Monday, 27 July 2015

Under Ground by S L Grey

Post-apocalyptic fiction is all the rage these days, and while this resurgence is mostly powered by the putrid rotting flesh of hordes of undead – the zombie apocalypse being the most popular method amongst writers for killing off their fellow humankind – there is a smaller, but equally vibrant bunch of writers who point the finger at flu. And for good reason, Spanish Flu infected 500 million, wiping out between 50 to 100 million, and a plethora of scientists have warned in recent years that should there be another pandemic, flu virus would be the most likely culprit.

Most books dealing with this kind of subject – zombies or flu - look at the world after it’s gone to hell in a handcart. Or at the very least they show the pandemic start, spread, cross beyond the point of no return, societal collapse, and then the aftermath. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good post-apocalyptic novel or film, but what I think many writers miss is the rich seam of a society teetering on the edge, the psychology of people as their world balancess on the brink. And it is here that S.L. Grey place their story.

Basically, a bunch of rich people have bought into a bunker should the world go to poop. An outbreak of flu breaks out, thousands upon thousands are dying, these rich folk head for the hills. But upon entering their sanctuary things go wrong. First, it’s not quite as cosy and well constructed as it looked in the brochure. Second, the various families don’t know each other until they get there and then when they do, they don’t all get along. And third, people start dying. I won’t say anymore should I divulge spoilers, but needless to say things go downhill from here.

I liked this book, I liked it a lot. It’s kinda like reading an account of a very dodgy series of that programme Big Brother, one where none of the contestants are particularly nice, they might die in horrible ways at any moment, and you just can’t help but watch. Or like when you drive by an accident on the motorway, you know you shouldn’t look, but you just have to. I say that in a good way. I found it compelling. I didn’t really warm to any of the characters, but I think that was almost the point; you just wanted to know which one would be bumped off next.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Future Crimes by Marc Goodman

Reading this book I started off a little disconcerted, went through scared, and ended on downright terrified. For Future Crimes basically does what it says on the tin: outlines the direction crime will take in the future as it embraces our increasingly interconnected world, robotics, 3D printing and even advances in biology.

A confession of sorts. A long time ago I read for an MSc in Criminology at the LSE in London. It was the late 1990’s and criminologists everywhere were grappling with an odd conundrum: crime was falling, across the board, all over the Western World. Giuliani claimed it was his zero-tolerance policing, perhaps, problem is it wasn’t just New York. In cities across America and Europe, no matter the policing policies, to a lesser or greater extent crime was falling. Read any paper and that debate is still occurring. Crime statistics still tell a tale of inexplicable declines and no one appears to know why. Is it women’s greater access to abortion as the authors of Freakonomics once contended (greater levels of abortion = less young men, less young men = less crime)? Is it the decrease in levels of lead in the atmosphere due to the introduction of lead-free gasoline? Is it that society has just become more civilised? Well perhaps we now have an answer: Crime just moved online.

Future Crimes starts off with what to a greater or lesser extent we already know: identity theft, credit card details being swiped from online stores and retailers, hacking. What new can be said about that? Well apparently a lot. For example, he deals with the issue of botnets, swarms of computers taken over by criminals for some nefarious purpose, all without the owners’ knowledge. Apart from the irritation of your computer slowing down, do we really care if someone launches a denial of service attack at some multinational? Well think again. Did you know that a botnet might be used to host child pornography? Yup, that’s right, thousands, maybe millions of computer owners around the world might be inadvertently and unknowingly aiding and abetting the abuse of children.

And it goes downhill from here. As Marc Goodman projects further and further into the future the scenarios become more and more bleak. Banks are bringing in biometrics to protect your accounts? Well the gangsters have already figured out how to lift your fingerprints from a glass of water. An American libertarian has already invented an untraceable and fully working 3D automatic rifle; drone and tracking software is increasingly being wielded by stalkers; medical implants have been hacked so that it’s only a matter of time before someone is murdered by having their pacemaker switched off.

Moving further still into the future we have viruses to match a victim’s DNA profile so that they’re the only people to die in the room, while bio-cartels might grow opium in wheat, corn, or even print THC or Oxycodone on a bio-printer. Some might see all this as hyperbole, but the author is careful and meticulous in grounding his predictions in hard science. For example he points to advances scientists are making in personalising medicine, crafting anti-cancer drugs honed to an individual tumour, so why not a virus honed to an individual DNA profile?

The end of the book contains the author’s suggestions on how society might harness the undoubted good all this technology might bring, whilst negating the harm. He also has a section on what you and I, as average computer users can do to protect ourselves. But after all the warnings and dire predictions that preceded it, it just all seems so futile.

I would recommend people read this book and would unhesitatingly award it five out of five stars, but really that’s more to do with my penchant for scaring the bejeezus out of myself than any real expectation that reading it can make a difference.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Cartel by Don Winslow

What to say about this book? Well firstly I should explain how I approached it. I had never read a Don Winslow before but when I saw that James Ellroy was calling this the “War and Peace of Dope War books” I knew I had to finally turn my attention to this stalwart of American crime fiction. The Cartel is a sequel; it follows on from an earlier novel, The Power of the Dog.  So what to do? As with many of the books I read, I borrowed The Cartel from the good people of NetGalley and they expected their review.

Well I bit the bullet and shelled out for The Power of the Dog and read the two back to back.

And Wow. Just Wow.

I’ve heard it said that Ellroy is a sucker for hyperbole but I have to say that here he might just be spot on. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are both marvellous achievements that any writer should be proud of. To be clear, you don’t have to have read the earlier book to read The Cartel, the latter can be read as a standalone, but reading it after the first magnifies the pleasure.

The two books are like a macabre soap opera, and I mean that in a good way; scrap that, I mean it in a great way. Adan Barrera is the narcoboss while DEA agent Art Keller is his foil. Barrera is sophisticated, charming, if not a little of the accountant. As with the Godfather there are others around him who are brasher, seemingly tougher. But just as Al Pacino’s character inevitably floats to the top in the movies based on the Mario Puzio novel, so does Barrera here. He’s just smarter than the others, more cunning. Keller on the other hand becomes increasingly bitter and isolated as the man he originally considered a friend escapes his grasp; his marriage fails, he becomes an isolated loner, a man obsessed.

I should stop here to say that I’m doing Don Winslow a disservice, someone reading this review could be forgiven for assuming these characters are crime fiction clichés, but nothing could be further from the truth. Winslow carries this all off with guile, perhaps borne from real anger. It’s clear from the pages that he deeply cares about the mess that Mexico has become and while he never preaches or allows his voice to intrude into the narrative, his research is painfully obvious. The descriptions of the atrocities carried out by the various factions are chilling, while Barrera is destined perhaps to become one of literature’s great monsters; no cardboard cut-out Hannibal Lector, more akin to the banality of evil that’s somehow more frightening. While on occasion he is present during horrendous acts of violence, more often he’s in the background, giving the orders. Many times while reading the book I was reminded of that infamous description Hannah Arendt penned for Eichman. There are numerous other characters, all vividly drawn. One of my favourites is a boy who enters The Cartel in the second half, who is moulded into a cold-blooded killer, first by the ZETAS and then a religious cult-like cartel, until he’s a hollowed out shell of a human being. Despite the fact that he’s a relatively minor character, Winslow has you completely occupying his soul in the passages where he features.

This is a long book and if you read it back to the back with The Power of the Dog, we’re talking almost a thousand pages. But it is so worth it. A blistering and angry read, it will completely change the way you think about the War on Drugs, drugs in general, and even the skewed relationship between the countries of the rich northern Hemisphere and their southern neighbours.

A glowing 5 out of 5 stars

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

A prisoner serving a ten-year stretch for a violent armed robbery decides to escape. Nothing earth shattering there, except he chooses to break out of prison just one day prior to his release. Why? That’s the intriguing premise of Michael Robotham’s fast-paced thriller Life and Death.

Robotham is an author I had not encountered before and I read this book with interest, always keen to discover a new thriller writer. He did not disappoint. This is a fast paced read, mostly told in third-person, present tense, which keeps the tension zinging along nicely. Past tense is fine of course, many authors choose to write in past tense, but you know then that the narrator must survive, at least up to the point where he can narrate the tale. While logically we know that the hero Audie Palmer is going to live at least until the end of the novel, this is a thriller after all with certain conventions to observe, the present tense gave an urgency, a sense of peril, that was hard to escape.

Many crime thrillers seem excessively violent these days, especially those of the ever-popular serial killer genre. While Life and Death certainly contains violence and doesn’t shy away from some description, on the whole it doesn’t fall for these easy tropes; and whilst it’s a heist novel of sorts I found it refreshingly original in places. The characterisation is good, albeit Audie seems a little too Zen at times, and the plotting was spot on.

If I have one criticism it’s that it was never really resolved to my satisfaction why he needed to escape at all. Without giving away spoilers, the main character feels he has to avoid being killed by the bad guys upon his release. But I found this lacked credibility. Surely they wouldn’t kill him as soon as he stepped out of the gates, prisons being surrounded by CCTV after all. Surely it would have been easier to try and lose them when they inevitably followed him upon his release? But this is a minor quibble with an otherwise faultless thriller and I easily found myself willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

I would give this book a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

For Queen and Currency by Michael Gillard

Michael Gillard, the author of this book, is one of the best investigative journalists working today. I can say this with confidence having worked in current affairs journalism myself for over ten years (I worked on documentaries for Channel 4 Dispatches and others). His book Untouchables exposed the world of corrupt police - and the equally corrupt Metropolitan Police internal investigations department – with a dispassionate fury that was trailblazing. Originally published in 2004 and then republished in 2012, many of its exposés are now front-page news. The Daniel Morgan murder? Finally there is a public inquiry. The police relationship with the media and the media’s use of private investigators? Long before the Guardian led the charge against News International for phone hacking, Gillard and his then co-author Laurie Flynn, were flagging this up.

So it was with much excitement that I came across a new book by the author For Queen and Currency. And boy does he not disappoint. Gillard has been in the news a lot lately, what with a high court action by an East End “businessman” he linked to organised crime (more on that later) but what I didn’t know is how closely he had followed the tale of Paul Page, the SO14 officer who had operated a massive ponzi scheme. I thought that I knew all there was to know about that sordid story, having followed it closely through the pages of the papers, but reading For Queen and Currency I realised that I didn’t know the half of it.

In forensic detail Gillard tells the story of a rather cocksure young officer’s fall from grace. He paints a picture of an almost unbelievable level of naivety, avarice and just plain stupidity amongst people – police officers from various specialist squads, business people, and accountants – who invested in Page’s schemes all in the pursuit of a quick buck. Not one conducted due diligence. Not one questioned how the rates of returns offered by Page were possible, or where the money was coming from.  Gillard ties this all convincingly to both the stupidity of crowds and wider society’s addiction to cheap credit, which helped fuel the credit crunch. He also tellingly points out the banks ran similar schemes with all our money, but unlike Page, not one has ended up in jail.

I suspect that SO14’s reputation might be permanently tarnished. Gillard portrays a sort of Dad’s Army of dodgy blokes, all too lazy to do their job. Rather than crack cops trained by the SAS, they come across as a bunch of skivers looking for the easy life. They sleep on duty, actually having a ring around service to watch out for each other so that they’re not caught napping by superiors; they drink heavily; they pose for photos on the throne. Oh and when justice finally catches up with Page, it’s in the guise of our old friends in the Directorate of Professional Standards (the Met’s version of internal affairs) that Gillard first introduced us to in Untouchables. Once more, he finds them lacking.

This is a superb book and one I will unhesitatingly award five stars. But it was a surprise to me because I was expecting Gillard to turn his recent high court victory against that East End “businessman” into a book instead. Well, according to the author biog page in For Queen and Currency, he is planning on doing just that. I for one can’t wait to read it.

I would give this book a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars