Quick Review: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Riverrun/Picador)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUKAn intriguing glimpse into Shanghai’s pre-war underworld

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai’s lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals…

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

Until City of Devils, I had only read Paul French’s shorter books on Asia — mainly on early 20th Century China, but also an excellent short book about Kim Jong-un. In City of Devils, French turns his attention to the criminal underworld of Shanghai in the 1930s, and two foreigners who managed to turn certain sectors of the city into their own private kingdoms. It’s a fascinating look at extraterritoriality, Westerners’ fascination with China, and their willingness to take advantage of their hosts. Continue reading

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Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

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This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE MURDERS OF MOLLY SOUTHBOURNE by Tade Thompson (Tor.com)

ThompsonT-MurdersOfMollySouthbourneAn intriguing, creepy and ultimately tragic novella

Every time she bleeds a murderer is born.

The rule is simple: don’t bleed.

For as long as Molly Southbourne can remember, she’s been watching herself die. Whenever she bleeds, another molly is born, identical to her in every way and intent on her destruction.

Molly knows every way to kill herself, but she also knows that as long as she survives she’ll be hunted. No matter how well she follows the rules, eventually the mollys will find her. Can Molly find a way to stop the tide of blood, or will she meet her end at the hand of a girl who looks just like her?

This is the first book by Thompson that I’ve read. The first thing that jumped out at me was the quality of the author’s prose: it’s pristine, really. It’s journalistic in its clarity, it is gripping, expressive, and a delight to read. Over the course of this short novella, you’ll come to care for Molly, and even some of the mollys. Once again, Tor.com have published a fantastic piece of short speculative fiction. Continue reading

Review: MURDERBOT DIARIES #1-3 by Martha Wells (Tor.com)

WellsM-MurderbotDiaries-1to3

An amusing, thoughtful series of novellas

These are a lot of fun. In the first three books in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries — All Systems RedArtificial Condition and Rogue Protocol — we follow the adventures of a SecUnit who has hacked its governor module and, therefore, mostly autonomous. It’s a wonderful guide to this setting, and in each of these books we are given a little more detail on how the universe is set up and runs. All the while, the SecUnit (who does get a couple of personalized names in the books) struggles with its distaste and dislike of humans, and a stubborn urge to protect them. (They’re just so soft and feckless, after all…) Continue reading

Quick Review: The first four BOSCH novels by Michael Connelly (Orion/Grand Central)

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A new convert gushes (though not in excess)…

LAPD detective Harry Bosch is a loner and a nighthawk. One Sunday he gets a call-out on his pager. A body has been found in a drainage tunnel off Mulholland Drive, Hollywood. At first sight, it looks like a routine drugs overdose case, but the one new puncture wound amid the scars of old tracks leaves Bosch unconvinced.

To make matters worse, Harry Bosch recognises the victim. Billy Meadows was a fellow ‘tunnel rat’ in Vietnam, running against the VC and the fear they all used to call the Black Echo. Bosch believes he let down Billy Meadows once before, so now he is determined to bring the killer to justice.

Above is the synopsis for the first Harry Bosch novel, first published in 19??. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Connelly’s bestselling series — I love the crime genre, novels set in Los Angeles, and pretty much everyone I know raves about the books. Last year, I read and enjoyed Crime Beat, the author’s book about writing and a collection of Connelly’s crime reporting, and also Mulholland Drive (a collection of three short stories). Not so long ago, I also read Connelly’s first novel starring his newest protagonist, Renée Ballard (The Late Show). After then binge-watching the superb Bosch television series, I decided it was well past time to read the author’s most famous series. And I am so very happy that I’ve started down this road. Continue reading

Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Review: Catching up on Horus Heresy Audio-Dramas (Black Library)

HorusHeresy-BlackLibraryAudioDramaRoundUp

I recently realized that I’d accumulated a handful of shorter Black Library audio-dramas, and decided it was time to get caught up. One thing that unites them all is the incredible production values: the sound is crystal clear, each performance excellent, and complemented by plentiful sound effects. At times, the latter can feel a bit omnipresent and distracting (in the grim darkness of the 31st millennium, there is rarely, if ever, quiet), but for the main they remain in the background.

Featuring: LJ Goulding, Robbie MacNiven, Josh Reynolds, Ian St. Martin

Continue reading