An Exiled Team of Tigers

An Australian mystery, an American techno-thriller and a British spy story made up my reading this time around.

Issue #45, Sunday 28 May 2023

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

These all look like books I would enjoy reading.

The Wager by David Grann

On 28th January 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s ship The Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain.

This sounds like a really interesting non-fiction book, and I’m very interested in real history (historical fiction, not so much). I’ll definitely try to track it down. Love the cover here, too. Great image and very good use of typography.

Buy it at Readings

The Human Mind by Paul Bloom

The more you look at how the mind works from a scientific point of view, the more you appreciate its complexity, uniqueness and beauty. Psychology is the root of who we are and why we behave the way we do. It’s the key to understanding abnormal behaviour, feelings, experiences, plans, goals, fantasies, and our most intimate, private thoughts…

I’ve long been fascinated by books about the human mind: I’m a big fan of the writing of Oliver Sacks, for example. This one seems to cover a wider range, though, and might be well worth a read. I probably won’t buy a copy though, just borrow it from the library, if they get it in.

Buy it at Readings

The Rush by Michelle Prak

Chilling, tense and twisted, this compulsive thriller will send adrenaline coursing through your veins.

'An electrifying outback thriller that's unlike anything I've read.' Mark Brandi, author of Wimmera. 'Compelling and explosive: you won't be able to put this book down.' Hayley Scrivenor, author of Dirt Town

My gosh we have some great writers of crime and thrillers in Australia. I hadn’t heard of this writer before, but this looks very good.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Exiles by Jane Harper

Jane Harper is an Australian crime writer who has written some excellent books, including her debut novel The Dry which was a best-seller and was made into a successful film starring Eric Bana.

Exiles is the third of her novels centred around the protagonist Aaron Falk, who works for the Australian Federal Police as a forensic accountant. I haven’t read the second novel featuring Falk, Force of Nature, but nevertheless I didn’t have any problem reading this one, and didn’t feel that I’d missed too much of his story.

As this novel opens, it’s the anniversary of the disappearance of a young mother, Kim Gillespie, from an annual food and wine festival in the town of Maralee in rural Victoria. She disappeared in early evening, leaving her six-week old baby Zoe in her pram, thoroughly wrapped up and protected, but alone. The baby’s father, Rohan, had left his wife and child at the festival to go to dinner with his father at a local restaurant. Other than a gap of about six minutes after that, his movements were well documented by CCTV coverage.

After one year, nothing has been seen of Kim since, though one of her sneakers was found at the outlet of a nearby reservoir. The presumption is that she was suffering post-natal depression and killed herself.

As in Jane Harper’s other novels, the relationships between her characters are as important as the solution of the crime, and are very well drawn.

Aaron Falk is involved because he is friends with a policeman, Greg Raco, and through him with the whole Raco family who live in Maralee and who operate a local vineyard. Kim was married for many years to Charlie Raco, and had a daughter Zara with him. Zara is now a teenager and consumed with a desire to find out what happened to her mother.

I found all these relationships, and the flash-backs to what happened a year ago quite confusing at the start of the novel, it took me a while to work out who is who and what is going on, but after a while I had figured it out. I was reading it as an ebook borrowed from the library, and as I’ve said before you sometimes need to quickly flip back and look at earlier parts of the book, which is easy to do with a printed book but can be hard with an ebook. What's more, the library e-reader app I was forced to use doesn't even have a search function, so it was tougher than usual, even making allowances for my aging brain.

Anyway, back to the story. Falk and his friend, Greg Raco, are still trying to puzzle out Kim’s movements on the night, and why she wasn’t seen leaving the festival grounds and heading down to the reservoir. The only witness they have is a negative one, a teenage boy who was manning the eastern exit and who says he never saw her go by. Despite their patient investigations, the key to the mystery arrives quite suddenly, when Falk hears something which sets off flashing lights in his mind.

As in Jane Harper’s other novels, the relationships between her characters are as important as the solution of the crime, and are very well drawn. I do have some nits to pick, not so much with the solution of Kim’s disappearance, but with the secondary thread about the hit-and-run death of another man some years previously. One of those situations where after you put down the book you go “hang on a minute...”. But that’s a minor quibble. As a whole I liked the book a good deal.

Given the way it ends I don’t imagine there’ll be any more written in this series featuring Aaron Falk, but I’m sure we’ll see more good crime novels from this author.

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is a Canadian-born writer and blogger who in recent times has been writing articles exposing the way huge corporations are destroying civil society and our planet all in the name of profits.

I’ve only read a couple of his novels previously: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom , and Little Brother. The latter in particular picks up on his political views. He shows his commitment to his principles by releasing all of this work under a Creative Commons License, without DRM (Digital Rights Management), and in fact refuses to let audiobooks of his work be sold through Audible, because they insist on applying DRM to everything they publish.

I suppose you would describe Red Team Blues, his most recent novel, as a “techo-thriller”. It has all the elements of a private detective story with a tense plot, but its focus is on technology and the tools of the detective in this kind of book are laptops, mobile phones, networks and software.

The protagonist is Martin Hench, a 67-year old forensic accountant and security consultant, who as the story opens has largely retired and spends his time travelling around in a bus converted into a luxury mobile home—he bought it off a rock star who was leaving the business. As a software security consultant, Hench is usually on the “red team”: the group who try to break into systems to expose their vulnerabilities. The “blue team” plays defence and tries to harden their networks and systems against such attacks. The red team, Hench notes, always has the advantage, trying all sorts of different attacks, whereas the blue team only has to make one mistake and they have lost. This, of course, isn’t really a game, and losing can lead to severe real-world consequences.

Hench is contacted by an old friend, Danny Lazer, who has been trying to set up a new cryptocurrency system (think Bitcoin) which doesn’t eat up vast amounts of computing power and electricity (as does Bitcoin and the rest of such systems). Danny has illegally obtained some highly critical cryptographic “keys” which would allow him, among other things, to rewrite the cryptocurrency ledger, something which is meant to be impossible. The keys were on a laptop he had placed in what was meant to be a highly secure facility. The laptop had been modified so that no wireless or Internet connection was physically possible. And the laptop could only be accessed by someone possessing a unique hardware token.

Despite all these precautions, however, Danny’s hardware token was stolen by a pickpocket and the laptop shortly afterwards disappeared from the supposedly secure facility. Together, these two items could give the bad guys terribly dangerous control of software systems worldwide.

Hench sets out to find those who stole the token and the laptop before they can put the stolen cryptographic keys to use. He leverages his long experience and knowledge of computer systems and it’s not long before he thinks he knows who the thieves are and where they are hiding. But there are more than one group of bad guys trying for the prize, and gruesome things happen. Worse, Hench himself finds himself blamed for what has happened, and has to go on the run.

Throughout all of this, Hench relies a great deal on his friends and contacts, including two very smart women, who manage to pick him up and sort him out when things go badly wrong, which of course they do.

This was a real page-turner for me and I enjoyed it a lot, but I did feel a bit let down with the ending of book, which seems rather too tame and pat in comparison with some of the hazards Hench faces earlier on. I kept expecting a last-minute “oh, ho, you think the danger is over, but...” moment, but that didn’t happen.

It certainly helps a great deal if you understand at least a little of the underlying technology behind the story. Otherwise I think you would definitely struggle, not to mention missing little jokes like the name of Hench’s bus, Unsalted Hash.

As a computer nerd from way back myself, however, I lapped it up.

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

This is the third novel in the series of “Slough House” spy thrillers by Mick Herron, and it’s a cracker.

The conceit of the series is the idea of a department of Britain’s MI5 where failed agents are sent to do dreary, unimportant work in the hope that they’ll eventually get so bored and annoyed that they will resign, saving the Government having to pay redundancy or face unfair dismissal charges. This department is dubbed “Slough House” and those who work there “slow horses”.

Though that sounds like the scenario for a series of boring stories, Mick Herron makes it anything but. In this novel, the slow horses break into a full-on gallop as one of their number is kidnapped and held hostage, and political shenanigans and in-fighting lead to a series of violent confrontations. As always, there’s a wonderful thread of very dry humour in the book, much of it centred around the head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb and the way he treats his staff. I also very much like the character Catherine Standish, and her struggles with alcoholism, or rather her struggles to prevent herself lapsing back into drinking.

I found this book highly engaging, unputdownable, and I read my way through it in less than two days.

Highly recommended. Now I’m going to hunt up the rest of the series, and if not quite binge-read them, certainly go through them pretty quickly.

Currently Reading

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time!

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