“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Digested Read: EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yep, it’s that time of the week again. Herewith be the latest in an increasingly improbable line of Digested Reads, aka the Book du Jour in 300 words. This week: EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. To wit:

No one understood, y’see. I was married, I had a nice home, I was a successful New York-based writer. Ladies - how could I not be unhappy?
  I believe it all began with a conversation with ninth generation medicine man in Bali. “I’m very much afraid, Elizabeth,” he said, “that even primitive tribes know that the sun shines out of the East in the morning, as opposed to the fundament of any one puddle-shallow New Yorker who should spend some of her new book advance on a ladder and just get over herself.”
  Men, eh? But such ancient wisdom. How could I not divorce my beloved husband (oh, the sacrifice!) I’d been screwing around on and blow a book advance on a trip around the world in 80 prays?
  I could:
(a) make an Alp-sized dent in the EU food mountain in Italy;
(b) unfavourably compare my new muffin-belly with the skinny beggars and cripples of caste-ridden India;
(c) maybe score myself a Brazilian in Bali.
  A Brazilian man, ladies, not a wax (oh, the humanity!).
  So off I go to Rome to find myself, but lo! there’s no mirrors in Rome, so I have to be content with my reflection in the eyes of luscious Italian language tutor, Giovanni.
  “I don’t know how to be here,” I wailed whilst stuffing myself with deep-fried Marza Barz.
  “Erm, that-a doesn’t make-a sense-a in any language-a,” he flirted outrageously.
  Men, eh?
  They’re only after one thing.
  Pity I don’t have it.
  Still, upwards and onwards to an ashram in India for some spirituality that’s not even slightly a quick-fix superficial status symbol. I mean, I scrubbed actual floors (oh, The Oneness of All Things!).
  Okay. One floor. But a big-ish one.
  And so to Bali. Sun, sea and (lawks!) Brazilian factory owners.
  Okay. One Brazilian factory owner. But a big-ish one (fnarr).
  Men, eh?
  Where would a smart, educated, independent, successful, spiritually enlightened woman be without one?
  The End.

  The Digested Read, In One Line: What’s Eating Gilbert’s Grape?

  This feature first appeared in the Evening Herald

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Origins: Reed Farrel Coleman

Being the latest in what will probably be yet another short-lived series, in which yours truly reclines on a hammock by the pool with a jeroboam of Elf-Wonking Juice™ and lets a proper writer talk about the origins of his or her characters and stories. This week: Reed Farrel Coleman, author of INNOCENT MONSTER. To wit:

“Every author is sick to death of the questions about where ideas come from. We’re sick of the question because, as writers, the answer is so bloody obvious. Our ideas come from everywhere: from newspapers, from television, from life, from an incident that happened thirty years ago, from some seed planted in our twisted little brains. Where our protagonists come from is less obvious and much more interesting. In the two novels (HOSE MONKEY, THE FOURTH VICTIM) I wrote under the pen name Tony Spinosa, my protagonist, Joe Serpe, was a product of circumstance: mine and the world’s. For several years, I’d been making cash driving a truck and delivering home heating oil (a form of diesel fuel once popular in the northeast USA). I came to truck driving late in life, so, unlike driving a car, the process was fascinating to me. I also enjoyed the very physical nature of the work, so different than my writing. Hence Joe Serpe would drive a heating oil delivery truck. For once I was writing about something I knew about first hand. The other half of Joe’s equation was his struggle to come to grips with personal tragedy in the aftermath of 9/11.
  “Moe Prager, the protagonist of my most popular novels, is a different matter altogether. Moe is the product of another failed protagonist from an aborted series and from the plot of a novel that shaped him as much as anything else. In the 90s while I was writing my first three novels (LIFE GOES SLEEPING, LITTLE EASTER, THEY DON’T PLAY STICKBALL IN MILWAUKEE) featuring insurance investigator cum novelist Dylan Klein, I tried to write a second series featuring a Jewish, Brooklyn-born, hotshot NYPD homicide detective named Moe Einstein. Problem was my grasp exceeded my craft and though the novels had their strong points, they weren’t publishable. I didn’t have the chops to pull them off and Moe Einstein—Jesus, can you imagine all the lame puns I generated with that name—was too clever by half. I hadn’t yet developed my own voice to a point where I could escape the clichés and overdone conceits of the genre. Still, Moe Einstein stuck with me. I liked the fact that he struggled with his religious identity and that he was wed to his Brooklyn neighborhood. I liked that he was unconventional and loyal to his family.
  “Well, by the time I came to write my fourth novel, I was faced with a dilemma. I could either try to continue writing the Dylan Klein series or forge ahead into new ground. I tried to write DK4, but it just wasn’t working because of something I’d done plot-wise in Stickball that would have caused me to make a major shift in book 4. Looking back at it, I think I unconsciously sabotaged the series because I had taken it as far as I could. Basically, I had used the first three books—plus the two unpublished Moe Einstein books—to teach myself how to write. If you read my DK novels, you can see the growth for yourselves. Frustrated, I searched for a new direction. Boom! In New York Magazine, a story about a missing college student. I remembered reading many stories like it over the course of my life: a college student, usually male, comes into Manhattan for a night of partying and disappears off the face of the earth. What happened to them, I wondered? What were their stories? Who could the detective be to answer those questions? Moe Einstein raised his hand and volunteered and I picked him…sort of.
  “Moe kept his first name, but lost the Einstein. And now Moe was short for Moses because he would lead people to the Promised Land, but never quite reach it himself. I emphasized his allegorical nature by naming his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam. Moe Prager was born. This Moe would not be a hotshot detective, but an everyman cop, a guy in uniform who gets hurt on the job but in a completely inglorious manner. He had to be someone any reader could relate to. In uniform, Moe had done one great deed, but was never really rewarded for it. That’s something I know I can relate to. Plus Moe would be intimately close to the reader. He would do more than tell you what he was doing. He would tell you what he was thinking and, most importantly, what he was feeling. So Moe was an outgrowth of an earlier character and the plot of the book I was writing. Yet, Moe is such a fine character, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have found my way to him no matter what.” - Reed Farrel Coleman

INNOCENT MONSTER is the sixth Moe Prager novel. Reed Farrel Coleman has won the Shamus Award for Best Novel of the Year three times as well as the Barry and Anthony, and has twice been nominated for the Edgar.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stuck In A RUT

I met Scott Phillips in a bar in Philly. Seriously annoying dude: laidback, cool, generous with his time, all that. And everyone kept raving about how good a writer he was. So I bought one of his books - THE ICE HARVEST - and took it back to the hotel room and gave it ten pages, just to see. Round about 4 am, and halfway through, I finally put it down.
  Woke up the next morning, said, ‘Okay, you’d had a few beers last night, it’s probably not as good as you remember it.’ It was, and better.
  Later that week, at the Baltimore B’con, I bumped into Scott Phillips twice. Both times he was walking around with THE BIG O tucked under his oxter. Nice guy.
  A couple of months later, I read COTTONWOOD. Better than THE ICE HARVEST? Possibly, but we’re dealing in quarks here.
  Anyway, the news that the Concord Free Press is publishing Scott Phillips’ new offering is all kinds of good news. To wit:
RUT, a wild and original novel from Scott Phillips, takes readers to the Rocky Mountains circa 2050, where the once thriving burg of Gower is about to become a 21st-century ghost town. Thanks to extreme weather and plenty of toxic waste, the skiers and celebrities are gone, along with the money and the veneer of civilization. What’s left? Old-time religion and brand-new pharmaceuticals, bad food and warm beer, mutated animals and small-town gossip. Can the town survive? We’ll see.

Part of me would love to live in the near-future world Scott Phillips has imagined in RUT, but only a little part. The rest of me is happy just to read about this, um, direction in which we humans might be headed. Another great novel from one of our best.
—Tom Franklin, author of CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER

  A dystopian novel with a difference, RUT is hilarious and horrifying. Phillips creates a richly imagined world that serves as a funhouse mirror for our own times. It’s filled with an unforgettable cast of spot on original characters who struggle, steal, lie, fight, drink, cheat, and scheme their way to better days. Or China. Or anywhere but Gower. Sly and cool, absurd and archly perceptive, RUT resonates with the best work of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, all in a wonderfully weird tale unlike any other.
  A Phillips / Vonnegut / Pynchon mash-up? I WANT IT NOW!
  Incidentally, if you haven’t come across the Concord Free Press before, they’re well worth checking out. The slogan: ‘Free their books and their minds will follow.’ Their mission statement reads thusly:
We publish great books and give them away. All we ask is that you make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need. Tell us about it. Then pass your book along so others can give. It’s a new kind of publishing, one based purely on generosity, and it’s changing the way people think about books.
  For the rest, clickety-click here

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Black Pool

The gaelic version of Dublin - Dubh Linn - translates as ‘the Black Pool’, and comes from the Viking name for the lagoon where they first moored their longships when they arrived to plunder and pillage the east coast of Ireland. I’ve always thought THE BLACK POOL would make a terrific title for a Durty Harry / vigilante-style revenge novel set in Dubbalin town … a Black Pool / Black Hole mash-up vibe, sci-fi / cri-fi … in which Durty Harry unleashes his Magnum .357 on assorted bankers, investors, speculators and politicians, and blows a hole in the city so big it takes on its own gravity and starts to suck in everything around it …
  Ooops, I’m thinking out loud again …
  Anyhoo, last week the Irish Times published a smashing supplement to mark Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, and yours truly was asked to contribute a piece on the rise of the Dublin-set crime novel. It ran a lot like this:
Darkness Falls on the Mean Streets

“In the last few years,” Fintan O’Toole wrote last November in the Irish Times, “Irish-set crime writing has not merely begun to blossom but has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society.”
  As to why Irish crime writing took so long to develop, O’Toole suggested that, “Crime fiction is a function of something Ireland didn’t have until recently – large-scale cities.”
  He further points to the fact that Ireland’s most famous and popular crime writer, John Connolly, set his first and subsequent crime novels in Maine, in the US. That argument is a little unfair to authors such as Vincent Banville, Julie Parsons and Hugo Hamilton, all of whom were setting their crime novels on the mean streets of Dublin in pre-Celtic Tiger days. By the same token, the last decade or so has seen an explosion of crime writing in which Dublin has not only become a familiar setting, but has become something of a recurring character in the works in a disparate number of writers.
  Declan Hughes’ private eye, Ed Loy, first appeared in The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006), and has charted the absurdities of Dublin’s rapidly changing fortunes over the course of five novels. Hughes explores the “broad tree-lined streets of detached Victorian and Edwardian villas” of South County Dublin in his debut novel, inventing for himself the fictional suburban enclaves of Bayview and Castlehill, “where the luxury homes of top Irish rock stars, film directors, barristers and CEOs formed the exclusive enclave the reporter claimed was nicknamed ‘Bel Eire’.”
  By the time his most recent novel, City of Lost Girls, was released earlier this year, however, Ed Loy has ‘followed the money’ all the way to the heart of a once affluent Dublin:
  “The wheels might have been coming off the economy at a frantic rate, but you wouldn’t have known a thing about it if the only place you ate your dinner was Shanahan’s on the Green. Mind you, if you could afford to dine in Shanahan’s Steakhouse every night, you probably didn’t care: you’d stored up enough nuts to get you through however long the winter lasted.” (City of Lost Girls, 2010)
  Arlene Hunt is another author to take advantage of Dublin’s relative intimacy as a city. Sarah Quigley and John Kenny comprise QuicK Investigations, which operates from an office in a ‘dilapidated old building on Wexford Street’. From their Southside base, however, the pair criss-cross the city in the course of their investigations, often doing so on a number of occasions within the space of a single day. Her characters are no less knowledgeable about their environment than those created by Parsons, Hamilton or Vincent Banville, but Hunt’s stories reflect the fact that Dublin has grown with the economic boom. In Hunt’s novels, increasing anonymity and a consequent alienation, combined with a massive injection of illicit wealth, has resulted in a pernicious disrespect for human life.
  On first glance, Benjamin Black’s evocation of a genteel 1950’s Dublin suggests that Black - or his alter-ego, John Banville - has donned rose-tinted glasses:
  He stood on the broad pavement under the trees, smoking the last of a cigarette and looking across the road at the girl on the steps of the Shelbourne Hotel … An olive-green dray went past, drawn by a chocolate-coloured Clydesdale. Quirke lifted his head and breathed in the late-summer smells: horse, foliage, diesel fumes, perhaps even, fancifully, a hint of the girl’s perfume.
  He crossed the street, dodging a green double-decker bus that parped its horn at him … (Christine Falls, 2006).
  Strip away the sepia tone, however, and it quickly becomes clear that Black has over the course of the three Quirke novels to date been engaged in exploring the dark underbelly of a Dublin that was no less in the throes of radical social change back then than it is today.
  That rapid transformation of Dublin is also a recurring theme in Gene Kerrigan’s novels, particularly in terms of how the redistribution of wealth impacts on those on the lowest rungs of the food-chain:
  Must be depressing to live in a dogbox like this, with walls like cardboard. Apartment blocks all over the place, these days, populated mostly by the young and eager. Weaned on Sex and the City, impatient to sample the supposed sophistication of Manhattan on the Liffey … During the late lamented boom, it had seemed like it took some builders no more than a long weekend to throw an apartment block together. (Dark Times in the City, 2009)
  It’s in Alan Glynn’s Winterland (2009), however, that the transformation of Dublin comes into its own. Here the restless city is not only a setting, but character and theme, as Glynn excavates the political and financial corruption that underpinned the Celtic Tiger boom. The flawed structure of the bright and shiny Richmond Plaza in the docklands is a metaphor not only for the economic crash, but for the hubris that fuelled the city’s maddened flight from itself:
  It used to be that wherever you happened to find yourself in Dublin, you could pretty much rely on the red-and-white-striped twin chimneys of the Poolbeg power station to find you. Situated in the bay, these were a sentimental reference point for many people - they defined the city … But that has all changed. Because what immediately catches the eye these days is the considerably taller glass and steel structure rising up out of the docklands. It’s a more appropriate structure anyway, in Norton’s opinion. Better to have office and retail space, a hotel, condominiums - he thinks - than a brace of ugly industrial smokestacks. (Winterland, 2009)
  Cynical, paranoid and downbeat though they might be, it’s entirely apt that the city’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature should come at a time when the Dublin-set crime novel is maturing into our most relevant literature of social realism. - Declan Burke
  This article was first published in the Irish Times