A good month, last month. The highlight was Scott Phillips’ THE ICE HARVEST, not bad going when the company included Jason Goodwin’s THE SNAKE STONE, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN, and John Le Carré’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY.
I sneaked a peak at the first page of THE ICE HARVEST, just to get a flavour, when I got back to the hotel at 1am, this in Philadelphia after meeting Scott Phillips and having the novel warmly recommended by the quasi-mythical Greg Gillespie. Drink had been consumed, and I’d never heard of Scott Phillips or THE ICE HARVEST. I put the book down again at 3am because it was too damn good to read in one go. Scott has a lovely light touch, a dry sense of humour and a sharp ear for wry dialogue. It’s also an exemplary character study, as good as Banville’s Victor Maskell and Thompson’s Lou Ford. Terrific stuff.
I met Scott Phillips again in Baltimore, actually, which was nice, especially as he spent the entire Friday walking around with a copy of THE BIG O under his arm. I also met Jason Goodwin, this about a week after I’d finished THE SNAKE STONE, which I thought was superb. The day after I finished it I bought the first in the series, THE JANISSARY TREE, which I started reading on the Baltimore-Boston leg of the flight home to Dublin. Unfortunately, I got distracted by a very attractive young lady who wanted to talk about how much she missed her boyfriend, who was just after getting on a flight to Afghanistan, and so I left THE JANISSARY TREE behind on the plane, along with a notebook full of doodles about my road-trip around the States. Still, she was a very attractive young lady.
BLOOD MERIDIAN was a strange read. A re-read, I started it in September, keeping it beside the bed and dipping into it for five or ten pages at a time. Wonderful stuff, as you already know. Then, around the halfway mark, I ran with it and found myself getting bored. There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic neo-Western slaughter going on, which was absolutely fine, but there’s also a huge amount of traversing bleak and parched terrain, during which not a lot happens. And I didn’t believe in the Judge; so larger-than-life was he that he was literally unbelievable. Maybe he’s meant to be that way, although I can’t for the life of me think why.
I finally read my first Le Carré novel in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, and for a long stretch I wasn’t sure if I believed in Smiley either, or cared about his world. It felt at times like his characters were trying too hard to sound authentic, although at the same time I liked the way the story was rooted in a grey, drab reality. For the first half or so it felt like a Boy’s Own compendium of monochrome adventures, a Rider Haggard take on the Cold War, but even then it was obvious that Le Carré is a fine stylist. I certainly missed Smiley’s world when I finished the story.
I didn’t miss the world Kevin Power recreated in BAD DAY IN BLACKROCK, which is set in the suburbs of southern County Dublin. Touted as a latter-day IN COLD BLOOD and THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE, it’s a fictionalised account of the death of a young Irish man after a post-nightclub assault, an event that dominated the news headlines in Ireland for many months. On the evidence of his debut offering, Power is a fine writer with a lyrical touch, but his choice of subject matter lets him down as he goes behind the headlines and explores the culture in which the young man was killed, a privileged sub-section of society composed of perennial adolescents in thrall to the cult of rugby and the cultivated aggression the sport promotes. The novel it put me most in mind of was Bret Easton Ellis’s LESS THAN ZERO, albeit with vacuous ambition at its heart rather than soi-bored nihilism. The trouble, I think, is that the specific generation Power so piercingly dissects has no virtues worth mythologizing, or vices for that matter; the writer doesn’t so much lance a boil as pop a bubble. In saying that, I’ll be reading his next novel; I think he’s the real deal.
HITLER’S IRISHMEN by Terence O’Reilly was a fascinating read, telling the story of those few Irishmen who served in the SS during World War II. They were a motley crew, most of whom were recruited from the ranks of British POWs, but most were about as effective as they were moral. I particularly liked the story about the guy who signed up to be a German spy, underwent rigorous training, then parachuted into Northern Ireland and promptly made his way to the nearest police station to give himself up. O’Reilly is a military historian, and it shows, both in the meticulous detail and the pedestrian pace. I put it down with a hundred pages to go, and will very probably pick it up again to finish at some point in the future, but I thought that the narrative, which advances in a strictly chronological way, would have benefited from a less rigid framework and a more inventive approach to telling the various stories.
I also read Nick Brownlee’s debut, BAIT, which is set in modern Kenya and has some interesting things to say about the fragility of Kenyan democracy. It’s a solid read, although not particularly innovative; there’s more here if you’re interested.
Meanwhile, it hasn’t been a great start to this month. I’m 60 pages into THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and the more I read, the less I’m inclined to believe in the eponymous heroine – right now she reads like the idealised fantasy of a middle-aged man. I’ll give it 100 pages and see how it pans out, but so far it’s fairly pedestrian stuff.
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.