“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, May 14, 2016

Brain Noodles: The Mavericks; Sigur Rós; Our Kind of Traitor

Fun and games – literally – in this week’s reading: Rob Steen’s THE MAVERICKS: ENGLISH FOOTBALL WHEN FLAIR WORE FLARES celebrates those footballers who followed the trail blazed by George Best – the likes of Charlie George, Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh (the last examples glimpsed in English football were Paul Gascoigne and Southampton’s ‘God’, Matt Le Tissier) – who wore the Number 10 and played the game for the sheer joy of it all (or, in one case, because it was easier than actual work when it came to the vexed issue of financing a gambling habit). Ignored and / or distrusted at international level at a time when England were serially failing to qualify for the World Cup, the Mavericks, according to Rob Steen, were the platonic ideal of footballing excellence, entertainers above all else, men who raised the game to the level of art. And so forth. It’s a bitter-sweet read, given that Steen interviews most of the Mavericks in the wake of their (for the most part) underachieving careers, but for anyone with an interest in the beautiful game, it’s a delicious read.
  At one point Steen quotes Matt Busby on the direction the game is taking, at a time when George Best was being kicked out of the game by the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris: “Because of their heart and skill, he and other outstanding players in the league can go on giving the crowds entertainment. And it’s true there are still a few teams who believe the game is about talent and technique and imagination, but for any one you’ll find ten who rely on runners and hard men.”
  For some reason, this got me thinking about the crime novel, and how in recent years particularly the genre seems to have become increasingly pro forma. Maybe you couldn’t build a successful football team full of ‘mavericks’, and you certainly couldn’t build a publishing industry on their literary equivalent, but surely there should be enough room for a lot more writers like (say) Hesh Kestin and James Crumley, Barry Gifford and Jon Steele. Or maybe not – maybe it’s the case that what’s rare is wonderful.
  Anyway, the sporting theme continued with Philip Roth’s THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL – I’m not a Philip Roth fan per se, but I’m a sucker for a good baseball novel (THE NATURAL, SHOELESS JOE, THE ART OF FIELDING). Not that a baseball novel is necessarily ‘about’ baseball; but, apart from the gunslinger narrative of the pitcher facing down the batter that lies at the heart of a good baseball story, there’s something about the language of baseball (short stop, pop fly, swing away, shagging flies, suicide squeeze, et al) I love. Roth’s comic tale about the fictional Ruppert Mundys should have nailed me to the floor, but the humour is too arch, the tale too baroque – the novel isn’t just a parody of the great American novel, it’s a spoof of the baseball novel too. Maybe it’s that, at this remove on this side of the pond, I’m a little bit too in love with the myth of baseball, and take the myth-making element a bit too seriously, while Roth was having fun in demythologising the game as America’s conduit to a supposedly innocent past. Either way, it didn’t really work for me.
  On the music front, a recommendation this week for Trio Mediaeval’s Aquilonis sent me off listening to Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós, because that’s the way my brain works. I only stumbled across Sigur Rós last year, and Ágætis byrjun was the first of their albums I listened to (I went out and bought another four), but so far it’s still the only one I’ve listened to, because I’m terrified the others won’t be as good. Sigur Rós are Icelandic, and if you had to pigeonhole them you’d say they’re post-rock, but they’re beautifully opaque as they go about constructing their classically-inspired ethereal soundscapes – yep, we’re into the realms of sonic cathedrals and suchlike. I’ve never been to Iceland, but if living there felt half as good as Ágætis byrjun sounds, I’d move there tomorrow – if Sibelius was still composing, he’d probably sound a lot like this:
Movies-wise, I had the dubious pleasure this week of watching Escape to Athena late one night, a potboiler set on an unnamed Greek island during WWII, in which a motley crew work their way through a bonkers plot. I don’t know if I’d ever recommend it to anyone (to be honest, I was mainly watching it for the scenery; it was shot on Rhodes), but if kitsch is your thing, then it does at least boast what is very likely the most 1970s cast ever: Roger Moore, David Niven, Claudia Cardinale, Telly Savalas, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono, Stephanie Powers and Elliott Gould.
  As for this week’s releases, my film of the week is Our Kind of Traitor, adapted from the John Le Carré novel and directed by Susanna White. My review in the Irish Examiner runs a lot like this:
The post-Cold War landscape in international espionage has made for some surprising bedfellows, a fact to which the title of Our Kind of Traitor (15A) alludes. Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is a professor of poetics holidaying in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) when they are approached by a Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). A money launderer for the Russian mafia, Dima fears for the lives of his wife and children as a result of a mafia turf war being fought out in Moscow. Can Perry act as Dima’s go-between with British Intelligence back in London, and secure the safety of Dima’s family in return for information about corruption that goes to the very heart of the British political establishment? Adapted from John Le Carré’s novel by Hossein Amini and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind of Traitor is a bracingly cynical thriller that revels in its realpolitik – Hector (Damian Lewis), the handler who takes on Dima’s case, is as impersonal as a chess master as he shuffles his pawns around the board. Where the recent TV adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager ironed out that story’s wrinkles in favour of creating a glossy thriller, White and Amini celebrate the nuances in Our Kind of Traitor, and particularly in terms of character. Dima, played as a vodka-fuelled but poignant shaggy Russian bear by Skarsgård, is no one’s idea of an ideal defector, while Lewis’s Hector is deliciously amoral, a clipped and apparently emotionless rogue operator who tramples over international law in order to satisfy his own agenda. McGregor, meanwhile, is solidly convincing as a dim but true polar star on the movie’s moral compass in a story that simultaneously celebrates and mocks Dima’s endearing belief in the myth of British fair play. ****
  Also reviewed this week are Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Angry Birds. For the reviews, clickety-click here

Friday, May 13, 2016

First Look: CLOSED CASKET by Sophie Hannah

I’m not for one second even contemplating claiming the forthcoming Sophie Hannah title, CLOSED CASKET (HarperCollins), as Irish crime fiction, even if Hercule Poirot’s latest adventure is set in Clonakilty in (the People’s Republic of) Cork. Quite how those innately shy and modest Cork folk will take to Poirot’s flair for self-promotion is anyone’s guess; we’ll find out in September, when CLOSED CASKET hits the shelves.
  I thoroughly enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s first Poirot novel, THE MONOGRAM MURDERS – for a review, clickety-click here

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Brain Noodle: Alan Glynn’s Paradime; Tchaikovsky’s Nine Sacred Choruses; Florence Foster Jenkins

Alan Glynn’s PARADIME (Faber) didn’t so much as noodle around my brain when I started it earlier this week as punch straight through to the cerebral cortex – his first novel since GRAVELAND (2013) is a doppelganger tale of conspiracy and paranoia which starts in fourth gear, quickly revs up into fifth and thereafter roars along like an Exocet in agony. I can’t say too much about it right now, because I’ll be reviewing it in the Irish Times next month, but suffice to say that it’s his most inventive novel since THE DARK FIELDS (2002) – which was adapted into the movie Limitless – and arguably a more fascinating psychological-thriller-cum-tragedy. More anon.

On the music front, it’s been something of a Tchaikovsky-fest this week – for some reason (over-familiarity, probably) I hadn’t listened to Swan Lake for a few years; sometimes your eyes glaze over as your gaze passes across certain albums, simply because – I’m guessing – the brain craves the blazing of new neural paths. That said, I was mainly listening to Nine Sacred Choruses and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, a 1997 recording from Helios with the Corydon Singers under the baton of Matthew Best. The link below is the Liturgy courtesy of the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir under Valery Polyansky:



I’m a rank amateur when it comes to classical music, and I’m not noticeably religious and / or spiritual, so I really don’t know why I find ‘sacred music’ – most recently Arvo Pärt, Palestrina, Hildegard von Bingen – so appealing, other than it’s gloriously beautiful to listen to. Apologies for the lack of insight, but there it is.

As for movies, my film of the week is Florence Foster Jenkins, with Stephen Frears directing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. My review runs a lot like this:
A minor tragedy of self-delusion on an epic scale, Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) stars Meryl Streep in the eponymous role, playing the beloved patron of New York’s classical music world in the mid-1940s. Florence, a talented pianist in her youth, adores music and has a wonderful ear, but when Florence decides to sing at Carnegie Hall, disaster looms – Florence in full cry sounds like an alley swarming with dying cats. Based on a true story which is adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (Streep stumbling headlong through the scales is comedy-of-embarrassment gold) and heartbreakingly poignant, partly because Florence’s ambition so far exceeds her grasp and partly because she is daring, emotionally fragile and utterly charming in her lack of self-awareness. It’s Meryl Streep’s finest turn in years, mainly because her performance is sotto voce, allowing the character’s endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies to speak for themselves. It would have been easy for Florence, adorned in feather boas and tiaras, to appear utterly ridiculous, but Streep’s delicate touch gradually strips away the eccentricities to reveal Florence’s human frailties. She gets strong support from Hugh Grant as Florence’s long-suffering and (mostly) dedicated husband St Clair, and Simon Helberg, who plays Cosme McMoon, a pianist commissioned to accompany Florence, aka the little boy who dare not point out that the Empress, musically speaking, wears no clothes. Stephen Frears directs with panache (complete with old-fashioned screen wipes), fully aware of the story’s comic possibilities but never forgetting the tenderness and compassion that underpins the tale. ****
The other movies I reviewed this week (in the Irish Examiner) are the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. For more, clickety-click here