Sunday, April 22, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I was very honoured to receive the inaugural Faculty of Social Sciences Research Achievement Award and also the overall Maynooth University Research Achievement Award. Conor Murphy won the early career Social Sciences research prize, so it was a good day for geographers. The other early career winners were Dr Karen English (Fac. Sci & Eng) and Dr Deborah Hayden (Fac. Arts, Celtic Studies & Phil), and the senior winners were Prof. Paul Moynagh (Fac. Sci & Eng) and Prof. David Stifter (Fac. Arts, Celtic Studies & Phil), so many congrats to them. The prizes have been introduced as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations of the split from St Patrick's College to form MU. Just about all of my research is collaborative, so many thanks to everyone I've worked with in making this possible. And big thanks to OH.

My posts this week
Review of Slumberland by Paul Beatty
Review of The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll
Worth every cent

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Worth every cent

‘It’s simple, Tommy; you can jump or be pushed.’

Tommy glanced down at the canyon floor.

‘I’ll do whatever you want, Mr Baylis. I’ll pay everything back, plus interest.’

‘What I want is to watch you plummeting to your death.’

‘I understand that, Mr Bayliss, but that doesn’t get you your money back. I can only do that alive.’

‘You’re expecting me to trust you? After you’ve already broken my trust?’

‘Please. I’ll …’



‘Jack, push him off.’

Jack shuffled onto the plank, which creaked ominously then snapped.

Bayliss watched the two men tumble.

‘Beautiful. Worth every cent!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review of Slumberland by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2008)

Ferguson Sowell is a LA DJ in search of a perfect beat. He thinks he’s found it, stitched together from an eclectic set of sound samples and music, but it’ll only be perfect if the Schwa – an elusive jazz genius accompanies it. The Schwa, however, has disappeared leaving only a handful of recordings. Sowell mysteriously receives a couple of clues which leads him to believe his potential muse might be in West Berlin and manages to wrangle a job as a ‘jukebox sommelier’, charged with creating a perfect set of tunes for a Berlin bar, Slumberland. The bar is a place where German women pick up black men and Sowell joins their ranks, sleeping with a succession of women between working in the bar and DJ-ing around the city. Being black in white city, one with a potent Nazi past but also a vibrant cosmopolitanism at the time when the Berlin Wall falls is unsettling and invigorating. There’s little sign of the Schwa, however.

In Slumberland Paul Beatty tells the story of a musically inventive DJ who is obsessed with sounds, beats, riffs, and music, who travels to Berlin to search for an elusive, virtuoso jazzman. The telling somewhat mimics the sensibilities of the lead character, with Beatty creating verbal riffs, spurts of free-form, scatting prose, and a densely multi-layered narrative. Set in pre- and post-fall of the Berlin Wall the tale is a rumination on music, race, sex and culture, as experienced and considered by the lead character, perhaps one of the most reflexive people on the planet, spending half the time riffing on his own inner-voice. At times shocking and bombastic, often clever and knowing with some interesting observations, the story also has a dark humour running throughout. Some of the passages were a joy to read. At the same time, while enjoyable, ultimately the story doesn’t really seem to go anywhere – there’s no epiphany or sense of closure beyond Sowell fulfilling his ambition. If you like your fiction like a DJ mix of freeform jazz, then you’ll probably enjoy this literary equivalent.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll (W.W. Norton, 2015)

The second installment in a trilogy that charts the Second World War in the Pacific, this book focuses on the period mid-1942 from the Guadalcanal campaign through to mid-1944 and the battle for Guam, and US strategy of island-hopping and bypassing, and the strategic blunders of the Japanese and their overstretched resources. Toll’s aim is to provide a grand narrative, detailing the key decisions and battles, some of the key personalities and inter-service rivalries, and the wider politics of the war from a US and Japanese perspective. The challenge is to balance the broad sweep of history with enough detail to give a sense of the various actions and interactions. For the most part he succeeds, providing an overarching picture of the theatre, strategies politics, and rivalries, while also describing the views and experiences of key personnel and ordinary servicemen. He also manages to balance the perspectives of the US and Japanese. While it’s an interesting and engaging read, it suffers a little from an unevenness in coverage, with some campaigns or specific experiences getting fuller treatment than others, for example the extended description of three cruises of one submarine and concentrating on the Mariana Islands approach rather than the hopping up the Solomon Islands to towards the Bismarck islands and engagements in Papua New Guinea. The ending also seemed somewhat directionless, giving a general view of Japanese society at that point of the war, but giving little sense of the Allies plans for the final phases. Overall, a decent though uneven, overarching narrative of the mid-phase of the Pacific War.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Since the start of the year I've been taking a literary world tour, reading fiction set in Canada, China, England, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Laos, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United States, and Wales. It's been good to mix up the settings more consistently. For the next set of reads I'm going to take a different path, focusing on a handful of historical crime tales that take race as a core theme, starting with Paul Beatty's Slumberland (set in late 1980s Berlin), then Thomas Mullen's Dark Town (set in Atlanta in 1948), Pete Dexter's Paris Trout (set in 1949 in Georgia), Danny Gardner's A Negro and an Ofay (set in 1950s Chicago), and Walter Mosley's White Butterfly (set in Los Angeles in 1956). That set is all US male writers, but they're all already on my to-be-read pile and I'll see if I can track down some others to mix it up a little.

My posts this week
A life, not a life sentence
Review of Capture by Roger Smith

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A life, not a life sentence

The suitcase hit the bottom step, then landed with a thud.

'Are you okay?'

'Just about,' Cath said, regaining her balance.

Paul glided into the hallway, his electric wheelchair jerking to a halt.

'Where're you going?'

'My mother's.'

'You're leaving me?'

'I just can't do this anymore. I'm twenty-seven. I want night’s out. Kids. A life, not a life sentence.'

'Is that all I am now - a burden? What about until death do us part?'

'If I stayed that's probably what would happen.'

'You'd kill yourself?'

'I'd kill you.'

‘Perhaps I should’ve died in the accident.’

‘I’m sorry, Paul.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Review of Capture by Roger Smith (Serpent’s Tail, 2012)

Nick Exley is a software developer who specializes in motion capture. He’s something of a nomad, globetrotting as he looks to sell his product. He’s ended up in Cape Town, where he’s rented a plush, isolated beach house just yards from the ocean. On the day of his daughter’s fourth birthday, Nick is getting stoned on the deck while his wife is flirting with her lover in the kitchen, as Sunny heads to the sea to play with her new boat. From rocks nearby Vernon Saul watches the girl topple into the sea. Instead of heading to rescue her he waits, then rushes in to attempt CPR, console the family, and help deal with the police and funeral arrangements. Vernon used to be an opportunist cop until a gang shot him when he got too greedy and he was bounced out as unfit to serve, both on physical and moral grounds. Now he’s a security guard, but he’s still always looking for an angle for self-enrichment. His plan is to inveigle his way into Exley’s life and see where that takes him, knowing that he has security camera footage showing the developer smoking dope as his daughter drowns. One of Vernon’s other projects is Dawn Cupido, a former hooker and meth-head who now works as an erotic dancer and tries to protect her young daughter from the terrible upbringing she had in The Flats. That she has her daughter at all is down to Vernon, who got her back from social services. Vernon has not quite worked out how to leverage Dawn, but she owes him. And so does Nick Exley. As Exley tries to cope with the death of his daughter, Vernon manipulates the situation, which gradually turns into a nightmare of murder and lies.

Capture is thriller crime tale set in Cape Town. The tale revolves around three main protagonists: Nick Exley, a rich, white software developer visiting the country with his wife and young daughter; Vernon Saul, a coloured former cop, who is always looking for an angle to leverage power and opportunities; and Dawn Cupido, an erotic dancer and former meth-head and hooker who owes Vernon for retrieving her daughter from social services. Each character is flawed, but while Exley has lived a so-far charmed life, Vernon and Dawn have been living nightmares from a young age. Smith’s hook is for Exley to join them, his daughter drowning in the sea and his troubled relationship with his wife disintegrating. Vernon, a psychopathic chancer whose go-to solution for every problem is to kill whoever is in the way, inveigles his way into Exley’s life, which rapidly descents into hell – a blur of drink, drugs, lies, coercion and murder. And in Vernon’s wake is Dawn. Smith sets a dark, nasty tone in the first few pages and rarely lets any light into the tale, keeping the pace and tension high throughout. And he brings into sharp contrast the rich enclaves and the grinding poverty and violence of The Flats, and the inability of overstretched services to keep a lid on all the crime. While some of it seems far-fetched – it’s really not clear why the police don’t bring Exley or Vernon in for questioning or take a more active interest in their shenanigans, and there is a plot reliance on Exley’s work – it doesn’t really matter too much. This is like an action-thriller film, with a cartwheeling plot, rather than the considered realism of a police procedural drama. It’s bold, lurid and dark, with vivid characters, and not at all subtle. My main issue was that the denouement was signalled from quite a long way out, and after the noir running throughout felt a little bit of a cop-out. As I’ve said before, the South African tourism board is probably praying for Roger Smith to find his inner Enid Blyton; hardboiled crime readers will happy to take his work as it is.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Turns out my review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham was my 900th on the blog. I guess that's worth noting. May the good reading continue.

My posts this week:
March reads
Review of The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager
Hold her steady

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Hold her steady

‘This is crazy!’

Two flak shells burst nearby.

‘Nearly there. Hold her steady.’

‘Drop the fucking fish!’

The air was full of small explosions; the guns of the ships ahead spitting fire. Up above was a melee of fighters and dive bombers.

‘Drop a little.’

‘We’re already catching waves!’

A wing sheared off a plane to their right and it smacked into the sea.

'Keep her steady.’

The plane lifted as the torpedo dropped.

Hoskins let the plane float up, roaring over the cruiser.

Moments later a blast ripped through the ship.

‘Poor bastards.’

‘Save your tears for our lot.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager (Three Rivers Press, 2006)

The demon the title refers to are bacteria, which when present in wounds can often lead to death when not treated by antibiotics. Prior to the 1930s there were no effective cures for many forms of bacterial infection, such as strep, staph, meningitis, pneumonia, gonorrhoea, gangrene and tuberculosis, other than to hope the body’s own defences managed to fight back and overcome the invaders. That meant high rates of death from infected wounds for soldiers and for women giving childbirth, but also that what seemed like fairly innocuous cuts could lead to death within a few days. After serving as a medic in the First World War and seeing thousands of men have limps amputated to try and stop the spread of infection or die from their wounds, Gerhard Domagk wanted to change that. After training as a doctor he moved in to pathology research, first in a university team, then in the industrial giant, Bayer. If Bayer could produce a chemical solution to bacterial infections, it could reap a vast fortune. Domagk headed up the research lab to identify an effective drug, working with chemists to create and test on mice hundreds of new synthetic compounds. They hit on a line of research that linked sulphur to azo dyes, discovering that a few of their new concoctions worked, enabling mice infected with strep to fight back and remain well. So was born a whole family of sulfa drugs, the first antibiotics, which massively improved survival rates from bacterial infections.

Hager tells the story of the invention of sulfa, predominately by focusing on the life and work of Gerhard Domagk, though there are plenty of sidebars where other parts of the tale are filled in. The result is a book that is not told in a linear fashion. Indeed, the book pings around the calendar like a pinball machine in the first half in particular. It starts, quite oddly, at December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbour (presumably to orientate the book for an American audience), then swaps to 1914-18, then the 1920s interspersed with 1084, the seventeenth century, the 1870s, the eighteenth century, nineteenth century, and also travelling from Germany to France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, the US. From around page 70 it starts to settle down into a more linear narrative, progressing from the late 1920s through to late 1930s, mostly located in Germany, with a few forays to England, France and the US. The story also starts to diversify from Domagk and medical tales to the wider political economy of the pharmaceutical industry and science, as not only did sulfa products lead to a revolution in treatment, but also how the drugs were developed, tested and approved, after one particular drug had catastrophic effects. Prior to sulfa, pretty much anyone could create and market a health product without highly regulated testing or naming ingredients or side effects. Indeed, Hager goes as far as to argue that the nature of health care was fundamentally changed, with physicians moving from being caregivers to technicians, and the predominant site of care moving from home to hospital. Having been forced to reject his Nobel prize by the Nazis in 1938, Domagk finally received it in 1947. Despite the fractured narrative, created by trying to centre the story on Domagk when it is really a multi-threaded tale, Hager tells a fascinating history in an engaging voice.

Monday, April 2, 2018

March reads

A nice month of reading. There were two standout tales - The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham and The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle. It's a tight decision, but The Strange Death shades it as my read of the month.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham *****
Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith ****
Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart ****.5
The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle *****
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan ***
The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill ***
Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer ***
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson ***

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

After last week mourning the death of Philip Kerr, this week it's Peter Temple - who actually died before Kerr, on the 8th March. I've read all nine of Temple's novels, first discovering him through his Jack Irish series. The books were often published in this part of the world years after release in Australia, an issue that still drives me nuts. The only two reviews I have on the blog are White Dog and Truth as I'd read all the other before I started posting reviews. In his honour I've been watching Bad Debts, one of the two feature-length television adaptations featuring Guy Pearce as Jack Irish.

My posts this week

Review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham
Review of Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith
Lessons for smart cities from the Programmable City project
Dead and gone

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Dead and gone

‘I want you dead and gone,’ Carrie hissed.

‘Dead or gone.’


‘If I’m dead, I’ll be gone,’ Lawrence said. ‘There’s no need for the ‘and gone.’ And if I’m gone, there’s no need for me to be dead.’

‘That’s exactly why I want you gone!’

‘But not dead?’

‘Dead and gone! Dead or gone! I don’t care as long as you’re not here. Permanently.’

‘There’s no need for melodramatics.’ Harry crossed his legs.

‘I’ve had enough, Harry. I want you to leave.’

‘Carrie, I …’

‘Dead and gone!’ Carrie swung the vase with all her might. ‘Dead and gone!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham (Orion, 2015)

Fiona Griffiths did not join CID to investigate minor payroll frauds. She wants something more juicy, like a murder, or possibly a manslaughter. She’d like to pass the task on, but then she discovers the body of a woman starved to death. Shortly after, the man who set up the fraud is found murdered. But the fraud is still being committed and it’s more extensive and lucrative than initially thought. Fiona wants justice for the starved woman and she’s prepared to go undercover to gain vital evidence. After being trained in the basics of payroll accountancy and completing the toughest course in Britain’s police force, she starts work for an insurance company, taking the persona of a victim of domestic abuse seeking to get her life back on track. The criminal gang are looking for a vulnerable victim and Fiona is perfect. But as she’s drawn into their world she realises that they are more organized and ruthless than she’d anticipated. And moreover, the more she performs as her new persona, the more her identity fractures. It’s not just a case of whether she’ll survive but, if she does, which of her personas survives with her.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is the third book in the series about a young police officer who suffers from Cotard’s Syndrome. While highly competent and driven, Fiona lives almost outside herself and has trouble identifying emotions or how people expect her to behaviour, constantly second-guessing what she should do or say in any situation. This gives her a vulnerability, yet at the same time she pushes boundaries and is not easily managed. She’s a wonderful literary creation, an engaging, complex, multidimensional, and often surprising character. In this outing, she trains to go undercover and then penetrates a sophisticated, careful and ruthless criminal gang who are perpetrating an enormous accounting fraud against several companies. The undercover work is challenging and places her fragile identity under pressure. The plotting is excellent, with Bingham spinning a multi-layered tale that also twists and turns and creates plenty of tension. The hook is a crime that is relatively unusual in crime fiction and is ingenious in its conception and implementation. The police procedural elements are very nicely done – rather than the formulaic boss and sidekick, Bingham provides the full panoply of units, forces, personalities, roles, procedures, and politics that operate during a major investigation. The undercover training and deployment instinctively feels realistic. Indeed, just about the whole book feels steeped in realism, though Fiona’s family life, with her father formerly being a major crime lord, has the feel of a plot device, and the denouement is also somewhat souped-up to be a dramatic finale. Nonetheless, this is a superb read and I’ve a keen sense of anticipation for reading the next instalment.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review of Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002, Pan)

December 1941. Harry Niles is living in Tokyo and running a bar. Harry is about as Japanese as an American can get having grown up in the city and attended a local school and is fluent in the language and culture. As a child he was left to fend for himself, his missionary parents travelling the country looking for souls to save. Bullied at school, he learned to look out for himself and sought sanctuary running favours at a down-at-heel theatre and living at the fringes of the underworld. Twenty years on, Harry is still running rackets and hustling to get by. As war approaches that hustle includes openly supporting the ambitions of the Japanese for a Pacific empire in order to secure passage out of the country, while also working to undermine this ambition by feeding them misinformation designed to stop them attacking the US. It’s a dangerous game as it annoys his fellow Americans, while he’s never really trusted by his hosts. Even in love he is living with his Japanese girlfriend, while also conducting an affair with the wife of a British diplomat. But the only side Harry is on is his own. Except the evidence is somewhat to the contrary. While in China in 1937 he helped run the international protection zone in Nanking and save the lives of numerous Chinese from the holocaust being wrought, and on the eve of hostilities he’s helping the German he worked with in Nanking and his Chinese bride leave the country. As he makes his own preparations, his nemesis from Nanking, Lieutenant Ishigami has arrived in the city and he wants Harry’s head.

Tokyo Station follows the raconteur, Harry Niles, in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbour and his attempts to leave the country before hostilities break out, while also avoiding a revenge attack of Lieutenant Ishigami, a man he humiliated four years previously in Nanking, and two agents from the Japanese ‘thought’ police. Harry is a classic anti-hero – a selfish, charismatic, seemingly amoral schemer who skirts on the edge of the underworld, but nonetheless does try to help and nudge things for the greater good, though he usually has an angle at play even when he’s helping others. The strength of the story is the characterisation, especially Harry, his Japanese girlfriend Michiko, and Ishigami, plus the use of a smattering of real-world political and military characters, the sense of place and time, and the rich descriptions of Japanese culture and history in the inter-war period and in the lead up to hostilities with the US. Smith does an excellent job of detailing the context for the plot, which while engaging and entertaining felt very much a thriller as envisaged by a screenwriter rather than being rooted in a more grounded realism. That’s no bad thing as it makes for compelling reading, though some of it felt overly-stretched in places and the ending felt a little incomplete.