“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.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: BULLFIGHTING by Roddy Doyle

The BULLFIGHTING collection has an unusually pervasive theme. The stories all concern themselves with middle-aged men coming to terms with the limitations of their lives. There are no publication dates given for the individual stories, eight of which were first published in the ‘New Yorker’, while the remaining six stories were published in a variety of Irish and UK publications. They all appear, however, to be written relatively recently. Certainly they are for the most part timely, in that the physical, spiritual and emotional diminishment of the protagonists’ seem to chime with Ireland’s economic downturn.
  All of the stories concern themselves with men in their forties and fifties, all of whom are struggling to understand their place in a rapidly changing world.
  In some cases, as in ‘Animals’, George is struggling to cope with the fact that his kids are now fully grown, thus leaching his life of the meaning of being a parent. In ‘Funerals’, a middle-aged man grasping after meaning in his life ferries his aged parents to funerals, only to discover that they - or the mother, at least - is regressing to childhood. In some of the stories, such as ‘The Photograph’, a man ponders on the way in which communication with his wife has dwindled away to be replaced by virtual silence.
  These three variations on the theme of quietly observed mid-life crises are repeated throughout. That’s not to say that the collection is necessarily repetitive - personally, and despite the surface similarities, I found most of the stories intriguing in their own right, and some of them very moving.
  The backdrop to most of the stories is Ireland’s economic downturn, which chimes with the sense of ‘redundancy’ most of the men seem to experience. In some of the stories, such as ‘Animals’, Doyle makes it explicit that the main character, George, is unemployed as a result of the downturn. In other places, he harks back to a previous generation that also experienced recession and austerity.
  While Doyle’s characters often offer flashes of bitterness at their ‘redundancy’ as men, now that their children are reared, there’s very little by way of anger or rage. Most of the characters appear to be aiming, consciously or otherwise, for an acceptance of their status, as it’s easier to accept the status quo than it is to gird their loins for a battle that might rejuvenate their lives, or might shatter them entirely.
  ‘Blood’ is a story that is the exception to this rule; in fact, it’s an exception to most of the stories in the collection. In ‘Blood’, the male character develops a sudden compulsion to eat raw meat, and to drink blood. While he initially attempts to rationalise his desire as a biological manifestation of his creeping middle-age and growing appreciation of his being surplus to requirements (the character has had a vasectomy), all logic goes out the window when he finds himself biting the head off one of “the next-door neighbours’ recession hens”:
“There were three of them, scrabbling around in the garden. He hated them, the whole idea of them. The world economy wobbled and the middle classes immediately started growing their own spuds and carrots, buying their own chickens, and denying they had property portfolios in Eastern Europe. And they stopped talking to him because he’d become the enemy, and evil, because he worked in a bank. The shiftless bitch next door could pretend she was busy all day looking after the hens. Well, she’d have one less to look after because he was over the wall.”
  The language used here - ‘hated’, ‘evil’, ‘enemy’, ‘shiftless bitch’ - is notably stronger than elsewhere in the collection, while the story itself has a quality of the absurd (“He wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf.”) that borders on fantasy, a quality that is in marked contrast to the muted realism of the other stories. Amid the quiet desperation and acceptance of the other stories, if feels as if Doyle is lashing out at Ireland’s quiescent acceptance of the new status quo.
  In terms of style, Doyle’s language here is very stark, very direct, and almost harks back to the early days of the ‘Barrytown Trilogy’. Despite the conversational tone of the stories, which are for the most part delivered as internal monologues, Doyle employs a style that is stark, precise and unambiguous. There are very few poetic flourishes, which would have been incongruous given that the characters are for the most part working-class Dubliners.
  By the same token, the vernacular Doyle employs when writing dialogue has a kind of brusque lyricism to it, especially in the title story, in which four men, drinking buddies, decide to take a holiday in the south of Spain. From ‘Bullfighting’, pg 189:
- Is that a bruise?
- Varicose vein.
- Lovely.
- You can show it to whatever young one you pick up tonight in town.
- I’ll tell yeh. Show a bird your varicose veins and she’ll be on you like a fuckin’ barnacle.
  The men here are unapologetically urban, reliably stolid and relatively inarticulate when it comes to expressing emotion. That said, and despite the unadorned style, there’s no mistaking Doyle’s affection for his characters. There is a sense that he is celebrating their ability to endure despite their circumstances, to absorb the slings and arrows without complaint.
  In fact, as the collection progresses, there’s a real sense that what Doyle is celebrating is the quality of forbearance and fortitude summed up by the Beckettian mantra of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. Few of the characters are educated enough, or self-aware, to be conscious of this philosophy, but it does permeate the collection.
  These are not men of the conventional literary mid-life crisis, who are lampooned for their obsession with younger women and fast cars. Neither are they privy to the epiphanies common in the Irish short story. They may glimpse an epiphany, as the unnamed character does at the end of ‘The Joke’, but it’s rare that they act upon it.
  In the same way as THE COMMITMENTS was considered a radical departure in the way it gave contemporary working-class Dubliners a literary voice in their own vernacular, BULLFIGHTING does the same for the invisible demographic of plodding male survivors who carry on with their lives, uncomplaining.
  Overall, and as someone who isn’t as a rule drawn to the short story form, I thoroughly enjoyed BULLFIGHTING. Perhaps it’s the fact that the repetition of the theme made the collection seem like an experimental novel, but that’s to err on the whimsical side. There really isn’t a bum note in the entire collection. Even ‘Blood’, which could very easily have gone off the rails, is a beautifully modulated piece.
  Ultimately, Doyle has presented us with a collection of stories that really do run the emotional gamut from A-Z. There were times when I found myself grinning wryly, other times when I was laughing aloud, and more than once I was genuinely moved to tears. Most important of all, perhaps, I was always in that very delightful place between envy and admiration of a writer who is obviously in total control of all his gifts. - Declan Burke

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mind THE GAP

As all Three Regular Readers will know, I have a particular weakness for novels which aren’t crime novels per se, but which beg, borrow or steal from the crime genre. On first appearances, one such novel is Paul Soye’s THE BOY IN THE GAP, recently published by Liberties Press, with the blurb elves wibbling thusly:
Paul Soye’s debut novel, THE BOY IN THE GAP, is an atmospheric coming-of-age novel. It is full of mysterious local and familial secrets, capturing the claustrophobia of small town life and its petty judgements. An angry mob assembles outside a town courthouse; something terrible has happened. Jack Sammon is the local man accused of the crime in his village, and has become a figure of universal hate in the community. THE BOY IN THE GAP charts Jack’s childhood and family experiences, and it is through these episodes poignant, funny and heart-wrenching that the novel attempts to explain, or at least suggest, why Jack may have committed the crime. He befriends a local eccentric, Irene, who reveals to him secrets about his family. These revelations that act as the catalyst for Jack’s violent actions, for which he now stands trial. Reminiscent of Pat McCabe in its dark humour and McGahern in its detailed evocation of small town dynamics, THE BOY IN THE GAP is a striking debut.
  I’ve read the first few pages, by the way, and already it’s shaping up to be a cracker.
  Meanwhile, if anyone wants to share their personal favourites vis-à-vis novels that weren’t written as crime novels, but could well be if you squinted at them, the comment box is open. My starter for ten is THE BUTCHER BOY by Pat McCabe.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Cheap Shortcut To E-Oblivion

He’s an award-winning author and an agent, and he self-publishes his own ebooks, but it may be coming time for some enterprising publisher to employ Allan Guthrie as a commissioning editor. Allan was one of the contributors, along with Stephen Leather, Susanne O’Leary and Victorine Lieske, to a feature I had published in the Irish Times yesterday on the subject of epublishing, where he suggested that the publishing industry is missing a trick in not utilising the new technology to its own advantage. To wit:
“I find it odd,” says Guthrie, “that at a time when ebook sales are escalating, more publishers aren’t setting up ebook-only imprints and acquiring titles for those new lines like there’s no tomorrow. It seems like a no-brainer to me that you could put out cheap digital editions first, see what flies, and produce paper versions of the more successful ones (and print on demand for the others). So to me it seems that digital and print can be complementary. But then, I’m not a publisher. At least, not of anyone other than myself.”
  For the rest of the feature, clickety-click here
  There’s a podcast that dovetails with the feature, in which yours truly, Anna Carey and Fintan O’Toole chat about epublishing and the future of genre publishing in Ireland. Both Anna and Fintan make the same point about epublishing, as did a number of people who contacted me from the publishing industry in the wake of the feature’s publication, which is that epublishing isn’t as simple as it looks, particularly in terms of the need for an editor. With which point I agree wholeheartedly - my own ebook, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, was a previously published title which benefited from having an editor. I’d further suggest that an editor isn’t the only requirement: if you’re going to successful at self-publishing as an e-author, you’ll need (among other things, including a bloody good book) a professional to design your cover, another to format / typeset the work, and you’ll also need to invest heavily (time or money) in promotion. In other words, readers are fully entitled to expect the same quality from their ebooks as they would from a conventionally published title. Any writer who believes epublishing is a cheap shortcut to getting published is taking a cheap shortcut to oblivion.
  For that podcast, clickety-click here

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are There Any Sherpas In The Building?


It’s one of those weeks, folks - a something’s-gotta-give week. Apologies to anyone dropping by in the hope of finding the usual semi-demented ramblings, but my cup overfloweth right now, and any nuggets of time I can mine from Mt Workload are being devoted to a final rewrite / redraft of ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, which should have been with the publisher last week. Bear with me, and normal-ish service should resume in a couple of days. I thank you kindly for your patience …

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Kindleness Of Strangers

I’ve been faffing about on the fringes of the ebook revolution for a while now, and slowly realising that there are benefits to digital books that aren’t immediately apparent. One such benefit is that books that are out of print - such as a personal favourite of mine, Adrian McKinty’s DEAD I WELL MAY BE - not only come available again, but will remain published for the foreseeable future, and in theory at least, forever. The fact that the mainstream publishing industry allowed as fine a novel as DEAD I WELL MAY BE fall out of print in the first place is not only a disgrace, but something of an indictment of its shortcomings.
  Anyway, I thought I’d offer a quick round-up of some Irish crime titles now available on ebook. The list is by no means exhaustive, and is intended as no more than a sample: if you’re an Irish crime writer and you’d like your own (or most recent) title added to the list, just drop me a line with the link enclosed.
  The list:
DEAD I WELL MAY BE, Adrian McKinty
CITY OF LOST GIRLS, Declan Hughes
THE WHISPERERS, John Connolly
TIME OF DEATH, Alex Barclay
CROSS, Ken Bruen
FALLING GLASS, Adrian McKinty
LIMITLESS (aka THE DARK FIELDS), Alan Glynn
THE MIDNIGHT CHOIR, Gene Kerrigan
PEELER, Kevin McCarthy
LITTLE GIRL LOST, Brian McGilloway
THE COURIER, Ava McCarthy
PERIL, Ruby Barnes
ANOTHER LIFE, John J. Gaynard
ORCHID BLUE, Eoin McNamee
  By the way, I’ve also started a discussion group on Amazon, specialising in Irish Crime and Mystery Novels - if you’re a writer who fancies adding your own title(s) to the list, clickety-click here
  Finally, my own Kindle adventures continue, as the publication of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE as an ebook has given rise to a number of readers’ reviews on Amazon, but also reviews elsewhere. Over at Not New For Long, Seana Graham was kind enough to say the following:
“Emulating a master like Chandler is a risky thing and you not only have to have guts, you’ve got to have a gift. And Burke’s got it. Everyone’s going to have their favourite line or ten by the time they get through with this one.”
  Meanwhile, Glenna at Various Random Thoughts had this to say:
“Declan Burke nails it, with a sense of humour to boot. EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is dark, edgy, fast paced and funny with a protagonist that isn’t perfect, but will do anything he has to do to do what needs to be done.”
  I thank you kindly, ladies. Your reward will be in heaven, if not before.