Resistance Fall of Man on their PlayStation then “Halfhead” will fit the bill perfectly. As “future-crime” lots has changed, and initially there's the impression that all that's the same is the name, but as the novel progresses points of familiarity emerge and outside the dystopian towers of Sherman House and Monstrosity Square a more identifiable Glasgow emerges.

The process of 'Halfheading' – removing the lower jaw and lobotomising criminals – is designed to provide a vivid lesson that crime doesn't pay, but the point is also made that really the message is that getting caught doesn't pay. Despite the all pervasiveness of the surveillance society, the banishment of the disenfranchised to sprawling out of town developments, and obviously the draconian punishments available to the state, crime still takes place, and as Will Hunter discovers, walking through Kelvingrove Park at night is not an entirely safe or sensible choice.

Make no mistake, this is a different MacBride to what we've seen before. Even leaving aside the setting and sci-fi nature there is a lot less humour than is to be found with Logan McRae, and in its darkest moments extraordinarily deep depths are plumbed – with one of the most appalling pieces of sexual violence being just one of the side crimes perpetrated in the course of the book. Throughout however it's a compelling read and shows why the manuscript got MacBride his publishing deal. It's easy to separate it from his Aberdeen works and he's put in place an intriguing universe that one hopes will be revisited in future. In short, very good.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Kids are Alright

Summers are generally accepted to be about recharging batteries, spending time on things more pleasurable than daily toil, and building up a head of steam for a new school year - or - for those of long departed from the groves of academe, the ever tense run in to year-end. I chose to spend a week on the northern coast of Mallorca (of which more later) in an attempt to get a final fix of balmy idleness before September really took hold, but strangely it was on the flight back that the most positive experience of the whole time took place.

The young studenty couple in front of me on the British Airways 737 didn't do anything particularly extraordinary. They watched a bit of a film on his slightly oversize Acer laptop then opened up a Word 2003 document on "Is there such a thing a just war?". Over summer work for a pair of undergraduates? A Masters thesis soon to be submitted? General interest in just war theory? Who knows, and really who cares? It just makes such a refreshing change from what you often see, particularly when a holiday island such as Mallorca is involved.

Summer's ending and new academic years are beginning and people are still capable of creative thought. Holidays should be life affirming but this sight more than anything else fills me with hope and enthusiasm for getting on with things.

I don't know who the people in 12 E and F on BA2709 from Palma to Gatwick on Sunday night were, nor if they're even remotely likely to read this, but they deserve my thanks.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

“Blood Money”, Tom Bradby

Journalist and Royal Correspondent Tom Bradby has been slowly but surely carving out a niche for himself with a loosely connected series of historical crime thrillers ranging in scope from revolutionary Russia to World War II Cairo. "Blood Money", topically in today's environment, sets a police corruption and sexual serial killer story against the background of 1929 New York and the Wall Street Crash. Covering the decisive few days that saw the end of the 1920s boom and the run up to the New York mayoral elections of 1929, it sees honest detective Joe Quinn seeking to unpick a series of murders and disappearances linked to his family and which exist in the context of a deeply corrupt city. As a story it is absorbing and immersive, the core police procedural being overlayed with historical detail and the complex family relationships of the Quinn family.

"Blood Money" exists in the same universe Bradby has created for his other historical crime novels, and thus there is a level of interconnection that slightly frustrates. The gap between publishing the books meant that for me, the details of characters in other books were a touch hazy, which led to undue effort early on trying to plot the relations between characters in this novel and those in his others. This serves to lessen the force that underpins the start to "Blood Money", which otherwise is powerful and sets the frenetic noirish pace that carries throughout the novel. Ultimately however you realise that this is entirely a standalone work, and the linkages really don't matter in the wider scheme of things, which allows you to concentrate on the really rather good central story. This raises the question as to whether somehow Bradby would be better off creating entirely new characters with no real relations to the other books each time?

For all the depth of historical detail, Bradby is deliberately unspecific about precise dates. This allows you, with a vague grasp of what happened in the Wall Street Crash, to start to locate events and understand where in the climacteric period of late October 1929 the story takes place. The time period covered ends as rumours abound that the collapsing market has been stemmed, appearing to offer closure in a wider sense than just the central crime story, however broader historical events, such as the outcome of La Guardia's mayoral campaign, are left unanswered, relying on history to relate what ultimately happened . This is an oft recurring theme with Bradby, and it's effective. Just as "The God of Chaos" finishes just before the seismic battle of El Alamein, the reader is left understanding how much more of a cataclysm awaits the central characters they have grown to identify with, reinforcing the picture of ordinary people's overwhelming dramas being carried away by the great sweep of history.

While Bradby has developed an unmistakable style of writing, one of his key strengths is to avoid producing boilerplate fiction. This is achieved partially through his mastery of different historical settings, all of which have an air of authenticity (and his depiction here of New York is no different), but there is sufficient diversity in detail in the way his superficially similar plots are delivered. While there is betrayal in "Blood Money", it differs in scale and nature from that found in his other works, similarly the corruption of characters' souls takes a subtly different form to that which we've uncovered in the past. This combination of sticking to what he's genuinely very good at, and simultaneously tweaking the formula keeps his writing fresh and makes for a reading experience that's genuinely enjoyable

Thursday, 20 August 2009

“Powersat”, Ben Bova

Ben Bova's “Powersat” is an intriguing neither fish nor fowl book. Classified by Bromley libraries as Science Fiction, probably legitimately given the author's background, at heart it is a near future techno-thriller centred on a private enterprise attempt to harness solar energy. Throughout there is the impression that this is a case of a Sci Fi author trying to write a post 9/11 terrorism related thriller – and this reveals a number of cracks. Bova is clearly accomplished in writing the science fiction aspects, the overarching technological vision, the clever cues showing how the present could morph into the future, and the grandeur of harnessing space all work well. He is however less convincing writing about the more earthly issues of terrorism, where somehow it doesn't quite work.

Core character Dan Randolph is a curiosity. As a successful entrepreneur, engineer, and obsessive amontillado enthusiast, has some slightly curious tastes – for such an urbane bon viveur is it really credible that he has never heard of Armagnac? In his personal life he is annoyingly petulant in a teenage like manner with his lovestruck obsessing about his now-US Senator ex. Professionally however he has an air of credibility and his vision has an appealing clarity to it.

The writing does at times frustrate stylistically – early on in the novel I was swearing if Julian Scheer's “rain makes applesauce” phrase was used once more I'd become ill and violent, and the delivery of this phrase is pretty unrelenting. Equally Randolphs's reference everything slightly wrong, from a late starting FBI agent to the IRS to terrorists meddling with his satellite is “double damned”. I'm as much of a swearing enthusiast as the next man, but in such things variety really is the spice of life. In a similar vein some plot lines, such as the environmental protests against Randolph's power generation satellite are left somewhat hanging, and a number of characters, including the appealing FAA investigator, Dr Passeau, are not satisfactorily closed out.

All this notwithstanding as a thriller it works as it should – it preserves tension throughout and genuinely keeps you wondering about how it will resolve itself. The fact that the plot isn't suffused with saccharine happy ever after fates for all concerned reinforces the underlying impact of the book. It moves at an unremitting pace, from the graphic disintegration of a spaceplane and the death of its test pilot in the opening pages to the high drama of the denouement it's the sort of book that's an ideal easy reading companion.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

“Murder at Deviation Junction”, Andrew Martin

There was a pleasing circularity to reading Andrew Martin's “Murder at Deviation Junction” last week. Back in 2006 when proximity to Beckenham library prompted me to start using public libraries the first book I borrowed was Edward Marston's “Railway Detective”. This first exposure to 19th century rail based crime fiction wasn't all that auspicious, while the story was reasonably absorbing and the book happily finished, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was all a bit silly and far fetched – and not in a good way.

It is thus a particular delight that Andrew Martin's treatment of crime and the railways is much more fulfilling. Rob Kitchen, in his very good “View from the Blue House” blog, has highlighted the importance of location in crime fiction, and “Murder at Deviation Junction” undoubtedly recognises this. One of the keys to this is the way in which the author immerses the reader in the industrial power house that was the North East of Edwardian England. The opening scenes amongst the blast furnaces of Middlesbrough in the snow set the tone, summed up neatly by Harry Stringer, the three year old son of lead character, Jim Stringer, when he comments that “Everything's on fire, Dad”, when looking out over the night skyline outside Redcar. Fittingly for the long 19th century, the railways lie at the heart of this cauldron and their description too is evocative, with scenes such as the 'Gateshead Infant' (a Class V Atlantic, fittingly now in 2009 being resurrected by the Great Northern Steam Company) crossing the Ouse capturing the scale of the railways in the period.

Jim Stringer is a delight as a character. In many way's he's the antithesis to the eminently capable Edwardian detective often presented to us; a failed train driver, flailing with police work, and somewhat henpecked by his bluestocking wife, he nonetheless is thoroughly appealing. His commitment to tracking down the secret behind the Whitby-Middlesborough Travelling Club and the murder of photographer Paul Peters is driven not so much by an earnest quest for truth as a means to resuscitate his police career. As such, for all he is at times a touch crude and rough around the edges, it's impossible not to warm to him, and see him largely come good in the end.

The rich character of Stringer is just one reflection of the keen way in which Martin observes the human condition and brings his story to life. Characters comment on the mundane, such as the almost plaintive opinion on spectacles, that “ it's not so much being able to see that I miss as taking them of to rub on my sleeve” the somewhat hapless reporter, Steve Bowman expresses, and this all serves to deepen our appreciation for the world depicted for us.

It is somewhat disappointing that the denouement is a touch drawn out and doesn't really hang together. This reflects some of the greater shortcomings to the plot. Ultimately it doesn't quite live up to the rich universe, the crime eventually exposed seeming almost disappointingly mundane and some aspects of the storyline leaving the reader scratching their heads about why exactly things have happened.

All this notwithstanding “Murder at Deviation Junction” is a genuinely good read, and follows enjoyably in the footsteps of other fusions of railroads and murder, such as “Murder on the Orient Express” and “North by Northwest”. It may not be such a glamorous picture of travelling by train as these other, later, works, but shows the combination of crime and the steady relentless progress offered by the railway is one, when well done, consistently works.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

“The Alamut Ambush”, Anthony Price

Anthony Price is one of these authors whose popularity in the 1960s and 1970s has sadly not proved persistent into the new century. Now, with just a few of his books in print through Orion's Crime Masterworks series finding his work is a case of luck in libraries and earnestly hunting through charity shops.

This is a real pity. At his best, with books such as "Other Paths to Glory", his writing is compelling and the fusion of history and Cold War espionage provides an interesting and informative new angle on the well trodden terrain of spy fiction. At other times he doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, and you somehow have to be in the humour for him. "The Alamut Ambush" is one of these 'not quite' sort of books. It's been lurking on the bookshelf for well over a year now, teetering on the brink of going back to the charity shop and joining the ranks of abandon-ware. Thankfully, largely down to happenstance, it coming to hand when idly looking for something to read, and, prosaically, it easily fitting in my pocket, it got a second chance.

Set in the early 1970s against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict the atmosphere of Britain at that time is richly captured. The setting is one of tired tawdriness, Britain still has aspirations and a role to play, but it's starting to look a little shabby and threadbare.

The core character, RAF pilot and intelligence officer Hugh Roskill, is a rich and well rounded character. The intersection of personal and professional interest as he unpicks the murder of a young intelligence technician and links it with the complexities of Middle Eastern politics provides pace to the novel and keeps the reader consistently interested as he moves through London clubland at night and the rainy Hampshire countryside. The underlying plot, of a nascent Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement as terrorism rises to be the means of interaction between Arab and Jew is prescient, coming as it does, well before the Camp David accords, and reflects the political ambiguities and shifting allegiances running beneath what often can seem a blunt zero sum conflict.

Price often leaves the bigger picture unstated, focusing on what individuals do and leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. This works effectively here, the details of the wider conspiracy, the precise threat posed by the 'Alamut' group (which will come as no real surprise to those familiar with history of the region) and the 'ambush' of the title, are largely left unsaid, and this makes them all the more real, and allows Price to build up a story of real and engaging depth in a scant 189 pages.

This probably isn't the best of Price's books, but I'm still very glad to have had another go at it. It's a shame his work is now so hard to find. In the endorsements on the back he's likened to Eric Ambler, and there are certainly echoes of this here, and there are also notes of John LeCarre, with parts feeling very similar to some of his John Smiley works and "The Honourable Schoolboy" in particular. If you happen to stumble across one of his books, most likely these days in a jumble sale or dusty second hand bookshop, you could do a lot worse than give him a go.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

“Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: the Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan”, Antonio Giustozzi

Honesty up front, even though I first met Antonio Giustozzi at a MacArthur Foundation conference in the mid 1990s, and generally appreciate what he has to say - I haven't read "Khoran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop", even if it does seem a reasonably interesting read.

The current issue of "Asian Affairs" has a review of it which is testament to how to damn with faint praise. The last sentence in particular is particularly breathtaking.

This book provides interesting data on insurgent recruitment, problems within the Afghan army and police, and more: America spends $15m for every insurgent it kills. Yet the book lacks context of any kind. No maps are provided, nor history, and there is little background on key individuals or tribal complexities. If the reader does not know his Achikzais from his Alizais, or the background on Hazrat Ali or Jalaludin Haqqani, most of the book will be inaccessible. It is a pite, for a substantial re-write would have produced a volume of tactical and historical value.

While this seems harsh, I should stress that this is just the concluding paragraph from S. J. Masty's longer review of this and another work on Afghanistan (on pp.297-298 of the July 2009 edition) it strikes me as a genuinely effective review. It flags up the strengths and weaknesses of a book in an effective way, highlighting who is likely to be the best audience for it, and critically doing so in an engaging and memorable way.

In a world where people all too often are reluctant to speak their minds, this is really refreshing.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

“Stop Me”, Richard Parker

Explicitly aimed at the holiday reading market, most clearly shown by the innovative marketing approach taken by publishers Allison & Busby in having author signings in airports through August, Richard Parker's debut novel, "Stop Me", is a novel about murder, kidnap, insanity, and mistrust.

The central premise is that of an email chain letter with a deeply dark edge. The killer starts a chain email, describing the victim and asking the recipients to pass on the message if they want them to be saved. If they receive the email back through the usual chain mail process the victim is saved, otherwise they are killed. This is a somewhat unsettling premise; it plays to our fears of randomness in the world, and our awareness that most of us would delete a message like that, regarding it as an obvious case of spam. However it does raise an interesting question. Spam is very much an internet age phenomenon, transcending the familiar territory of junk mail into something much more intrusive. In this day and age however there is the real question of whether a chain letter ever really works. Reading "Stop Me" made me think when last I'd opened an obvious piece of spam even remotely akin to that sent by the "Vacation Killer"? Spam still unquestionably exists, but the vast majority of it is swept unseen into spam or junk mail folders in our email clients. In this light, is "Stop Me" destined to be a curiosity piece representative of a fleeting period in the late 20th and early 21st century?

It is often held that the higher the body count the lower the overall level of shock, as the reader undergoes a process of desensitisation. Put cinematically a drama with a lone death will remain with the viewer much longer than a hackneyed 'slasher movie'. "Stop Me" is unflinching in its violence. In the first two brief chapters 12 people die, and the central kidnapping takes place. However, this is less a story about murder as one man's attempt to come terms with the disappearance of his wife. The shock experienced by protagonist Leo Sharpe at the utterly unexpected disappearance of Laura and the freefall his life enters into in its aftermath is compelling, if at times perplexing.

The book is written in a sparse, minimalist style and predominantly told from Leo's internalised perspective. This won't work for everyone, and isn't usually what I would go for. It has upsides and downsides. Positively, it keeps the plot moving along with the minimum of distraction, and focuses the reader on the core story of Leo Sharpe's quest for his wife, driven by his unshakeable conviction that she is not dead. Conversely it means that the plot lacks a level of richness and sense of place, and in missing out in some more subtle narrative tools the reading experience at times feels on the shallow side. This also has the effect of leaving questions in the back of the reader's mind about the deeper motivations of characters such as the enigmatic Dr Mutatkar and the sinister Cleaves.

Declan Burke on the Crime Always Pays blog, writing about John Banville, makes the point that "crime fiction fans tend to favour character, plot and narrative over the inventive use of language". This is probably a fair point, and in the case of "Stop Me", at times the emphasis is placed on plot to the exclusion of almost anything else; and thankfully, the plot is great. Tension is maintained throughout the full 336 pages, with a deep curiosity about the motivations underpinning the "Vacation Killer", exploring Leo's journey through the crisis his life has fallen into, and ultimately waiting to discover what precisely is the tableau being presented by Parker is, and this is certainly not one easily predicted. The effect of this is to overwhelm any reservations about linguistic sophistication and comparatively one dimensional characterisation and ensures that at no point is there a temptation to cast the book aside.

It's not great literature, it's probably not the best crime novel of 2009, but as an engaging take on how the internet mixed with celebrity culture can complicate the traditional serial killer story, delivered in a fast paced way, it works.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

“The Headhunter”, Paul Kilduff

There is a certain poignancy to reading an early 21st century financial thriller in late 2009. The wholescale discrediting of the financial sector over the last 12 months has led to an inherent and unsurprised linkage in most people's minds between criminality and banking, which lends a crime novel set in a more earnest era, where there was a grain of respectability to the profession, a somewhat quaint air. Indeed it almost feels natural, that if bankers are capable of destroying livelihoods, then why should it be surprising that at least one of them is capable of being a serial killer?

Highly reminiscent of Michael Ridpath's series of crime novels with a financial setting, "The Headhunter" capitalises on the rich background provided by the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, to set a tale of corporate corruption and murder. While the identities of the perpetrators is revealed comparatively early (and in retrospect there are a couple of additional cross-cultural clues that should make it obvious from the outset) the motivations are explored progressively over the course of the novel, and Kilduff manages to preserve mounting tension and genuine curiosity about how the book will pan out.

The main characters, Adam the young, new FX trader, Samantha the harassed woman trader, Bruce the consummate player, and Henry, the city recruitment consultant, are rounded, well painted, and can be identified with, and they are ably backed by a cast of supporting figures, all of whom are believable. That is, of course, not to say that they are all sympathetic, indeed some are truly odious, but given the setting this comes as no surprise. The main characters however are ones that you can readily identify with and care about their fates, which is critical for a novel such as this.

In a book like this authenticity is key, and here Kilduff, drawing one assumes on his personal experience in banking, scores highly. The lives of bankers are seen as lavish, but transient, luxury flats being furnished by letting companies, or strangely empty, while there is a warmth to where those of more ordinary aspirations live. The only slightly jarring note is the staggeringly low aspirations of the various characters regarding their cars – no Aston Martins or Porsches here – but instead BMW 320s and Audi A4s being seen as the height of desirability, which, if true, might gives rise to some worries among the manufacturers of such exotica. Cars aside, this emptiness in the lives of many hints at the central point, made by several characters, that few want to live in the financial sector forever, instead spending some time there, making some money, then doing something else. Indeed, the characters more wedded to the financial life are by far the more contorted personalities. This warts and all portrayal goes a long way towards taking any remaining gloss from the Square Mile.

I note Paul Kilduff, following his dalliance with budget airlines, is returning to the broad genre of crime or mystery fiction, which based on the quality of "The Headhunter", is enormously good news. I very much look forward to reading more.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

“Spinal Trap”, Simon Singh

The UK's laws on libel are widely regarded as some of the most restrictive in the world, and one of the few instances where the burden of proof is placed on the defendent - in short, you are guilty until proven innocent.

While the guiding principle of this legislation, i.e. to prevent publication of material that damages the reputation of a person or organisation, is laudable and should encourage good journalistic practice, there is a worrying trend seeing libel laws being used to stifle open debate, most significantly well known author and broadcaster Simon Singh being sued for an article he published in the UK newspaper, The Guardian. This has resulted in the original article being removed from the Guardian's website, and represents a challenge to the ability of people to question what may appear to be spurious claims made, in particular, by alternative therapy practitioners.

In protest at this, many websites and blogs are reprinting Simon Singh's article, drawn from David Colquhoun's DC's Improbable Science blog. I am very proud to join this movement by providing an outlet for Simon Singh, whose superb article fully deserves to be read.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

“The Chalk Circle Man”, Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas, described by the Guardian as “the hottest property in contemporary French crime fiction today” and winner of the Crime Writers' Association International Dagger multiple times undeniably has a head of steam behind her in terms of expectation creation. In this light “The Chalk Circle Farm” held a lot of promise, combining an author new to me with a Parisian setting, a location with so much potential for absorbing crime fiction.

The premise is pleasing at the outset. Adamsberg a quirky yet visionary detective with an ability to see deeper meanings in ordinary events, and Danglard, a more grizzled traditional cop with issues often trod in crime fiction supply provide good raw material for the sort of policing double act that fiction thrives upon.

Inherently Vargas' writing, and the way the translation is handled by Sian Reynolds, feels as though it's very good in a literary way. This is a book that leaves you in no doubt that there are depths to it and that by reading it you are being improved. This, as Francis Bacon would have put it, is the sort of book to be chewed and digested; and herein for me lies the problem. In using crime as the hook from which to hang high literature Vargas lessens the impact of the crime. The initial premise, that the Parisian police would be so engaged by what initially seems like trivial graffiti, indeed that anyone would notice scrawled blue chalk circles amidst the bustle of Paris does not ring true. This frustrates, when Adamsberg declares that “[t]here's cruelty oozing out of those circles”, the writing comes across as powerful, but that the time can be spent to think about it and identify the cruelty stretches credibility.

I'm sure this says as much about me as it does about Vargas' writing, but I struggle with metaphysical literature. “The Chalk Circle Man” is full of symbolism and concepts of how the notions of reality start and stop – which is interesting, provocative, and sadly not really what I'm after in something categorised as 'crime'. Indeed, this is much less a book about murder, and much more a work about reality – a fact that in retrospect is continually signposted – one of the first references to objects left in the chalk circles talks of two books, contrasting the “Metaphysics of the Real” with “The Fun to Cook Book”. This theme is most clearly shown in the workings of the supporting cast - the blind man, the scarred oceanographer, the deserted spinster. These, initially engaging, come across less as rounded people as devices to serve ontological purposes, creating different views of the world in which the events can take place. It works effectively on this level, but it is inherent in such a work that by doing this well the nature of 'realism' is challenged, which raises questions about whether this is an effective work of crime fiction. If we accept that there are multiple realities is the crime, and ultimately the murder, still something tangible and real?

As Fiona Walker puts it in her review on Eurocrime, these are “not for people who demand gritty realism from their crime fiction”, and while I think there can sometimes be too much grit in crime fiction, this more ethereal writing doesn't gel with what I'm looking for in a roman policier.

Friday, 24 July 2009

“Razor’s Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War”, Hugh Bicheno

I'm lucky enough to remember the Falklands War. I was 9 when the invasion took place and my 10th birthday was two weeks before the Argentine surrender. To this day I remember walking through Kew Gardens discussing with all the earnest boyhood intent I could muster, what the prospects were with my father, and subsequently, as the task force moved south, with my school friends. As my life and career evolved, the Falklands somehow have stayed with me. I distinctly remember discussing how to make an undergraduate course on "Warfare in the 20th Century" more real to students in the late 1990s, and floating that maybe if we had a week on the Falklands it might work, as some of them might remember it, only for a senior colleague to gently chide me that given most of them didn't remember Thatcher being in power and were predominantly would have been 3 or so when the conflict took place, I was perhaps being a bit optimistic about their memory.

It was largely down to a (different) former colleague that I picked up Hugh Bicheno's unofficial history. I've read a lot about the Falklands over the years, and while I'd seen it had come out I wasn't sure that it would add much to my understanding, or that I really needed to read more on the subject. Gratifyingly I was wrong. "Razor's Edge" is, without question, the wrong place to start if you're new to the 1982 war (better places to start would be Freedman and Gamba-Stonehouse's "Signals of War", or Martin Middlebrook's "Task Force"). Bicheno's account is forceful, opiniated, and authoritative, written with confidence, a command of his subject, and an eye for source reliability that is rare. A most pleasing side effect of the conviction with which this account is written is the unflinching passion communicated and an utter unwillingness to pull punches. This makes for a very good read.

The book unapologetically focuses on the ground war. Possession of Port Stanley is rightly seen as the conflict's centre of gravity, and as such, interesting as it is, the sea war and the relative performance in the air is subservient to the grinding battle fought by boots on the ground; two armies facing each other and being tested in environments neither had really prepared for. As such, episodes such as the sinking of the General Belgrano are not investigated in any great detail, Bicheno rightly assuming that those interested can readily find detailed explorations of such events elsewhere.

In this focus on the ground war Bicheno cuts to the heart of the matter in exploding the myth that the British achievement was somehow superhuman. He accurately cites a US document positing that no self respecting military officer should have learned anything from the Falklands War. In this light the whole conflict was not a tribute to flair and extemporisation in adversity, but rather to solid grounding, an appreciation of logistics, and an ability to work in a joined up way; in short, less being unbelievable heroes and more solid people doing their job properly. Indeed when the British Army deviated from what it had consistently trained to do, such as at Goose Green, it came closest to failure and defeat. In this instance Bicheno has no hesitation in questioning sacred cows, firmly asserting that it was only with Colonel H Jones' death (for which he won the Victoria Cross) that 2 Para were allowed to revert to what they had consistently trained to do, and secured victory.

Other popular conceptions about the war are also challenged, for example, the theory that the Argentine invasion constituted a classic intelligence failure, is pointedly exploded. In the words of Bicheno, himself a former intelligence officer in Latin America:

There was no 'intelligence failure' – the British government was well served with hard information from technical and human sources about Argentine actions and intentions. There was, however, an intellectual failure systemic to the political nation. (p.28).

This point ushers in the real central tone of "Razor's Edge". This is the work of a proud Briton disillusioned with what he feels his country has become. He wears his heart on his sleeve when denouncing what he sees as over liberal apologias for Britain's behaviour contrasted with a relative silence concerning the odium of the Argentine junta. The complicity of Britain's political system in creating the environment where the 1982 conflict could take place is clearly exposed, yet there is still the underlying admiration for an underlying mettle in the British character that made victory possible. The story of Hugh Leach's impassioned plea to Thatcher to allow the Royal Navy to try and retake the Falklands is widely known, and given rightful airing here, but Bicheno goes deeper. As he puts it, Argentina's whole strategy was:

…based on a calculation that the British soldier of 1982 was not the man his father had been. But he was: and better in attack than history might have led one to expect of an army more famed for stoicism than tactical flair. (p.93)

This point being rammed home by his assertion that:

The British owed their victory to the ferocity of infantry who went into combat stressed beyond the point beyond which even the best trained troops should be pushed. (p.110)

While there are undeniably points in the book where one could happily debate (for example his wholesale endorsement of then commander of HMS Ardent and latterly First Sea Lord Alan West) ultimately this is a deeply satisfying book that stays just on the right side of polemic. As I have said, it is not the right place to start if one seeks a primer on the conflict, but to one who thinks they already know all that has to be said about the events of March-June 1982, this is a useful antidote and a worthwhile addition to any library on the subject.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

“Ruinair”, Paul Kilduff

I bought this a few months ago, while idly shopping in my local bookshop, cheerfully forgot about it, then rediscovered it in one my periodic study tidy-outs – and happily was just in the sort of humour for a work like this. What sort of work is it however? “Ruinair” is the sort of book that challenges conventional categorisation, and probably should give librarians, booksellers, and others who obsess about locating books on shelves something of a headache. The dayglo cover and branding locate this as humour, and clearly Kilduff sets out to entertain, but there is undoubtedly a serious element to this, also representing a serious travelogue and interesting insight into Ryanair's business model.

While throughout the narrative is told with an eye on being funny, and certainly it has the power to make you smile, this isn't quite the laugh-out-loud-read-bits-to-strangers sort of book that sticks in your mind as being one of the funniest things you've read all year. Inherently, while Kilduff can write, I'm not entirely sure he's completely comfortable writing humorously and at times his slightly chippy attitude grated a little. At times too, one suspects that a degree of padding went on, as though late in the editing process there was a realisation that they really wanted to get the page count up thus the press clippings file related to Ryanair should be raided. This does not however detract from the fact that this is an enjoyable workthat kept me absorbed and is well worth a read.

To anyone living in Europe over the last 10 years or so, the low cost airline phenomenon has been unavoidable. Among the many positives is the extent to which it has enabled travel to be much more feasible, helped us keep in contact with more distantly located friends and relatives, and helped make the concept of an integrated Europe much more real. At the same time we've become accustomed to the sort of folklore that has grown up around such airlines, looking at the shortcomings in customer services, headline grabbing tales of having to pay to use toilets or seats being replaced by stools, and of course, the issue that the airports they fly to can often be nowhere near the cities they claim to serve, all contextualised by the larger than life persona of Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive. The true strength of “Ruinair” is that it cuts to the heart of these conceptions we have about low budget airline travel, and in the main shows them to be firmly grounded in reality, from the reality of where they fly to, how they go about getting you there, and in accumulating the public pronouncements of O'Leary, along with correspondence (accurately described as 'bolloxology') from Ryanair customer services showing the disregard towards the flying public.

At the outset (on page 2) the truism that it that people will fly from somewhere to nowhere is offered, and this sets the tone for the book as a whole. Kilduff's account of his time in Ryanair's many destinations around Europe show that often there's little there. If Ryanair challenges the proverb that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive by overtly stripping the romance out of the journey, then the onus is undeniably on the destination. Kilduff's experience shows that traveling to these places for the sake of going, adhering to the maxim that the flights are so cheap that it's almost more expensive to stay at home, probably isn't enough. Kilduff's odyssey, trying to fly to all 15 countries in Western Europe by budget airline, is a tale noticeably lacking in enjoyment. This is no holiday, and as he recounts bleak evenings in some of the more obscure parts of Europe you realise this, more perhaps than other travelogues of journeys to more difficult parts of the world, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Ryanair, along with other budget airlines, make it possible to travel widely, but the key question really should be whether you want to go there in the first place.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

“A Season for the Dead”, David Hewson

Most of my postings involve books I've read recently, reflecting my response to a book at its most visceral and critically when the plot and characterisation is fresh in my mind.

This is a departure from that principle and is not really a book review.

I picked up David Hewson's first Nic Costa novel back in February 2008, the result of a Saturday morning's stroll refamiliarising myself with Aberystwyth. “A Season for the Dead” formed part of a three-for-two offer in the local bookshop, along with Mark Mill's “Savage Garden” and John Niven's “Kill your Friends” (actually quite an unpleasant book, in a strangely compelling way, as things transpired). I'm hard pressed to remember which one was the 'free' book in this package, but memory whispers to me that it probably wasn't the Hewson, I'd just come back from Rome, and full of the prospect of more work there, the prospect of a rich Italian mystery really appealed.

Bringing things to the present day, late on Thursday night, coping with an oppressively hot Bologna night, I came across a recent spat concerning Hewson and his response to negative reviews, bringing up an array of topics including, among many others, cyber-bullying, fair use of copyright material, and libel. Ill tempered discussion such as this, which periodically flare up on the internet, often show the shortcomings of blogging, where there's too much reliance on literal communication and it's all too easy to post in haste and repent at leisure, however this did serve to make me, with the benefit of distant hindsight, think about what I've thought about David Hewson's books.

I read “A Season for the Dead” and while finishing it, being driven with a sense of curiousity about how the plot panned out, an interest in the core characters, and a real sense of enjoyment about the location, something about it left me feeling a touch disappointed. There was a palpable lack of redemption about the book. To take the persona of Nic Costa as an example, there's no shortage of troubled detectives with a surfeit of 'issues' in crime fiction, however I found a certain sense of frustration with him, and struggled to identify with him. Equally, while crime in reality is almost never elegant, much of plot represented humanity at its most tawdry, and left me feeling somewhat stained.

That said, my response to my first exposure to Hewson clearly wasn't completely negative. I clearly remember frustration at my local library not stocking the earlier books in the Costa series, and at some point last year I bought the third book, “The Sacred Cut”, probably at an airport, but it never really grabbed me, and despite a few attempts at starting, ultimately it fell victim to the demands of limited shelf space in a South London semi, and went to the charity shop unread with my feeling that for whatever reason I didn't really get on with Hewson/Costa and I didn't see myself reading it anytime soon.

There ended my engagement with David Hewson, probably concluding that while they were perfectly good crime novels of a particular type, they weren't necessarily for me, but that's just a case of horses for courses.

Reading about the spat referred to above raised some interesting questions in my mind though. I haven't seen the negative review penned by Norm, so I can't comment on whether it was or was not libellous. Raising the issue of libel is however something that does make my blood run cold. I've worked in publishing for many years, and still clearly recall the horror of receiving a phone call from the BBC asking if I was aware that a writ for libel was forthcoming from a third party. I was lucky enough then to be working for a big publisher, with the sort of editorial processes that gave us confidence in our story, and a wider support structure in terms of administration and legal help that cushioned the blow. Blogging is undeniably publishing, and libel is libel, but thinking back to my understanding of the laws surrounding such things, looking at reputational damage in the eyes of the right thinking person on the Clapham ominbus, one does have to wonder what purpose is served by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

What I do find positive, having over the past couple of days revisited some of the controversial correspondence, is that David Hewson is reading and responding to writings about his work. Engaging in a dialogue, within reason, about its merits, is so much more healthy than leaving things in the hands of lawyers. Clay Shirky among others makes the point that the one thing the internet does is lower the barrier to publication, this has the effect that there is a blurring of lines between the old traditional 'book review' of the Saturday supplement and the impassioned conversation between friends previously the reserved preserve of small groups. From my perspective as a reader this has been vastly positive, introducing me to so many books I wouldn't otherwise have found, however there has to be a process of understanding that maybe principles arrived at for the long established print world do not work as well in a world where everyone can publish and accordingly have their 15 megabytes of fame.

There are going to be good and bad aspects to this, but perhaps it's worth revisiting the basic lessons of libel I was taught many years ago – as an author, would you want this written about you? And as a plaintif, once you enter into litigation gloves will come off and you lose control over what is said.

Restraint is usually the best way forward.