Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review of Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally M Walker (2011, Henry Holt)

On December 6, 1917 two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia.  One ship was full of munitions, the other with relief supplies.  The result of the collision was the munition ship catching fire.  While the crew rowed away as fast as they could, the ship drifted to Pier 6 in Halifax, attracting a crowd of onlookers.  A short while later the ship exploded, creating the largest man-made explosion prior to Hirosoma, flattening the two towns of Halifax and Dartmouth, first through the shockwave, then a tsunami, killing nearly 2,000 people, and shattering windows over thirty miles away.  As the relief effort started, the following day a blizzard swept in dumping more than a foot of snow.  Isolated, their infrastructure shattered, and families devastated, the town stuggles to cope the scale of the disaster.

I bought Blizzard of Glass online since I was travelling to Halifax.  I’d heard about the explosion of 1917 and thought I’d try and learn more before I arrived.  What I hadn’t appreciated was that it was a history book for kids.  It’s a well written book that blends a straight historical narrative with the personal story of a handful of families.  It provides a basic overview of the disaster and its consequences.  For kids, it’s great.  However, I wanted a much more in-depth analysis of the lead-up, the accident and explosion, and the effects and blame game.  Basically, the book was way too thin for what I was after. Overall, then, good for what it is, but not quite what I was looking for (and my rating is based on what it is).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Review of The Pale House by Luke McCallin (No Exit Press, 2015)

Late March 1945 and the Germans are on the retreat on all fronts.  After a harrowing time in the hands of the Gestapo after the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944, Captain Gregor Reinhardt finds himself back in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where he’d served two years previously.  This time he is a member of the Feldjaegerkorps -- the military police -- who have far reaching powers to conduct investigations across all units.  Having served as a detective in Berlin before the war, Reinhardt has a nose for tracking down criminals and in a city under siege and sheltering the worst elements of Ustaše - the Croatian fascists - and a German penal battalion he has plenty to choose from.  What draws his attention is two separate executions of seemingly anonymous soldiers.  And the more he probes, the stronger the pressure to divert his attention.  Only Reinhardt is a man of principles -- he might be working for a corrupt state, but he still believes in justice regardless of consequence.   

The Pale House is the second book in the Captain Gregor Reinhardt series.  Reinhardt joined the police after the First World War, rising to become a detective inspector in the Berlin Kripo before joining the Abwehr and the fringes of the German resistance.  In the closing stages of the Second World War he finds himself in Sarajevo as the partisans close in, working for the military police.  The city is in turmoil as the Germans prepare to retreat and the Croatian Ustaše lash out at the civilian population, knowing they are about to be overrun.  Despite sense of impending doom and savagery, McCallin has Reinhardt conduct a murder investigation, weaving a clever, compelling and somewhat complex plot.  He very nicely captures the fear at work in the city, the tension within the German ranks and between them and their Croatian collaborators.  Reinhardt is a somewhat sombre character, but his principles and role as a flawed but ‘good German’ in a corrupt regime makes him an interesting anti-hero.  The other characters are well penned, though given the case and situation, they’re all a pretty rum lot.  I particularly liked the very strong sense of place and it’s clear that McCallin has done his historical research, yet it doesn't dominate the story but rather provides good context.  Overall, an excellent historical crime tale and a strong addition to what’s shaping up to be a very good series.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent today travelling anti-clockwise along the Cabot Trail and through Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. Lots of rugged coastline, gazillions of trees that are just starting to turn to autumn colours. Wonderful drive. For once I've managed to see more than the airport and hotel on a talk trip and, thankfully, I still have two days of touring before I have to turn up to do the work gig.

My post this week:
Review of Natural Causes by James Oswald
Review of Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin
From the tree

Saturday, October 3, 2015

From the tree

Tommy emerged quietly from the thicket and clambered up a tree, perching legs akimbo on a thick branch.

The curtains at the back of the cabin were open, the rooms lit.

He wiped sweat from his brow, raised his binoculars and directed them to the room at the far end.

The girl was lying on the bed in her underwear, tapping at her phone.

He increased the magnification; if only he could reach out and touch her. 

A hand grabbed the top of his trousers and tugged hard.

As he tumbled backwards a booming voice said: ‘Gotcha, you little bastard!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin (2014, St Martin’s Press)

The subtitle for Dragnet Nation is ‘A quest for privacy, security, and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance,’ which neatly sums up the book’s focus.  In short, Julia Angwin charts: (a) how web- and mobile-based communication has become an intersecting set of data dragnets in the United States (and elsewhere), with state agencies and companies using a variety of practices (such as using cookies, data trackers, wifi and MAC address sniffing, spyware) to track and trace the use of phones, apps, websites and online transactions and purchases; (b) her attempts to reclaim her privacy and to evade mass surveillance, and to improve her data security, using a range of different tactics, including cloaking, blocking, obfuscation, encryption, requests for copies of her data and deletion from databases, and changing which services she used.  Her analysis draws from of two main sources: her journalism with the Wall Street Journal and interviews with key witnesses, as well as desk-based research of literature; and her own attempts to install various bits of software and to change her online and communications behaviour. 

Angwin’s argument is that ‘the modern era of dragnets marks a new type of surveillance: suspicionless, computerized, impersonal and vast in scope.’  She reports that in 2013 Krux Digital had identified 328 separate companies tracking visitors to the top fifty content websites.  She herself identified 212 data brokers operating in the US that consolidated and traded data about people, only 92 of which allowed opt-outs (65 of which required handing over additional data to secure the opt-out), and 58 companies that were in the mobile location tracking business, only 11 of which offered opt-outs.  She contends that through a lack of privacy people are being routinely hacked in a number of ways, including: always being locatable; finding it difficult to keep something secret; being impersonated; having devices hacked and used to spy on activity using the microphone, camera, and screenshots; being categorized, socially sorted and financially manipulated; and always being considered a suspect by state agencies and open to suspicionless searches.

While one of the back cover endorsements claims the book is an ‘antidote to Big Brother’s big chill’, I experienced the opposite.  It is an engaging and informative read, but an also somewhat depressing, revealing the US state to be entirely paranoid about its own citizens, routinely spying on them as if they are all criminal suspects (often in secret and without legal recourse; as the Snowden and Wikileaks revelations have also highlighted), and corporations have little respect for their customers treating them as simply another commodity to be monetized and sold, with just about all of their online behaviour, however mundane, being harvested, traded, and consolidated to create new derived data products, and used to nudge them towards purchases (with such actions authorized in the small print of complex legal documents that detail terms and conditions, or not at all as in the case of many apps).  In both cases, privacy has disappeared almost entirely, despite claims to the data being anonymized (it is incredibly easy to de-identify the data given the overlapping metadata). And Angwin’s analysis only concerned the internet and mobile phones; once one considers the plethora of smart home and smart city technologies, from mass digital CCTV, automated systems, to the internet of things, then the loss of privacy multiplies.

As Angwin’s own concerted attempts to reclaim privacy highlight, at present it is very difficult to regain any meaningful level of protection (and even if one does, the very fact that a person is seeking privacy flags them up as a potential risk and further potential surveillance).  Indeed, Angwin often struggled to make sense of different technical approaches, install various bits of software, and change her behaviour, despite being technically savvy and having access to leading experts in the field.  Certainly many of the approaches she tried would be beyond the average internet or smartphone user.  This leads her to conclude that the solution to the data dragnet cannot be purely technical, but rather requires a combination of better laws, oversight and financial penalties, a more transparent and ethical state (just as there is surveillance focused on citizens, there should be on the state itself to create mutual accountability; and it should use more ethical approaches such as programs like ThinThread that tries to respect and protect privacy, relying on encryption and court sanctioned search warrants), and a new market of platforms that see consumer privacy as a competitive advantage.  Here, I was somewhat surprised not to see privacy-by-design in the mix, or even discussed, nor data minimization or fair information principles. 

Ultimately, Angwin concludes that there is a need to find a middle way between ‘those who ask us to hand over all our data and “get over it,” and those who suggest that we throw our body on the tracks in from the speeding train that is our data economy ... We didn’t shut down the industrial economy to stop pollution.  We simply asked the polluters to be more accountable for their actions’ (p. 223-224).  Finding and implementing that middle way, however, given the vested interested involved will not be easy or straightforward.  Overall, an interesting read that highlights the extent of the present dragnet and the difficulty of avoiding it, but a little thin on how the data captured is being used and alternative privacy visions (which might have been gained by examining privacy, technology and legal debates).  Certainly worth a read if you want to increase your paranoia about how data about you is generated and traded.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review of Natural Causes by James Oswald (Penguin, 2012)

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Tony McLean has been living his life in limbo.  His finacee died a couple of years ago and his grandmother, who raised him since he was four after the death of his parents, has been in a coma for 18 months.  Travelling home one evening he spots flashing blue lights outside a house and stops to offer assistance.  A prominent city resident has been murdered, but the investigation is in hand and he’s sent on his way.  The following day he’s called to a building site where the body of a young girl has been discovered, apparently murdered in a strange ritual some sixty years previously.  McLean is oddly affected by the case and makes it his priority, despite being drawn back into the first case as pressure within his station mounts.  Then there’s a breakthrough with the killer seemingly found having taken his own life, only for a very similar murder to happen shortly afterwards.  Against his rationality, McLean suspects some link between the long dead girl, the deaths, and the supernatural, and with the death toll mounting he and his colleagues are under pressure to solve the case.

Natural Causes in the first book in the Detective McLean series set in Edinburgh.  The tale is a police procedural thriller with a supernatural bent.  Oswald has an engaging voice and he keeps the pace and action high, with plenty of twists and turns and a fair dose of emotional heart-tugging with respect to McLean’s personal life.  McLean is the typical wounded cop and Oswald quickly has you on his side, and there is a decent amount of character development as the story unfolds.  His colleagues are also nicely penned and there’s a good sense of place with Edinburgh forming the backdrop.  The plot is an entertaining yarn as long as one can suspend disbelief, with the procedural elements as much a fantasy as the supernatural heart of the tale.  Nonetheless, the story rattles along, with the body count rising as it makes its way to its denouement.  I’ll certainly be checking out the next book in the series, The Book of Souls.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lazy Sunday service

I'm just back from an interesting trip to Zagreb, where it rained heavily pretty much non-stop.  The next trip is to Nova Scotia, including a trip to Cape Breton, so I've bought a handful of books to accompany me: Lunenburg by Keith Baker, Cape Breton Road by D.R. MacDonald, Sign of the Cross by Anne Emery, and Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally Walker.  It's time I expanded my Canadian repertoire a little.

My posts this week
August reviews
Review of Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City by Raleigh Trevelyan
That was our home

Saturday, September 26, 2015

That was our home

‘But it’s our home,’ Doug said to the officer.

‘I appreciate that, sir, but it’s also a crime scene.’

‘All we want is to gather a few things.  Some clothes; items of sentimental value.’

‘If you give me a list, I’ll try and retrieve them for you.’

‘But it’ll only take five minutes.’

‘I can’t let you into a crime scene.’

‘But the bones are old.  They’ve been buried there for years.  Plus our traces must be everywhere.’

‘That may be the case, but there are protocols to follow.’

‘It’s over, Doug,’ Debbie said, turning away. ‘That was our home.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review of Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City by Raleigh Trevelyan (1981, Coronet)

On January 22nd 1944 the Allies landed at Anzio, about 60 kilometres south of Rome.  The beachhead was quickly established and the troops were meant to break out and head north and east to liberate the eternal city and cut-off German troops manning the Gustav line at Monte Cassino.  Instead, the Anzio landings turned into a desperate war of attrition as the Germans mounted a campaign to drive the Allies back into the sea.  Moreover, the Gustav line held firm, with Monte Cassino becoming one of the most bloody and controversial battles of the war.  It was only on June 4th that the Fifth Army entered Rome, abandoned by the Germans largely intact. 

Trevelyan tells the story of the liberation of Rome using four narratives.  The first concentrates on the inhabitants of Rome, especially the lives of and roles played by the resistance members, Vatican/church workers, and senior German and fascist officers.  The second focuses on the Anzio beachhead and the skirmishes between the Allied and German units, and the in-fighting between Allied commanders.  The third concerns the battle at Monte Cassino, the lynch-pin of the Gustav Line.  And lastly, the author’s own recollections of taking part in the campaign as a young officer. 

Trevelyan certainly pulls together a lot of information, covering the various battles and skirmishes from a variety of perspectives, including testimony from locals, resistance fighters, and the German Army, as well as the Allies.  And rather than simply providing a high level overview, he captures the everyday experiences of different groups of actors.  He also details the various political shenanigans going on between rival Italian groups and within the Allied and German armies.  The result is quite a rich telling of the liberation.  However, how the material is put together is sometimes a little uneven and somewhat sketchy.  Moreover, the book has a hard start and end dates, meaning some contextual framing is missing, and the liberation of Rome itself felt a little rushed, consisting of just a few pages. Nonetheless, Rome ’44 is a fascinating account of the Italy campaign in the first six months of 1944.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

August reviews

I've realised that I completely forgot to do a summary post of my August reads, so here it is.  A month of 3 and 3.5 star reads.  All solid and entertaining enough, but no real standout book.  I think this is the first month since starting the blog that I've not read a four star or higher book.  Nevertheless, it didn't feel like a poor month of reading and I've previously read books by five of the authors.

Lehrter Station by David Downing ***.5
Royal Flash by George Fraser Macdonald ***.5
Deadlock by Sara Paretsky ***
Princes Gate by Mark Ellis ***.5
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward ***.5
Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code-Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War by Taylor Downing ***
Border Angels by Anthony Quinn ***.5
Target London: Under Attack From V-Weapons During WWII by Christy Campbell ***

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to Zagreb this week to give a talk.  My choice of reading is going to be Luke McCallin's The Pale House, which is actually set in Sarajevo, but it's the nearest in geographical terms amongst the books on my to-be-read pile.  I've not been to Croatia before and I'm looking forward to the trip.

My posts this week
New paper: The diverse nature of big data
Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson
Review of Black Bear by Aly Monroe
Lone patrol

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lone patrol

After twilight came the moon and stars and the chatter of a spandau just below the ruined monastery walls.

Kelly ducked out from behind a large boulder and slowly picked his way up the slope.  Ahead he caught a few words of German and dropped behind a fallen tree.

Nearby a man laughed, answered with angry words.

A scrawny boy lined up in Kelly’s sights.  He looked seventeen going on forty.

Kelly’s finger touched the trigger and paused.  This wasn’t the heat of battle, but a calculated kill. But if there was a battle ...

The boy dropped from view.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review of Black Bear by Aly Monroe (2013, John Murray)

1947 and British spy Peter Cotton has arrived in New York as part of an advance British delegation to check out the nascent United Nations.  Shortly after arriving he wakes up in the Ogden Clinic, an exclusive recovery centre for veterans.  His physician is surprised that he is both alive and not brain-damaged, having been found badly battered in a doorway, injected with three different truth-drugs.  As Cotton slowly recovers he’s plagued by vertigo, colour blindness, tunnel vision and hallucinations.  He has no recollection of his abduction and interrogation and cannot make sense of why he’s been left alive.  Both British and American intelligence are interested in his case, but both are guarded in their dealings with him.  As soon as Cotton is well enough he heads to Rhode Island to recover in peace, but despite the two months break he can’t help wondering what happened to him and speculating on who was responsible and why.

Black Bear is the fourth book in the Peter Cotton series.  It’s quite a curious book, being somewhat compelling despite the fact that very little seems to happen.  Cotton wakes in a clinic, slowly recovers, is discharged and heads away on vacation to recover, he makes friends with a couple of locals, and interacts with a couple of American and British intelligence agents.  And yet, Monroe manages to make all that mundanity somehow interesting, in part by driving the story along through character development, in part by capturing the reader’s need to discover what happened to him, and in part by layering in authentic historical detail.  I found the ending somewhat of anti-climax, but then the whole story is under-played, a kind of antithesis of the spills and thrills variety of spy tale.  Assuming that’s partly the aim, the book succeeds admirably.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson (2015, Penguin)

Flynne and her brother, Burton, live in rural America in the not too distant future, where the drugs business, the Hefty corporation, and Homes (Dept Homeland Security) control just about everything.  Their life consists of raising the money for their mother’s meds and playing games for others for cash on what passes for the internet.  When Burton is called away, Flynne steps in to play security in what seems like a staid beta game.  All she is supposed to do is work a perimeter around a huge tower block, keeping away buzzing objects.  Then she witnesses what appears to be a murder.  After that things start to get a little crazy, with a contract taken out on Burton’s life and a corporate entity from Columbia, Coldiron, seeking to protect them.  Whatever Flynne has witnessed, one group wants her dead and the other wants her to identify the killer.  And both seem to have the resources to make staying alive one hell of a ride.

It’s easy to understand how some readers might get frustrated with William Gibson’s writing style.  In The Peripheral he uses a raft of made-up slang and neologisms, new cultural norms and invented technologies without ever explaining them.  He just plunges the reader into the narrative as if the world he is describing is entirely familiar.  One simply has to either try and work it out, or guess, or keep reading until what is being described eventually makes sense.  It took me about 80 or 90 pages to feel confident that I knew what was going on, but by then I was entirely immersed in his worlds.  And from there on in it was a really great read as Gibson conjoins two parallel histories, separated by seventy years, with the witness to a murder in one residing in the other, and ideas and minds shuttling between the two.  Flynne is an engaging humanist lead and Gibson populates the books with a coterie of other interesting characters, especially the cynical, jaded PR man, Wilf Netherton, and a clever, mysterious cop, Lowbeer.  The plot is ingenious and nicely constructed, and after a somewhat ponderous opening gains direction and pace.  The temporal separation of the two eras enables Gibson to explore the unfolding arc of history, and the interplay of politics and technology and to speculate on the fate of humanity.  Moreover, there is a good sense of place, both of rural America and urban London.  My advice is, if you find yourself struggling in the open chapters to understand what is happening, simply keep going and you’ll be rewarded for doing so.  I thought it was a great read.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Another busy week, which meant a slow week of reading.  I have though almost finished Aly Monroe's Black Bear, which is proving to be an engaging read. 

I've just booked my accommodation for a trip to Nova Scotia in October.  Does anyone have any recommendations for novels set there?

My posts this week:
Review of Mangrove Squeeze by Laurence Shames