Monday, December 22, 2014

My Favourite Books Of Last Year

(repost from Dec 2013)
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Here are my favourite books of 2013, not all of which were actually published this year. If there's a theme, I think it might be possibly be walking or maybe the literary ascent of the extended Morrissey clan. (as usual there will be a separate list for crime fiction)
1. Red or Dead - David Peace. One of England's best writers uses the medium of Bill Shankly's tenure at Liverpool FC to reinvent what the novel can do. 
2. Autobiography - Morrissey. The Moz gets his revenge on anyone who's ever crossed him in this poisonously brilliant billet mal.
3. EdgelandsMichael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. Two poets explore the edges of civilization in a walk throughout England's shittier and lesser known byways. 
4. The Generals - Tom Ricks. Best history book of the year. An exploration of the decline in American generalship since the second world war. 
5. The Maid's Version - Daniel Woodrell. Yet another classic from one of America's best novelists. 
6. The Old Ways - Robert Macfarlane. Posh intellectual Robert Macfarlane goes for lots of walks in Britain and abroad and waxes lyrical about them. 
7. Parallax - Sinead Morrissey. Ireland's best young poet up to all her old tricks and some new ones too. 
8. The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton. A man walks into a bar and finds an Irishman, an Englishman and a Scotsman... and 9 other strangers. They've got a story to tell.
9. London Orbital - Iain Sinclair. Iain Sinclair and his hippy best friend decide to walk around the M25 motorway. Anti clockwise. JG Ballard gets invoked. A lot. This also is a very good thing. 
10. The Broken Road - Patrick Leigh Fermor. Part 3 of Paddy Fermor's journey a pied to Constantinople completed by sympathetic editors. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ridley Rated

This is an updated version of an earlier post...updated to include my ratings of Exodus (which wasn't very good) and The Counselor which despite the terrible reviews (and my own horrified review of the screenplay) I rather enjoyed.
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I like Ridley Scott. He's got a great work ethic for a 77 year old and he's a blunt Geordie (very entertaining interview with Scott here.) Although I dont consider myself a Scott fanboy somehow I have managed to see all of his films. British critics especially consider him to be an auteur but he clearly isn't a genius all the time as there have been some real stinkers along the way. A visual poet certainly but story often lets him down. Although it pains me to say it I don't think Scott has made a really good film in a decade, but I have high hopes for The Martian (one of my favourite books of the year) which will be released in December 2015. Scott will apparently not now direct the Blade Runner sequel due in 2016 but has taken a producer credit on that one. He is determined to make a sequel to the mediocre Prometheus which is due in 2017 when Ridley will be 80 years old. Anyway these are my ratings in the standard A-F format:

1977 The Duellists A
1979 Alien A
1982 Blade Runner A
1985 Legend F
1987 Someone to Watch Over Me D
1989 Black Rain C
1991 Thelma & Louise C
1992 1492: Conquest of Paradise D
1996 White Squall D
1997 G.I. Jane C
2000 Gladiator B
2001 Hannibal D
2002 Black Hawk Down A
2003 Matchstick Men C
2005 Kingdom of Heaven E
2006 A Good Year F
2007 American Gangster D
2008 Body of Lies E
2010 Robin Hood F
2012 Prometheus D
2013 The Counselor C
2014 Exodus D
2015 The Martian ?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Celtic Club

I'll be giving a little talk at the Melbourne Celtic Club from 7.30 - 8.30 on Wednesday December 17th.  Full details of the event (including a google map) are here. It'll mostly be crime fiction related but I'm sure other topics will be coming up.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Best of the Year Lists


I've made a couple of best of the year lists that I thought I should tell you about. I mean why not, right? It's nearly Christmas and you may be looking to get books for people as last minute presents...I appreciate that I am not exactly a trustworthy source regarding the quality of my own material so instead of taking my word for it why not put your faith in some national media sources instead... 

1. The Mail On Sunday (Britain's best selling Sunday newspaper) has picked In The Morning I'll Be Gone as one of its top 5 mysteries of 2014. This is very nice of the Mail as the rec comes with a huge big pic of the book (thanks to my mum for telling me about this).  

2. The Toronto Star (Canada's top selling newspaper (so says my buddy John McFetridge who spotted this one)) has also picked In The Morning I'll Be Gone as one of the best mysteries of 2014.


3. Slate Magazine has picked The Sun Is God as #2 on its list of Neglected Books of 2014. Thanks to Seana Graham for spotting this one. 


4. Booklist, the magazine of the American Library Association, has picked In The Morning I'll Be Gone as its #3 mystery of 2014


5. ABC Radio: The great Angela Savage - ABC's crime reviewer - picked In The Morning I'll Be Gone as one of her top five mysteries of 2014. 


6. The Australian (the best selling broadsheet newspaper in the country) picked In The Morning I'll Be Gone as one of its top 6 summer reads of the year. 


Both of these books, of course, are available at good bookshops or at the usual online retailers. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Favourite Books Of The Year

A couple of these choices appeared in last weeks Sydney Morning Herald, but I've expanded that piece to include my "classic" fiction book of the year, my favourite history book of 2014, my favourite mysteries, my favourite audiobook and my favourite science book of the year.

My non-fiction book of 2014 is H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Sharing an obsession with raptors with her father, Macdonald is sent into an, uhm, tailspin after his death and impulsively decides to buy a goshawk. She buys hawk-food, stuffs her fridge in Cambridge full of it and attempts to become a real life falconer. Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson non fiction prize this is perhaps the best book on birds since JA Baker's classic, The Peregrine.

My fiction book of 2014 is The Martian by Andy Weir a self published success story about an engineer trapped on Mars desperately trying to survive with no air and no food. Surprisingly funny, meticulously researched, and chock full of drama this is the book that should have won the Hugo and Nebula Award. It takes a writer of real talent to generate so much tension from a man trying to grow potatoes in a tent... (Currently being turned into a film by Ridley Scott who is overdue to make a good movie...) 


My audiobook choice of the year is Longbourn by Jo Baker. An upstairs/downstairs (mostly downstairs) look at the life of the Bennett sisters during the events of Pride & Prejudice. As I said on the telly if I'd written this book it would have been an unreadable, angry pseudo Marxist screed but Jo Baker is a lot less angry than I am and her book is wonderful. One of the best novels about laundry work I've encountered since Martin Eden. The narration by Emma Fielding is superb. 

My classic fiction book of the year is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. An office worker's thoughts as he spends his lunch hour buying shoelaces, eating a hot dog and reading Marcus Aurelius. It's like Virginia Woolf's The Waves if The Waves was, you know, good.

My history choice for 2014 is Paris After The Liberation 1944 - 1949 by Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, which tells the tale of the trials, tribulations, attempted coups and eventual return to normalcy of Paris following the liberation. It's particularly good on who really liberated Paris (mostly black African and Spanish troops serving in the Free French forces (who were then - of course - largely excluded from the victory parade)) and I liked the stuff on who really worked for the Resistance and who just lied about it (Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett were patriots, Sartre was a liar). 

Best mysteries of the year? Well this is incredibly tough for me because I read so many great crime novels this year. Part of it, of course, is for my job as a reviewer but many books I just read for fun because I love a well honed mystery or thriller. My favs of 2014 were probably the new ones by: Michael Robotham, Stuart Neville, Eoin McNamee, Alex Barclay, Ian Rankin, Belinda Bower, Cathi Unsworth, Claire McGowan, James Lee Burke, Declan Burke, Samantha Hayes, Garry Disher, Angela Savage, Lucy Caldwell, Dave Whish-Wilson, John Connolly, Arlene Hunt, John McFetridge, Pam Newton, Gerard Brennan & Steve Cavanagh. Not a Scandinavian among them... The worst crime novel I read this year was by this guy called Stephen King, which I reviewed, here

My philosophy/intellectual history book of the year is The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson. This is a book about the contemporary existential dilemma: how best to live in a - largely - Godless era. Watson had me at the introduction where he mentions 4 of my favourite contemporary moral philosphers: Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor.

My science book of the year is Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark which has become something of controversial best seller. Tegmark believes that we are living in 4 different levels of multiverse and that we're all just really numbers anyway. Being perfectly honest I didn't quite understand the last fifth of the book, but I'll bet it was pretty smart stuff. You can read my full review, here. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Thinking The Twentieth Century

Tony Judt was an intellectual's intellectual but don't let that put you off. He wrote clearly, he thought deeply, he was slow to take offense and quick witted to the very end. He died in 2011 of ALS and as he was dying he dictated Thinking The Twentieth Century to his friend and fellow historian Timothy Snyder, who prodded him along the way with searching questions about his own life and his ideals. 
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Thinking The Twentieth Century is my 4th Tony Judt book. His masterpiece of course is still Postwar (a history of Europe from 1945 - 2005) and recently I read Reappraisals (a collection of essays) and Ill Fares The Land (a collection of short pieces) both of which were excellent. One of the best essays from that book can be read on the LRB website, here. 
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Thinking The Twentieth Century is a curious mix of biography and a sort of intellectual autopsy of the twentieth century. Judt's specialities as a historian were France and Eastern Europe but his mind ranges widely. Unlike fellow Englishman Christopher Hitchens, Judt was not a gadfly, in fact he was an introvert and this introversion allowed him to avoid distracting dinner parties and spend more time in libraries reading original sources - the meat and potatoes of the serious historian. Judt and Hitchens were, of course, on opposite sides of the Iraq War debate and it's quite stimulating to place this book alongside Hitchens's Arguably which I reread earlier this year. Hitchens, I think, is the better writer but Judt is the most circumspect and deeper thinker; to read Judt's criticisms of the apologists for the invasion of Iraq, particularly Michael Ignatieff and The New York Times's two great frauds Tom Friedman and David Brooks, is like watching a controlled demolition. 
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Some of you will lose interest in this book when it wades into the French political debates of the 1930's but you should stick with it, Thinking The Twentieth Century is a grand tour around the thoughts, loves, lives and opinions of one of the best of our late contemporary historians and commentators, a man, who, like Hitch, left us far too soon. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Mezzanine - Nicholson Baker

27 years ago I read a review of The Mezzanine in The Times and thought it sounded really fascinating. I remember excitedly telling my room-mate about it: "Listen to this, someone wrote an entire book about 15 minutes in the life of an office worker on his lunch break where nothing happens. I wonder how he spun that out to 140 pages? Doesn't that sound interesting?" He did not think it sounded interesting. My girlfriend at the time also did not think it sounded interesting and when I saw The Mezzanine in the college bookshop something stopped me from picking it up and reading it. I liked the idea of the book. I liked the fact that the book existed but I didn't want to actually read an entire book about a guy eating a snack on his lunch break where nothing happens...so The Mezzanine went unread. 
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I have read other Nicholson Baker books in the intervening period: Vox, Fermata and Human Smoke. Vox is a thin little book about 2 people talking on a phone sex line. Fermata has tons of plot (it's about a pervy kid who can stop time and who uses that ability mostly for pervy reasons). Human Smoke is a borderline insane pacifist-revisionist history of World War 2 (Baker's argument is that if we had given Hitler everything that he wanted he would have been so happy that he would have ended the war, shipped the Jews off to Madagascar (not to death camps) and instituted a 1000 year Reich of peace, tranquility and lederhosen.)
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The Mezzanine, it turns out, is Baker's best book and is the perfect place for reductio ad absurdum arguments about paper v plastic straws, greeting card signing etiquette, what to do when you have shy bladder at the urinal stall, and the pleasure of riding an escalator. The cover of my copy contains a blurb from Salman Rushdie which says it is "a seriously funny book." It isn't that funny but it is wryly amusing and Baker is able to infuse the smallest incidents with a lot of drama, incident and irony. The narrator - Howie - is not entirely reliable (which is always a good thing) and I liked the paragraph where he hesitantly borrowed a pen - to sign the greeting card - so much that I read it to my kids. It's also not true that nothing happens during the lunch break. In fact he breaks one of his shoelaces and has to go to the drugstore to buy another pair...I was on the edge of my seat...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

HHhH

HHhH is a postmodern novel by Laurent Binet, written in the confessional style of Michel Houellebecq about the weighty subject of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Resistance. Binet takes us through Heydrich's early life, the scandal that got him tossed from the navy and those early rumours of non Aryan blood. The scene then switches to the Munich Agreement where France and England sold Czechoslovakia down the river, wartime Prague, and finally England where the SOE and MI6 are preparing a scheme to either kidnap or kill Heydrich in a manner that is alarming because it seems so unprofessional.
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HHhH isn't quite pure historical fiction because the author puts himself into the book in a way that I for one found to be very engaging. (Other people will be irritated.) We get an insight into Binet's life and why he came to be obsessed by Heydrich. And even if, like me, you know the story of Heydrich's assassination and the terrible reprisals that followed it, I think you'll like the way this narrative gets told. HHhH won the Prix Groncourt for best first novel (although its really more of a biography/history book) and it reminded me of another excellent novel I read and liked a few years ago, Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield, which is the (entirely fictional) tale of an assassination attempt which also turned into something of a debacle. 
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Incidentally, as I'm sure you're wondering, HHhH stands for H
immler's Hirn heisst Heydrich which means roughly "Himmler's brain who is called Heydrich." 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Free Stuff

Belfast Noir is now available as an audiobook. Here's the Audible.com listing: 

Belfast Noir UNABRIDGED
By Adrian McKinty (editor), Stuart Neville (editor)

Narrated By Stephen Bel Davies, Gerard Doyle, John Keating, Terry Donnelly
Whispersync for Voice-ready
Length: 7 hrs and 52 mins
Release Date: 11-25-14


To help promote this Audible Studios production (Audible Studios do all the Noir series books) Audible have given me 6 free offer codes, which I am now going to give to you. They only work of course if you are an audible.com customer (I'm not sure about audible.co.uk. . .probably not). Anyway here are the first 5 codes: 

JTHUPM8WBRL57
U48SZ67YAR8ZT
L3W82X27K7L8X
8BBF8BLTBC2BY
 JN7NULG6K93M9

If you use the code to get your free audiobook it would be helpful to let us know in the comments below that the code has been used and is now expired. When all five codes have been used, I'll blog one more code (the sixth one) just to try and be fair to people living in a different time zone...If none of the codes above work then I'm afraid they are all expired & and the ingrates didn't let us know in the comments below...
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Hope you all enjoy the book. I thought it was wonderful, but I would say that wouldn't I?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies

Thomas Cromwell, badass
I just finished Hilary Mantel's The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher And Other Stories which I thought was ok but not interesting enough to blog about. Instead I thought I'd reblog this about Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies - 2 of my favourite Booker winners of recent times...
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Let's talk first about the thing that few reviewers seem to want to talk to about: religion. As well as being a clever work of art Wolf Hall is a sustained and subtle attack on the authority of the Catholic church and its role in English affairs. Most reviewers of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel have somehow missed this overt agenda but when you grow up in Northern Ireland (with the sixteenth century Protestant-Catholic conflict regrettably still alive and well) you readily see what Mantel is up to. In 1935 Sir Thomas More was canonised by Pope Pius XI and his PR has been nothing less than excellent since, that is until Mantel got on the case. GK Chesterton, A Man For All Seasons, The Six Wives of Henry VIII etc. have all cast More as a witty man of principle attempting to deal with a bullying King Henry and a treacherous Thomas Cromwell. Mantel aggressively subverts this story in a way that only someone who suffered at a Catholic boarding school can. In Wolf Hall More is not the genial pacifist of the legend but in fact is a chilly religious fanatic who gets his kicks from torturing and burning alive those who dared to commit such heinous crimes as doubting the existence of purgatory or translating the Holy Bible into English. Thomas Cromwell by contrast is a smart, liberal, worldly man of the streets who has lived and fought all over Europe. Mantel's Cromwell is a good husband, a good father, a wit, he speaks half a dozen languages and he is tolerant of error. In a now famous passage Cromwell's talents are touched on:

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 

I wasn't convinced by Wolf Hall when I first heard about it. Do we really need another book about Thomas More and Henry VIII, I asked myself? We've got The Tudors on the telly, we've had several versions of A Man For All Seasons and numerous historical novels about this period in history. We also had this episode drummed into us in school and on half a dozen BBC history programmes. What else new is there to say? Well, quite a lot actually. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies together form a strident counter narrative to the prevailing view. The history I got in school was the story of a greedy Henry VIII and an evil Thomas Cromwell, wrecking the constitution, cutting womens heads off and destroying the monasteries, rare places of learning and charity. Mantel, as any good defence lawyer will do, goes a bit overboard to show us that Henry wasnt a mad wife killer, didnt subvert the constitution and, she claims, the monasteries were in fact places of corruption, sloth, cruelty, stupidity and pederasty. 
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In both books we also get the story of the famous women of the time, especially Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Anne is clever but indiscreet, Jane is simple, coy and beautiful. The young Queen Elizabeth is a spiky ginger and Queen Mary is a cold religious prude. But the real heart of these two novels is Cromwell. Mantel's Thomas Cromwell has become one of the richest and most interesting heroes of contemporary literature. It's obvious why this novel is more popular amongst women than men, because the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall is an idealised male lead, impossible for any man to live up to. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was anything like him I have no idea, but judging from the achievements of his children and wards I'd say that Mantel's take is probably closer to the mark than the villainous coxcomb of A Man For All Seasons. Early in Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell builds a tennis court at his home in London and his game play is described as a strategic, clever and canny, just the way you'd expect it to be. Mantel's Cromwell we come to realize is the true "man for all seasons" and the ball is now firmly in the court of the defenders of Sir/Saint Thomas More to attempt to return Mantel's devastating double volley.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

JG Ballard's Great Period 1973 - 1984

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island, about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work.

Empire of the Sun (1984) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Barry Award

award photo courtesy Stu Neville...
On Friday night my second Sean Duffy novel, I Hear The Sirens In The Street, won the 2014 Barry Award in the best mystery (paperback original) category. The awards were announced at this year's Bouchercon crime fiction convention which was held in Long Beach, California. Stuart Neville was gracious enough to pick up the award on my behalf as I couldn't get there this year. Many thanks to the judges, to Deadly Pleasures magazine and to everyone who voted for me. I really do appreciate it. You can find the full list of winners in all four categories, here. And thank you again Stuart for picking it up for me and to Seana Graham for cheering like a - nice - banshee. 
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This is going to sound a little bit like solo trumpetry but as this blogpost may become a google gravity well for people searching McKinty Awards or Sean Duffy Series Awards etc. I'd like to stress, for those people who have never heard of me, that each of the Sean Duffy books has won a different crime fiction award: 

Sean Duffy #1 The Cold Cold Ground won the 2013 Spinetingler Award
Sean Duffy #2 I Hear The Sirens In The Street won the 2014 Barry Award (best pbk original)
Sean Duffy #3 In The Morning I'll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award

The series has been shortlisted for numerous other awards & Duffy #1 has also been shortlisted for the 2015 Prix SNCF Du Polar and that can still be voted on, here, if you are so inclined. Merci.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Arguably - Christopher Hitchens

a post from November 2011
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Writing is a craft and like all crafts it takes practice to become a master. Christopher Hitchens has been writing short form essays for 40 years now and he's gotten very good at it. So good that he may be the finest polemicist working in the English language today. In the crazy circus of contemporary letters it's nice to read someone whose prose uses the right word at the right time and whose cup foameth over with intellect.  Arguably, is his latest collection of book reviews and his longer pieces from Slate and Vanity Fair. Reading Hitch is like watching a skilled circus performer wow an audience with his derring do. Hitch often seems like a high wire walker who has no alternative but to keep going as turning back wd be fatal. The latter comes to mind when reading Hitch's attempt to square his advocacy for the invasion of Iraq with his acerbic and angry opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991. Hitch's logic is, at best, strained: 1991 had a clear casus belli, a clear UN mandate and a very clear mission and Hitch's pitch that the case for invasion was stronger under George W. Bush is bizarre. The Iraq essays are definitely the lowlight of the collection. Hitch argues with straw man pacifists and conspiracy theorists but he doesn't engage with someone like Tony Judt who is at least as well read as he is. I'm no pacifist when it comes to Iraq (I, of course, supported my little brother served with the Brits in Anbar province for a year) but I don't see how any reasonable person can think the Iraq of 2011 is a better place than the Iraq of 2001 as Hitch repeatedly claims it is. 
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The finest parts of Arguably are the sections on literature where Hitchens shines a fresh light on some familiar texts. Hitch's enthusiasms are mostly infectious: WH Auden, George Orwell, PG Wodehouse, Gore Vidal's fictions, Philip Larkin's poetry. Hitchens is largely batting on his home field here and I wish he'd chanced his arm a bit by venturing into the rougher American terrain of Pynchon, DeLillo, McCarthy etc. But perhaps that's something that's just a bit beyond him. Although Hitchens took out American citizenship and knows the Constitution backwards no one will ever mistake the old chap for anything but an Englishman abroad. 
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Apart from the stuff on Iraq the weakest essays in Arguably are where Hitchens dips his toes into the world of science and mathematics, here he is especially credulous and even a little naive. Hitch seems to believe everything the Astronomer Royal or Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins has told him and hasn't the intellectual background to wonder whether these men are as significant as they think they are within their own fields. (Hawking and Dawkins for example have never come close to winning a Nobel Prize). Hitchens seems to think that science just exists "out there" without further need for interpretation and the work of Kurt Godel, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Feyerabend seems to have passed him by. Hitch is a little bit wide eyed when discussing people like Dawkins who aren't really scientists at all, merely science writers. Hitch's atheism is untroubled by Max Tegmark's work on infinity or Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis.  
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But ultimately these are minor quibbles which irritated me but might not irritate other people. Hitch has stage IV cancer of the oesophagus and has been fading recently. I hope he's around for a long time because I sure will miss him when he's gone. I'll miss his intelligence, his humour, his honesty, his insights and most of all the fact that even when you disagree with him you are usually too bowled over by his prose to complain very loudly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Emperor Has No Clothes - The Films of Christopher Nolan

none of this has aged well
I used to think that Chris Nolan made films for intelligent 13 year old boys. I was wrong about that. Nolan's films are full of violence, sentimentality, bathos and passion - which pretty much describes your average 13 year old lad - but they are deeply uninterested in sex which, alas, is all teenage boys are thinking about when they're not blowing stuff up on their Xboxes. No, Nolan writes and directs films for intelligent 10 year old boys. They've got spaceships and gun battles and Batman and if I was 10 I'd probably love them too. But these are not films for grown ups. They create the illusion of cleverness, which, presumably is what they teach you in the English private schools, (where sadly most British directors now come from) but it's all surface cleverness - there's nothing going on underneath. All that matters is that you convince people that you're smart, you don't actually have to be smart. David Cameron and crew have learned that message as have the people at the forefront of British culture in the arts, books, movies, TV, etc. You probably know the sort I'm talking about.
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Nolan's childish and dimwitted Batman films were ridiculously overpraised by supine critics. Inception was a silly series of embedded action films inside a pretty good high concept. A high concept I would love to have seen exercised by, say, a French director. (Someone who knows that the best way of getting a man to reveal his secrets is not to point a gun at him but to point an attractive woman (or man) at him.) Insomnia, Nolan's remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's original was just ok. Nolan's best films Memento and The Prestige weren't bad at all - The Prestige in particular almost lived up to the source material, an excellent novel by Christopher Priest. 
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Nolan's latest film, Interstellar, is a strange amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, Contact & Disney's The Black Hole. The first 2 of those flicks are classics whereas Contact & The Black Hole are cheese festivals. On the basis of strong reviews in the UK and Australian media I went to see Interstellar but I should have realised that most film critics are science illiterates who were clearly baffled by the pseudo science of the movie. Nolan hired Kip Thorne as a 'physics advisor' to Interstellar but that doesn't mean anything - there's no physics in the film worth speaking about. No physics but much hokey magic (& no dont bother quoting Arthur C Clarke at me). Interstellar is an unholy mess, which like The Black Hole & Contact is sentimental and mawkish and deadly dull. As usual with Nolan the art direction and the cinematography are excellent, the female leads are good and the music is up to snuff and maybe with stronger source material there cd have been a good film in amongst all this. But the writing kills it - the writing is all over the shop: humourless, portentous, silly, fake smart. Nolan must have shat himself when he finally saw Gravity this year, a film half as long and twice as good as Interstellar, a film which will deservedly join The Right Stuff and 2001 as classics of the genre, which Interstellar will not. Distrust any film critic who gives this movie a good review. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gun Street Girl - The First Review & How To Win A Proof

Jon Page, from Bite the Book, got himself a VERY early galley of Gun Street Girl. He read the galley and reviewed it over on his excellent site, here. I've worked on the book quite a bit since this first draft, tightening the story a little and adding a few more jokes. (In fact I'm still working on the book now.)
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The novel of course takes place in Ulster but the wider net of the narrative brings in the biggest American political scandal of the Reagan administration, a famous cause celebre from 1980's Oxford and the chaotic weeks in Belfast that followed the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985. The book begins with an echo of and on the same night that Rorshach's journal begins in Alan Moore's Watchmen, which also has one or two sneaky resonances throughout the text. Anyway, old chums, this is what Jon Page thought:
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Sometimes a recurring crime character is brought back and the story feels forced or the attempt feels lame. But then there are those rare times when, despite the series being over, the character comes back and exceeds what has been done before. And that is exactly what Adrian McKinty has done with Sean Duffy.

In the last Sean Duffy book, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone, it appeared the series had finished with a bang. Adrian McKinty had flagged his intention to halt the Duffy books at three and had given us a more than satisfactory conclusion. Better to finish wanting more than for a fantastic character to get stale. However an idea came to McKinty for a book four, but he still resisted until he literally dreamt how he could end that book, and that was what he needed to begin writing book four in the Sean Duffy series. He wrote about that experience, here. And yes, the ending really is one of the best things McKinty has done.

Not only has McKinty done justice to the previous books with Gun Street Girl but I think he has actually exceeded himself. The Sean Duffy trilogy was already something special and Gun Street Girl not only reaffirms that but makes it even better. The year is 1985 and The Troubles are still in full, nasty swing in Belfast with the flames about to be fanned by the so-called Irish-Anglo Agreement. Sean Duffy is now an Inspector in charge of CID at Carrick RUC. When a local bookie and his wife are killed in what looks like a professional hit Duffy only takes a passing interest in the case letting his detective sergeant take the lead and blood two new detectives. However when the case takes a nasty turn Duffy dives in up to his neck of course ruffling any (and all) feathers that get in his way. Conspiracies loom and the bodies start piling up as Duffy quickly uncovers a sinister plot well above his pay grade. But to crack this case he’s going to need someone to talk and the first thing they teach you in Northern Ireland is to never talk, especially to the RUC, even when you’re supposed to be on the same side.

[money quote coming up:]

Full of McKinty’s trademark wickedly black humour and with the usual taut plotting this just may be the best book in an exceptional series so far. Sean Duffy has come a long way from The Cold Cold Ground and everything he's been through is starting to leave scars. I was reluctantly happy to see the series finish after three books but after book 4 I think there is even a little more life in this awesome series to come. At least I hope so!
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Still reading all the way down here? Good for you. Serpents Tail are having a competition whereby they are giving away some early galleys of Gun Street Girl. If you click this link you'll be taken to the competition page. Alas this compo is open only to British and Irish readers (because of postage costs).
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You can, of course, read the first five chapters of Gun Street Girl, for free, here...

Friday, November 7, 2014

4 Belfast Noir Events

November 7th at NYU Irish House in Manhattan the convincingly bearded Stuart Neville, the moderately bearded John Connolly and the clean shaven Lee Child will be launching Belfast Noir!
November 14th The terrificly bearded Peter Rozovsky will be talking all things Belfast Noir at Bouchercon Long Beach with the goateed Gerard Brennan, the bearded Stu Neville and the clean shaven Paul Charles.
November 22nd at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, Belfast Noir's Irish launch will be hosted by the completely hairless Dave Torrans and No Alibis books and will feature as many of the authors who can make it as possible. (I'm told there's going to be a pretty healthy turn out for this one!)
December 17th at the Celtic Club in Melbourne I'll be shaving, putting on a clean shirt and talking all things Belfast Noir.
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There you go, 4 Belfast Noir events on 3 continents. Maybe the Wall Street Journal and the Irish Examiner are right in saying that Belfast is the hip new Scandinavia or, er, something 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Kinglake 350 by Adrian Hyland

I grew up in Greater Belfast during the Troubles and as a consequence was in and around a lot of bad stuff going down. I used to get a lift to school every day with a man who was one of the IRA's "legitimate targets" and who consequently had to check under his vehicle each morning for mercury tilt switch bombs. In school once a kid sucker punched me in face breaking my glasses and leaving me with 17 stitches and a repaired tear duct. Another time I was run over by a police Land Rover in a hit and run...everybody who grew up in Belfast in the 70's and 80's has stories like these. (Probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me was when I lived in Jerusalem and three Hamas suicide bombers dressed as women blew themselves up at a cafe I'd been sitting at minutes earlier)... All of those incidents however were over in a few seconds, what happened in Melbourne on Saturday February 9th 2009 lasted all day and into the night, affecting everyone in the city. This is how Adrian Hyland begins his story of those events in his book Kinglake 350:

We were lucky at first. At the end of January 2009 the State of Victoria [Australia] sweltered through three successive record-breaking days of 109.4°F-plus heat. In Melbourne the mercury climbed to 113°F, the third-hottest day on record. Birds fell from the sky, bitumen bubbled underfoot…the next morning [the newspaper] the Age carried the prescient headline: ”The sun rises on the worst day in history.” Black Saturday. Our luck was about to run out.”

Wikipedia explains what happened next:

As the day progressed, all-time record temperatures were being reached. Melbourne hit 46.4 °C (115.5 °F), the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian capital city and humidity levels dropped to as low as six percent. The McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index reached unprecedented levels, ranging from 120 to over 200. This was higher than the fire weather conditions experienced on Black Friday in 1939 and Ash Wednesday in 1983.

By midday wind speeds were reaching their peak, and by 12:30 pm powerlines fell in Kilmore East due to the high winds. These sparked a bushfire that would later generate extensive pyrocumulus clouds, and become the largest, deadliest, and most intense firestorm ever experienced in Australia's post-European history. The overwhelming majority of fire activity occurred between midday and 7:00 pm, when wind speed and temperature were at their highest, and humidity at its lowest.

Those of us in the city that day will never forget it. Melbourne was surrounded by fire on three sides and the hot wind blowing down from the north seemed to carry with it the stench of death. At least 173 people were burned to death up country (although the exact total might never been known). Adrian Hyland's book Kinglake 350 is a description of what it was like in the bush itself. In particular it's the story of Roger Wood a police officer in charge of Kinglake, a small community at the epicentre of the fire. As the firestorm engulfed the town, "he risked his life, again and again, to try and save people.With the fire raging all around, he phoned home to warn his wife what was coming. She screamed that the fire had already hit their property. Then the line went dead." As the blurb on the back of the book explains "Black Saturday was a many-headed monster in whose wake stories of grief, heroism and desolation erupted all over the state of Victoria." This is a book about the monster—and the heroism of those who confronted it, the mistakes of those who left it too late to evacuate or thought they could ride it out. Kinglake 350 is a powerful, harrowing and fascinating read from one of Australia's most under-appreciated authors, the great Ned Kelly Award winning author Adrian Hyland. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Art of George Shaw

The best book I read in the last 2 years was Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. I've blogged about this book twice and none of you went out and bought it, but that's ok, it's your loss. It's a wonderful book and rereading it is a delight. Getting other people to read it is also a delight because they find stuff that you missed and tell you about it. After much nagging I finally got the missus to read Edgelands and of course she loved it. Everyone does. One bit that really struck her was the art of George Shaw, who was born in Coventry's Tile Hill estate in 1966 (an area of Cov I know very well because I went to the University of Warwick just down the road). Shaw started painting the area around the housing estate he lived in in a very flat, naturalistic style. His favoured medium as Wikipedia explains "is Humbrol enamel paints, which lend his work a unique appearance as they are more commonly used to paint Airfix model aircraft." Shaw was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2011 for his collection, The Sly and Unseen Day.
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Shaw paints the edgelands of Britain, those forgotten bits of the landscape lurking behind car parks, or alleys between housing estates or ruined garages or abandoned blocks of flats. This is the real Britain, not Heritage Britain so beloved by the TV and film worlds and to me its so much more interesting than all that Downton Abbey/Notting Hill bullshit. Shaw's paintings resonate so wonderfully for me not just because this is pretty much the world I grew up in, but I also find a peculiar Edward Hopper like beauty in their austerity. Like I say these paintings were done using Humbrol model aircraft paints on wooden boards. I love this stuff.
  



Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Current Favourite Beers

1. Pliny the Elder IPA - Russian River Brewing Company, USA
2. Rutland Bitter - Grainstore Brewery, England
3. Payback Porter - Speakeasy Ales, USA
4. Fuller's London Porter - Fullers, England
5. Ravens Eye Imperial Stout - Eel River Brewing Company, USA
6. Rochefort Trappistes 10 - Trappist Quad, Belgium
7. Ayinger Celebrator Dobblebock - Ayinger, Germany
8. Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout - Sam Smiths, England
9. Old Rasputin Imperial Stout - North Coast Brewing Company, USA
10. Supplication Sour Ale - Russian River Brewing Company, USA


1 and 10 on my list come from the great Russian River Brewing Company. As you can see I'm in a weird stouty, portery frame of mind these days...
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#3 is the beer that crime writers probably should be drinking, especially on a rainy evening when the inspiration just isn't coming. I liked the line from this review of #5 on my list on Beer Rater by Mike Chance: "pours as black as my kids mom's soul" - there's definitely a story there...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sun is God Interview

me on local radio here in Melbourne chatting about The Sun is God. We talk Schopenhauer, Conrad, the Boer War, cults, Coleridge, heroin, nudism, sex...you know, the usual...

Published Or Not, podcast


Oh, and thank you again to everyone who was a kind enough to leave me a review of this little book on Amazon, Audible or Good Reads. As usual I got no reviews at all in the US press but I did get very nice notices in the Guardian and the Irish Times. The Sun is God nearly didn't get written and it was initially rejected by my publishers as being too unlike my other stuff, so as a little engine that could, it is close to my heart.




Monday, October 27, 2014

Belfast Noir - What The Trades Say...

Library Journal Nov1
REVIEW:

*starred* Belfast Noir. Akashic. Nov. 2014. 256p. ed. by Adrian McKinty & Stuart Neville. 
ISBN 9781617752919. pap. $15.95; 
ebk. ISBN 9781617753237. 
F
Edited by two award-winning crime fiction writers from Northern Ireland, this anthology is long overdue, since Belfast is the most noir-imbued city in Western Europe after decades of poverty, bigotry, demagoguery, sectarianism, and murder. The natural backdrop of mist, rain, and dark cloud cover also helps—as does black humor, which is a strong motif here. All the stories are compelling and well executed. Ruth Dudley’s “Taking It Serious” comes seriously close to truly portraying fanaticism within the city’s complicated tribal landscape. Eoin McNamee employs the juxtaposition of video cams and narrative to extenuate the sense of anomie in the striking story “Corpse Flowers.” Alex Barclay’s “The Reveller” is a deep psychological bear trap of a story. Gerard Brennan’s “ Ligature” makes for compelling and uncomfortable reading. VERDICT Great writing for fans of noir and short stories, with some tales close to perfection. It made this reviewer nostalgic and hopeful for his beautiful, brash, beastly Belfast.
Seamus Scanlon, Ctr. for Worker Education, CUNY

KIRKUS REVIEW


Fourteen stories that explore the darker sides of the human psyche, each from a different neighborhood of Belfast.
“The Undertaking,” by Brian McGilloway, is a tale of a switched coffin and a deadly cargo. The narrator of Lucy Caldwell’s “Poison” recalls her schoolgirl obsession with a teacher. In Lee Childs’ “Wet with Rain,” a house rumored to kill its occupants more than lives up to its reputation. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, follows a boy who won’t compromise along his path to free Ireland. The narrator of Gerard Brennan’s “Ligature” is a prison inmate who’s curious about why someone on the men’s side killed himself. Another prisoner is the subject of a reporter’s piece about crime and retribution in Glenn Patterson’s “Belfast Punk Rep.” In “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, a supposedly dead man comes to his daughter’s wedding and confronts his enemies; a criminal barrister in Steve Cavanagh’s “The Grey” serves his client well but at a terrible cost. The teenage private eye in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” by Claire McGowan, takes on a case of kidnapping; a more mature investigator gets a 4 a.m. phone call that he knows will mean trouble in Sam Millar’s “Out of Time.” A sting operation to break up a dog-fighting ring has an unexpected outcome in Arlene Hunt’s “Pure Game,” and an alternate identity changes hands in Alex Barclay’s “The Reveller.”
The choices made by editors McKinty (In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, 2014, etc.) and Neville (The Final Silence, 2014, etc.) celebrate lowlifes, convicts, hookers, private eyes, cops and reporters, and, above all, the gray city at the heart of each story.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Iain Sinclair


 The above is a little video blog about Iain Sinclair. I should stress that Sinclair's writing is definitely not for everyone and before you get any of his books you should read the first 3 pages or so first. Sinclair is a cult writer, but a cultist whose texts lie at the intersection of a number of counter cultural movements in poetry, film, photography, psychogeography etc. In various projects he's appeared with Jonathan Meades, Stewart Lee, William Gibson, JG Ballard etc. - who are all artistic heroes of mine. Perhaps the strangest appearance of Iain Sinclair anywhere is in Alan Moore's comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 2009, where a slightly disguised Sinclair shows Orlando (from Virginia Woolf's Orlando) and Nina Harker (from Dracula) the secret entrance to the Harry Potter realm at Kings Cross Station. (In this version of the story Potter is the evil Moonchild, conjured up by Aleister Crowley, who then attempts to destroy the world, which, er, is not something you see every day.) Sinclair is the bald chap with the glasses.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Perfidia

my review of Perfidia from last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. There's a little bit of a primer in the first paragraph for local readers who may have forgotten who James Ellroy is that you, oh knowledgable reader, may feel free to skip...
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James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia is the first volume in a projected quartet that will be a direct prequel to his LA Quartet which followed a group of police officers in the LAPD after World War 2. Readers unfamiliar with Ellroy will remember LA Confidential (the best book in the original quartet) which was made into the successful film that launched the Hollywood careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
   Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, a relatively quiet Saturday morning in Los Angeles. Hideo Ashida, the LAPD’s sole Japanese cop, is staking out a pharmacy that has been robbed on several occasions in the past month. A forensic policeman ahead of his time Ashida has invented a robotic camera to take pictures of every vehicle parked in front of the drugstore. When the inevitable robbery occurs Ashida is able to get into the good graces of the Detective Bureau by identifying the heist getaway car.
Later in the day back in Ashida’s Little Tokyo neighbourhood a Japanese family is found dead in their home. A mother, father, their young daughter and their panty-sniffing son have all been ritually killed in a murder-suicide. Someone has left a note by the bodies: “The looming apocalypse is not of our doing. We have been good citizens and did not know that it was coming.” The note makes sense when the news from Pearl Harbor reaches Los Angeles the next morning.
America is thrust into World War 2 but for the detectives in the LAPD, the Hollywood moguls and the mafia kingpins the war is just another way of making money. The interlinking stories in Perfidia are told through four main POV characters: Hideo Ashida, Dudley Smith, Kay Lake and William Parker. Ashida appears first and has the most at stake as his family and the majority of America’s Japanese community are subsequently interned in concentration camps. The clinical, intelligent, William Parker was an actual LAPD detective who fought in Normandy, became chief of police in the 1950’s and was the reputed model for the character Mr Spock in Star Trek. Kay Lake is a young socialite who has shacked up with a corrupt cop, is flirting with communism and is, alas, not a terribly well drawn or interesting figure. Dudley Smith, however, the spider at the heart of LA Confidential, is in wonderful demonic form throughout most of Perfidia.
Ellroy remains one of the most exciting literary stylists in the English language. If David Peace’s iterative, repetitious, circular method lies at one logical end of the prose spectrum Ellroy’s dry, clipped, telegraphic style is its counterpoint. Verbless sentences pile on top of another in a way that will leave some readers thrilled and others utterly baffled. The page where Ellroy takes the young Dudley Smith from the war-torn streets of Dublin to Joe Kennedy’s Boston to a bootlegging run in Canada left me exhilarated and perhaps a little exhausted:

. . .He’s in Canada, that’s Lake Erie, he’s on a moored barge. He’s holding a tommy gun. Whiskey crates cover the deck. . .Switcheroo. Instant travelogue. He’s on Coney Island at the Half Moon Hotel. He’s hoisting the canary. Don’t cry, Lee Blanchard, it’s unmanly. Travelogue back to Boston. Young Jack Kennedy’s a Navy Ensign now. . .He’s at a table with Ben Siegel and Sheriff Biscailuz. Glenn Miller’s band plays “Perfidia.” Bette Davis dances with a fey young man. . . 

At 687 pages this is James Ellroy’s longest novel, but with so many characters and wordsmithery this dense it feels longer still. Ellroy’s vision is grandiose. When it is finished the two LA Quartets and his Underworld Trilogy will span the years 1941 – 1972 offering us a vast, polyphonic, alternate history of America (where the FBI and the mob conspire to kill JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King) that is not quite Balzac, not quite Philip K Dick, but much more fun than either of them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Book Club

Me on the ABC's Book Club with 4 prettier & smarter people. I haven't actually watched this but the missus says I didn't make a total arse of myself, which is half the battle isn't it?
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Sunday, October 12, 2014

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

The Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate last week with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
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There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want the genuine article I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join ISIS than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. aghast when characters are walking around with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
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I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Engima code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
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Anyway, this is how I make tea in 2014. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. (No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below). 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer two tea spoons. 
6. Stir. Bob's your uncle: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
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*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis


Henry's glove Zero is now my second favourite baseball mitt in literature
(after Ally's glove in The Catcher In The Rye)
now that shortstop Derek Jeter has retired and the baseball playoff season is upon us, I thought I'd repost this from two years ago (it wasn't my favourite novel of 2012 but it was in my top ten)...
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You ever read a book that was so good that once you finished it that you began it again immediately? No me neither. Well not for a long time anyway. I did this however with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding which is the sweetest debut novel I've read since Zadie Smith's White Teeth. This is what good literary fiction should be: arresting, witty, passionate, with great characters and an elegant prose style. On the surface its the story of a young blue collar shortstop called Henry Skrimshander and a kid called Mike Schwartz who scouts Henry for a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Schwartz works on Henry like a big brother mentor gone mad and turns him from a savant shortstop who can't hit or run into a legitimate baseball prospect. That's the surface but what the book is really about is loyalty and friendship and disappointment and love. You know, life. 
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Just as Henry is on the verge of greatness he catches Chuck Knoblauch/Steve Blass disease, or as they call it in golf, the yips. There's a nice subplot about the President of the University, his daughter and a love quadrangle between her, Henry, Mike and Henry's gay room-mate Owen; but for me the book's heart was the relationship between Mike and Henry and how they become brothers. 
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What makes Harbach a much better writer than someone like, say, Jonathan Franzen, (or Jonathan Safran Froer or Michael Chabon) is that Harbach writes with an authentic blue collar voice than doesn't sound fake and condescending. Most American novelists writing literary fiction are the victims of private schools and elite universities and the Iowa Writers Workshop which inculcates phoniness and renders them incapable of understanding or expressing what it is to be poor in America. I know nothing of Harbach's background except that he went to Harvard, but he writes as if he knows what its like to work in a foundry or get up at 5.a.m. to wash dishes. Whether he actually knows or is just very gifted is neither here nor there. He gives us characters in blue collar occupations who don't know where the next rent check is going to come from and these characters are utterly convincing. You can tell the difference Harbach dialogue and Froer/Franzen dialogue immediately. It's the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic, the real and the patronising. (If I was on the Romney campaign I'd slip this book to the candidate for immediate bedtime reading.)
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Like all great baseball novels there is an element of yearning and transcendence in The Art of Fielding. Baseball is not America's past-time (that in fact is football) but if America were a more perfect place it would be. The Art of Fielding joins Shoeless Joe, The Natural, The Great American Novel, The Boys of Summer, Bang The Drum Slowly and Moneyball as one of the great baseball books. Baseball, like cricket, is an intellectual game, where intellect (and thinking too much) will kill you on the field. I liked this short conversation between Mike and Henry near the end of the novel: 
  
"This is the psych floor," Mike said.
Henry nodded. "Okay."
"Figured I'd give you a heads up. They're going to send in the shrinks to talk to you about not eating. 'Your anorexia', as they referred to it."
"Okay."
"I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis."