Thursday, July 29, 2010

The red eye

Very early start today.  Up at 5.30am, out the door by 5.45.  In the radio studio at the headquarters of the national radio station at 7am and on air at 7.15am.  If you want a listen then its online here. We published our report into the housing crisis in Ireland this afternoon and the Prime Time programme broadcasts tonight.  Spent the morning recording voice-over links and the afternoon answering journalist queries and writing an editorial for The Irish Times.  All interesting but stressful stuff.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Damnation Street by Andrew Klavan (Harcourt, 2006)

Scott Weiss is an experienced PI with an uncanny ability to be able anticipate and read people and situations.  John Foy is a skilled gun for hire who has a face that's almost impossible to remember.  Both are obsessed with Julie Wyant, a prostitute with a difficult past who is on the run from both.  Weiss knows that as he tracks down Wyant he is leading Foy to her.  But to leave her to fend for herself will just delay the inevitable.  And so plays out a game of cat and mouse, each man determined to destroy the other and find Wyatt.

I might not have read Damnation Street if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d finished a book and it was the only one to hand.  I’d started it three or four times to give up by page 5 or 6.  I just found the style irritating – simple, staccato sentences and no great hook.  Surrounded by a selection of books, the others just seemed more tempting.  However, by page 10 or so it was starting to improve and by page 30 or so I was hooked.  And a fine read it turned out to be – well crafted, enjoyable plot, good subplots, interesting characters, and solid show don’t tell writing.  There might not have been too many surprises, and a whole raft of worn tropes and cliches are used, but as I’ve said before, at this stage, there seems little room for a fresh perspective on the PI genre; Klavan has produced a fine noir version that has enough twists and turns to keep the average crime reader more than happy.  Having been hesitant at starting Damnation Street I’d now be interested to read the two other Weiss books.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review of Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta (St Martin’s Minatour, 2004)

Former marine turned private investigator Wayne Weston has seemingly committed suicide in a Cleveland suburb.  His wife and young daughter are missing and the police believe that Weston may have murdered them before turning the gun on himself.  Weston’s father thinks that theory stinks and hires PIs Lincoln Perry and Joe Pritchard to investigate, much to the annoyance of the local cops and FBI.  Both Perry and Pritchard served locally – Perry bounced out for assaulting the lawyer his fiancé left him for, and Pritchard has recently retired.  They quickly determine that Weston was working for a local tycoon and also had connections to the Russian mob.  Neither are happy at Perry and Pritchard’s involvement.  Then Weston’s best friend is shot dead as he meets Perry and Pritchard and the case takes a twist that ultimately leads back to revealing Weston’s fate.

Tonight I Said Goodbye is a solid piece of entertainment - good pace, plenty of action, well judged characterisation, effective dialogue, decent sense of place, and sound plotting (even though one aspect of the ending was telegraphed from quite a long way out).  There’s a little bit too much in the way of reflection and description in places, but Koryta writes in an easy-going manner that is deceptively rich and which draws the reader in and tugs them along.  There are plenty of twists, albeit none complete surprises, and the book builds in tension to become a real page-turner.  Just as with police procedurals, there are probably few new angles to be explored in the PI genre at this stage: what a reader is after then is a competent story that’s told in a strong voice – Koryta delivers on that score.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

This has been my slowest week of posting since starting the blog a year ago.  Just too many things going on.  Due a decent bout of insomnia I did, however, manage to read two novels - Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason and Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty.  Both were very good reads.  Excellent, in fact.  For a first novel, Dead I May Well Be is an astonishingly rich piece of writing and damn fine entertainment.  Hypothermia is a well paced and layered piece of storytelling with great emotional depth and reflection.  More in the next few days as I draft reviews.

My posts this week:
Review of Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway
Review of Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli
Lights, camera, action, bed

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lights, camera, action, bed

The last few days have been a bit frantic.  Out of the house at 7.30pm and back at 9pm.  Eat then sleep.  Then repeat.  Most of the time has been taken up with filming and recording for Prime Time.  I'm pretty poor material to be working with.  My dialogue was too 'academic' - "now, can you say that again but normally so that someone on the street can understand it."  Or, "can you say that without it sounding like a lecture?"  I was speaking too quickly.  I fluffed lines constantly.  I discovered I have a complete inability to memorize lines.  And due to nerves I could barely formulate questions for the people I was interviewing.  I spent most of the time paranoid I'd say something daft that they would include in the film - and it's pretty difficult to be recorded over three days where you don't say something stupid or something that you would in private but not in public. Interestingly, giving a lecture to an audience of 500 barely phases me, but I found this quite unnerving, though it got easier as we progressed.  I'm not sure how many hours of film/audio recordings they have but a fair few - maybe six or seven - that will now have to be edited down to 8-10 minutes.  It includes several retakes of the same thing or variations on a theme or the same thing but in a different place.  Lots of filler shots of walking around estates, or walking and talking through fields or along roads.  I might have to go back in and do voice-overs on Wednesday.  All interesting stuff, but completely exhausting.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review of Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli (Vintage, 2003, Italian 1997)

Simone spends his days in his room, pretending to be asleep every time his mother knocks on the door, the rest of the time scanning the airwaves of Bologna eavesdropping on CB radios, mobile phones, police and taxi frequencies, and internet chat played through a voice synthesiser, charting the social lives of its citizens.  Blind since birth he hears the world as colours and whilst turning the dial he picks up on a cold green voice that sends shivers up his spine.  It is the voice of a serial killer reeling in his next victim; a disturbed young man who listens to music constantly to drown out the bells ringing in his head.  Detective Inspector Grazia Negro works for the Unit for the Analysis of Series Crimes in Rome and she’s spotted a pattern in what seem like unconnected murders in Bologna.  On her first major case, with her blue voice, she needs to persuade the local authorities to take her analysis seriously, but more importantly she needs to catch the killer before he strikes again, and before he can track down the one person who can identify his voice.

I think Lucarelli is one hell of a writer.  He immediately plunges you into a story and he writes in a show don’t tell style that is pared back and yet full of insight (see my post on how it paints a short but effectively portrait of the city).  The story charts the interactions of the three principal characters, with Simone and the serial killer written in the first perspective.  The characterization is excellent, and there are some nice observational touches.  The plot is relatively straightforward and well structured.  My two gripes are the same as with the three previous Lucarelli novels I’ve read – there is not enough in the way of back story (the reader literally gets dropped into the characters’ lives for the week or so the story lasts but knows little else about them) and the story itself seems somewhat underdeveloped.  I’m not a fan of padding for the sake of it, but Lucarelli pares back the story to just about the bare minimum.  The result is the book feels like a TV episode as opposed to a full movie.  A very well written TV episode, but without the benefit of previous episodes to frame things for the reader.  The result is I’m left kind of conflicted – delighted with the writing yet somehow short-changed.  It makes me hungry for his other works, but worried that they’ll also give a high that doesn’t last long enough. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Review of Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway (Pan, 2008)

When James Kerr arrives back into Lifford, an Irish border town, after serving time in the North for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery, he sets in train a sequence of events centred on Gallows Lane, where an arms and drugs cache has just been found.  Inspector Ben Devlin meets the born-again Kerr at the border, but he soon slips away after professing the need to sort one thing out before leaving the area for good.  Not long after a stranger is seen lurking in a garden off Gallows Lane, and then the owner, an Englishman with strong republican beliefs is found hanging from a tree.  Distracting Devlin from the case are station politics and internal rivalries, an upcoming interview for promotion, a break-in at a local pharmacy, and the slaying of a young girl, beaten to death on a building site.  As the summer heatwave builds, so the bodies start to pile up, and Devlin not only has to contend with solving two sets of murders – one seemingly centred on Kerr, the other around the young girl – but also threats and attacks against himself, and detectives from Dublin muscling in on his cases.

It took me a little while to get into Gallows Lane.  The first 100 pages or so seemed ponderous, and somehow lacking, and I wasn’t sure about some of the police organisation and procedural elements.  Slowly, however, I was drawn ever further into the book, all the careful groundwork laid out in the early stages gaining its significance as the various threads are pulled ever tighter.  McGilloway’s skill is in the plotting and sense of place.  He weaves several subplots in and through each other, although as with Borderlands some of the story is a little over the top, some situations are clearly plot devices, and I had difficulty believing the resolution of two strands.  The result is a slow burner that shifts through the gears into a real page turner.  He also does a good job of setting the reader in small town Ireland and the landscape along the Donegal/Derry border.  Where the book struggles a little, I feel, is with characterisation.  Devlin is well drawn and an interesting enough character – a committed family man that seems vulnerable to temptation, prepared to cut corners, occasionally hot tempered and prone to panic attacks.  Many of the other characters, however, are underdeveloped.  For example, we get little sense of Devlin’s wife, or the principal victims or perpetrators, or some of his colleagues, with little in the way of back stories and motivations.  This is partly due to the large cast and partly due to the pacing, where characters are getting little ‘page time’.  Regardless, McGilloway’s Inspector Devlin series is developing nicely and I’m looking forward to the next two books.  Comparisons are often made to Rankin and Dexter, but I think Robinson and Booth are probably nearer the mark.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

A somewhat odd week of feeling pulled in too many directions.  I've completed proofing on one book, started copyedits on another, and am still working on another due at the end of the month, along with two issues of the journals I edit.  I've also been packing my office into crates and then unpacking again in our new building.  Then on Friday a bid I co-wrote for a National Audio/Visual Repository received €5.2m of funding.  At least the week had a pleasant end!  

My posts this week:
Review of Vodka Doesn't Freeze by Liah Giarrantano
One year on
This city isn't like others
Projected 120,000 to emigrate 2010, 2011
Review of Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel
NAMA and land dezoning
Review of Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins
It's the little things that drive me nuts

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's the little things that drive me nuts

In the last couple of months I've finished two novels whose ending drove me a little nuts.  Well, that's not quite true - one element of their ending drove me nuts.  The element where the author conveniently forgot their own plotting.  I don't want to do spoilers, so I won't name them.  Let's call them Book One and Book Two.  In Book One a cop who has a standard issue gun, and carries it at all times, suddenly forgets she has it with her and ends up in hand to hand combat as she tries to escape.  How do you suddenly forget that you have a weapon that's a little more potent than your hands?  In Book Two a private investigator disarms a man, taking his gun.  Moments later, when the disarmed man's buddies show up, the PI runs for the kitchen to find a knife!  A lo and behold he's taken prisoner until his own buddies show up to rescue him.  If three guys turn up wielding guns, why forget about the gun you've just confiscated in the hope that a knife will deflect the bullets?  I'm all for artistic license, and I'm happy to suspend my disbelief when required, but I find that pretty difficult if the story is realist fiction and the plot device is plain daft.  These scenes added to the suspense and tension in the story, but sometimes the little things just drive me nuts!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Review of Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins (1974, Robinson)

Frankie and Russell, two young hoods, have recently been released from prison and immediately slip back into their old criminal ways.  Johnny ‘Squirrel’ Amato thinks of himself as a bit of criminal mastermind – he conceives the plans; people like Frankie and Russell do the handiwork.  The plan is to hold-up a high stakes card game which has some connected players, and to pin the blame on someone else.  Jackie Cogan’s job is to keep the criminal underworld in order; punishing those that step out of line or pursue their own agenda without getting prior approval from the local godfathers.  Amato’s plan is most executed without approval, which means Cogan needs to identify the perpetrators and settle a score. 

Cogan’s Trade is a relatively simple story consisting of just nineteen extended scenes.  Each scene is largely conversational, with little in the way of action.  Interestingly, Higgins simply drops the reader into conversations and then lets them try to work out what is happening – a bit like taking a seat on a bus and overhearing a conversation taking place between nearby passengers and trying to work out what is being discussed, the context, how threads intertwine, who they might be talking about, etc.  It’s an interesting approach and for the most part works well.  The only downside is that the dialogue often has little to do with the plot – it’s just everyday chat that works to give a portrait of the small number of characters.  As a result, the style tends to work at the expense of the plot.  I love dialogue driven stories, but it has to serve the plot.  Personally I would have preferred some of the conversations to be trimmed back to the mostly relevant bits and a doubling of the number of scenes.  Overall, an interesting and enjoyable read with first rate dialogue, but the plot falls a little short for my tastes.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Over the past couple of days I've been working on The Map Reader, a collection of classic cartographic articles.  All the pieces included need to be under 5,000 words in length.  Some of the original articles are 20,000 words long or more so it's an interesting challenge to try and abridge them.  The rule is that text can only be cut and there is no rewriting allowed.  Cutting up to 75% of an article whilst retaining all the central points and the coherence of the argument, and making sure it still remains readable rather than appearing as if its a collection of random snippets, can be quite a puzzle.  That said, when it seems to click you're left wondering why the author originally needed 20,000 words to say what could be said in a quarter of the words.  My conclusion - we need more 'no fat' academic writing!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review of Brodeck’s Report by Phillipe Claudel (Quercus 2009, French 2007)

The inhabitants of a village, largely cut off from the outside world, are trying to come to terms with the effects of being occupied during a recent war.  In order to survive the wrath of the soldiers they had colluded and collaborated to various degrees, sacrificing those that had previously been their own.  Threatening the fragile peace and memories is the arrival of the ‘Anderer’ – the other – an enigmatic, wealthy traveller who rents a room in the local inn and wanders the countryside, forever jotting in a notebook.  At the height of a heat wave, tensions stretch to breaking point, and the community rounds on the Anderer, murdering him.  Brodeck, himself something of an outsider, is charged with writing the villagers account of what happened.  As a youth, the village had saved funds to send him to university, but his studies had been cut short by the war.  Having returned home, the occupying soldiers had then sent him to a camp where he survived by any means possible, determined to see his wife once again.  On making his way home at the war’s end he’d discovered a broken woman, now with a small child, and a village on edge.  As he researches and writes the Report, ever mindful of the pressures and responsibilities of the task, he reflects on the complex contingencies of his own life, and the nature family, home and belonging; the rationalities of individual and collective loss, guilt, memory, identity, and difference; the struggle for survival and living with the consequences of succeeding.

Brodeck’s Report is an extended, multilayered parable which weaves a philosophically and emotionally rich tapestry.  Beautifully crafted and plotted by Claudel, the story engages the reader to reflect on the questions that Brodeck seeks to answer; the kinds of moral ambiguities concerning our sense of belonging, community and interpersonal relations, and the consequences of actions that plague our everyday lives.  The characterisation is keenly observed and the plotting is superb, revealing the complex interweaving of Brodeck’s and villagers lives, his and their dark secrets, and how they seek to continue on living together with a vague and uneasy sense of normality.  I found it somewhat of a curious book in that it seemed whole regardless of where I stopped a reading session; I had the sense that I could finish at that point and remain fully satisfied with the story even if I never got to finish the book.  I’m not sure I’ve come across that before.  A quote on the front of the book states ‘deeply wise and classically beautiful … a modern masterpiece’, and a masterpiece it most definitely is.  Brodeck’s Report is cerebral read that will leave you asking questions and reflecting on them long after the final page is read.  Heartily recommended.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This city isn't like others ...

"This city isn’t like others, Matera has said.  It’s not only big, it’s complicated.  It’s contradictory.  If you look at it from a pedestrian perspective, it seems like there are a lot of piazzas and porticoes.  But if you fly over it in a helicopter, because of the courtyards and gardens between the buildings, it looks like there’s a forest below.  And if you go beneath its surface you’ll find that it’s a city built on water and canals, like Venezia.  It’s freezing cold in the winter and tropical in the summer.  It has communist ideals and millionaire cooperative organisations.  It’s run by four different mafia groups that, rather than shoot at each other, help each other recycle Italy’s drug’s money.  Tortellini and satanic cults.  This city isn’t what it seems, Ispettore; it’s always hiding something."

The above passage describes Bologna and is taken from Almost Blue, a novella by Carlo Lucarelli.  I like it because it paints a very quick and vivid description of the city and lets the reader place and visualise it.  Which other writers do you think create this kind of sense of place in such few words?

Monday, July 12, 2010

One year on ...

The View from the Blue House turns one today.  In my first post, Opening Gambits, I set the target of posting one or two posts a week, plus a short story once a month.  Well, I’ve managed to post just about every day – 354 posts in total – though I’ve only managed six short stories (plus another 50+ posts on the other blog I contribute to – Ireland After NAMA).  I guess the thing that surprises me most, is the number of book reviews I’ve posted – 111 in total.  Because this is the first time I’ve kept a record of my reading, up until now I’ve had little conception of the throughput of books.  Certainly writing the reviews has given me a better conception of what I like in a story that is hopefully starting to feedback into my own fiction.  My first review was of Stuart Neville’s, The Twelve (and I’m looking forward to the next instalment, Collusion).  Thankfully, Maxine of Petrona discovered TVFTBH fairly shortly after I started – spotting a review I’d written of Jo Nesbo’s, The Devil’s Star - and introducing me and the blog to the Crime and Mystery Fiction Friendfeed community and a supportive audience of other crime fiction bloggers.  The blog has a small, but relatively consistent number of visits a day, and it’s been a pleasure to write and share reviews, ideas and observations with everyone that has stopped by – it’s much appreciated.  And so to the next year …

Review of Vodka Doesn’t Freeze by Leah Giarrantano (Bantam, 2007)

When a known paedophile is brutally murdered whilst spying on a kiddies paddling pool, Sergeant Jill Jackson and her partner Scott Hutchinson are assigned to the case.  Despite their obvious attraction, the partnership is purely platonic due to Jill standoffishness caused by her experiences at the hands of child sex abusers.  Still emotional damaged, she’s apprehensive about taking on the case, and somewhat ambivalent about tracking down a killer who has cleansed society of a sexual predator.  Jackson and Hutchinson soon determine that two other child sex offenders have been recently slain and that they are tracking a serial killer administering vigilante justice.  Hindered by internal rivalries within the police force they slowly make progress, establishing connections between the victims and uncovering evidence of a long-standing paedophile ring.  Stopping the killer, on the one hand, and getting to the heart of the ring and shutting it down on the other, means Jill confronting her own demons.

Vodka Doesn’t Freeze isn’t the easiest of reads – child sex abuse and paedophilia rings are not the stuff of light reading.  However, Giarrantano draws on her accumulated experience as a psychologist dealing with sex offenders and survivors to handle the material with care.  The police politics and rivalries are realistic, but what lifts the book beyond the normal is the characterisation, especially the victims and perpetrators, which is excellent, along with some astute observations about families, relationships and the evil that people do unto each other.  Sergeant Jill Jackson has a harrowing back story, and enough foibles and personality traits to make her an interesting central character.  The plot for the most part is sound, although the climatic ending was telegraphed from a long way out, and there were a few odds an ends that detracted a little from the read (the ring and its operation is so widely known amongst victims and practioners that it operates as an open secret and that the fact that it had done so for so long without attracting police attention didn’t seem credible; instead of closing down its activities with the killing of its members and rise in police activity the ring instead carry-on as normal; the ability to fight without sight felt too much like a plot device; and there was an unnecessary twist at the end accompanied by an unrealistic scenario).  That said, these are relatively minor distractions from what is a powerful and compelling first novel that draws the reader in and then packs them off on a taut rollercoaster ride bristling with tension.  Overall, a very solid police procedural that holds the promise of an excellent series. 

For other reviews see: Reactions to Reading; Mysteries in Paradise

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

I've just about caught up with reviews - expect three this week: Vodka Doesn't Freeze by Liah Giarrantano; Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel; and Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins.  That leaves only one in the 'to-do' pile, that'll soon be joined by another.  Perhaps I'll even manage to catch-up on some fiction writing soon as well!

My posts this week

Review of Water-Blue Eyes by Domingo Villar
NAMA scenarios
Revised reviewer ratings
Review of Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista
First challenge to NAMA
Storyboard and script
A life less ordinary
Retail space and rents
Brodeck's Report

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Brodeck’s Report

It's not too often that a book blows my socks clean off, but Brodeck's Report has left me sockless.  It's a profoundly moving and wise book that is beautifully crafted by a skilled wordsmith.  I'll post my review sometime next week, but here are two snippets as samplers.

I am trying to return to those moments, to get as close to them as I can, but what I would really like to do is forget them and run away, far away, on light feet and with a brand-new brain. 

I have the feeling that I am the wrong size for my life.  I mean, I feel that my life is spilling over everywhere, that it was never cut to fit a man like me, that it is full of too many things, too many events, too many moments, too many flaws.  It is my fault, perhaps?  Is it because I do not know how to be a man?  Because I do not know how to sort things, how to take what I need and leave the rest?  Or maybe it is the fault of the century in which I live, which is like a great crater; the excesses of every day flow into it, and it is filled with everything that cuts and flays and crushes and chops.  My head – sometimes I think my head is on the point of exploding, like a heavy shell crammed with gunpowder.

That infamous day, the day after the
Ereignies, was not so long ago.  And yet, it spite of everything, it is slipping through my fingers.  I remember only certain scenes and certain words, very exact and very clear, like the bright lights against a deep black background.  And I also remember my fear, above all my fear, which I have worn like a garment ever since.  I cannot cast it off; in spite all my efforts it has grown tighter and tighter, as if it has shrunk a little more each week. 

* * *

‘What I’d like to do is understand,’ he confided in me one day.  ‘We never understand anything, or if we do, not much.  Men live, in a way, as the blind do, and generally that’s enough for them.  I’d go as far as to say that it’s what they’re looking for: to avoid headaches and dizzy spells, to fill their stomachs, to sleep, to lie between their wives’ thighs when their blood runs too hot, to make war because they’re told to do so, and then to die without knowing what awaits them afterwards, but hoping that something is awaiting them, all the same.  Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved questions, and I’ve loved the paths you must follow to find the answers.  Sometimes, of course, I end up knowing nothing but the path itself, but that’s not so bad; at least I’ve made some progress.’

Friday, July 9, 2010

A life less ordinary - Florence Broadhurst

It's funny what you can discover when you're waiting to have your hair cut.  I had a choice between 20 women's magazines and 'Period Homes'.  I took the latter and found an interesting article on Florence Broadhurst who led a life less ordinary until she was murdered in 1977. 

Born in 1899 near to Mount Perry, Queensland, 400km north of Brisbane, by the early 1920s she was touring South East Asia and China in a musical comedy troupe.  In 1926 she established the Broadhurst Academy in Shanghai to teach music and dance to the elder children British ex-pats.  By the 1930s she was in London where she opened a dress salon on Bond Street, acting as the French couturie, Madame Pellier.  She married and divorced in quick succession, then took up another relationship and gave birth to a son.  During World War II she joined the Australian Women's Voluntary Services, offering hospitality to Australian soldiers.

In 1949 the family moved back to Australia, where she pretended to be British with some aristocratic connections.  She became a landscape painter, travelling around northern and central Australia.  In 1959 she established the Australian (Hand Printed) Wallpapers Pty Ltd and in 1961 her partner left her, leaving her a motor-sales business to also run.  Known for her striking wallpaper designs she dominated the high end of the decoration business, with designs becoming ever more bold due to a desire to see them despite her failing sight.  To the end of her life, Broadhurst was a socialite, dyeing her hair with henna, dressing as someone a fraction of her age, and reputedly dating younger men.  Her life came to a tragic end in 1977, when she was battered to death in her studio.  The murder remains unsolved, but her attacker is strongly suspected to be John Wayne Glover, who she knew, and who was later convicted of the murders of six elderly women in 1989-1990 and was suspected of undertaking other murders.

Well, that sure sounds like a tale that would make a basis for an interesting novel spanning several time periods.  There is a book (Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives) and a film (Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst) about her life.  More info can be found at these websites:

Australian Dictionary of Biography
Architectural Design
Signature Prints

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Storyboard and script

I spent yesterday afternoon talking to a producer from RTE, the national broadcaster, about putting together a short documentary-style report – what they’re calling an ‘author report’ – for the programme Prime Time to tie-in with our soon to be published report on the housing crash in Ireland.  I guess the equivalent of Prime Time in the UK would be Panorama or Newsnight.  It’s a current affairs programme that deals with selected news items in depth.  We’ve initially been given 8 minutes for our film report and 7 minutes for an in-studio debate afterwards.  I’ve spent most of today putting together a storyboard and writing a first draft script, thinking of sites for filming, and expert witnesses to either support or challenge our take on things.  Trying to reduce a 20,000 word report into suitable bite-size chunks and to think about how best to try and present the material in an informative and engaging way is an interesting exercise!  8 minutes of straight-talk boils down to about 4 pages of double-spaced material.  I need also need to cater for pauses, gaps, interview snippets, etc.  A nice challenge.  Filming is 21-23 July, airing scheduled for July 29th. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista (Bitter Lemon Press, 2010; 2004 in French)

In the middle of the night an American family move into a villa in Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy.  To the locals they are something of an exotic novelty – larger than life Fred, an aspiring writer; the conscientious Maggie, who helps out at a local charity; the scheming Warren, who quickly manoeuvres himself into running the school playground; and confident Belle, with her exceptional beauty and good grades.  Only Fred is really Giovanni Manzoni, a violent, former capo of a New Jersey Mafioso family who turned State evidence and is now condemned to spend the rest of his years in a witness protection programme.  Accompanying them is a FBI surveillance team, whose job it is to protect them from the $20 million contract on their head offered by Don Mimino, capo di tutti i capi (the head of the mafia in the US, and now residing in prison thanks to Manzoni’s evidence).  It should be relatively straightforward for Fred and his family to keep their heads down and lead a quiet life, but all of them seem to have a way of attracting and being the centre of attention.  Which is why they have to pack up and move every so often.  The hope is Cholong will be different; that they can turn the villa into a home, but given their record there’s every chance that mafia hitmen will turn up to claim reward for Manzoni’s head.

Badfellas is for the most part an enjoyable comic crime caper.  Benacquista tells the story in an easy, engaging style, with a good dose of black humour.  The characters, whilst mostly caricatures, are well developed, fun and credible - I like, for example, the way that Fred is consistent in his vision of the world, pre and post witness protection programme).  The plot is reasonably predictable, but entertaining, with some nice intertextuality, and I can easily see Badfellas being made into a movie.  There are, however, a few shortcomings that a decent edit could have addressed – the narrative often tells rather than shows, wanders off on unnecessary tangents, and some of the story lacks credibility even for a yarn that asks you to suspend disbelief in general (for example, a man has two arms broken in a house under 24 hour FBI surveillance and yet no-one heard or saw a thing and heaven knows who collected his van; nobody seems to know that a FBI team is occupying the house opposite; a factory polluting the water table is blown-up and miraculously the water runs clean straight away and no-one comes to investigate in a post-9/11 world; a shop is set on fire by someone acting completely out of character and again there is no aftermath).  To some degree this is all minor stuff, but it was enough to slightly sour the read for me, in what was otherwise an amusing way to pass an evening or two.  I expect to see the movie in due course.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Revised reviewer ratings

I've become increasingly dissatisfied with my ratings system over the past few months.  Basically, just about everything I review ends up in one of three boxes (3*, 4* or 5*) with the very occassional 2*.  Some books, however, just don't quite fit either 'an okay read' or 'quality stuff and will be recommending to friends' or 'outstanding, get me the full back catalogue'; some seem to sit between these - not quite blown me away, but pretty damn close; or better than okay, but not quite stellar stuff; more than passable, but not quite solid good.  There have been a few books I've wanted to give 2.5, 3.5 or 4.5 stars to.  Sometimes I've rounded up, sometimes down, and I'm never happy with either.  Yesterday, I swapped the stars at the bottom of my review of Water-Blue Eyes several times between three and four stars before finally plumping for 3 stars.  I'd have been more comfortable giving it 3.5.  It was better than many of the books I give 3 stars, but not in the same category as the books in the 4 star range.  So, from now on, I'm going to experiment with a slightly new rating scale and see how I get on.  Hopefully it'll provide a more nuanced summary assessment that differentiates books a bit (rather than 80+% of my reviews being either 3* or 4*).

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review of Water-Blue Eyes by Domingo Villar (Eurocrime, 2008; Spanish 2006)

High up in a duplex apartment in a luxury harbour front apartment in Vigo, Galicia, Luis Reigosa dies an agonising death whilst tied to his bed.  Inspector Leo Caldas, known throughout the city for his weekly appearances on the radio show Patrol on the Air, is assigned to the case, along with his short-tempered and aggressive sidekick, Rafael Estevez.  Reigosa, a jazz saxophonist, had seemingly been well liked, with his water-blue eyes ensuring an endless stream of lovers.  Yet his death was sadistic and required medical knowledge.  Reigosa’s body and apartment hold few clues, and initially Caldas and Estevez struggle to find a starting point for their investigation, but as they come to understand how he was killed and his lifestyle they slowly piece together what happened that night, and gradually home in on his killer.

There is much to admire in Villar’s writing style, which is concise and expressive, and Water-Blue Eyes is a pleasurable read.  Leo Caldas, as the disillusioned and weary inspector, and his assistant, the explosive Rafael Estevez, are engaging characters, though somewhat enigmatic due the general lack of back story.  In this sense, Villar does a great job at following the ‘show don’t tell’ maxim, but the result is I never really felt I got to know the characters that well beyond broad pointers.  I think this is partly a function of length.  At 167 pages, space delimits the extent to which one gets to know the principal characters using this storytelling technique.  The length also restricts the plot, which is interesting but relatively straightforward, that has a twist at the end.  The plot could have been fleshed out a bit more, especially the ending which is wrapped up conveniently and too quickly.  Basically, I wanted more!  Whilst I did find elements of the book a little disappointing, Water-Blue Eyes has enough positives – such as it style, dry wit and sense of place - to make me want to read the next book in the series.  Indeed, my sense is that Caldas and Estevez hold much promise as a fictional partnership, and Villar’s assured writing will make for an engaging and entertaining read.  For other reviews see Petrona, The Game’s Afoot, and International Noir.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm slowly falling behind with book reviews.  I've four books on the completed pile and I hope to write at least three of them today.  Since I'm now proofing my Key Thinkers book and a student's PhD thesis, having a small reserve is probably no bad thing as the fiction reading is taking a dip.  At some point, I'm also going to have to find time for writing.  Well, writing beyond reviews, blog posts and emails!

My posts this week:
Parish pump planning
Review of GUBU Nation by Damian Corless
Review of Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
June reviews
Book giveaway winners
Gunshot blues

Failed planning

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gunshot Blues

I received an email this morning from Amazon to tell me that my pre-ordered copy of Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland would be delayed in delivery.  Great for Hyland as Amazon have already run out of stock, annoying for me since I wanted to get my sticky mitts on it.  At least I had better luck in the local bookshop - the copy I'd ordered of Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli had arrived.  I'm looking forward to tucking into this one.  I'm a fan of Lucarelli after reading his De Luca trilogy, which I highly recommend.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book giveaway winners

The winners of my two book giveaway are Kathy D. and Carol Wong.  If you send your postal addresses to I'll get a copy of The White Gallows in the post to you early next week.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June Reviews

A little suprised to see that I read 11 books in June as it felt like I'd only read half that amount.  The stand out book was Killer by Dave Zeltserman, which I found captivating. 

The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotta ****
A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley ***
The Day of the Jack Russell by Colin Bateman ****
Killer by Dave Zeltserman *****
Hand in the Fire by Hugo Hamilton ***
The Big O by Declan Burke ****
Fury by G.M. Ford ***
Then Came The Evening by Brian Hart ****
Blood Moon by Garry Disher **
GUBU Nation by Damian Corless ***
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan ***