“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

RIP Seamus Heaney

Digging
by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

‘Seamus Heaney, Irish poet of soil and strife, dies at 74’ – New York Times

Monday, August 26, 2013

RIP Elmore Leonard

I was away last week when the news of Elmore Leonard’s death broke. Desperately sad news it was, too. I’ve been fan of Elmore Leonard’s for about two decades now (he’s the only writer who gets an entire shelf to himself in my room), and it felt like I’d lost a favourite uncle, the guy you don’t see that often but who turns up maybe once a year with all these terrific stories about the people he’s met and the places he’s seen. It’s still a little hard to believe that he’s gone, to be honest. I was supposed to interview him last year, before the Cleveland Bouchercon, but personal circumstance got in the way and I didn’t get to make the trip. Some things just aren’t mean to happen, I suppose.
  Anyway, I’d just like to add my voice to all those acclaiming Elmore Leonard as one of the greats. The first book of his I read was FREAKY DEAKY, and I’ve read pretty much all of his crime novels since. I’m partial to GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, THE BIG BOUNCE, THE SWITCH and 52 PICK-UP, although for some reason PRONTO is the one I love the best.
  What I love about Elmore Leonard’s books is that they sound so natural, the way language and character and story all come together in such a seamless way. If it takes a hell of a lot of hard work to make something look effortless, Elmore Leonard was the hardest working writer in the game.
  My favourite example is the opening to STICK, which goes like this:
Stick said he wasn’t going if they had to pick up anything. Rainy said no, there wasn’t any product in the deal; all they had to do was drop a bag. Stick said, “And the guy’s giving you five grand?”
  That’s beautiful.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: HOME FIRES by Elizabeth Day

Northern Ireland-born author and journalist Elizabeth Day won the 2012 Betty Trask Award for her debut novel, SCISSORS, PAPER, STONE. Her new offering, HOME FIRES, opens in 1920, with young Elsa unable to understand why her mother has brought her to a Westminster Abbey commemoration of the men who died during WW1. Her father, Horace, who fought in France, has not attended the event.
  When Elsa and her mother return home, Elsa is sent to her father’s study to ask if he would like some tea. From his violent reaction to her, we quickly understand that Elsa’s father is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  Day then introduces a contemporary character, Caroline, who appears to be suffering from depression and taking large quantities of anti-depressants to cope with a tragedy. Her thinking is fuzzy, unclear. Despite the best efforts of her husband, Andrew, Caroline lacks the will or inclination to get out of bed.
  Caroline drifts off into memory, and we are told about the first time – some thirty years previously – Andrew brought Caroline home to meet his parents. Caroline, who was neglected as a child growing up in a working-class household, feels intimidated by Andrew’s comfortably middle-class home, and particularly his mother, Elsa. The competition between the two women for Andrew’s affections – and later Caroline’s son Max – will define the relationship between the women for the rest of their lives.
  Elsa, who we now meet as a widowed and senile old woman, is unable to remember the most basic of details, such as her son Andrew’s name. Curiously, the memories of her childhood grow stronger: thus we discover the physical abuse Elsa suffered at her father’s hands after he returned, a damaged man, from the war. We discover that Elsa’s father wasn’t simply suffering from shell-shock, or a variation of PTSD. He had been invalided out of the war as a coward, and declared unfit to serve; in his shame, he takes his frustrations out on the young Elsa, in the process marking her – and shaping her relationship to men and power – for the rest of her life.
  Meanwhile, we also discover the root of Caroline’s depression, and her dependence on anti-depressants: her only son, Max has been killed in South Sudan after stepping on an IED while on manoeuvres.
  Thus the story becomes the interlinked tale of two women who have been brutalised by war. Their immediate connection is Andrew, Caroline’s husband and Elsa’s son; but their experiences of an increasing inability to cope with reality – Caroline wilfully taking anti-depressants in order to fend it off; Elsa suffering memory loss as a result of age and senility – also offers a common bond, especially when the helpless Elsa comes to live with Caroline and Andrew, and Caroline is roused from her catatonic state to help with Elsa.
  At this point we might expect the story to become one of a burden shared by Elsa and Caroline, as they help one another to deal with their pain. It’s to Elizabeth Day’s credit, however, that she turns her back on the easy and conventional narrative option to explore the unsettlingly realistic consequences of war and violence on the women who, as is claimed in the song to which the novel’s title alludes, keep the home fires burning.
  Indeed, Day makes a point of choosing the tough option at every turn, with the result that the novel becomes a powerful and at times heartbreaking account of Caroline and Elsa’s inability to deal with their respective crises. The prose is crisp and forthright, particularly when Day is describing the variations on violence that crop up throughout, although she has a piercing eye for a telling phrase or a poetic flourish – Caroline’s depression, for example, is “the encroaching shadow, the slow puddle that spreads across her consciousness like spilt ink.”
  HOME FIRES is a powerful and haunting tale, a thought-provoking testimony to the fortitude of those women and children who must somehow learn to cope as best they can with the devastating repercussions of war. – Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.