Sunday, 11 October 2020

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow


Masha Maximow is a hacker in the employ of Xoth Intelligence, an InfoSec company that sells its services to the highest bidder. The novel opens with her posted to the fictional country of "Slovstakia" (which could be any number ex-soviet republics, perhaps one of the Stans in Central Asia, or an Eastern European or Baltic nation) where she helps its corrupt government with surveillance tech to crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. She has a conscience though and has befriended some of the protestors on the side to try and help them, but her efforts are no match for Zoth and the day job. 

After her employers discover her moonlighting and she’s fired, she returns to the United States where she rejoins childhood friends who are protesting against oppressive policing in California. Here a previous employer, Zyz, forces her to work for them to suppress the protestors. Through chapters that flashback we learn how Maximow was first employed by Zyz to work in Iraq using her hacking and surveillance tech against insurgents. She was then recruited by Zoth. We learn too, of all the compromises that she has made down the years. 

This is the third book in a loose trilogy (though it stands alone, and you don’t have to have read the previous titles to read this), each focusing on tech and oppression, and on the protestors who try to fight it. It’s marketed as science fiction/speculative fiction, but it’s very much near-sci-fi; in fact, I think the genre is misleading, much of what’s included in the book is already current as any reading of the Snowden revelations would reveal. 

This is a book that is very heavy on the technical detail, however, and the author is keen to show exactly how realistic the events he depicts are. Unfortunately, I thought this dense knowledge was too much and the book often got bogged down under the weight of it. The book felt far too long as well, the author cramming much too much in one title. 

That all said, I was never tempted to stop reading and this is a compelling story with an interesting character arc. The reader never look at their phone in the same light, either. We all know that smartphones can be used to track us, and Attack Surface really brings this home. It also proves the lie to those who say “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” and those who believe that the loss of privacy that social media has ushered in is no big thing.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar


This is the long-awaited sequel to the author’s debut Brothers in Blood, an impressive novel that made a well-deserved impact on the crime fiction landscape. We’re back with Zaq and his best mate Jags in Southall, and once more this is a tale populated by the West London neighbourhood's less respectable inhabitants.

Stone Cold Trouble starts off with Zaq still in the employ of the timber yard owned by the Brar family, this despite the fact that in the previous novel he went toe-to-toe with the Brar sons, both local thugs. Zaq outwitted them and they now languish as guests of Her Majesty’s Pleasure, but luckily for him, their father is blissfully unaware of his role in his sons’ incarceration, and so he still has a job.

Trouble for Zaq this time occurs on two fronts. First, his brother Tariq is beaten into a coma, and second Jags uncle loses a valuable necklace in a game of poker. Zaq investigates who beat up Tariq fearing it’s any number of people he crossed in book one, while he and Jags try and recover the necklace. Needless to say, it isn’t long before they end up in all kinds of trouble. As mentioned, and being a crime thriller, the two friends soon cross a new selection of unsavoury characters and some of the bad guys in Stone Cold Trouble are truly unpleasant people who consider themselves above the law. 

Stone Cold Trouble is a great novel, albeit a little slower to get going than Brothers in Blood. This reflects the storyline well though as Zaq is both worried about his brother and also has very little to go on in his investigations. The climactic last third is really very tense and by then the reader has discovered just how repellent those our heroes are up against really are.

As with the first book, this is a well-plotted crime novel with compelling characterisation, and as with book one, there are a number of hints of where things might go next. As the series progresses Zaq and Jags are building up both enemies (such as the Brar Brothers, who currently rot in the clink) and others who might become suspicious that the two could be a liability (a certain person in Stone Cold Trouble). Either could form a plotline for book three. Or the two might happen across a whole new set of villains. Either way, this is a series that is well worth a read and Stone Cold Trouble is a great sequel to the author’s debut.

5 out of 5 stars

Enemy of the Raj by Alec Marsh


Drabble and Harris are back in this, the second of Alec Marsh’s novels to feature the indomitable duo, and a sequel to his debut, Rule Britannia. It’s 1937 and our pair, Sir Percival Harris and Professor Ernest Drabble, are in India. The novel opens with the two on a tiger hunt, which is quite an opening for a story.

Rule Britannia was set against the backdrop of fascism in Britain in the 1930s and those who admired and wished to collaborate with Hitler. There was an element of speculative/counterfactual history to the plot, in that it imagined an attempted coup d’etat by fascist forces. In keeping with this flavour, Enemy of the Raj does something similar; set against the backdrop of the burgeoning independence movement in India, it isn’t long before our heroes find themselves embroiled in plots and conspiracies as needless to say, not everyone is happy with the idea of India freeing itself from the yolk of British rule.

Like the first novel in the series, Enemy of the Raj is well-plotted and the characterisation is strong, the two main characters a great contrast to each other. Drabble is intelligent and capable, he’s the action hero of the piece, while Harris is more than a little hapless.

As with the previous novel, the author has clearly done his research. This novel examines the history of India leading up to independence, and while this is not a heavy or political read, it is educational. Where Rule Britannia focused on the little known story of Cromwell’s head and what has happened to it down the years, Enemy of the Raj tells the remarkable story of Maharaja Ganga Singh, a man who the author rightly calls one of the lost giants of the twentieth century. This is a man who achieved much and led a really quite astonishing life and yet has been all but forgotten from history. His story is weaved through the plot of Enemy of the Raj to entertaining effect; hopefully, it will go some way to bringing Singh the recognition he deserves.

Enemy of the Raj is an entertaining novel and a worthy sequel to Drabble and Harris’s previous outing. I particularly like the author’s use of little known elements of history to illuminate the period and his use of speculative/counterfactual plot lines. I hope that he can think of something to equally good for the third in the series (I’m sure there’ll be a third outing for our part of unlikely heroes) and look forward to reading what they get up to next.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Making Wolf by Tade Thompson


Weston Kogi is a supermarket store detective in London. When he returns to the country of his birth (Alcacia, a fictional West African state, inspired by Nigeria) for the funeral of his aunt, the woman who took care of him as a child and put him on a plane to London just as the country exploded into civil war and thus secured him a better life, he runs up against people from his past. The abusive father who always disliked and was ashamed of him, the boy who bullied him at school and made his childhood a torment, the girl he loved. 

It is Churchill “Church” Okita, the boy who bullied him at school, who has the biggest and most immediate impact. For he has heard that Kogi is a detective, mistaken his job title to mean he is a proper police detective and abducts him to press him into service investigating a real-life murder. Church is an enforcer for one of two main rebel groups, the Liberation Front of Alcacia (LFA) and they want to know who assassinated an elder statesman who was refereeing negotiations with the Government. Kogi begins his investigations out of necessity (he doesn’t want to be murdered if Church and the LFA discover the truth) but soon discovers he has an aptitude for the work.

It isn’t long before the other guerrilla group, the People’s Christian Army (PCA) get involved, as indeed does the government’s intelligence services and the plot of Making Wolf becomes a combination of gumshoe PI novel in a unique setting, political thriller, and satire about West African corruption.

Tade Thompson is a gifted writer of Nigerian descent. Making Wolf is his first foray into crime fiction (before this he’s written sci-fi) and the first novel of his that I’ve read. Making Wolf seems like the first on a new series and I really hope it is, as this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. A well-written novel with a cast of interesting characters, this is a great read.

4 out of 5 stars  

The Heights by Parker Bilal


When a severed head is found on a busy London Underground carriage, the investigation soon draws in private detective Cal Drake and his partner Dr Rayhana Crane. Drake is a disgraced former Met police undercover detective, while Crane has her own history in intelligence and psychological profiling for the police. It quickly becomes apparent that the head links back to the case that ruined Drake’s reputation and led him to leave the police. A subplot runs along with this main story, as the two PI’s investigate a missing student.

This is the first of Parker Bilal’s books that I’ve read (though I have a few on my ever-growing list of titles on my kindle, which wait for me to get around to reading) and is the second in the author’s Drake & Crane series. It can be read as a standalone and the author gives backstory when needed, but personally, I felt that I would have enjoyed this novel more had I read the first in the series,  The Divinities. That said, I did enjoy this novel and found it compelling.

At heart, The Heights is a gangland/undercover police novel, a sub-genre I tend to enjoy, though I suspect that The Divinities was even more so. Unlike some series, where each novel is a self-contained story, the main story in The Heights is a direct continuation from that of The Divinities. It’s not concluded in The Heights either, so will continue on into a third title. A sense of resolution is given by the subplot, but this series should be seen as akin to a drama such as The Wire or Breaking Bad, where the major story spans a number of titles. Personally, I like this style of storytelling, which makes me even keener to now read The Divinities (I have a copy on my Kindle) so that I can fully appreciate the third title when it comes out.

The Heights is a well-written story with a tight plot and compelling characters. I just have one criticism and it’s a personal bugbear of mine. The author refers not once, but three times, to female uniformed police officers as WPCs. The W for Women Police Constable was dropped a long time ago and female police constables, like their male counterparts, are known just as PC. Unless an author is writing a historical set novel, the use of WPC is just galling. The Heights is a contemporary set novel and so it’s wrong here.

That said, I really enjoyed this book and will make sure to read The Divinities prior to the next instalment so that I can get a fuller appreciation of the complex tale that the author has adeptly weaved.

3 out of 5 stars 

Monday, 24 August 2020

London's Armed Police by Stephen Smith


This is really a review of two books because London’s Armed Police follows on from the author’s earlier title (albeit released by a different publisher) Stop! Armed Police!: Inside the Met’s Firearms Unit. 

The earlier title related the history of the Met’s firearms unit, from foundation through an exhaustive recounting of each and every shooting incident and the unit’s repeated reorganisation, up to the date of publication (2013). London’s Armed Police takes up the story, detailing shootings, incidents, and the unit’s reorganisation since. This truncated timeframe (the earlier title covered the period 1966 to 2013, while this book covers 2013 to 2019) allows the author much more space to detail the tactics, training and weapons of the unit (always mindful of course not to divulge confidential details).

The earlier title discussed tactics and weaponry too, but this latter title has much more on this and of course details the contemporary unit’s kit and procedures. Like the previous title, London’s Armed Police is gorgeously illustrated with dramatic colour photographs which bring what might otherwise be a technical manual to life. Similarly, photographs are used to illustrate the accounts of police shootings, though only where appropriate and there are no gratuitous pictures of bodies.

This is a non-fiction history but it is not a dry account and the author knows his subject and brings it to life. Readers will come to this from a variety of perspectives. For some, the appeal will be simple interest in the subject. For others like myself, it will be more reference. As a journalist and a writer of crime fiction, I have an interest in armed police operations. Whatever the readers' motivation, this is a readable and well laid out account of the Met police firearms unit and one that is sure to not disappoint.

5 out of 5 stars  

Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad by Dick Kirby


Dick Kirby is a retired Metropolitan police detective who spent a large part of his service with the Serious Crime Squad and the Flying Squad. He joined the police in 1967 and while he writes true crime prolifically, much of his writing focuses on historical crime, the period from the forties to the seventies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but generally, my interests are more contemporary. 

This book traces the history of the flying squad from its formation just after the first world war to the present day. Due to my interests, it was the latter half of the title that I was more interested in, the late 1970s/early 1980’s onwards. 

This section of the book is well told and in particular, I liked the detail on some lesser told tales, such as the armed operation to bring down the Arif brothers. At one time the Arifs were seen as contenders to the crown vacated by the Kray and Richardson gangs, and it was feared they would dominate London. They had a taste for armed robbery however and while other leading gangsters were moving into drugs importation, they continued robbing security vans. It was thanks to this that the Flying Squad was able to bring them to book.

While the Arif operation only occupies a few pages, better-known stories such as the Brinks Mat investigation, the Millennium Dome diamond heist and Hatton garden, as well as other lesser-known stories, proliferate. The more famous operations are discussed in greater detail in books dedicated to those events, but Kirby’s title doesn’t aim to do this and instead offers a brief account of how the flying squad contributed to the investigation.

I did read the earlier chapters, but as mentioned it was the latter half of the book which really held my interest and the author does a good job of collating and summarising the events detailed. All in all, this was an informative read.

3 out of 5 stars