“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, November 19, 2010

The Digested Read: THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas

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: THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas. To wit:

“No-no-no-no-no!” Young Hugo was a bludger. Got caught lbw, everyone saw it, he was out. But he wouldn’t let go the bat. “No-no-no-no-no!” he screamed. So Harry cracked him a right bloody rippah.
  “That’s child abuse, mate!”
  “Nah, it’s just a slap.”
  “I’ll give you a slap.”
  “Don’t tie me kangaroo down, mate.”
  Hector threw a few more tinnies on the barbie.

  So then, like, the cops got involved and Harry got arrested and a trial date was set and some people thought the kid deserved a slap and some people didn’t and some people said whether or not he deserved it wasn’t the point and some other people said the point was there was no point, and so on.

  Meantime, Hector the Greek wasn’t happy married to Aisha the Indian and Harry was Hector’s brother, the bloody gallah, and Hugo’s parents were hippies, the flaming drongos, and Richie the student was coming out of the closet and isn’t Australia such a wonderfully rounded multicultural country when people aren’t slapping other people’s kids?
  “Yeah but, right, see, if the hippies had slapped Hugo when they should have instead of smoking all those joss sticks, Harry wouldn’t have had to stick his billabong in, would he?”
  “Hmmm, maybe you have a point.”
  “Yes. Except the point is there isn’t any point, isn’t it?”
  “I take your point.”

  So, like, anyway, Hector’s father thinks Harry did the right thing, but he’s Greek, so what would he know? Besides, wouldn’t the world be a better place if Hector’s mother was nicer to Aisha? Hey, maybe then Hector wouldn’t have ended up screwing Aisha’s friend.
  “I say slap ’em all, let God sort ’em out.”
  “You may have a point there.”
  “I’ll take that point and ram it up your wazoo, mate!”
  “Touché, sir.”

  So, like, anyway, multiculturalism: looks good on paper, but it ain’t worth a flaming XXXX if you can’t throw it on the barbie.

  The End.

  The Digested Read, in one line: “What’s that, Skip? A mouthy kid got slapped? Rippah!”

  This article first appeared in the Evening Herald.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Torture-Porn: Yay Or Nay?

In a comment on one of the posts below, Richard L paraphrases Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo in saying that ‘Literature, both the writing and the reading of it, makes men more humanely compassionate.’ And women too, you’d imagine, particularly as women account for the majority of fiction readers these days, and at least half of fiction writers.
  On the same day Richard L left his comment, I received a review copy of a book that had the strap-line, ‘TAKEN, TRAPPED, TORTURED’. Written by Chevy Stevens, the novel comes complete with a raves from Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter, and tells the story of ‘Annie Sullivan’s abduction, her year in captivity and the chilling aftermath’.
  Now, I do appreciate that writers set up their serial killers / torturers / sex fiends et al as straw men, to be burned to the ground in a vigilante narrative that, presumably, offers readers a sense that justice (natural or otherwise) prevails against the evil that men do.
  I have no idea of how subtly or otherwise Chevy Smith handles the torture of Annie Sullivan in STILL MISSING, and I won’t be finding out, because I have zero interest in reading novels that are predicated on violence against women. That Chevy Smith is a woman writing about violence against women is neither here nor there. I’m just not interested.
  It’s not that I have my head buried in the sand. I know that such things happen in the real world. In Ireland, in the last few days alone, we’ve had some desperately tragic news that included the smothering of a toddler and the stabbing to death of an infant. So I do understand, unfortunately, the evil that men do, and as often as not to women and children.
  Reading about such depravity in the newspaper is one thing, however. Reading about it in a novel that is packaged as entertainment is another thing entirely. Neither Karin Slaughter’s rave (‘Will have you spellbound from the first page’) nor Kathy Reichs’ (‘Fast-paced and utterly absorbing’) suggest that Stevens has written a novel railing against violence done to women; their appreciation of the story is bound up in Stevens’ ability to entertain.
  Maybe I’m a little squeamish about such things these days because I have a baby girl of my own, and because - being a man - I’m all too aware of how deviant men can be. In fact, in my first novel, I have a scene in which a woman is tortured by having her fingers broken one by one. In my second novel, a female character is beaten, has her leg broken, and an eye gouged out with a fork, and the fact that Anna is a Siberian wolf is neither here nor there. Neither novel, on the other hand, could be described as torture-porn. As it happens, one of the main reasons I wrote the second novel was to find out how convincing (or otherwise) a crime novel could be with an absolute minimum of violence employed. In the first instance, when fingers are broken, I did my best to minimise the lurid aspect of it, and the finger-breaking lasts for less than a page.
  That said, I’ve never had any interest in reading books or watching movies in which a defenceless woman is physically or sexually brutalised by a man, or men. Torture-porn, I believe the phrase is, and regardless of how total and deserved the eventual revenge scenario proves to be, the experience (when I’ve had to sit through such a movie for review purposes, say) leaves me feeling dirty and degraded. Not because I’ve identified with the victim, necessarily, but because I belong to a society and civilisation that obviously believes that making a profit out of suffering is a good idea.
  There are good novels to be written about the brutalisation of women, and I’m sure they’ve already been written. A novel, for example, that dealt with the experience of a Muslim woman lashed into unconsciousness, or even stoned to death, for adultery real or imagined. Or the experience of a woman enduring the banal evil of marital rape. Or - and not to belabour the broader Muslim community unnecessarily - the experience of a woman targeted for an honour killing, because she refused to participate in an arranged marriage, or wear certain kinds of clothing. Or the story of a six-year-old girl who had acid thrown in her face for daring to go to school.
  These kinds of stories, I’d imagine, providing they’re well written, could hardly achieve any other impact than to make men and women more compassionate, as Richard L suggests is the point of writing and reading books.
  Of course, it’s possible to argue that the torture-porn sub-genre is making the point that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the women of so-called ‘civilised societies’ are no less vulnerable to an underlying fear of women that manifests itself in male violence, brutality and perversion. If that is the case, then it’s arguably a valid point to make.
  By the same token, there’s an equally valid question to be asked about the kind of novels that incorporate torture-porn into page-turning entertainments, and it’s this: What, apart from financial profit, is the ultimate point of the torture-porn novel?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Mike Dennis

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

What crime novel would you most like to have written?
I would have to say STREET 8 by Douglas Fairbairn. It’s a sadly-overlooked noir classic from 1977. It’s told from the point of view of a car salesman in Miami as he watches his hometown transform itself into a Latin city. The Cubans are there to stay, but who can be trusted? Like most noir protagonists, he soon finds himself embroiled in circumstances that have careened completely out of control. I lived in Key West, my adopted hometown, for many years, and I quickly learned about this great book. Every Florida crime author since 1977 has been influenced by it in one way or another. Fairbairn himself, incidentally, wrote very few novels before his death a few years ago. STREET 8 was his best.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Don Corleone. He really had it all, didn’t he? A close family who loved and respected him, power, money, a real sense of accomplishment in his life. Sure, he was shot, but remember, it was business, not personal. Besides, he recovered and went on into a pleasant retirement surrounded by his loved ones.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I have most of the Out Of The Gutter magazines. Have you ever read them? A lot of them are wa-a-a-ay over the top, but where else can you find something like that? They’re kind of refreshing, in a perverse sort of way.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Without a doubt, it occurred when I finished my newest novel, MAN-SLAUGHTER. The ending was a most unusual one, hard (for me) to pull off properly, but I feel like I nailed it.

The best Irish crime novel is …?

Well, if I told you I’ve never read an Irish crime novel, will this interview end right here?

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
See above answer.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
For me, the worst thing is looking at that damned blank screen when I’m starting a new novel. I don’t use an outline, so I just let my characters tell the story for me. They have to tell it, because I can’t make up stories. Honestly. I’ve tried sitting there, concocting a tale, and nothing comes out. It’s only when I get an opening line, a sense of place, and a central character to work with that the story gets told. But waiting for those things to appear is unquestionably the worst, most aggravating part about being a writer. The best part is when they finally do appear, and the novel takes flight. Then all I have to do is write it down.

The pitch for your next book is …?
It’s called THE GHOSTS OF HAVANA and the description goes something like this: A young woman is brutally murdered in the back of a Key West nightclub. Robbie, the club’s owner, and Elena, the victim’s sister, believe that a local strip club operator is to blame. However, they soon learn that larger, far more sinister forces are behind the killing, and they become ensnared in a deadly race to a safe deposit box in Las Vegas, whose contents hold the key to decades-old secrets and threaten national security.

Who are you reading right now?
Gil Brewer’s novel, THE BRAT. Brewer was one of the best at creating hopelessly-doomed noir characters. And he usually did it the same way every time out. Ordinary Joe has chance encounter with sizzling chick, gets roped in, pays dearly in the end. For some reason, though, you never feel like you’re reading a formula novel when you’re reading Brewer.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Find a new religion.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Circumstances, choices, consequences. That really just about sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?

Mike Dennis’ THE TAKE is available now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Readers Write

Ex-journalist and aspiring author Alix Christie (not pictured, right) asks an interesting question over at More Intelligent Life: “What makes any of us think that we have something to say that others need to read?”
  My first reaction is to say that it’s probably not any one thing. For me it’s a combination of misplaced encouragement at a formative age, a love of words in their best order, and some kind of benign malfunction at the synaptic level that has fused ego, super-ego and id into a single psychic apparatus. That’s not to say that I’m sick, exactly, although it’s hardly healthy to be walking around with multiple conversations in your head. Still, so long as I keep taking the tablets, aka getting at least a little bit of writing done every day, then all should be well.
  But back to Alix Christie’s question, and what’s interesting about it, I think, is that she asks about what people need to read, rather than what they want to read. Is there a difference?
  There’s a big difference between needing and wanting. In fact, it’s often the case that the more you need something, the less you want it.
  A lot of people need to read, and I’m one of them. I’ve only recently become aware, for example, that I should be somehow ashamed that I brought ten books away with me on my / our honeymoon. I mean, it was a three-week honeymoon (not pictured, above). And one of the weeks was spent in the Maldives, where, once you’ve stared for an hour at the picture-perfect view, and gone for a snorkel, and had a White Russian at the dock-side bar, there isn’t an awful lot else to do that doesn’t involve White Russians.
  Again, I digress. People need to read, certainly, but that’s no guarantee they’ll have a need to read anything specific, let alone something specific written by you or me. So long as it’s halfway decent, I’m happy enough to have my need to read satisfied by almost any kind of reading. Whenever I get to indulge the luxury of reading a book I actively want to read, and it’s as good as I’d hoped, then that’s a whole different issue, and very probably an experience with the quality of magic that inspires the need to read in the first place.
  Maybe it’s realising that I’ll always be more of a reader than a writer that’s had me noticing recently that a lot of writing-related blogs, this one included, tend to use the word ‘readers’ quite a bit. I don’t like it. The implication is that there are two camps, writers and readers, when the truth is that any writer worth his or her salt is first and foremost a reader, and will read far more on a bad reading day than a good writer ever wrote on his best writing day. Meanwhile, and at the risk of sounding even more whimsical than usual, I honestly believe that the writer only ever writes, at most, half the story. The other half is written in the reader’s mind. A writer cannot supply horror, joy, hunger, pain. He can hint at it, suggest it, whisper it or shout it, but even the best are just telegraph operators who set the reader’s synapses tingling. I think that that’s one of the reasons people love a good book so much, the fact that it brings the best out of them, literally.
  Anyway, I’m just going to go ahead and dispense with the word ‘readers’, and just use ‘people’ instead. Because, in an ideal world, the words ‘people’ and ‘readers’ would be synonymous.
  Finally, I’m curious: I need to read, but I’m not overly fussed about what I read, so long as it’s good. Do other people have a particular need when they read? Can your want only be satisfied by a specific need being met? Also - what’s the last book you read that really hit the spot?

Monday, November 15, 2010

“They Think It’s All Rovers … It Is Now!”


Not a bad season at all for the Bit o’ Red, then. Sligo Rovers beat Shamrock Rovers to win the FAI Cup yesterday on penalties, admittedly, but apart from the first 15 minutes they were the better side, and fully deserved the win. What made it particularly sweet was that they came back after last year’s heartbreak (1-0 up in the final with about six minutes to go, only to lose 1-2), and that they won it playing attractive, flowing passing football, as they have done all season under manager Paul Cook - a Liverpool lad, as if it needs to be said. Also, beating Shams in the final - sweet as a nut.
  All told, the Real Rovers nabbed two trophies this year, doing the Cup double, and finished third in the League, thus qualifying for European football next year. All of which is just a tad improbable, given Sligo Rovers’ fairly limited resources, but there you go, it just goes to show what can be achieved when you’re not prepared to settle for how things are supposed to be. Oh, and did I mention that ’keeper Ciaran Kelly - who’s actually the club’s second-string ’keeper, behind the injured Richard Brush - saved four spot-kicks during the penalty shoot-out? Yes, that’s four saved penalties. I don’t know if it’s a world record, exactly, but it’s pretty impressive in any context.
  I’m going to go ahead and take Rovers’ win yesterday, and their season in general, as a good omen. The redraft of A GONZO NOIR / BAD FOR GOOD / THE BABY KILLERS went off last Thursday, and (tenuous link ahoy) it’s set in Sligo, and yours truly is constrained by limited resources (time, talent, etc.) when it comes to writing. So you never know …
  I didn’t get to the game, by the way. A combination of a slipped disc and a 40th birthday celebration in Sligo (mine and my sister’s, respectively) meant that I wound up watching the game from the comfort of my couch, coaching Lily to shout, “Play up, Sligo!”. When I got home from Sligo, however, there was an email / reader’s report on THE BABY KILLERS waiting for me. I won’t say who it’s from just yet, as I haven’t had the chance to ask his permission, but the gist of it runs thusly:
“If you took Palahniuk’s FIGHT CLUB, Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO and King’s SECRET GARDEN, SECRET WINDOW, combined them with Burke’s mastery of dialogue, character and the human condition, then removed the gratuitous violence, the end result would be Burke’s latest and most impressive novel to date, THE BABY KILLERS. An excellent read that continually ratchets up the intrigue and suspense factors as it builds toward the tremendous finale, while at the same time providing an intense, no-holds-barred, behind-the-scenes introspection into the psyche of the writer and his process.”
  Which is very nice indeed, and may in itself be some kind of omen. Who knows? If you’d told me yesterday morning that Rovers would win the Cup on penalties, saving four spot-kicks in the process, I’d have laughed you out of the building.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SUNSET PARK by Paul Auster

SUNSET PARK centres on Miles, a 28-year-old college drop-out who lives in Florida ‘trashing out’ foreclosed properties. Thoughtful and meditative, Miles photographs items from the house his crew ‘trashes out’, as opposed to stealing them, as the rest of the crew does. When Miles meets Pilar, a 17-year-old High School student, his ascetic life changes. They’re relationship is consenting, a meeting of minds, but it is also illegal under Florida law. Blackmailed by Pilar’s sister, Miles leaves Florida for New York, planning to live in the squat his friend Bing Nathan maintains in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Once Pilar turns 18, the pair can be reunited. So runs Miles’ plan, but as Miles knows only too well, fate has a way of intervening in the best laid plans of mice and men.
  Running parallel to Miles’ story are a number of narratives. Miles has abandoned his family in the wake of a tragedy in which is stepbrother died, and for which Miles blames himself, but Miles’ father, Morris, has been keeping tabs on Miles throughout the years via the updates he receives from Bing Nathan. The owner of a small publishing house, Morris is going through an upheaval of his own, as his marriage to his second wife, Willa, appears to have hit the rocks due to a one-off infidelity by Morris. Meanwhile, the economic climate is crushing down hard on his publishing business, leaving Morris, though determined to continue, fearful for his future.
  Miles’ mother, Mary-Lee, a Hollywood actress, is another major character. Aging now, she has learned to play character roles, and has come to New York to play Winnie in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Mary-Lee abandoned both Morris and Miles shortly after her son was born, leaving New York for LA in the hope of building an acting career.
  A number of minor characters populate the squat at Sunset Park. Apart from Bing Nathan, a ‘bear’ of a man who runs a quirky business repairing old typewriters and old-fashioned technology, and has a sideline as a jazz musician, there is Alice and Ellen, both of whom have artistic ambitions.
  SUNSET PARK is a hugely enjoyable meditation on love, absence and loss. While Auster addresses big themes, however, he does so in a way that is modest and subtle, allowing the characters to grow by increments until they have wormed their way into the reader’s consciousness. There are few grand gestures here.
  The novel touches on many recurring themes in Auster’s fiction. While the meta-fiction aspects for which he is famous are largely absent, the novel is strongest when exploring the father-son relationship between Morris and Miles. While Auster tends to write more often about absent fathers, here it’s the son who is absent from his family’s life, having exiled himself after accidentally contributing to the death of his stepbrother, Bobby, as a teenager.
  Miles is a fascinating character, and has the ascetic qualities Auster tends to repeat in his male protagonists. Miles lives very sparely, with few indulgences or personal belongings. He is disgusted, for example, when Pilar’s older sister attempts to blackmail him in the hope that Miles will steal objects from the houses he trashes out:
“ … and even if it was all to a good purpose, he couldn’t help feeling revolted by her avidity, her inexhaustible craving for those ugly, stupid things.”
  By the same token, Miles is a little too ascetic, a little too much the strong, silent hero for the reader to take him entirely seriously. According to Bing Nathan,
“ … Miles seemed different from everyone else, to possess some magnetic, animal force that changed the atmosphere whenever he walked into a room. Was it the power of his silences that made him attact so much attention, the mysterious, closed-in nature of his personality that turned him into a kind of mirror for others to project themselves onto, the eerie sense that he was there and not there at the same time?”
  You can only presume that Auster is mocking himself, or Miles, or both, with a depiction of a contemporary character such as that, as if Miles has walked into Brooklyn straight off the set of the cowboy movie Shane.
  That said, Auster devotes quite a bit of the novel to legendary baseball players - Miles and his father bond over the game of baseball - and mostly baseball pitchers, those men who stand on the mound on their own, the gunslingers who hurl their fastballs and dictate the narrative of the game.
  It’s not necessarily an exercise in nostalgia for a better time, for a cleaner cut hero, however. Most of the baseball players Miles is drawn to are defined by their luck. For the most part, they are defined by bad luck, by accidents or bad plays that subsequently defined their careers, but he also references players who are known for their good luck, such as Lucky Lohrke, who cheated death three times before dying peacefully at the age of 85. Here Auster is invoking blind fate, the extent to which the tiniest details can blow up into catastrophic consequences. Such is the case, certainly, with the finale of the novel.
  Auster also frequently cites the movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, a film made in the wake of WWII to illustrate the difficulty that GIs had in returning to a non-combat life. The title is an ironic one, especially as the ‘best years’ of the title refers to the killing fields of WWII Europe, or the Pacific theatre of war. Again and again, too often perhaps, he has various characters reference the movie, and the baseball heroes, to illustrate the vast gulf between reality and our perception of it.
  Morris is the most fascinating character in the novel for me, a man old enough to have acquired wisdom but still young enough to put it to good use. There’s a real tang of authenticity when it comes to Morris’ character that seems absent when Auster is writing about Miles, and particularly in terms of Morris’ relationships with his wife, his ex-wife and his friends, most of whom are in the publishing business. The scene in which Miles and his father are finally reunited after seven years is arguably the finest in the novel, when neither, despite their best intentions, can rise to the occasion. It’s not very dramatic, certainly, but it’s heartbreaking in its poignancy, in the inability of both men to reach beyond their limited capacity for emotional engagement.
  Mary-Lee, too, is a well drawn character, both self-centred but sympathetic, and Auster has terrific fun with her playing the role of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Mary-Lee’s tragedy, in fact, appears to be that she cannot stop performing; even when she is reunited with Miles after so many years apart, she finds herself wondering how he is evaluating her, as if he were an audience like any other. Again, this has the ring of authenticity, and represents a perversely touching moment.
  Quietly told, without recourse to Auster’s usual brand of literary pyrotechnics such as meta-fiction or inter-textual fun and games, SUNSET PARK is a real grower of a novel. Set in a contemporary America that in which ordinary people are suffering badly due to the economic downturn, it offers a pleasing sense of cautious optimism that, when the chips are down, people still can turn to one another for assistance, be it financial, social or emotional help. The ending is downbeat and somewhat fatalistic, certainly, given Miles’ predicament, but Auster does a fine job of contextualising that predicament, framing it with understated grace notes of hope and expectation. - Declan Burke