Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review of Margin of Error by Edna Buchanan (Hyperion, 1997)

Britt Montero is the hardnosed, police beat reporter for the Miami News.  What she’d like to be doing is getting the scoop on the various crimes happening in the city.  Her bosses though have teamed her up with Lance Westfell, a Hollywood heartthrob on location in the city to film a new movie, Margin of Error, in which he plays a journalist.  Britt’s job is to give him a sense of what being a reporter is all about.  She’s hoping that he’ll get the gist in a day as she’s up to her eyes with various cases, including a young security guard shot dead at his place of work, a young mother who’s baby seemingly died of starvation, and a pervert with a foot fetish.  Lance, however, believes in doing reasonably thorough research and plans to tag along for a while.  He has problems of his own, including a stalker, a messy separation from a diva, and a career that is starting to wane, plus the movie he’s working on is being plagued by mishaps.  Soon the mishaps become murder and Britt and Lance are drawn together as they try to stay alive and workout who is responsible and why.

Margin of Error is a kind of tart noir, with its sassy, smart, streetwise reporter pitching her wits against cops, criminals and anyone else that gets in the way of a good story, with the obligatory romantic subplot.  It’s nicely written in an engaging style, with the story zipping along.  Britt Montero is well portrayed as the committed reporter with a messy personal life, and Lance Westfell is a ringer for Matthew McConaughey, being all charm, wit, good looks and slightly vulnerable.  The story felt a little cliched, both in terms of the general arc and the romance, but was blended with a handful of interesting, intertwined subplots, and was generally entertaining.  However, as it progressed and Buchanan ratcheted up the intrigue and tension it became less believable and the reveal just didn’t ring true at all and firmly bumped me out a story.  That was a shame as it had been working quite well up to the last third.  Overall, a relatively light, fun read that didn’t quite strike all the right notes.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Staring into the jaws of defeat

Jimmy threw the stinking piece of meat in a slow arc.  A wide mouth rose up, snapping its jagged jaws closed with a thud, sinking back into the swamp. 

‘Big bastard, ain’t he?  American Alligator.  Grows up to fifteen feet long.  He’ll eat just about anything - fish, birds, lizards, critters.’

He glanced across at the bound man, then up at McKenzie sitting at the helm of airboat.

‘What do you think?  Ten footer?’

‘Maybe twelve,’ McKenzie answered.

‘Might be thirteen, you don’t tell me where my money is, Carlos.’

The jaws snatched another piece of meat from the air.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey (Harper, 2008)

Serge Storms, the hyperactive, under-medicated, fatal dispenser of justice and Florida trivia, is preparing for hurricane season and some recreational storm chasing in the eye of the vortex.  As usual, his stoned and/or drunk buddy Coleman is riding shotgun.  Spoiling Serge’s fun, however, is a copycat serial killer who is sending slanderous letters to the local newspaper.  They’re soon engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange of letters and bodies.  In the meantime, mild-mannered journalist, Jeff McSweeney, has the task of writing about their escapades and interviewing the victim’s families, making his a nervous, depressive wreck.  His disposition is not aided by the help of Maloney, a federal agent who’s Serge’s nemesis and thinks he’s operating in a 1940s noir-styled world and has psychiatric problems of his own.  As one hurricane after another rolls across the Florida panhandle, all kinds of mayhem unfolds, most of it caused by Serge and Coleman.

Dorsey’s Serge Storms’ novels are always a zany rollercoaster ride of cartoonish violence and madcap behaviour underlain with a dose of suspect moral philosophy – yes, Serge does terrible, imaginative things to his victims but there’s a logic and natural justice to his actions; though the ultimate price is rarely what most might consider the ‘right’ punishment.  In Hurricane Punch he interweaves five main plotlines – storm chasing during a particularly bad hurricane season, his duel with a copycat serial killer, a cop beat journalist’s slow breakdown as he covers murders, the rivalry between competing media outlets, and federal agent Maloney’s attempt to capture Serge.  The result is a fast moving tale of madness, destruction, rivalries, and parody of the news industry, that is often amusing and sometimes poignant.  As usual the story is peppered with Florida trivia and history.  The characterisation is well done, the dialogue snappy, and the plot engaging.  As with most comic crime capers realism takes a backseat for much of the time enabling Dorset to set up some great scenes and to twist the tale along.  There are a couple of odd moments with the timeline, but overall this is good fun, with some nice observational asides.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review of Tropical Heat by John Lutz (No Exit Press, 1986)

Fred Carver has been invalided out of the police after being shot in the knee.  Living in a beachfront shack he takes long therapeutic swims in the ocean and undertakes the occasional bit of private investigation work whilst living off his compensation payout.  Edwina Talbot is pointed in his direction by his old boss, Lieutenant Desoto.  She wants him to track down her lover, Willis Davis, a time-shares salesman who seemingly committed suicide by leaping into the sea, though his body has not been found.  Carver reluctantly takes the case and it soon becomes more interesting than he anticipated, with a couple of attempts on his life and a growing attraction to Edwina.

Tropical Heat is the first Fred Carver book in a series of ten published between 1986 and 1996.  Carver is a somewhat reluctant private investigator who hobbles about with a cane (that doubles as a weapon) due to a gammy leg.  Set in central Florida, the story is a typical PI tale of finding a missing person who doesn’t want to be found, who has a more complex back story than originally thought, and the PI and woman hiring him becoming romantically involved.  Whilst there are a number of action sequences as Carver tangles with a deadly gang, the tale felt more like an episode of The Rockford Files than Miami Vice; more small screen than big screen.  It was an interesting enough read, but never really fully captured the imagination.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that I simply didn't believe in the fledgling romance and the way in which Carver engineers it.  The ending had a reasonable twist, but involved a leap of faith and an unnecessary rush in order to create a tension point.  Overall, a solid enough, run-of-the-mill start to a series.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Today I'll be taking the train from Miami to Tampa.  Yesterday I spent the day going down the keys to Key West and the day before in the Everglades.  I've four of my Florida-set novels read - Dennis Lehane and Michael Lister (links below); and Tropical Heat by John Lutz and Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey (reviews soon).  I should get Edna Buchanan's Margin of Error finished on the train.  That leaves Tropical Freeze by James Hall and To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.  Then I'm onto buying more books.

My posts this week
Review of Prime Cut by Alan Carter
Review of The Secrets in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri
March reviews
Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Review of The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister
Path of least resistivity

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Path of least resistivity

‘How was I supposed to know he didn’t speak English?’

‘By talking to him.’

‘But he wouldn’t have understood me!’

‘Precisely.  Instead you plugged fifty thousand volts into him.’

‘I just gave him a quick blast to get his attention.’

‘You already had his attention.  It was your attention that got him agitated.’

‘Which is why he needed a quick taser jolt.’

‘You almost killed him, Carver.  The guy was in his seventies.’

 ‘He’s okay now, isn’t he?’

‘He’ll probably sue us, unless he dies, in which case his family will.’

‘I could give them a jolt if you like?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Big Goodbye by Michael Lister (Pulpwood Press, 2011)

1943 and Jimmy Riley is a private investigator in Panama City in Northern Florida. A year previously he’d been a cop, but then he’d met and started an affair with femme fatale, Lauren Lewis, who is married to a banker with political ambitions.  Riley had fallen head-over-heels for Lauren, but their relationship soon floundered, and he became so distracted that he lost an arm to a shotgun blast and was invalided out of the police.  Now Lauren thinks that someone is following her and is acting erratically, people are threatening Riley, and her husband is bewildered.  All Riley knows is that he’s still obsessed with Lauren and will do anything to stop her coming to harm, regardless of what she wants or the consequences.

The Big Goodbye is a hardboiled, noir, PI story set during the Second World War era in Florida.  Lister keeps the writing snappy and the pace high as the main character, one-armed Jimmy Riley helter-skelters blindly from one situation to the next as he tries to work out what is happening with respect to his old girlfriend.  The plot is strength of the book, with a nice mix of feints and twists.  However, the storytelling tries a little too hard to create a particular style and atmosphere, the characters often verge on caricatures, and a consequence of pace is an underplaying of sense of place and historical contextualisation - it’s all about the puzzle and the relationship between Riley and Lauren.  Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you like hardboiled noir.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review of Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (2012, Abacus)

The mid 1920s and Joe Coughlin, the son of a deputy superintendent in the Boston police, has been running wild since he was thirteen with his friends Dion and Paolo.  Still in their teens, they hold up a speakeasy owned by local Irish mafia boss, Albert White.  During the raid, Joe meets Emma Gould, White’s mistress, and vows to get to know her better.  A few days later he tracks her down and they start an affair.  Stealing cash from White is a bad idea, stealing his girl is suicidal.  Joe’s plan is for one last robbery, then to run off with Emma.  Instead, he ends up in prison, where as the son of a cop, he’s highly vulnerable.  His strategy is to do whatever it takes to survive and he’s soon on the path to becoming a made-man.  On release he’s asked to run Albert White, who’s moved to Tampa, out of town and to build up the Italian Mob’s rum-making operation.  Joe would like to think that he’s an outlaw, but he knows he’s become a gangster, someone who lives by night, outside of the rules of the day.  He also knows that he’s now the boss in an enterprise that specialises in violence, double-crossing and greed, and that to survive and prosper he needs to be ruthless and committed and to jettison his innate compassion.

Most crime stories take place over the course of a few days or weeks.  Live by Night is much more ambitious in its scope, following the life of Joe Coughlin from small time crook to feared gangster boss over a ten year period, tracing his ups and downs, and exploring themes of family, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, love, compassion, and violence.  Despite the fact that Coughlin’s life is full of incident, Lehane manages to pack an awful lot into 500 pages without ever rushing or skimping on detail.  Indeed, a real strength of the book is how he manages to deal with the temporal shifts across years and incidents to create a smooth overarching narrative that always keeps the reader engaged. It took me a little bit of time to warm to Coughlin and the story, but the story soon becomes compelling.  And whilst there are plenty of twists and turns, the plot is coherent and does not rely on coincidence or plot devices, and does not get sidetracked with subplots.  The characterisation is well penned, especially Coughlin, who develops and matures over time, his friend Dion, Graciela, Albert White and Maso, who are all alive on the page and have back stories, and even the minor characters have some depth.  Throughout there’s a good sense of time (prohibition period), place (Boston, Tampa and Cuba) and social context (race, politics, crime).  If you’re looking for a 1920/30s gangster story with some heart and depth, or a crime story that is expansive in scope, then Live by Night will be just your ticket. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

March reviews

It's a good job that I put together these little summaries of the books read and reviewed in a month as I discovered that I had written a review and then forgotten to post it.  I read Eduardo Sacheri's The Secret in Their Eyes immediately after Anthony Quinn's Disappeared, wrote the review and then turned my attention to other things.  Hence, two posts today.  Difficult to pick a book of the month between those two and the Manovich book.  I think I'll call it a tie between Quinn and Sacheri, both of which deal with situations linked to 'dirty wars'. 

Prime Cut by Alan Carter ***
Software Takes Command by Lev Manovich ****.5
Corridors of Death by Ruth Dudley Edwards ****
The Secrets in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri ****.5
Disappeared by Anthony Quinn ****.5
The Safe Word by Karen Long ***
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo ***.5
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon ***
The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly ****

Review of The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (Other Press, 2011; Spanish 2005)

On retiring from forty years working as a court clerk, Benjamin Chaparro asks to borrow an old typewriter, hoping to write a novel with his new found time.  After a few false starts he decides to write the story of Liliana Morales, a recently married young woman who was raped and murdered in her apartment in 1968.  Liliana’s death had a profound effect on her husband, a reserved bank teller, and cast a long shadow over Chaparro’s career after he takes more interest in the case than usual, in the process making an enemy of a colleague who later gains power and influence during Argentina’s dark years of the 1970s when thousands of people disappeared at the hands of state agents.  As he writes, Chaparro reflects on his own life, his friendships and failed marriages, and his loneliness and unrequited love for Irene Hornos, who started as an intern in his team and is now a judge.

The Secret in Their Eyes charts forty years in the life of Benjamin Chaparro, a court clerk in Buenos Aires, whose life is over-shadowed by the investigation into the death of Liliana Morales and his love for a married woman.  Sacheri tells the story through two entwined narratives.  The first follows Chaparro retiring from the court service, starting to write a novel, and coming to terms with his new life and his loneliness and longing for Irene.  The second is the text from the novel charting the death of Liliana, the investigation over a number of years, the quest for justice, and the material and emotional effects on her husband and Chaparro.  The two strands are very nicely interwoven, the observations and reflections are keenly detailed, and the pace is judged beautifully.  Both stories are fascinating, especially the investigation and how it became entangled in the dirty war in Argentina during the 1970s.  The characterisation is very well done, particularly the melancholic Chaparro, and plotting is excellent, though the story tails off a little towards the end, with both storylines feeling like they weren’t quite fully worked through (ironically, a recurrent element in the book is that Chaparro is never quite happy with what he believes to be the end of his novel, going on to extend the story).  Nonetheless, The Secret in Their Eyes is a very well written piece of literary crime fiction.  The book was made into a film of the same name that won the 2010 foreign language Oscar (which, if I remember it correctly was quite faithful to the book, though it had more tension and the ending was more definitive).

Monday, March 31, 2014

Review of Prime Cut by Alan Carter (Freemantle Press, 2011)

Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong used to be the face of the Western Australian police force’s recruitment posters and on a face-track to the top.  Then one of his early convictions is overturned when the real murderer is caught several years later, the evidence from the first case having been tampered with, and Cato is relegated to the stock squad, investigating farm and animal related incidents.  The move is designed to make him leave the force, a decision he’s close to making when he and his partner are sent to the small coastal town of Hopetoun that’s being transformed by a new mine to investigate the discovery of a torso washed up a beach.  There he’s reunited with an old flame, Tess Maguire, who’s fighting her own demons and a fourteen year old daughter.  They make little headway in the case, rebuffed by unhelpful locals as they slowly pick away at the town’s underbelly and its exploitation of Chinese migrant workers.  And unbeknownst to them, they unsettle a man with a very dark past, one that ex-cop and pommie retiree to Australia, Stuart Miller, has been chasing his whole life.

The strengths of Prime Cut are the evocative sense of place, the characterisation, and the mordant sense of wit.  Carter places the reader on the southern shore of Western Australia, with its scenic beaches and desolate landscape, and into Hopetoun, a small town being transformed by a massive nearby mine.  He populates the town and story with an interesting set of characters who are nicely penned, especially Cato Kwong and Tess Maguire, two damaged cops clinging onto their roles and rethinking their futures.  The storytelling is engaging, aided by a very nice dose of dark wit, expressed through some zinging one-liners.  For the most part the plot worked well, with a couple of decent hooks and steady pace, but as the story progressed it fractured into too many subplots and some of the scenes felt a little over-the-top and melodramatic.  Personally, I felt the Sunderland-linked plotline was not needed and was rooted in too much coincidence - it was if Carter couldn’t decide which case the tale should be about, the washed up torso or the Sunderland murderer and rammed together two plots that could have been the central focus of the story in their own right.  Sometimes, less is more. Regardless, I’d be interested to read the second book in the series to see how Cato fares in trying to get his career and personal life back on track.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

The last couple of weeks have been fairly manic and I did less reading of fiction than I would have liked (but plenty of academic articles) and neglected the blog a little (which I imagine will continue for another couple of weeks due to a backlog of work).  I've now caught up with writing two reviews, which I'll post this week - Alan Carter's Prime Cut and Dennis Lehane's Live by Night.

My posts this week

Launch of new project
Review of Software Takes Command by Lev Manovich
Taking the devil for a swim

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Taking the devil for a swim

The small boat made its way out towards the centre of the lake, which was as flat, smooth and the same hue as Welsh slate.  At the stern an elderly man, his feet placed in two buckets of set concrete, was flanked by two younger men. 

‘You have any final words?’

‘They’ll be no guns on the far side.’

‘That’s it?’

‘You’re evil men, but I’m the devil.’

There was barely a splash as he hit the water.  He didn’t fight to stay on the surface and as he sank he stared up, his gaze locked on the two men.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of Software Takes Command by Lev Manovich (Bloomsbury, 2013)

In Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich provides a compelling account of how all forms of cultural media have become produced through software.  In so doing, he contends:

‘[s]oftware has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination - a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs’ (p. 2).

Such arguments have been made in the nascent software studies literature for a number of years, with proponents suggesting that given the extent to which software now conditions everyday life it deserves to be examined in its own right as a significant actant and theoretical category (e.g., Fuller 2008, Chun 2011, Kitchin and Dodge 2011).  As Manovich puts it in a book proposal co-written with Benjamin Bratton in 2003,

‘[if] we don’t address software itself, we are in danger of always dealing only with its effects rather than the causes: the output that appears on a computer screen rather than the programs and social cultures that produce these outputs’ (p. 9).

As he notes, such studies are concerned with questions such as what is the nature of software?, ‘[w]hat is “media” after software?’ (p.4), ‘what does it mean to live in a “software society”?’ and ‘what does it mean to be part of “software culture”?’ (p. 6).  He seeks to answer such questions through an in-depth genealogical study of the ‘softwarization’ of cultural media - art, photos, film, television, music, etc. - that has been occurring since the 1970s, tracing out the simulation and extension of analogue techniques in software such as Photoshop, and the creation of entirely new techniques.

Through a series of theoretically informed and empirically rich chapters, Manovich reflects on how different media became thoroughly infused with software, how it altered different practices, and how to make sense of software’s effects.  He persuasively argues that softwarization has led to the formation of a new ‘metamedium’ in which what were previously separate media, and already existing and not-yet-invented media, become fused.  This metamedium is composed of a composite of algorithms and data structures, and techniques that are general purpose (such as cut-and-paste) and those that are media-specific which combine to produce various forms of ‘hybridity’ and ‘deep remixability’. 

Moreover, ‘[u]nited within the common software environment the languages of cinematography, animation, drawing, computer animation, special effects, graphic design, typography, drawing, and painting, have come to form a new metalanguage’ (p. 268).  Further, given the partial and provisional nature of software - always being updated and patched, always processing data - he contends that software produces a world of permanent change and flux.  He concludes that ‘[t]urning everything into data, and using algorithms to analyze it changes what it means to know something.  It creates new strategies that together make up software epistemology.’  We are only just starting to make sense of such an epistemology.

Given the logic and power of the argument forwarded it is relatively straightforward to begin to translate Manovich’s argument and approach to other domains.  Software, after all has gradually been infusing the practices of work, science, home life, communication, consumption, travel, and so on.  Indeed, as I read the text I started to sketch out a potential project tracing how maps have become software, producing a genealogy of geospatial media.  It will be interesting to see such translations being made and for the theory to be fleshed out as it encounters new scenarios and phenomena.
My view is, however, that such translations need to be broader and more ambitious in their scope.

Whilst Manovich is undoubtedly right that software is a key metamedium utilising new metalanguages that are reshaping cultural practices, the analytical framing adopted over-fetishizes code at the expense of its wider assemblage of production and use.  This is because his proposed approach is quite narrowly framed.  He argues: “To understand media today we need to understand media software - its genealogy (where it comes from), its anatomy (interfaces and operations), and its practical and theoretical effects” (p. 125). 

Horewever, drawing on my own work on thinking about data (Kitchin, in press), we need to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that software is bound up in a whole suite of discursive and material practices and structures, including:

•    systems of thought (philosophies, theories, models, ideologies, etc)
•    forms of knowledge (manuals, papers, magazines, websites, experience, word of mouth, etc)
•    finance (business models, investment, venture capital, grants, philanthropy, etc)
•    political economies (policy, tax regimes, public and political opinion, ethical considerations, etc)
•    governmentalities and legalities (data standards, system requirements, protocols, regulations, laws, licensing, intellectual property regimes)
•    materialities and infrastructures (computers, databases, networks, servers, etc)
•    practices (Techniques, learned behaviours, scientific conventions, etc)
•    organisations and institutions (corporations, consultants, manufacturers, retailers, government agencies, universities, conferences, clubs and societies, etc)
•    subjectivities and communities (of data producers, managers, analysts, scientists, politicians, users, etc)
•    places (labs, offices, field sites, data centres, business parks, etc)
•    marketplaces (for software, data, coders, etc).

Understanding software then, I would contend, requires placing it within its wider context that shapes how it is conceived, produced, and used in often quite messy, contingent and relational ways.  Manovich rightly contends that software is a new ‘medium in which we can think and imagine differently’ (p. 13), but we should not fall into the trap of over-fetishizing and decontextualizing it; software is enmeshed in complex assemblages that have to be recognized and understood if we are to make full sense of how it makes a difference.  Nevertheless, Software Takes Command is a very good starting point for such a journey.

Chun, W.H.K. (2011) Programmed Vision: Software and Memory. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Fuller, M. (ed.) (2008) Software Studies: A Lexicon.  MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kitchin, R. (2014, in press) The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences.  Sage, London.

Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2011) Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life.  MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Launch of new project

Over the past two days I've been tied up in three events related to the launch of the Programmable City project, for which I'm principal investigator.  The project, which employs a team of ten and looks at the relationship between software, data and cities, was officially launched yesterday by the Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, TD (program here).  If you're interested, the event received some media attention and the project website is here.

RTE News site, including Morning Ireland radio clip
Morning Edition (TV clip – 31.08 minutes in)
Irish Times article.