Thursday, March 15, 2018

More Info On The Final 3 Sean Duffy Novels

so as I said a couple of weeks ago Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly will definitely not be the last Sean Duffy novel. I've announced a new deal with Blackstone Books for a final Duffy trilogy. Here are some more details...(all the titles of course are Tom Waits songs)
Sean Duffy 7 will be called The Detective Up Late. Sean Duffy and the crew have to investigate a missing person's case that involves some very scary people. Around the station they're calling it "Duffy's last case" but untangling that particular thread threatens to unravel their whole world. 

Sean Duffy 8 will be called Hang On St Christopher. Duffy serving out his days as a part time copper is called up to look into a 'simple' murder investigation while Detective Sergeant Lawson is on holiday. A portrait painter's car has been hijacked and he is shot dead in the attempt. Unfortunately for Duffy there was more to the painter than meets the eye and this is a far more dangerous and terrifying case than a simple carjacking gone wrong. 

Sean Duffy 9 will be called The Ghosts of Saturday Night and deals with what happens as a result of the 90's Peace Process in Belfast when 300 murderers are released back into the general population many with old scores to settle and some bizarre new ideas to implement. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin

My review of Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin from last weekend's Australian newspaper
A winter’s night in the far west of Ireland in 1993. A trainee Garda officer, Cormac Reilly, is driving through the rain between the bog and the mountains. Something has happened at Dower House, a derelict Georgian mansion in the hamlet of Kilmore.
When Reilly arrives at the property he finds Maude Blake, a near-starving, wide-eyed 15-year-old, and Jack, her bruised and battered five-year-old brother. The girl points upstairs, where Reilly finds the children’s drunken, emaciated mother, Hilaria, with a heroin needle sticking out of her arm.
For Reilly it’s a gothic, distressing scene but the case seems straightforward enough: the Blakes were a dissipated Anglo-Irish family on the decline and Hilaria’s death was clearly only a matter of time. Two things then happen that complicate the story: the medical examiner says that Hilaria had never taken heroin before the fatal overdose and, shortly after this, Maude Blake completely vanishes.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
Twenty years later, in Galway, Jack Blake is engaged to a brilliant young doctor, Aisling, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The day he hears this news he goes out for a walk and does not come back. Reilly, meanwhile, after a high-flying career in the anti-terrorism taskforce, has moved back to Galway town to further his wife’s career as a research scientist.
Reilly is not exactly thrilled to be working in the cold-case basement but when the 20-year-old case of Hilaria Blake is dumped on his desk he wonders if this is more than a ­coincidence.
This is the arresting opening to Dervla McTiernan’s assured debut novel, The Ruin. A lawyer from Galway, McTiernan moved to Western Australia following the global financial crisis of 2008.
As The Ruin progresses, we follow Reilly and Aisling’s dovetailing quest for truth. When Jack’s long-lost sister returns from Australia to find out what happened to her brother, all narrative gears are set in motion.
I like the vibe McTiernan creates of a small-town police headquarters with its dank offices and “slurping foul-smelling pot noodles­” and I like Reilly’s pal, the dodgy Danny McIntyre, who is a copper on the rise. McTiernan joins such contemporary masters­ of the Garda police procedural as Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway, Anthony Quinn and Arlene Hunt, with a polished and original story that also draws on the hidden secrets storylines of such writers as Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy. Her dialogue and milieu are authentic and I found no examples of cop talk catachresis.
The Ruin delves deep into the police troika of sins: corruption, laziness and bigotry. But McTiernan also has something to say about the changes that have taken place in Ireland over the past 20 years.
She writes about the seemingly endless wave of scandals that hit the Catholic Church of Ireland in this period, particularly ones ­involving the abuse of children. As mentioned, McTiernan is a lawyer and a text that is mentioned several times in The Ru in is the Irish constitution, which is not as alarming as it sounds.
Ireland’s original constitution begins: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ ...”
You get the picture. For 70 years after it won independence, Ireland was a quasi-theocracy with whole areas of civic life devolved to the church. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but no one seemed to notice this until the dam began to break in the mid-1990s.
Into this heady mix McTiernan also has time to skilfully unpack Maude and Aisling’s grief and to give us an acute psychological portrait of Reilly, a policeman who worries that his career might just have peaked.
McTiernan’s writing style is best described as workmanlike. There are few opportunities for wit in this dark story but this is Ireland, so there is still time for the occasional piss-take.
Stephen King teaches young writers that their prose mustn’t become distracting, that what is important about a novel are the characters and the story. This is good advice but perhaps you can take a little too much of the medicine. I don’t see anything wrong with ­allowing your prose to breathe a bit and let some of your personality leak out, even in a police procedural. This goes doubly for a writer from the land of saints, scribes and scholars.
Still, The Ruin is a breezily confident debut and promises a bright future for this new Irish-Australian talent.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the award-winning Sean Duffy crime novels.
The Ruin
By Dervla McTiernan
HarperCollins, 400pp, $32.99

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

The 50th Anniversary of Electric Sheep

my piece from last weekend's Irish Times on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep...
March 2018 marks the 36th anniversary of the death of science fiction writer Philip K Dick whose most iconic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was finished fifty years ago this spring. All of Philip K Dick’s novels are back in print, there is a current Amazon TV series (Electric Dreams) based on Dick’s writings, this Sunday Blade Runner 2049 (the sequel to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s Electric Sheep) will almost certainly win the Academy Award for best cinematography and there are at least a dozen TV and movie adaptations of Dick’s works in the pipeline. Add to that the number of knock off PKD movie and TV adaptations out there (*cough* Black Mirror) and it’s obvious that we are living in a Philip K Dick saturated world. This is a pretty amazing turn around for a writer who died broke and in near obscurity (his hasty obituary in the New York Times was a scant three paragraphs long and riddled with errors).
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written during the period 1966-1968, probably the two most turbulent years America has experienced since World War II. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, counter-culture, scandals and the Cold War were the context for Dick to write a book which is basically a pretty straightforward detective story set in a nightmare future. The McGuffins are different but we’re in the same world as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler: missing people, a shot partner, a femme fatale, trouble with the local cops and a bleak cynical universe from which no hope is expected and none is given. Perhaps it’s not even that big of a coincidence that when the movie version of Electric Sheep was filmed – as Blade Runner – the cameras rolled on the same set where they shot the Maltese Falcon forty years earlier.
The plot of Electric Sheep is complex but basically we follow the story of detective Rick Deckard in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco as he tracks down runaway androids (who as slaves are forbidden to come back to Earth from the off world colonies), deals with his Virtual Reality-addicted wife, and keeps up the pretence that his electric sheep is in fact real. The latter storyline is the most interesting thematic element of the novel. After World War Terminus, real animals are rare and caring for and protecting any kind of a real creature gives one incredible status. For someone with low self esteem in a job he hates, Deckard hopes to fool everyone, including ultimately himself, about the sheep; perhaps if he pretends hard enough that his sheep is real and that he is a decent man these things might actually come true. The eco disaster theme was largely dropped from Blade Runner but was developed again in Blade Runner 2049.

Deckard meets up with the beautiful and deceitful Rachael, who turns out to be an android, and later in one fantastic scene he is taken to a police station where he either has a mental breakdown or else he sees the world for what it really is: everyone in this precinct appears to be an android – it’s the humans that are unusual and in this place it’s Deckard himself who is the fake like his sheep. Shaking off this strange vision he pursues the final runaways, becoming more disillusioned than ever as he realizes that cracking this case will bring not happiness but only further existential crises. Where is he going? What is he doing with his life? What are any of us doing with any of our lives? Like Sam Spade at the end of The Maltese Falcon Deckard has no solutions. He wonders what all of it means and comes up with nothing. Philip K Dick doesn’t give us any answers either except for the vague but possibly deep idea that the meaning of life is to be found in the search for the meaning of life. The best we can do is to strive for the truth, although we are constantly reminded to be wary, for falsity is everywhere: the Maltese Falcon is a fake, the electric sheep is a fake and Deckard himself is the biggest fake of all. This is an idea that Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 flirt with throughout both films.

Like his near contemporary Philip Larkin, Dick increasingly became obsessed by and wrote about death. Dick wondered what being alive really felt like and whether death would kill that state of consciousness; sometimes he believed that death was merely a transition between states and other times that it was the final destination. Perhaps he hoped it was the former but knew it was the latter. “I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said. Electric Sheep explores various aspects of dying and consciousness and asks if it is possible to be a good person whose job it is to track down and kill sentient creatures who just want to be left alone.

Dick’s death obsession began early. Born in Chicago in 1928, his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick died when he was only a few weeks old. All his life Dick felt Jane’s absence and her loss is frequently referenced in his fiction. Jane was buried in a lonely grave in the bleak Colorado plains town of Fort Morgan with, morbidly, a space left on the headstone for baby Phil. The grave awaited Dick for five decades and when he died in 1982 sure enough the twins were reunited in death. In middle age, after years of amphetamine abuse, Dick even flirted with the idea that in a parallel universe he was the one that had died and Jane had survived – he was already buried in the grim Fort Morgan cemetery, next to Interstate 76, and Jane was the science fiction writer living in California. (This idea was further developed in the playful novel Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff.)

In our universe, after Jane’s death, Dick and his family migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He went to the same high school as Ursula Le Guin and after a brief period at UC Berkeley he dropped out and quickly began selling science fiction stories to magazines and newspapers. Dick’s adult life was fragmented to say the least. He moved often, was married five times and even though he wrote constantly he was not good at keeping money. His default paranoia was exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, his dealings with local street thugs, and his anti-government activities during the Nixon era.

Many of Philip K Dick’s stories were written hastily under the influence of speed and are of dubious quality, but the books that he took trouble over – Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said – are all well-crafted novels often with a cop protagonist.

Dick’s final years were spent in an increasingly eccentric investigation of the true nature of God and the cosmos. In a March 02 1980 diary entry, Dick predicted that because he was close to uncovering the secrets of the universe, God would pull the plug on this version of Philip K Dick; two years later, on March 02 1982, the plug was literally pulled on a brain-dead Dick as he lay in a hospital after a stroke.

No one would argue that Dick was a great stylist or an inventor of an American idiom, like, say, Hammett, but he was the creator of brilliant concepts and visions that were uncannily ahead of their time. Philip K Dick’s paranoid world view distrustful of government, computers, purveyors of information and even our own inner view of reality seems radically in step with our contemporary world. Lovers of big concept science fiction will enjoy Dick’s better novels and will judge him not by his prose but by his gift for originality and his ability to convey extraordinarily prescient ideas in even more extraordinary worlds.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

5 reasons to read...Patrick O'Brian

my favourite historical novelist bar none...


Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Final Duffy Trilogy

The story broke on Publishers Weekly this morning (right) and I couldn't be happier about sharing the news with you here on the blog. The Edgar, Barry, Anthony, Audie, Barry and Ned Kelly Award winning Sean Duffy series will return for one final trilogy to be published by Blackstone Books. 
Book 7 will be called The Detective Up Late and will be out later this year.
Book 8 will be called Hang On St Christopher and will be out next year
Book 9 will be called The Ghosts of Saturday Night and will be out in 2020.

(Yes the titles are all Tom Waits songs (some more obscure than others)). This will be the end of the line for Detective Sean Duffy and his comrades in arms, so fingers crossed it's going to be all right...(I really have no idea if it will be or not if I'm honest.)
riot police at Carrickfergus of whom cd be our boy...

Friday, February 23, 2018

Thursday, February 22, 2018

more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

you might be familiar with the anonymous 9th century Irish poem "a blackbird over Belfast Lough"
which has been translated many times, perhaps most famously by Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson amongst others... A pencil sketch of the Lagan valley blackbird is now the symbol of the Seamus Heaney centre.
Anyway I love this little fragment of a poem and I thought I would offer up my own translation for your approval. The male pronoun works I think because in general only the males have a yellow nib to their beak. There's a little bit of invention with the use of "mudflats" but I figured that was ok because most of the translators of this poem use the word "Belfast" and Belfast as a concept didn't exist until the seventeenth century whereas the muddy "Black mouth" of the Lagan clearly did exist as a place back in the 9th century. I also didn't completely cheat in the rhyme scheme - in Ulster English beak is pronounced bake and round my way sometimes beagh which sounds a bit like lough.
This poem is a little bit like Basho's famous frog haiku which has inspired MANY translations, because, I think, it is so simple.

Anyway here's my version of the poem followed by the Irish itself...

a little bird 


from the tip of his yellow beak 

a blackbird amongst the gorse blossom

throwing music

over the mudflats of Belfast Lough

nt én bec

ro léc feit

do rinn guip, glanbuidi

fo-ceird faíd

ós Loch Laíg

lon do chraíb, charnbuidi

-anon from the Irish c.9th century

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Alternative History Novel Primer

finally got to see the Ridley Scott series Man in the High Castle so I'm reblogging my article on alternative history novels from the Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle on Amazon and SS GB on the BBC we can safely say that the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury demonstrated in ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis following Nietzsche believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub and of course Philip Pullman's universe keeps expanding with his new Book of Dust...
             Anyway, I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading... 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

5 reasons to read...Ian Rankin

5 reasons to read Ian Rankin's Rebus novels...
(a lot of Ians get mentioned here but I totally missed a trick by forgetting to list Ian McEwan)

Friday, February 16, 2018

5 reasons to read...Hue 1968

another one in my new youtube series 5 reasons to read. this time it's five reasons to read Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

5 reasons to read....Agatha Christie

Yeah, I know who needs a reason to read Agatha Christie when the books are EVERYWHERE...Here I provide my thinking:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Maybe We've Been Laughing At You The Whole Time

There is a strong tradition in England of thinking of the Irish as subhuman
animals. Famously the Irish were drawn as gorillas or cave men by Punch magazine throughout much of the nineteenth century. This cartoon (right) is from that liberal politically correct bastion The Guardian and was drawn just last year! As Tacitus observed we can't help despising those we have wronged and the English wrongs in Ireland have been going strong for 800 years. A traditional response of colonised people has been to mock the oppressor with humour, irony and sarcasm. To my mind the three peoples who have developed the most acute use of humour as a rhetorical strategy are the Jews, African Americans and the Micks for analogous (but not identical) reasons.
I'm from Ulster which has traditionally been seen as a dour, rainy sort of place lacking in wit and jokes. But the hit TV show Derry Girls has suddenly wised the rest of the British Isles up to the fact that people from Northern Ireland are funny. Derry Girls's humour is a little bit too broad for my taste but it affords me an opportunity to point out that the vein of comedy runs very very deep in Ulster. When a girl brings her boyfriend home for the first time pretty much every sin can be forgiven except for "he doesn't have much of a sense of humour does he?" We'll never see that lad again. Ulster comedy is everywhere but it's usually so subtle that outsiders don't see it. It's a kind of cant or code switching that we can read but outsiders cannot. Slang and the accent help hide this demotic of deepest black comedy and in mixed company we often have to dumb down the meta in the discourse so that outsiders can get it. But once you start looking you'll see this ironic use of language everywhere. It's there in the plays of Brian Friel and Sam Hanna Bell. It's there in the comics of Garth Ennis. It's there in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Sinead Morrissey, Ciaran Carson etc. It's there in the fiction of Robert McLiam Wilson, Bernard MacLaverty, Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee and so on. 
I'm glad Derry Girls is a hit but it worries me a bit because now the secret is out the English are going to realise that actually we've been taking the piss out of them the whole time. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sticky Fingers

my review of Sticky Fingers from last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine – Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers is a much better book than it has any right to be. This is an official history of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine and as such it could have quickly become one of those hagiographic puff pieces which were the bread and butter of Rolling Stone for much of its early history. This is Joe Hagan’s first book and he was personally selected for the task by Wenner so my expectations were not particularly high for Sticky Fingers’s objectivity or readability. In fact the book is a terrific read and surprisingly critical of Wenner’s motives, tastes, ethics and loyalty.
            Wenner was born into a wealthy California family who made their money selling cut price baby formula. A somewhat demanding child he was  packed off to boarding school in Los Angeles at the age of thirteen in 1959. It was at the exclusive Chadwick School that Wenner seems to have developed his addiction for celebrity, preferring to hang out with the children of movie stars.
            After graduation Wenner moved back to northern California just in time for the explosion of the San Francisco music scene. After dabbling in journalism, Wenner married the beautiful Jane Schindelheim and promptly hit up her parents for a loan to start his own rock magazine. Mixing reviews, gossip and marijuana recipes Rolling Stone struggled to find its feet until Wenner scored a long form interview with his idol John Lennon who was in the mood to dish about the break-up of the Beatles and his problems with Paul McCartney.
            Rolling Stone rode the coat-tails of the Lennon interview for years and printed every word of John, Yoko, Paul, Mick, Bob etc. as if they were gospel. Wenner made deals with record companies, managers and bands and unsurprisingly the record companies who bought advertising in Rolling Stone tended to get better reviews for their products than those who didn’t. As Hagan points out in a key passage if Wenner only had one great idea it was the notion that the Sixties “for all its passion and idealism was at its sacred core a business.”
            Perhaps Wenner’s real talent was for nurturing talent. He effectively kick started the career of photographer Annie Leibovitz. He discovered writer Cameron Crowe, encouraged Tom Wolfe to write a novel and it was Wenner who sent “Gonzo journalist” Hunter Thompson to Las Vegas to gather material for an article and book. Wenner subsequently fell out with all these people as his interest in art declined and his desire to make a lot of money became paramount. Wenner founded three other magazines, sold a stake in Rolling Stone to the Disney Corporation and was a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
            Hagan takes the story of Wenner and Rolling Stone all the way up to 2017 but the last two decades of this narrative are not terribly interesting. Rolling Stone was past its peak by the 1990’s with its readership skewing to an increasingly elderly demographic still tragically spellbound by Beatles, Stones and Who minutiae.
            The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chapters are fascinating as an insight into Wenner’s pedestrian tastes. Unimpressed by metal, grunge, punk, R&B and hip hop Wenner put Bono of U2 on the cover sixteen times before he himself conducted a fawning 16,613 word interview in 2005.
            Wenner’s personal life is a lot less interesting than his professional one. We get the obligatory 1960’s acid tests, 1970’s marathon drinking sessions and 1980’s cocaine nights. Wenner’s long suffering wife Jane seems to have put up with several affairs until finding herself genuinely shocked when Jann came out as gay in 1994.
            Wenner continued to make money hand over first and it was only the 2008 financial crash that spared us from a series of Rolling Stone hotels complete with Gonzo clubs that would stage musical versions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 
            In his Afterword Joe Hagan explains that Sticky Fingers was written in the quietude of a New York monastery and this has clearly helped the quality of the book’s excellent prose. Gossipy, scabrous, cynical, reflective and ultimately compassionate, Sticky Fingers is one of the best biographies I have read this year. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

5 Reasons To Read...JG Ballard

the first of what hopefully will be a new series: 5 Reasons To Read...Up next I think, Angela Carter.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Exit, Pursued By A Bear: The North Water by Ian McGuire

"Hull is other people" is a nice gag from a Christopher Hitchens review of Philip Larkin's letters that beautifully sums up The North Water. The book begins in a grim Hull dockyard sometime in the late 1850's with a rape and murder by one Henry Drax who is taking ship on a Hull whaler bound for Greenland. Drax is a harpooner by trade who boards the good ship Volunteer looking for opportunities of every kind. Also on the Volunteer is the Irish ship's surgeon Patrick Sumner who went to medical school in Belfast but who through unlucky circumstance has ended up in Hull. Hull and Belfast then (another echo of Philip Larkin). 
The North Water is a great read by a new author (at least new to me) Ian McGuire. The characterisations are superb and the language is often very beautiful. The story moves quickly too. It is, as Jerry Lee Lewis liked to say: no filler, all killer. The reviews on the cover are from Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel and people like that and the novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize. I liked it very much too but, and here's the rub, in many ways its really just a Patrick O'Brian novel for people too snobby to read Patrick O'Brian. A philosophical Irish ship's surgeon who is addicted to opium? Check. Encounters with whales and whaling? Check. A shipwreck on an ice flow? Check. A crew divided against itself with a maniac onboard? Check. Climbing inside a bearskin to survive? Check. Return passage on a ship called the Truelove? Check. Now what Mr McGuire is doing here is called a homage and I admire that but for those of you (and you know who you are) who are too stuck up to read the source material I'll point you anyway to Desolation Island/Post Captain/The Far Side of the World/The Wine Dark Sea/The Truelove which are the Aubrey-Maturin novels that cover this material. 
I'm not knocking The North Water. It's a great book. I am knocking those people who knock Patrick O'Brian as a mere romancier. He's as good a writer as McGuire and he got there first. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Writing Advice From Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler to Frederick Lewis Allen (Harper's) dated May 7, 1948.  

"A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like "he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water."  They took it out when they published the story.  Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action.  And I set out to prove them wrong.  My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action.  The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.  He didn't even hear death knock on the door.  That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ursula Le Guin – An Appreciation

In the long rainy summer of 1978 after a series of dull novels I finally could take it no more and I huffily demanded of the librarian “are there any books in existence as good as The Hobbit?” 

The place was Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland and I was ten years old. 

“Yes,” the librarian said, “follow me” and she led me to an author called Ursula Le Guin in the science fiction section. “This one,” she said and put into my hands a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I was skeptical. The cover had a pensive looking boy staring at the ocean in a battered paperback edition. But when I flipped the book open there was a map of an archipelago that didn’t exist anywhere in our world. “Ok,” I said and sat down on the floor and began reading. 

The librarian tapped me on the shoulder, “We’re closing up now,” she said. When I looked out the window it was night-time and about four hours had gone by. 

That’s what Ursula Le Guin who died on Monday January 22nd had the power to do. She created entire worlds that readers fell into and believed in utterly. Her complex, philosophical Earthsea books for children about a young trainee wizard were the gateway drug to her even more psychologically astute and ethically complex science fiction. 

Le Guin raised questions in the fields of science fiction and fantasy that no one else was asking at the time. Questions about sexuality, gender, feminism the morality of war and peace. She knew that science fiction was a genre about ideas but a genre dominated by white men in their forties and fifties needed fresher ideas to keep it interesting. Le Guin’s ideas came out of left field. She didn’t talk about it much (and it wasn’t mentioned in her New York Times obituary)  but she went to the same high school and grew up in the same milieu as Philip K Dick. For PKD and Le Guin their big original ideas had to be backed up by consistent internal logic and intellectual rigor. If a planet has three genders instead of two how would that affect society? If a man’s wishes were always somehow coming true what nightmares would that induce? Could a society based on anarcho-syndicalism actually exist and if it could what would it look like? Should a species that doesn’t value its ecosystem even deserve to survive?

Le Guin came from an academic family and she didn’t suffer fools gladly (she wasn’t impressed by anyone in the Trump administration) but she was also an incredibly generous book blurber, encourager of young talent and teacher. I never met her in real life but my wife Leah took a short story class with her once and Leah remembers a mentor who saw patience and kindness as the highest virtues. 

Later in that summer of 1978 I walked into a library in Carrickfergus and skeptically asked a librarian if anyone had ever written a book as good as A Wizard of Earthsea. 

“You liked it then?” the librarian said. 
“Very much,” I told her. 
“You should write to the author and tell her. Authors like to hear that sometimes and who knows she might even write back.” 

It was the first time I’d ever written to an author and two months later an envelope came back with a Portland, Oregon postmark on it. Le Guin had taken the trouble to answer all my questions about Sparrowhawk, ‘the rule of names’ and how exactly the magic worked on Earthsea. 

Winner of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, in 2014 Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She was the last of the giants of the golden age of science fiction and her wit, intelligence, kindness and originality will be sorely missed. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Sorry Hitch, Women Are Just As Funny & Probably Funnier Than Men

a post from three years ago that feels a little prescient now...
I think the reason men kept women out of so many occupations over the centuries was the fear that women would do those occupations better than they would. Most men grew up with mothers who were wiser than them, stronger willed than them, more patient than them, harder working than them etc. World War 1 and 2 taught us that women can do every single job in the modern world as good as or better than men. The reason they weren't doing those jobs (riveting, truck driving, etc.) was because men had kept them out. What about the actual fighting of the war itself I hear you ask. Oh sure men having always been good at fighting but again thats only because women haven't been given the chance. What's the #1 box office movie at the moment? American Sniper - the story of Chris Kyle. No woman could surely do that job, right? I guess you haven't heard of Lyudmila Pavlichenko who shot 309 Nazis on the Ost Front including 35 enemy snipers trying to kill her. Pavlichenko was one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army. You really should know about her. She met FDR. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about her. 
If you look at the list of well governed countries where the rule of law prevails, corruption is minimal and people are generally happier it's always the countries where women are most empowered that are the near the top of every table. Denmark, Norway, Finland etc. And if you look at all the nightmare countries in the world it's always the countries where women are treated like shit. Any place where men with guns (or worse men with guns and holy books) are in charge is always going to be a hell hole. We've known for years that the single best way to move a society out of poverty is to educate girls. Educating them at a school not run by an absurd patriarchal desert religion that worships an invisible sky god probably works even better.
Ok so what has this got to do with funny? We've never allowed women to be funny. Nothing scares men like a woman who is funnier and sharper than they are, so funny girls until very very recently in the history of our culture were told to cut it out. Women have had to sneak funny in the back door. Jane Austen still makes us laugh 200 years later, whereas I've never laughed at Dickens, or Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones or any of those supposedly funny books. Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain are the only nineteenth century novelists who can hold a candle to Austen in the funny department... Men like women to be beautiful or tragic or poetic or sexy but not funny. And men ran the entire world (and still run most of it) until pretty much yesterday. It wasn't until the age of television that we began to allow and even encourage funny women. But they had to fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard. It's tough to make it as a comic but it was always tougher for female comics who got told that they weren't funny by bookers and agents and club owners and - crucially - male comics. 
In 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Vanity Fair called Why Women Aren't Funny. It wasn't the Hitch's best work and the timing was terrible as Tina Fey's 30 Rock had just started. 30 Rock was the first American successful comedy show with a female head-writer and show-runner since Roseanne. 30 Rock was hit and miss with some very annoying characters but when it was good it was very very good. Fey proved week in and week out that she was sharper and funnier and wittier than the men working on TV. I would love to have seen Fey debate Hitch on this topic, it would have been one for the ages, but she wasn't a God botherer so Hitch didn't engage. 
Fey kicked the doors in for other talented women and its obvious now to any fool that women are just as funny as men. I've said for years that women are generally better writers than men (I'm not going to go into all that again now) but the one area men had left to cling to was in comic writing and now that's going too. Kristen Wiig, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler are just about the funniest people on the planet right now. Some people say that the funniest and best written show on TV at the moment is Lena Dunham's Girls. I have a lot of problems with Girls not least because the cast and the girls on Girls come from very very privileged backgrounds and this rubs me the wrong way. No I say that the funniest show on TV at the moment is Broad City now in its second season. Written and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson its also the only comedy show I've ever seen that accurately portrays what living in New York is actually like: the heat, the dirt, the poverty, the crazies...Broad City finally allows women to deploy every weapon in the comedy arsenal: it's not just witty and clever, it's also vulgar, crude, broad, sexually risque and downright silly. 
Glazer and Jacobson will kick in a lot more doors for women. And now that TV execs (still mostly men) see that women being funny can make them a lot of money you should expect to see a lot more funny women on TV. When the playing field finally levels off in a few years we'll see how ridiculous and dated Hitch's arguments are.