Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Last Month I Was Mostly Reading …

A good month, last month. The highlight was Scott Phillips’ THE ICE HARVEST, not bad going when the company included Jason Goodwin’s THE SNAKE STONE, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN, and John Le Carré’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY.
  I sneaked a peak at the first page of THE ICE HARVEST, just to get a flavour, when I got back to the hotel at 1am, this in Philadelphia after meeting Scott Phillips and having the novel warmly recommended by the quasi-mythical Greg Gillespie. Drink had been consumed, and I’d never heard of Scott Phillips or THE ICE HARVEST. I put the book down again at 3am because it was too damn good to read in one go. Scott has a lovely light touch, a dry sense of humour and a sharp ear for wry dialogue. It’s also an exemplary character study, as good as Banville’s Victor Maskell and Thompson’s Lou Ford. Terrific stuff.
  I met Scott Phillips again in Baltimore, actually, which was nice, especially as he spent the entire Friday walking around with a copy of THE BIG O under his arm. I also met Jason Goodwin, this about a week after I’d finished THE SNAKE STONE, which I thought was superb. The day after I finished it I bought the first in the series, THE JANISSARY TREE, which I started reading on the Baltimore-Boston leg of the flight home to Dublin. Unfortunately, I got distracted by a very attractive young lady who wanted to talk about how much she missed her boyfriend, who was just after getting on a flight to Afghanistan, and so I left THE JANISSARY TREE behind on the plane, along with a notebook full of doodles about my road-trip around the States. Still, she was a very attractive young lady.
  BLOOD MERIDIAN was a strange read. A re-read, I started it in September, keeping it beside the bed and dipping into it for five or ten pages at a time. Wonderful stuff, as you already know. Then, around the halfway mark, I ran with it and found myself getting bored. There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic neo-Western slaughter going on, which was absolutely fine, but there’s also a huge amount of traversing bleak and parched terrain, during which not a lot happens. And I didn’t believe in the Judge; so larger-than-life was he that he was literally unbelievable. Maybe he’s meant to be that way, although I can’t for the life of me think why.
  I finally read my first Le Carré novel in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, and for a long stretch I wasn’t sure if I believed in Smiley either, or cared about his world. It felt at times like his characters were trying too hard to sound authentic, although at the same time I liked the way the story was rooted in a grey, drab reality. For the first half or so it felt like a Boy’s Own compendium of monochrome adventures, a Rider Haggard take on the Cold War, but even then it was obvious that Le Carré is a fine stylist. I certainly missed Smiley’s world when I finished the story.
  I didn’t miss the world Kevin Power recreated in BAD DAY IN BLACKROCK, which is set in the suburbs of southern County Dublin. Touted as a latter-day IN COLD BLOOD and THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE, it’s a fictionalised account of the death of a young Irish man after a post-nightclub assault, an event that dominated the news headlines in Ireland for many months. On the evidence of his debut offering, Power is a fine writer with a lyrical touch, but his choice of subject matter lets him down as he goes behind the headlines and explores the culture in which the young man was killed, a privileged sub-section of society composed of perennial adolescents in thrall to the cult of rugby and the cultivated aggression the sport promotes. The novel it put me most in mind of was Bret Easton Ellis’s LESS THAN ZERO, albeit with vacuous ambition at its heart rather than soi-bored nihilism. The trouble, I think, is that the specific generation Power so piercingly dissects has no virtues worth mythologizing, or vices for that matter; the writer doesn’t so much lance a boil as pop a bubble. In saying that, I’ll be reading his next novel; I think he’s the real deal.
  HITLER’S IRISHMEN by Terence O’Reilly was a fascinating read, telling the story of those few Irishmen who served in the SS during World War II. They were a motley crew, most of whom were recruited from the ranks of British POWs, but most were about as effective as they were moral. I particularly liked the story about the guy who signed up to be a German spy, underwent rigorous training, then parachuted into Northern Ireland and promptly made his way to the nearest police station to give himself up. O’Reilly is a military historian, and it shows, both in the meticulous detail and the pedestrian pace. I put it down with a hundred pages to go, and will very probably pick it up again to finish at some point in the future, but I thought that the narrative, which advances in a strictly chronological way, would have benefited from a less rigid framework and a more inventive approach to telling the various stories.
  I also read Nick Brownlee’s debut, BAIT, which is set in modern Kenya and has some interesting things to say about the fragility of Kenyan democracy. It’s a solid read, although not particularly innovative; there’s more here if you’re interested.
  Meanwhile, it hasn’t been a great start to this month. I’m 60 pages into THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and the more I read, the less I’m inclined to believe in the eponymous heroine – right now she reads like the idealised fantasy of a middle-aged man. I’ll give it 100 pages and see how it pans out, but so far it’s fairly pedestrian stuff.


bookwitch said...

I had to go check where 60 pages takes you to in the Stieg Larsson. You've not seen anything yet, and certainly nothing for the middle-aged man's fantasy. It'll get a lot worse, trust me. I mean better. Though not necessarily in the next 40 pages.

What you really want is book 2.

And you're not middle-aged yet, are you?

Dana King said...

I read BLOOD MERIDIAN last month, for the first time. Maybe I'm an inherent low brow. I haven't enjoyed a book less since I suffered through James Ellroy's THE COLD SIX THOUSAND. McCarthy's clearly a talent, but, as you said, there are great stretches where nothing but mindless slaughter occurs. When I was done, I couldn't help but wonder what the point was.

ICE HARVEST is on my post-Bouchercon To Be Purchased pile. (Would be on the TBR pile, but Borders didn't have a copy when I went to burn off some gift cards over the weekend. Bastards.) I don't how how faithful the movie was, but I liked it quite a bit, though I suspect the book is dryer.

I hope seawitch is right about THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. It's one of the few books on my list Borders did have. After hearing everyone at Bouchercon build it up, I have high hopes for it.

Uriah Robinson said...

The eponymous heroine Lisbeth was about the only interesting character in the TGWTDT. Definitely not my fantasy with all that piercing and tattoos, but then I suppose I am over middle- age.
I have posted several times on Crime Scraps that I could not understand all the hype and fuss about the novel. It is not anywhere as good as Jo Nesbo's Nemesis or Johan Theoren's Echoes From The Dead.
The translator Reg Keeland of Tattoo was kind enough to comment and inform me that numbers 2 and 3 are much better, and that numero uno was just the slightly stodgy indigestible antipasto for the delicious main meal to follow.
From my geriatric memory with 'Tattoo' you have to go a bit more than 160 pages to get into the action.
Good luck.

marco said...

Maybe he’s meant to be that way, although I can’t for the life of me think why.

There's a strong gnostic subtext-themes of grace,free will,various references and key phrases through the novel -and generally the Judge is seen as a Gnostic Archon -basically how the gnostics saw the God of the Old Testament :the sadistic ruler of a fallen creation (but an impostor, not the real creator of the world) who wants to bind man to his will.
Passages in which the Judge says that he wants to dominate the earth and all who dwell on it or in which he says he will never die allude to this allegorical level.


Declan Burke said...

Cheers, folks. 112 pages in to Dragon Tattoo, at the end of the first section, I've jacked it in. If it is the case that you have to wait 160 pages before things kick off (or for the second volume, as some are suggesting), then may I humbly suggest that the publishers go back and (a) yoink out the first 160 pages, or (b) pulp the entire first novel and just give us the good stuff?

I've written novels that weren't much longer than 160 pages ...

Marco - top stuff as always, squire. But is it too impertinent to say that only a tiny fraction of Blood Meridian's readers would have been aware that the Judge was intended to represent the Gnostic Archon; that it's that kind of obscure esotericism that gives Literature a bad name with general readers; and that regardless what McCarthy intended to achieve at the allegorical level, his first responsibility was to make the character believable, particularly as the novel makes a virtue of its realism?

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

Good point, Dec, and not just because it gives me an out for my unforgivable lack of knowledge of the Gnostics. John Connolly does a lot with the Book of Enoch in The Black Angel, but he has enough consideration for his reader to bits of that research into that book so those of us who aren't as knoledgeable have a fighting chance.

I'm ardently against writers having to dumb things down for their readers, but there a wide range between writing down and meeting us half way.

marco said...

his first responsibility was to make the character believable, particularly as the novel makes a virtue of its realism?

That's the key point.
I don't think Blood Meridian really aims to be a realistic novel,rather to use a "supercharged" realistic style (the violence,the power of the images), to create an effect of "hyperrealism" -something that veers into the mythological and the archetypical-and that's why I didn't consider the allegorical level (of which I learned later) intrusive or stapled on,in the same way I don't consider the esoteric references in PKD offputting.
Or anyway,that's how I rationalize the fact it worked for me -but it's a fine balance and opinions may vary.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to divide the readership in the same way everywhere.
If you'd like to try a shorter passage to see if a novel may be to your liking,the site Words Without Borders has a brief excerpt of Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator on Piazza Vittorio,a newly translated Italian novel,along with a very interesting interview with the author Amara Lakhous.


Anonymous said...

Hitler's Irishmen: worth perservering. The last 100 pages are the best bit (fighting the Red Army on the outskirts of Berlin)