Saturday, July 23, 2016

A flowing tide

Life, Harold thought, was a flowing tide.  It ebbed and rose, crested and rolled, twirled in eddies, and there was always the danger of a boiling swell or a riptide.  You could either let it take you where it willed or try to steer a course through the currents.  And there was always something slimy or nasty lurking beneath the surface.  Fitzpatrick was a hammerhead shark; an ugly predator that skulked along the sea bed, stalking its prey.  He’d caught Harold at a low ebb, tore a chunk from his side, then left him to tread water, waiting to sink.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of Masaryk Station by David Downing (2013, Old Street)

Berlin, 1948. John Russell is working for both the Russians and Americans, both believing he’s a double agent.  His wife, Effi, a pre-war film star is similarly caught between the movie and radio industries of the former allies.  As the Soviets close the noose around Berlin in an effort to encourage the other three Allied powers to leave, Russell seeks a way to extricate himself, along with his family and his Russian handler, Shchepkin, from his predicament before his duplicity is discovered.  However, the Americans have other plans for him, sending him to Trieste to debrief Russian defectors and help run ratlines for war criminals who oppose communists in the new Yugoslavia and Ukraine, and to Belgrade and Prague to gather intelligence.  Eventually an opportunity presents itself, a secret so potentially explosive that it will mean freedom for silence.  First though Russell has to journey into enemy territory to gather the physical evidence, then Shchepkin has to negotiate their safe passage and future, neither of which are straightforward.

Masaryk Station is the sixth and final book in the John Russell and Effi Koenen ‘station’ series, which charts the couple’s lives from 1939 to 1948, most of it spent in Berlin.  Russell, a former communist, worked as an American journalist, before becoming a full-time US and Russian double agent.  Pre-war Effi was a German movie star before joining the underground, helping to smuggle Jews out of war-torn Germany and has now resumed her career.  In this instalment they are back in Berlin with their adopted daughter, Rosa, and living close to Effi’s sister, Zarah; Russell’s German son now working in London.  Russell senses that his espionage work is becoming ever more perilous and the situation in Berlin is putting Effi under-pressure.  As with the previous books, Russell is shuttled around Europe, visiting Trieste, Belgrade, Vienna and Prague, getting into various scrapes as he looks for an escape route.  And he’s still in cahoots with Shchepkin, his Russian handler, who is also looking for a way out of Stalin’s regime. Effi meanwhile has her own, more local adventures.  As well as tell the central tale, Downing uses the narrative to set a wider context of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and East Germany after the war, the rat lines used to smuggle Croatian war criminals out of Europe, and the lead-in to the Berlin airlift.  The plot is a bit of a slow burner and relies on a couple of plot devices, though these give a glimpse into the plight of those caught behind the iron curtain and the doubts of German communists realising that the Soviets have an iron grip.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read, picks up pace and tension towards the end, and does a nice job of closing out what is a fine series, with two strong lead characters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review of Dog Day by Alicia Giménez Bartlett (Europa Editions, 2006; Spanish 1999)

When a man is found badly beaten, Inspector Petra Delicado and Sergeant Garzon are assigned to the case.  At first they find it difficult to identify him, but then discover his apartment and the man’s ugly dog, which Delicado fosters and names ‘Freaky’.  Soon after the victim dies due to his injuries and Delicado and Garzon are drawn into the economy of dogs – vets, groomers, pet detectives, trainers, breeders, experimenters, smugglers, psychologists – along the way starting new romances.  However, while their social lives improve, solving the case proves more taxing.

Set in Barcelona, Dog Day is a kind of hybrid hardboiled/cozy, police procedural.  Inspector Petra Delicado is a twice-divorced, 40-something cop who is only interested in no-strings relationships.  Her work partner is widower, Sergeant Garzon, who after a long and unhappy marriage rediscovers dating.  The story is concerned as much with their personal and work relationship and their respective love lives as it is about the case they are investigating – the death of a dog thief.  The mystery aspect of the tale felt a little underwhelming, mainly because it was too telegraphed and the two detectives were too dumb to think of the obvious and to see what was clear to the reader.  Moreover, far too little of the narrative was devoted to the dog Delicado fosters, Freaky, or the dogs of the other characters.  The result was a story with an interesting focus, but which spent more time detailing the character interactions and development than the case.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

The preliminary results of the 2016 Census were released on Thursday, so I spent a chunk of Thursday and Friday trying to make sense of them, focusing on housing vacancy.  Despite the growth in population by 169,724, rising homelessness in cities, and pressure to start building large amounts of housing in Dublin, there are still 198,358 vacant, habitable units (excluding holiday homes) (9.8% of all stock), with an oversupply nationwide of c.77,000. If you're interested in find out more click on some of the links below.

My posts this week:

A matter of time
The relationship between population change and housing vacancy in Ireland
Why does Dublin City have 21,781 vacant units?
Housing, Census 2016
Review of Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf
Turning 7
Review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A matter of time

‘I’ve had enough, Victor.  I’m quitting while I’m ahead.’

‘This is not a game you can quit, John.  Except through death or prison.’

‘Which benefits neither of us.  It’s only a matter of time.’

‘It’s always a matter of time, but you’ve survived this long.’

‘Through luck and incompetence.’

‘And the revolution will exist long after both of us.’

‘They’ll be no revolution, Victor.  Capitalism has won.’

‘For now, maybe.  But the future?’

‘A future I would like to see.  As a free man.’

‘Only fate can dictate that, John.  In the meantime, we need blueprints of the guidance system.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review of Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf (2012, William Heinemann)

When observing the transit of Mercury across the sun in the early 16th century, Edward Halley deduced that one could measure the size of the solar system by watching Venus’ transit.  Knowing this would increase the accuracy of the measurement of the heavens and also aid navigation and mapping the Earth.  The problem was that Venus only transits the sun periodically, in a pair of transits separated by eight years once every 105 years, and the full transit could only be observed from a few locations across the planet.  The next transits were due in 1761 and 1769, several years after Halley’s death.  The importance of accurately measuring the time of transit was acknowledged by astronomers and scientific societies.  It would require international cooperation to share the measurements and calculations.  And it would be costly, involving expensive clocks, surveying instruments, and telescopes, as well as transport and labour, and would need political and royal patronage.  An added difficulty was much of Europe was engaged in the seven years’ war preceding and during the first transit.  Despite this scientists agreed to collaborate despite the hostilities.

Chasing Venus tells the tale of the various attempts to measure Venus’ transits in 1761 and 1769, tracking the wider international collaboration, the perilous journeys undertaken to various parts of the globe by astronomers, and the scientific calculations undertaken.  Wulf does a good job at marshalling a lot of interrelated storylines and structuring it into an easy to follow narrative, giving a clear sense of the importance of the scientific task, the science involved, the lives of the main participants, and the wider political landscape.  Several astronomers risked their lives travelling to different sites and in the case of the 1769 expeditions five lost their lives, and all put up with various hardships without any guarantee of being able to observe the transit (and a number didn’t because of clouds).  In addition, the expeditions provided new knowledge about the South Seas and remote parts of Russia (Captain Cook’s first Endeavour voyage was to observe the transit in Tahiti).  While the book is well researched and written, the ending is a little abrupt and it would have been useful and interesting to find about a bit more about the significance of the science and expeditions, and the subsequent lives of the astronomers, even as just short potted biographies.  Overall, an interesting read.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Turning 7

The View from the Blue House turns seven today.  When I started the blog in July 2009 I wasn't sure I had very much to say.  However, since then I've published 2047 posts, including 748 book reviews, 259 drabbles and 29 other short stories.  Blogger tells me that there have been 963,276 page views, but I suspect a huge number of them are bots.  If you've visited, or left a comment, then many thanks for stopping by. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North (1960, reissued British Library 2016)

When the police are called to the Gunnarshaw home of Amy Snowden they find the middle aged woman dead in her bed, the house full of gas.  The previous year she had married a much younger man, much to everyone’s surprise.  While the death appears to be suicide, Sergeant Cluff is not convinced, despite the fact that her husband was several miles away and has an alibi.  He knew the woman and her dog had disappeared just a few days before.  When the coroner rules suicide, much to the satisfaction of his boss, Cluff takes annual leave in order to investigate further. 

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm was originally published in 1960 and was the first in a series of eleven books that were also made into a television series.  The story is quite nicely told in an economical style; just as Cluff is a man of few words, so is Gil North.  Yet, there is a clear sense of Cluff’s stoic character and the time and place with regards to the Yorkshire dales in the late 1950s.  Cluff has an interesting approach to solving the case, which is basically to haunt the main suspect and frighten him into a mistake.  That mistake then leads to another related case.  However, the plot is very linear and there are no major twists or reveals, though the pace shifts register from understated to frantic for the denouement.  The result was an enjoyable story that felt more of a tv episode than feature film.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

The weather this summer has been dreadful, so far nothing but endless rain.  And it's lashing down again today.  At least I'm getting a bit of sun through the written word, presently through Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's Dog Day set in Barcelona. 

My posts this week
Review of Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus
Review of Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand
Review of Darkside by Belinda Bauer
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Susie woke as the mattress lightened.

She hated the morning after.  The hangover.  The shame.  The disappointment.

She padded to the kitchen, turned on the kettle.

The door opened.

Colin smiled.  ‘There you are.  Great hair!’

Susie tried to pat it down.  ‘I thought you might want coffee before you left.’

‘You’re working today?’

‘No, but I thought …’

‘That I was leaving?’

‘Yes.’  Susie busied herself with the cups.

Colin circled his arms around her.

‘Do you want me to leave?’


‘Let’s go back to bed.’

Susie let herself be led, wondering if he’d stay beyond the morning.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Review of Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus (Orenda Books, 2016)

After the deaths of his sister to leukaemia and his father in a car crash in which he was a passenger Jerry Dresden has suffered from depression and psychotic hallucinations and is addicted to celebrity porn.  Working at a job he hates in the Chicago Art Institute he is accused of murdering a colleague and stealing a priceless Van Gogh.  Forced on the run he travels to Mexico with Epiphany Jones, an equally damaged woman who believes that voice she can hear are angels directing and protecting her.  Epiphany claims to have video footage that shows Jerry is innocent, but to receive it he first has to help her track down her daughter who is ensnared in the hellhole of sex-trafficking where the clients are part of Hollywood’s elite.  Jerry is a reluctant participant in Epiphany’s quest, but it might just be a mission that gets his own life back on track.

Epiphany Jones is a rollercoaster of a read as its two principle characters, Jerry Dresden and Epiphany Jones take a long-distance journey, trying to track down the latter’s daughter, leaving in their wake a trail of violence.  Both Jerry and Epiphany are mentally damaged.  While Jerry has suffered a couple of traumatic events and sees and has relationships with imaginary people, Epiphany has lived through the hell of sex trafficking and talks to God’s Angels.  Grothaus immerses the reader in their worlds and psychoses, their fraught relationship, their struggles, despair and hopes as they undertake their quest and navigate a criminal underground.  It’s certainly a hard hitting tale that pulls few punches and there’s barely a likely character throughout.  I found it quite a difficult book to get into at the start, and the narrative was a bit episodic and uneven.  The more the tale progressed the more it seemed to gain coherence as it moved towards the denouement.  I’ve been umming and ahhing about what rating to give the book.  It’s difficult in the sense of I can see the merits of the tale and appreciate its ambition and affective punch, but it’s not a story I particularly enjoyed reading, not because of the subject matter of sex trafficking and mental illness, but rather I just never really felt connected or invested in the characters or narrative.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review of Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand (Bantam Press, 2016)

Detective Hardeep ‘Harry’ Virdee should be on the fast track up the career ladder in the West Yorkshire police.  However, he’s been suspended for assaulting a fellow Sikh who insulted him and his heavily pregnant Muslim wife over their mixed marriage.  While out jogging his discovers the crucified body of the newly elected Asian MP for Bradford, a swastika carved on his forehead.  His boss wants Virdee to investigate the case unofficially using his network of informants and in particular to find Lucas Dwight, a former leader of the BNP in the city who has recently been released from prison and whose blood is found at the scene.  With a large multi-ethnic festival taking place in the city, racial tensions already high, and behind-the-scenes moves to fill the power vacuum and exact non-lawful justice, the stakes are potentially explosive. What should be a relatively straightforward hunt quickly takes a sharp twist, leaving Harry wondering who he can trust as he scrambles to determine the truth before the city is set ablaze.

Given the recent Brexit vote and another spike in racial tension in the UK during the campaign and afterwards, Streets of Darkness is a very timely addition to British crime fiction.  Importantly, rather than simply play to racial stereotypes and a simple black and white societal divisions, AA Dhand paints a more complex picture of relations within and across different ethnic groups.  Moreover, in a bold move, he manages to tell a police procedural in which the main detective is outside the force due to being suspended.  In fact, ‘Harry’ Virdee is a consummate outsider character having been ostracised from his Sikh family after he married a Muslim and he’s an Asian cop on a predominately white force.  Virdee’s task is to solve over the course of a single day the murder of a newly elected Asian MP for the city in which the prime suspect is the former BNP leader, while different parties are seeking to take advantage of the situation or exact revenge and some cops seem to be in-the-pocket of whoever is pulling strings.  To add to his woes his pregnant wife is one week overdue and wants to celebrate the day’s religious ceremonies. The compressed timeline, the competing interests, and Virdee’s personal situation make for a tense and fast moving plot.  Indeed, there’s much to like about the story, which has plenty of twists and turns.  However, the tale is reliant on a couple of plot devices that felt a little forced, with a subplot that stretches back over forty years that felt too coincidental, and the pace means that the character development is a little underdeveloped beyond basic description and background history.  The latter is somewhat unavoidable and will no doubt be elaborated in the next couple of books in the series.  Overall, an interesting, engaging and topical debut that ends with a nice hook for the next book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review of Darkside by Belinda Bauer (Corgi, 2010)

An elderly woman paralysed from the neck down is murdered in her bed.  Local policeman, Jonas Holly, is horrified that someone could be killed in the small village of Shipcott, where he lives with his increasingly housebound wife, Lucy, a MS sufferer.  He’s even more mortified when the abrasive and abusive DCI Marvel turns up to investigate the case.  Marvel chastises Jonas for poor scene management and then punishes him by assigning him trivial tasks.  When Jonas receives a note suggesting he has failed in his duties, Jonas keeps it to himself.  Shortly after another body is discovered, floating in a stream.  Marvel has taken to drink and half the village seem to be suspects.  Jonas is torn between trying to protect his wife and finding the killer despite Marvel’s antics.  And the notes keep arriving.  With heavy snow cutting the village off, the race is on to catch a killer as the body count rises.

Darkside is a psychological police procedural and the second book in Exmoor trilogy.  The story has a lot going for it – nice character development, good sense of place, and a well constructed plot.  PC Jonas Holly is a local man who knows all the villagers and most of their secrets.  He’s opted out of an upwardly mobile career route to care for his wife who has developed MS.  DCI John Marvel is a bully that nobody likes, but gets results.  Lucy, Jonas’ wife, used to be a fit athlete before her illness and is unhappy at being dependent on others.  Bauer’s does a nice job of detailing how these three principle characters are impacted by the case and the evolving tense relationship between them.  She also captures the local landscape, the tight-knitted nature of the village, and its isolation and apprehension during a snow storm as locals become victims.  Darkside is whodunit, and Bauer keeps plenty of potential suspects in the frame, keeps ratcheting up the tension, and it’s not until the final pages that it all becomes clear in a near frantic denouement.  Oddly, though I had decided on the killer early on and despite plenty of hints and clues to misdirect my suspicions, which I took at a couple of points, my initial instinct proved right.  I think this was more of an intuitive guess on my part than any long distance telegraphing.  It was a little surprising that Marvel had not been reined in before and the snow storm conveniently cut off the village from reinforcements, but these were fairly minor plot devices that didn’t overly detract from the story.  Overall, an engaging and entertaining read.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Just back from a quick visit to the south coast of England, flying over yesterday and back this evening.  Given the recent turn of events in Britain and the increase in racial incidents my book for the trip was A.A. Dhand's recently published novel, Streets of Darkness, set in Bradford which concerns racial tension and violence in the city and features Hardeep 'Harry' Virdee, a Sikh, who's a detective inspector in the city who's investigating the murder of a recently elected Asian MP, seemingly at the hands of the BNP.  Review coming shortly.

My posts this week
Review of A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield
June reviews
Review of Fool by Christopher Moore
Summer reading
Review of Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen

Saturday, July 2, 2016


The rattle of machine gun fire was incessant, punctuated by loud explosions.

Thompson threw himself into a crater, sinking into the mud.

A moment later someone landed next to him.

‘This is madness,’ Thompson shouted.  ‘It’s mass murder.’

‘We’re trying to kill them as well, lance corporal.’

Thompson glanced to his left.  ‘Yes, sir,’ he yelled. 

Trust his luck to be sharing a hole with Captain Hughes.

‘We need to advance!’

‘Yes, sir.’

Neither of them moved.

‘Come-on then.’  The captain rose and crested the crater rim.

A moment later he fell back, half his face missing.

‘Madness,’ Thompson muttered.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.