Thursday, May 5, 2016

Review of The Whites by Richard Price (Picador, 2015)

In the 1990s Billy Graves was an up-and-coming detective working the South Bronx as part of a team self-titled the ‘Wild Geese’ who were determined to create law and order in the crime-ridden area.  Then one evening he accidentally shot a ten year old boy while dealing with an angel-dusted berserker on a crowded street.  In the aftermath his wife left him and his career downshifted.  Now in his early forties Graves works the Night Watch shift dealing with serious crime from Wall Street to Harlem post-midnight.  Most of his fellow Wild Geese have retired but they are still haunted by their ‘Whites’ – murderers who managed to avoid prosecution.  Called to a fatal stabbing at Penn Station in the early hours he discovers the victim is one such White.  The investigation stalls, however, and soon Graves has his own problems to deal with as someone starts to victimize his family.

The Whites is a gritty police procedural set in New York tracking detective Billy Graves of the Night Shift as he deals with the city’s violent post-midnight world, a threat against his family, and his complex relationship with his former team members.  It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in its 333 pages with multiple characters performing different roles (detectives, criminals, victims, family, friends, etc.), two major plotlines and numerous sub-plots.  Indeed, my sense was there a bit too much going on and the story would have benefitted from dropping the plot focusing on the threat to Graves’ family as it was too much of a coincidence that it was occurring at the same time as the other main plot which was a substantial enough on its own and could have been explored further.  That said, the characterization and dialogue is very nicely done, the scenes are astutely written, and there’s a strong sense of the underbelly of the city and what it’s like to police it.  The result is an interesting, multi-layered and tense read that poses questions of duty, family and justice.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review of The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds (OUP, 2011)

After the attack on Pearl Harbour the Japanese navy and army won a succession of battles as it extended its conquests into South East Asia and the Pacific.  Rather than use its aircraft carriers as lone leaders of separate task forces, as usually deployed by the US, Japan combined them together in a group of four to six to produce a large task force known as the Kidō Butai.  This provided superior air cover that overwhelmed the enemy.  After the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942 in which the US aircraft carriers Lexington was sunk and Yorktown badly damaged, the Japanese strategy at Midway was to try and lure the remaining US aircraft carriers in the Pacific into their clutches by sending a separate task force to invade the small atoll in early June 1942. The Japanese aim was to destroy the US carriers, to create an extended line of defense, and to demonstrate the potential cost of a war of attrition before new US ships rolled off the production line. Unknown to them, however, the US had broken their codes and knew their general plan.  The Japanese had sent four aircraft carriers to Midway, accompanied by 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser and 12 destroyers.  Waiting for them was 3 US carriers, including the quickly repaired Yorktown, 7 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 15 destroyers.  In addition, the US had stationed 127 planes on the Midway atoll, in effect creating a fourth static aircraft carrier.  At the end of the battle the Japanese had lost their four carriers and a heavy cruiser, the US one carrier and one destroyer.  It proved to be a decisive battle, the Japanese subsequently losing every battle until the end of the war.

The Battle of Midway provides a very readable and highly informative account of the battle at Midway in June 1942, including some contextual framing with respect to Pearl Harbour, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the first US air raid on Tokyo.  Unlike previous accounts that suggest that the US were lucky to win the encounter, Symonds argues that the US won due to good intelligence, strong leadership, and the element of surprise.  Nonetheless, the largely uncoordinated US air attacks on the Japanese fleet proved mostly ineffective until a five minute window when three of the four carriers were hit turning the battle in the US’s favour.  Given the number of different threads and personalities involved the narrative could have easily become quite jumbled or bogged down in detail, but Symonds manages to blend the various strands into a coherent, gripping and page-turning story told with an engaging voice.  The result is a book which is full of historical detail and biographical sketches of the main actors that clearly explains the battle and its context.

Monday, May 2, 2016

April reads

April provided an interesting and enjoyable set of books.  Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn and The Whisperers by John Connolly were the standout reads, with the latter shading it for my read of the month.

Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta ****
A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane ***.5
The Game Must Go On by John Klima ***
The Whisperers by John Connolly *****
Worst Enemies by Dana King ****.5
Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn *****
Night Passage by Robert Parker ***
A Little More Free by John McFetridge ****

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

After a month in Boston doing fieldwork I arrived back in Ireland yesterday.  In the thirty hours I've been home, I've been asleep for twenty five! Hopefully that'll cure any jetlag for the coming week.  I enjoyed the trip.  Boston is a great city (well, many co-joined cities).  It was also very productive and I met loads of interesting people.  By the month's end I'd undertaken 21 interviews, given 6 talks, had 21 other meetings, and attended 5 workshops/conferences.  I only managed to read three novels set in the area though.  The picture right is of Brookline and Boston taken from the tower in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

My posts this week:
Review of Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta
Review of A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
Alive and kicking

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Alive and kicking

Hanney tried to roll-over, but his shoulder clunked into something solid after a couple of inches.

‘What the …’

His head thumped off of rough wood.


He tried to move a hand to the pain, but couldn’t shift it from his hip over his belly.

Hanney opened his eyes.  It was still pitch black.

‘What the …’

Panic blossomed in his chest and he thrashed about in the coffin.

‘Hey!  Let me out!  Pete?  This isn’t funny.’

Hanney kicked the lid a few times, the board barely rising, then it collapsed, soil seeping over his legs.

‘Pete?  Oh, god.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review of Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta (Vintage, 2013)

Most people are familiar with Japan’s declaration of war against the United States – its infamous attack on Pearl Harbour.  What is not so well known is the pathway to war.  Eri Hotta’s book provides a detailed account of how the leaders of a nation placed themselves on a course towards war that then became a self-fulfilling destiny through delusion, divisive internal politics, poor diplomacy, and vanity.  With the exception of a handful of hotheads, the majority of the cabinet, the prime minister and emperor knew that they stood little chance of defeating the United States in the long term.  Rather than lose face and try to interrupt the unfolding path they allowed the vocal minority to dictate policy and set the timetable for when diplomacy gave way to fighting.  As her analysis of key Japanese sources reveals, there were plenty of opportunities to re-direct and correct poor decisions that were consistently foregone.  To provide wider context, Hotta sets out Japan’s development as a nation from the mid-nineteenth century up to 1941, including her relations with the West.  Most of her analysis though focuses on the years immediately prior to 1941, including the on-going war with China, Japan’s relationship to Germany and the Soviet Union, and its ambitions for a strong Asia under its leadership, and the fateful year itself.  She does this by detailing the key political events and meetings and the views and roles of the main actors.  At times the narrative is a little jumbled, especially in the first third, as the account swaps back and forth across time periods.  Nonetheless, Japan 1941 is a fascinating account of fatal politics in action. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review of A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane (HarperTorch, 1994)

Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angela Gennaro are hired by powerful Boston politicians to find a missing black cleaner who they claim has stolen some important documents from the State House.  It should be a relatively straightforward task to find Jenna Angeline, a resident of down-at-heal Dorchester.  However, Kenzie and Gennaro are not the only ones looking for her and soon they find themselves in the middle of a deadly gang war and of interest to the police.  Kenzie and Gennaro are determined to solve the case, but to do so they need all of their wits to stay alive.

A Drink Before the War was Dennis Lehane’s debut novel and the first of six in the Kenzie and Gennaro series.  The tale is essentially a PI thriller, with Kenzie and Gennaro running the gauntlet of high-powered politicians, two rival gangs, and cynical, hard-nose police while trying to locate a missing cleaner accused of stealing documents.  Kenzie and Gennaro are both damaged goods – Kenzie living in the shadow of his abusive father and Gennaro is trapped in a violent marriage – and there is a strong sexual chemistry between the two that forms a main sub-plot.  Lehane maintains a steady pace and keeps the tension high as they cannonball from one difficult situation to another and the body count rises.  While the essential ingredients of the plot – a missing person, child abuse, extortion, revenge – are nicely blended, Lehane occasionally pushes the action into a little-over-top territory and there are a couple of plot devices that feel a little forced.  The real star of the tale, however, is Boston, with Lehane’s descriptions of the city providing a strong sense of place.  An entertaining read that nicely sets up the series.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a slow week of reading/reviewing as I had a full schedule of meetings, interviews and talks that kept me otherwise occupied.  Whilst walking in Cambridge on my way to MIT I came across this tiny library, part of the Little Free Library movement.  Somehow this is the first I've come across despite their being over 36,000 globally (there are only three in Ireland). Great idea: 'Take a book, leave a book'.

My posts this week:
Review of The Game Must Go On by John Klima
Heading to Pearl Harbour

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Heading to Pearl Harbour

‘We can’t back down now.’ Jennings slapped the table.  ‘There’s too much at stake.’

‘The main thing at stake’s your pride.’

‘Did I ask your opinion?’

Keenan ignored the threatening glare.  ‘If there’s a war, we’ll lose.’

‘Not if we strike first!  Catch them unaware and …’ Jennings thumped the table again.

‘Perhaps, but we’ll still lose the war.  It would be better to establish a mutual understanding.’

‘No!  We strike!’

‘Your father …’

‘Fuck my father!  We need to show strength.’

‘Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  You might get your Pearl Harbour, but they’ll have their Hiroshima.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review of The Game Must Go On by John Klima (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015)

1941 and baseball’s biggest star, Hank Greenberg, is drafted into the army.  The hope is he would serve a short term then return to the game while being retained on the reserve list.  Instead Pearl Harbour happens and the future of the game during wartime is put in doubt as many players are eligible for service and sign-up to fight.  Unsure whether the 1942 season will even be allowed to proceed, the baseball commissioner writes to President Roosevelt who decides the game must go on for the sake of morale.  The difficulty for the baseball clubs is that talented players are being stripped out of the game at all levels and travel between games is restricted.  What’s left are players deemed too young or old or unfit for service or have family duties.  The teams cobble together new starting line-ups and re-jig the timetable to include more night games and double-headers.  One of the players to get his chance includes Pete Gray, who lost an arm as a child, who made his living in the minor leagues constantly pushing against prejudice. 

John Klima tells the story of baseball in the war years, focusing in particular on the stories of Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, Billy Southworth Sn and Jnr, and Bob Feller, with a wide supporting cast of those that went to war and those that stayed in or joined the game.  As well as detail the story of the game at home, he also details the experiences of the players serving in the army and navy both in the states and on the battlefield.  The result is an engaging tale of personal trials and an enterprise under pressure.  Klima tells the wider story by weaving together a set of intersecting narratives concerning individuals, teams and the business of baseball as they unfold between 1941-1945. The result is a wealth of information and an interesting tapestry of stories.  However, the text suffers from a fair amount of jumping between different themes and individual/institutional tales, as well as too much repetition, and would have benefitted from a serious edit.  Nonetheless, The Game Must Go On is a fascinating and accessible read about a turbulent period in baseball history that reshaped the post-war game.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Having read tales by Robert Parker and John Connolly, I'm continuing my New England theme with Dennis Lehane's A Drink Before the War, his debut novel.  In between I read John Klima's history of baseball during the Second World War and yesterday went to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox beat the Blue Jays.

My posts this week

Review of The Whisperers by John Connolly
Review of Worst Enemies by Dana King
Head like a shattered windscreen

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Head like a shattered windscreen

Kenny stared at the shattered windscreen.

‘It’ll be your head next,’ Pike said, swinging the baseball bat.  ‘Mr Lincoln wants the drugs you stole or the money you’ve made selling them.’

‘What drugs?’

Pike smashed a headlight.

‘I didn’t steal any drugs!  Look, that’s my dad’s car.’

A wing mirror flew free.

‘I swear, Pikey, it wasn’t me.  You must have me confused with someone else.’

‘I don’t think so Kenny.’ 

The bat cracked off Kenny’s raised arm.


‘You didn’t do something stupid like flush them away did you?’

‘You’ve broken it.’

‘You’ll be dead if you keep lying.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review of The Whisperers by John Connolly (Hodder, 2011)

When a former US Army soldier who served in Iraq takes his own life his father asks PI Charlie Parker to investigate the death and also how one of his employees is being treated by her boyfriend, one of his son’s Army buddies.  The suicide appears to be one of a small cluster in Northern Maine and linked to a cross-border smuggling operation from Canada.  Parker is not a typical PI, haunted by ghosts and the supernatural, and tends to create as much trouble as he solves.  He quickly comes to the attention of the smugglers and they try to warn him off.  However, Parker is a persistent soul, especially when he’s convinced that there is something more at play than simply smuggling drugs or money.  However, Parker is not the only person interested in the smuggling operation and the stakes and consequences rise as the last shipment nears.  

The Whisperers is the ninth book in the Charlie Parker series set in Maine.  In this outing, Parker is tasked with discovering why a small group of Iraqi veterans are taking their own lives.  Of the series I’ve read so far, this is the strongest tale.  Connolly is a first rate writer who crafts expressive and captivating prose, though sometimes I don’t quite connect fully with the story or supporting characters.  In The Whisperers, however, all the elements were on point – the hook concerning the strange suicides and the smuggling of antiquities, the social commentary on the Iraqi war and the treatment of veterans, the investigation, the sense of place, the characterisation and social relations, and the plotting.  The result is an engaging, informative and tense read grounded in strong research that contextualises but doesn’t swamp the narrative which kept me turning pages into the early hours.  A thoroughly entertaining tale.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Review of Worst Enemies by Dana King (2012)

Borrowing an idea from Patricia Highsmith, Tom and Marty, two strangers who meet in a strip club, are planning to kill each other’s wives.  Under pressure from Marty, Tom goes first.  While he succeeds in killing the unfortunate wife, he makes a mess of the murder.  Local detective Ben ‘Doc’ Dougherty, a former MP and Penns River native, and Willie Grabek, a former Pittsburgh cop are assigned the case and soon have Tom in custody.  Shortly after a second body is discovered in an abandoned house and a connection is made to the first murder.  For a town that rarely sees one murder a year, two in the space of a few days causes consternation.  With Tom protesting that he’s been framed, tricked into committing murder, and Grabek doing the minimal amount before retiring, Dougherty tries to unravel the pair of murders, aware that whatever has transpired is not yet over.

Worst Enemies is the first Penns River novel.  I reviewed the second, the excellent Grind Joint, a while ago.  Worst Enemies cleverly reworks Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, twisting the plot through ninety degrees to create a compelling tale of scheming, double cross and manipulation.  King populates the story with a believable and engaging set of characters and his dialogue and social interactions are astutely and realistically penned, as are the police procedural elements.  What I particularly liked was that the story rooted in everyday realism concerning family interactions, personal relationships, social welfare situations, organized crime, internal police politics, and dealing with the legal system, and there is a strong sense of place focused on a small town in decline near to Pittsburgh.  The denouement was perhaps a little rushed, though it has a nice twist that jars against expectation.  Overall, a very nicely written and plotted tale and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Resurrection Mall

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

My book buying this week had a decidedly baseball orientation.  I first picked up The Entitled, a novel by Frank Deford, then last night I bought The Game Must Go On by John Klima about baseball in the Second World War. 

My posts this week:
Review of Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn
Review of Night Passage by Robert Parker
No Name