Monday, February 28, 2011

'Scarry Night' flash fiction challenge: Insurance

Here's my entry into Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge. The challenge was to include the line: 'I really don't mind the scars.' My piece is called 'Insurance'.

‘I really don’t mind the scars,’ Julia said, running her middle finger along the caesarean wound, thumbing the stretch marks, ‘it’s the bastard who created them I hate.’ She was sitting on a recliner next to a clear blue pool, wearing a lime green bikini, a large floppy hat, and a pair of sunglasses that seemed to mask half her face.

‘You hate Danny?’ Lisa said from the pool side, her arms resting on the warm concrete, her chin placed on her hands.

‘Danny? I don’t hate Danny. He’s six months old, for god’s sake, Lisa. He eats, pukes, shits, sleeps and giggles. If it wasn’t for the giggles I’d probably hate him, but, well, y’know.’ She took a sip from a tall cocktail glass. ‘Richard. He’s the one I hate.’


‘He’s made my life hell.’

‘Richard? You have everything you want, Julia. A nice house, a pool, a BMW, home help. How is your life hell?’

‘You don’t live with him. He’s manipulative. He lies. He hides things from me. And he snores. And now I have him just where I want him. We’re married and I have Danny. The divorce will set me up for life. I can make a fresh start.’

‘You had Danny to trap him?’ Lisa pushed off the side and floated across the pool. She was wearing a plain black all-in-one bathing suit, her long legs tapping the surface, propelling her slowly.

‘You make me sound like a gold digger. Danny was insurance. These scars are the price.’

‘Insurance? Insurance against what?’

‘Him cashing me in short for a younger model.’

‘Jesus, Julia. This is Richard we’re talking about, right?’

‘You don’t know him like I do. He has a dark side. He might seem like he’s a family guy when he meets you, but believe me, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s been having affairs.’

‘Affairs? Are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure. A wife has a way of knowing these things. What I need is hard evidence. That’s why I want you to ... to test him.’

‘You want me to ... to have an affair with Richard?’ Lisa swam lazily back to the pool side.

‘No. I want you ... I want you to tempt him. Be photographed with him. Kissing him. Anything past first base.’

‘I don’t know, Julia. I’m ...’

‘You’re my sister, Lisa. You’re perfect for this. What man can’t be tempted by his wife’s younger, single sister?’

* * *

‘She thinks you’re having an affair,’ Lisa said, running a fingernail across Richard’s chest.

Richard chuckled and tangled his fingers in her long hair.

‘She wanted me to set you up. Get some sleazy PI to take photos of us kissing. She intends to take you to the cleaners. A divorce. The works.’

‘She wants what? The little ... bitch.’ He worked his fingers free.

‘Danny is her insurance.’

‘Insurance? He’s our son!’

‘There’s no need to shout. I’m trying to help you here. Let you know what she’s planning. She’s my sister, Richard, and you are having an affair. And I’m not the first. We need to careful is what I’m saying.’

‘Careful? She’s threatening to leave me and take my son!’ He pushed her head off his shoulder and slipped naked from the bed. ‘Insurance? Two can play that game!’

‘Richard? What are you planning? Richard?’

‘Our future,’ he said, pulling on his underpants.

‘Our future? What about Julia? Danny?’

‘Danny will be fine,’ Richard said, tugging on his shirt. ‘He’ll have has aunt. As for Julia, that bitch has it coming. I’ve given her everything. There’s no way she’s taking Danny. It’ll be over my dead body.’

* * *

‘Does it hurt?’ the young man said, tracing his finger along the scar.

They were naked, lying on top of the sheets, the man leaning up over her, studying her form.

‘No, though sometimes I dream that it opens up. That it becomes a gaping wound.’

‘And you don’t mind it?’

‘Why should I? It’s part of who I am. Beauty is in your aura, not some perfect scar free body. Having children; that’s what women do. It’s a mark of life.’

‘I think it’s beautiful.’ He lent down and kissed the scar tissue.

There was a bright flash from the window, quickly followed by another two.

‘What the ...’

The young man was dashing to the balcony, but the photographer was already making good his escape.

* * *

‘Did you get the photos?’ Richard said, blocking out the sun.

‘Did you get mine?’ Julia asked, looking up from the recliner, her glasses slipping down her nose, her brown eyes gazing out over them.

‘You had our bedroom fitted with a secret camera.’

‘You had my sister in our bed, Richard. My sister, for god’s sake. She always was unreliable and impressionable.’

‘I’ll fight you all the way, Julia. It’s worse for the mother to have an affair.’

‘Don’t be an idiot, Richard. We’ve both had affairs. They cancel out the other. Perhaps we should bury the hatchet, so to speak? Take another shot at it? For Danny? We both have our insurance now.’

‘You want to try again?’

‘Why not?’

‘What about Lisa?’

‘Lisa’s off limits. And there can be no others.’

‘And you?’

‘Of course. We’re both on notice.’ She turned over onto her stomach and held out a bottle of sun cream. ‘Can you do my back?’

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Two endings today. The first, the last government. The final result is still pending as there is still counting going on in some constituencies. As of writing there are 150 out of 166 seats confirmed, with four constituencies still outstanding, two of which are undergoing recounts. Wicklow, which had the largest number of candidates, is on Count 13 with no candidate yet over the quota and elected. Fianna Fail and the Greens have been decimated. Fianna Fail got 78 seats in 2007, the Greens 6. This time round it looks like Fianna Fail will be on c.20, the Greens 0. No party will have a majority, with seats gained by Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein, Independents, and United Left Alliance. Only four cabinet and junior ministers survived. It looks like a Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

The second, I completed the first draft of Good Cop/Bad Cop this morning. It didn't end quite as I expected it to, but that's good. This is the first novel I've planned out in broad terms, making brief notes on all chapters, before drafting. It's taken its own course in writing, but stayed within the general parameters of the overall plot. I've also drafted all the way to the end without stopping to go back over earlier parts to edit and redraft. At the minute I have slightly paradoxical feelings about it: for once I'm happy with the overall story, which makes me a little unnerved. The two main characters are so easy to write for, the book kind of wrote itself. Next stage is a full read through and hopefully I'll still be happy enough. If so, then onto beta readers.

My posts this week
Review of The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer
Winter's Bone: Book and Movie
Review of Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty
NAMA and Northern Ireland
I loved my mother so much, that I have killed her
Review of Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
A kick in the ballots

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A kick in the ballots

It's election time in Ireland. Given a dose of the flu, just about the only thing I managed to do yesterday was vote. The ruling Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition has been given a good kick in the ballots, with their vote collapsing enormously given the economic peril the country finds itself in. Ireland has multi-party constituencies and runs a PR-STV system of election. This means that each constituency returns 3, 4 or 5 TDs to the Dail, depending on its size, and when you vote you rank the candidates in your preferred order. Based on the number of people who voted a quota is set. If a candidate has more than the quota they are elected. In nearly all constituencies, after the first count usually only one candidate is elected and in many cases none are yet elected. For those over the quota the surplus will be redistributed based on who came second on that candidate's ballot papers or the candidates that came last are eliminated and their second preferences redistributed. Depending on the number of candidates and the distribution of votes it can take several rounds for all candidates to be elected. What this means is that is a lot of drama as the transfer of votes plays out over several counts. The count is now well underway and will continue into Sunday. Lots of drama to come. One thing's certain - we'll have a new government in the next week. It'll almost certainly be a coalition between Fine Gael and Labour, unless FG can scrape over the line to form a single party government (it looks like they'll be a few seats short) or Labour decide to let them form a minority government.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review of Miami Blues by Charles Willeford (No Exit Press, 1984)

Psychotic Freddie Frenger Jr has just got out prison in California. Wanting a new life he mugs three men, takes their money and credit cards and heads to Miami. In the airport he’s approached by a Hari Krishna who won’t take no for answer. Freddie’s solution is to break his middle finger, not expecting the man to die of shock. Sergeant Hoke Moseley is assigned to the case, unsure whether this is an accidental death, manslaughter or murder one. Moseley’s life is in a hole: he’s living in a down-at-heel motel and most of his salary going on alimony payments. In a twist of fate Frenger has hooked up with Susan Waggoner, a simple-minded young woman who is working as a prostitute in a hotel, and happens to be the dead Krishna’s brother. Hoke breaks the news to Susan and Frenger, quickly picking up on the fact that Frenger is an ex-con. Where Hoke sees potential trouble, Frenger sees an opportunity. A gun and a badge will give him free license to get people to do what he wants; and what he wants is for Susan to be his common-in-law wife and for him to prowl the mall and prey on pickpockets and drug dealers. All he needs to do is turnover Hoke and relieve him of his gun, badge and handcuffs. When Hoke wakes up in a hospital with his jaw wired shut, he suspects Frenger, but he’s no evidence. Moreover he’s on sick leave and he’s been told to stay away from duty. But such inconveniences never keep a good cop down.

Miami Blues is the first of four Hoke Moseley novels. It was made into a movie in 1990. In many ways, Willeford was the forerunner for the comic noir set of Sunshine State novels by the likes of Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Tim Dorsey, Victor Gischler, Randy Wade White, James Hall, Laurence Shames. The novel was darkly amusing, without being laugh out loud funny and in many ways the novel kind of aimlessly unfolds, lacking in a strong narrative drive. The plot is rather straightforward, and I was expecting a few more twists and turns. Certainly much more could have been done with the resolution. The characterisation is good, with the relationship between Frengler and Susan nicely explored, though Hoke seemed a little underdeveloped. Overall, an enjoyable enough read. I’ve heard that it’s the weakest of the Hoke novels, so I’ll probably give the others a go at some point.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

'I loved my mother so much, that I have killed her'

Sometimes a sentence makes you do a double take. As with the quote above written in a war-time diary by a young half-Jewess. It's detailed in Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-1945, a fascinating account of the lives of Berliners from all walks of life during the conflict. The quote is from a chapter dealing with the deportation of 55,696 jews from the city between 1st October 1941 and the end of the war in 1945. In addition to this, it is estimated that 10% of those that received deportation notices committed suicide, whilst other sought escape by flight or hiding. In the case of the quote, it was an assisted suicide by poison. From early on in the deportation process rumours were circulating about the fate of those being 're-located' and some decided to take their own or their loved ones lives rather than face a brutal future ending in them having their lives taken through starvation, beatings, shootings and gassings. People and the societies we create never cease to amaze me.

'I loved my mother so much, that I have killed her.' And it was an act of love. What a messed up world.

Patti over at Pattinase has a flash fiction challenge running based on an overheard line: 'I don't really mind the scars.' 'I loved my mother so much, that I have killed her,' would probably produce a set of interesting stories.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review of Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2011)

Rachel Coulter, an ex-drug addict, has fled with her two young children. Her ex-husband, Richard Coulter, the multi-millionaire owner of Northern Ireland’s low-cost airline, wants them found and he’s willing to pay a handsome fee. Coulter has turned to fixer Michael Forsythe who recommends Killian, a Pavee Traveller, who specialises in finding people and fixing problems. Having retired and sunk his nest egg into the Northern Ireland property market that has since crashed, Killian is persuaded to take on the case. He soon has Rachel in his sights, but it seems that she has taken more than the children, something that is likely to turn Killian against his employers. And so a second hunter, a former Russian soldier, is sent to edge Killian out of the picture and retrieve the daughters. Thus a deadly cat and mouse chase ensues.

The real strength of an Adrian McKinty book is the quality of the writing. His prose and dialogue are excellent and the stories are well told. Falling Glass is a straight thriller, with a relatively uncomplicated plot lacking in major twists or turns, and a small group of core characters. Killian, Rachel, Coulter and Markov are all interesting characters, but for me they were lacking a little in depth. In contrast, the two young daughters were more ‘alive’ and resonant. The start is excellent and the story is engaging, with some very good scenes in places, but I had difficulty believing both the first escape scene and the final confrontations. Whilst the story is entertaining, to this reader it was not quite as good as his other books I’ve read. I guess this is the problem if you set the bar so damn high. Still good stuff mind, just not quite flying at the same altitude as Dead I May Well Be or Fifty Grand. Overall, a straight up and down thriller, with some very nice prose, that’s an entertaining read.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winter's Bone: Book and Movie

I reviewed Dan Woodrell's Winter's Bone in 2009. It was one of my reads of the year. At the time I wrote:

Winter’s Bone is a powerful tale, exquisitely told. Woodrell expertly immerses the reader in the rural, clannish society of the Ozarks, creating a multi-textured sense of place populated by authentic familial and social relations. And immersion is the right word; one doesn’t simply read a description of Ree’s world, one is plunged into it, living it with her, experiencing all her anxieties and frustrations. The characterization is excellent and Ree and her close and extended family are full, complex characters which radiate emotional depth and whose interactions and dialogue resonate true. Whilst the story is sombre and bleak, it also has hope, and it quickly hooks the reader in, with the narrative taut and tense, and the prose beautiful and lyrical. Indeed, one of the strengths of Woodrell’s writing is that it is so rich and yet so economical.

I quickly went off and purchased two more of Woodrell's books - The Ones You Do and Tomato Red.

At the weekend I rented Winter's Bone from the local DVD store. I'm a bit wary of watching film adaptations of books I've read because the movie invariably has a weaker narrative or the screenwriter/director has made a vague pastiche of the book changing the storyline in all kinds of ways (see my comparison of the book/movie The Ice Harvest). The film version of Winter's Bone is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. Even the style of storytelling seems to echo Woodrell's writing style. There was no attempt to jazz the film up with unnecessary violence or shoot-outs or over the top melodrama; this was crime drama with a small c, told in an under-stated, matter of fact way, concentrating on familial networks and social norms, and everyday rural life teetering on the edge. And it was compelling viewing, as the book was compelling reading. The movie has been shortlisted for four Oscars, including best film. Whether it'll manage to compete with the hype of the other contenders, I'm not sure, but I hope it's in the mix. The movie trailer can be watched here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer (Harper, 2005)

Vienna, 1966, and Brano Oleksy Sev wakes with temporary amnesia. It’s the height of the Cold War, he’s the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and one of his countrymen is dead, seemingly at his own hands. By nightfall he is on a plane back to his home country where the only thing saving him from the firing squad is his mentor Colonel Cerny. After a couple of harrowing weeks of interrogation, Sev is discharged from the intelligence services to work in factory. Six months later and he is sent to his home village to keep an eye on a defector who has returned to collect his family. Sev is then framed for murder for a second time. This time he doesn’t wait for the inevitable inquiry, fleeing with the family, first entering Hungary, then slipping over the border into Austria. There he is picked up by the Austrian intelligence service and sent to spy on recent immigrants and to keep an eye on a US funded group who want to ferment a popular uprising in his home country. Sev knows intuitively he’s a pawn in a much bigger game being played out, but its rules seem to elide him. Instead he concentrates on the one thing he’s sure about – the need to stay alive.

One ingredient of a good spy thriller is a sense of mystery, with the reader and the main protagonist not really sure quite what is happening. Steinhauer manages to maintain this uncertainty to the end of The Vienna Assignment. Just as you think you’ve got a handle on what is happening and why, the mirrors are shifted and a new view appears. The prose is mostly quite functional, but the plotting is carefully constructed, the shifting ground and mind games well framed and paced, tempting the reader along. The characterization is for the most part good, with Sev in particular a well-penned character, with depth, layers and rich back story. The Cold War sense of place in Vienna is well portrayed and contextualised. My big gripe is that Sev’s home country, in which a large portion of the book takes place, is unnamed and is therefore a bit ephemeral. I’m not really sure why. It makes for an odd balance, where the history and places of Austria and Hungary are a central component, but they are opposed by a generic Iron Curtain country lacking in context. Overall, a solid spy thriller with an interesting protagonist and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until near the end.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

A slow, lazy weekend. We planted 20 odd trees - a mix of oak, beech, alder, birch and ash. Watched Winter's Bone. Played with the dogs. Completed Charles Willeford's Miami Blues. And finished the penultimate chapter of Good Cop/Bad Cop. I'm now trying to decide whether to read through the whole book before writing the final chapter or just to plough on ahead. My plan for the week ahead is to try and catch up on my reviewing. Expect reviews of The Vienna Assignment by Olen Steinhauer, Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty, and Miami Blues by Charles Willeford. I also need to get my act together and write a short 800 piece for Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge 'Scarry night.' Check out the details and join in.

My posts this week
A Choice Award
Consultation launched on Joint Spatial Strategies Collaborative Framework
Review of Field Grey by Philip Kerr
Review of Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird
Dangerous and developer abandoned estates
Rockford Files

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rockford Files

The Rockford Files seemed to be on the TV endlessly when I was a kid. James Garner played PI Jim Rockford who lived in a trailer, had difficulty extracting payment from clients, and always managed to solve the case usually with the help of his father or cop friend, even if there didn't appear to be a case to be solved. For some reason the local football team where I grew up, Tranmere Rovers, run onto the pitch to the theme tune. Anyway, I was reminded of the programme and the theme tune by a reference in Charles Willeford's Miami Blues that made me smile. Two cops are explaining to a father that his son died of shock when his finger was broken.

"What I was telling Sergeant Henderson here is that I suspect foul play."

"What kind of foul play?"

"That was no accident that killed Martin. That was murder."

"If so, it's the first of a kind."

"Let him finish," Henderson said. "There's more."

"That's the best kind," Mr Waggoner continued, "the kind that looks like an accident but really it ain't. I've seen it on the 'The Rockford Files' more than once, and if it wasn't for Jim Rockford, a lot of people'd get away with it, too."

That pesky PI - always putting his nose in where it's not wanted.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review of Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird

Until recently I almost exclusively read crime fiction through novels. In the last year or so, as I’ve started to dabble in writing short stories myself, I’ve discovered the short story format, especially flash fiction. And in so doing I’ve found some great writers who mostly specialize in the craft of telling perfectly formed little snippets of life, including Paul Brazill, Patti Abbott, Kieran Shea, John Mantooth and Nigel Bird. So it was great to see that Nigel Bird had collected together nine of his short stories (Drinking Wine (Spo-Dee-Oh-Dee); Taking a Line for a Walk; Dirty Old Town; Sea Minor; Sisterhood; One Hundred And Ten Per Cent; Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight); Three Little Birds; and Silver Street) and bundled them into Dirty Old Town. Some of the stories have been published in The Reader Magazine, A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp, Title Fights, Static Movement and Dark Valentine.

What I like about the stories is twofold. First, how they are told – they’re conversational; like verbal storytelling captured on the page. As a result, they’re very engaging. Second, the humanity in the penning of characters. Bird doesn’t judge his characters – they are who they are: real people living ordinary lives, dealing with the crises that disrupt their hopes and ambitions. Each story is short and sweet, most with a nice wicked twist at the end. The blurb accompanying the collection says that the stories will stay with you for a while. A couple of them have certainly been rattling round my head for a few days. I did have one complaint, however – I wanted more of them! A nice collection and a taster of Bird’s storytelling. Hopefully more is on the way. You can pick up a copy via Amazon (UK or US) or Smashwords. At 71 pence or 99 cent you certainly get your money's worth!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review of Field Grey by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2010)

1954 and Bernie Gunther, ex-Kripo detective, reluctant SS member and wanted war criminal is in Cuba. Feeling increasingly vulnerable he decides to escape by boat to Haiti. Only fate plays a poor hand and he’s intercepted by the US Navy and, after time in Guantanamo prison, he’s passed onto US intelligence. From New York he’s flown back to Berlin and exhaustively interviewed concerning his war time activities in France and Russia. The record shows that Bernie has performed some horrendous atrocities, and it’s true that his history is far from saintly, but putting the record straight is no simple matter when some of his former comrades are prepared to put his neck in a noose to save their own. Ultimately he is given a choice: help French intelligence identify a wanted war criminal or go on trial and face the consequences. Always the prickly pragmatist, Bernie once again becomes the pawn in a larger game, as his past catches up and threatens to overwhelm him.

Field Grey is the seventh Bernie Gunther novel. In my view it’s one of the best crime series presently being written. The last book – If the Dead Rise Not – was probably the weakest book in the series (despite winning the CWA Ellis Peters award for historical crime fiction), but Field Grey is a real return to form. In fact, I think it’s the strongest of the seven. It is a big book linking together parts of Bernie’s life between 1931 and 1954 and a connected set of events and actors in Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia. As usual, Kerr manages to blend in many well-known real life characters and events, and this book focuses in particular on Erich Mielke, a communist who murdered two policemen in 1931 and later became head of the Stasi in post-war East Germany. The plotting is intricate, with the flashbacks skilfully interwoven with the 1954 narrative, and dotted with insightful observations and history. The pacing is well judged, the characterization excellent, the dialogue and action credible and engaging, and the balance between show and tell just right. A very entertaining read. It is going to take a very good book to knock this off the top of the best read of 2011 list.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Choice Award

Got some interesting news in the last couple of days. The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, for which I was Editor-in-Chief, has been awarded a 'CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title 2010' award in the Social and Behavioural Sciences category. There were 7,000+ entrants across all categories. I think this is the first time any of my publications has actually won anything, so I'm happy with that. Of course, all I did was manage the other editors and authors, and edit entries myself, so it was a large team effort - so this is really shared across all 844 contributors. I don't think there's any prize as such, so it's the recognition being shared before anyone asks me for their 844th! Back to a review tomorrow, hopefully.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

The nice people at Serpent's Tail have sent me an ARC of Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty, which is released early March. I've only read the prologue so far, but it's a great start. The scene is an Irish man in a so-called Irish bar in New York giving out about the shoddy, hyperreal nature of the bar. The dialogue is spot-on.

"My point, friend, is that this is not an affectionate homage. This is not an interior critique. This is not Jay-Z using, what I advisedly call, the N-word. This is a collection of cliches that actually undermines what it is supposed to be celebrating. This whole ethos is a paradigm in need of shifting. And the fact that is generated by people, no offence, with only a tangential connection to the ur-source of that culture makes it all the more embarrassing."

The barman nodded. "So do you want another pint then? One without a shamrock on its head?"

And it roles from there. Great stuff.

My posts this week:
Review of The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
What we do or what others think we are?
Three stories: zonings, permissions and enforcement
Review of The Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose
Radio work
Review of The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
Stories fade to haiku

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stories fade to haiku

There's a nice passage in Olen Steinhauer's The Vienna Assignment about immigrant stories, which really applies to all stories. Bruno, the central character is in a Vienna bar that is the second home to immigrants who have escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. The bar woman is explaining to him how their stories mutate over time, becoming more and more condensed, and stripped of raw emotion. What I find interesting, having listened to some people's stories and ancedotes several times, is that as long story or haiku the storyteller will no doubt have managed to convey the essence of the journey; that the short story is no less powerful than the full blown account. And that's a styling question crime authors need to make: where on the spectrum from full account to haiku they want to settle? For me, I prefer show over tell; sparse and tight over lengthy description. Steinhauer himself gets the balance just about right; neither overly long nor haiku.

'Ask anyone around here for their story. Ask what happened to them. If they just arrived, you'll find that their story goes on for a long time, with details on top of details, and you can watch them get upset - I mean, visibly - as they tell it to you. Ask someone who's been here a few years, and they'll have it condensed down to a sentence, maybe two, and that's it.'


'It's inevitable,' she said, then put out her cigarette. 'Over here, your past is just a story. It gets smaller with time, until it's just a haiku. Until it's got no more emotion in it.'

'Until it's cold.'

'Until your past can't touch you any more,' said Monika. 'Watch out you don't turn cold, too.'

Rather than wait for cold exiles to fill up the bar, Bruno returned home.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review of The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips (Picador, 2000)

Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, and Charlie Arglist is tying up loose ends and silently saying goodbye to people before he skips town with his accomplice, Vic Cavanaugh, and a couple of million dollars of the Mob’s money. His journey starts in the Midtown Tap Bar before heading to the Sweet Cage and a rendezvous with femme fatale, Renata. What Renata wants for Christmas is for guys to slip out of their family homes and head for her strip joint and Arglist to steal a photo from a rival for her. On the promise of seeing Renata minus business suit, Arglist promises to retrieve the snap. Generosity is not usually in Charlie’s character, and it’s his first such act of an evening that sees him travelling round Wichita’s underbelly, cloaked in nostalgia, and sliding from one incident to another as his treachery threatens to catch up with him and prevent him leaving.

Donna Moore over at Big Beat from Badsville defines noir thus: “Noir fiction has our protagonist spiralling down into the pit of despair, thrown there by a mocking Fate, who then stands at the edge of the pit shovelling dirt onto the head of the protagonist until he is half-buried. Fate then throws the shovel down into the pit and the hapless protag reaches out for that glimmer of hope, only for it to whack him on the head.” The Ice Harvest is noir writ large as Charlie Arglist wanders round Wichita in nostalgic mood for a life and place he has little fondness for. Reluctant to leave, Arglist can’t help finding excuses to delay, becoming ever more drawn into a complex web of double crosses. As the night wears on, it becomes a case of whether he’ll get out town at all, let alone with the money. The Ice Harvest is an entertaining read, threaded through with dark humour. The plotting is nicely worked, though there’s one or two slight wobbles, and the characterization is solid. For my money the end seemed a little rushed, and the story needed a little fleshing out in places, but all-in-all a fine slice of noir writing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Radio work

A long day, down to Galway and back, taking part in a radio debate on unfinished estates and what to do with them on Today FM, one of the national radio stations in Ireland (if you want to listen then click here - it's Matt Cooper, The Last Word, the middle file about halfway through; it'll be up for 5 days). Unusually they gave it a long, 45 minute slot - one of their election issue features. Interesting to do. Myself, a retired teacher, a person living on a ghost estate, and four politicans running for election. Interestingly, my slot was followed by one with Declan Burke, who is the movie reviewer for the station. So two Irish crime writers were on for the best part of an hour and neither to talk about crime fiction, though to be fair Declan managed to drop some into his segment chatting about True Grit and westerns. He's an amazingly erudite and knowledgeable speaker. He'd be a good author to go and listen to giving a reading and to hear discussing his work and crime fiction in general. Back to a review tomorrow - Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review of Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose (Pocket Books, 2001)

Stephen Ambrose has spent most of his life collecting the stories of servicemen and women who fought or were otherwise wrapped up in the conflict of World War Two. I’ve read a couple of his other books and they were interesting without being outstanding. He’s probably most famous for Band of Brothers, subsequently made into a successful TV series. Wild Blue’s subtitle is ‘The Men and Boys Who Flew The B-24s Over Germany’. It should really be called ‘A Gushing Biography of George McGovern’s Early Life.’

From the back cover I thought I would be getting the story of the 741 Squadron and, in particular, the crew of the Dakota Queen. What you actually get is the story of George McGovern from early days through his training and onto the end of the Second World War. Very little time is spent with any of the other crewmen or the wider 741 Squadron. This is very much the war as experienced by McGovern and the reader joins the squadron when McGovern does in September 1944, at the tail end of the war. If you skip the author’s note, as I did, then it’s a long way into the book before we discover why the focus is on McGovern. It turns out that he ran for President in 1972 on the Democrat ticket losing in a landslide to Nixon. I was two at the time and given I live in Ireland I’m not up on my US political history. What this meant was the book was very badly imbalanced and somewhat misleading. I wanted to know the wider history of the 741 Squadron and the diverse lives and experiences of people who flew with it. What I got was McGovern and some general context. And it’s hardly non-biased stuff. As Ambrose says in the author’s note: ‘I have been a friend and supporter of George McGovern for nearly three decades’. If you want to know about McGovern’s early life then this is your book; if you want a more rounded biographical history of the air war over Europe then look elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What we do or what others think we are?

There's a nice passage in Philip Kerr's Field Grey where Bernie Gunther - a man with a mixed past, vehemently anti-Nazi but with blood on his hands - that discusses his position in the world as he sees it. Basically, it asks us to think about our identity - are we the sum of what we do, or is it more important how others view us, regardless of what we do? And how does that shape our psychology and how we act in the world?

'A man doesn't work for his enemies unless he has little choice in the matter. Or no choice at all. I'm just a cheap paperknife. People pick me up when they need to open an envelope and then they put me down again. I don't have any say in the matter. As far back as I can remember that's all I've been when I thought I was more than that. The truth is that we're just what we've done and what we do, and not what we ever want to be.'

'You're wrong,' she said. 'It doesn't matter what we've done or what we do. What matters is what others think we are. If you're looking for meaning then here it is. Let me supply that to you. You'll always be a good man, Gunther. In my brown eyes you'll always be the man who was there for me, when I needed someone to be there. Maybe that's all any of us need.'

So - Are we what we've done and what we do? Or does what matter what others think we are?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review of The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 1999)

For the past century or so and uneasy truce has existed between dwarves, vampires, trolls and werewolves in Uberwald, a large part of the discworld that is slowly modernising. Now a political plot is unfolding that threatens to destabilise the pact. Commander Sam Vimes, head of the Watch in Ankh-Morpork, has been dispatched to maintain diplomatic relations and attend the coronation of the Low King. He’s accompanied by assassin aide, and Cheery Littlebottom and Detritus, a dwarf and troll who have moved to the city and rebelled against the social conventions of their homeland. Diplomacy was never one of Vimes’ strong points and it’s not long before he is up to his neck in intrigue, theft and murder that threatens to destabilise the whole region. It soon becomes a race against time to foil the plot before all hell breaks loose.

It’s pretty difficult to write a summary of a Pratchett book and to sell the idea of the Discworld novels to those not interested in the comic fantasy genre. Once you try them though they are quite compulsive, which is why for a number of years Terry Pratchett was Britain’s best-selling author (he sold the most number of books of any author for the 1990s) with a reader base from 8 to 80 plus. At its heart, The Fifth Elephant is a political thriller meets police procedural. As usual, the characterization is excellent; Pratchett manages to create clearly defined characters with full personalities in just a few words. It took me a little while to get into the story, as the various characters and plotlines are moved into position and set up – and there are a lot of characters running through a number of threads – but after the initial phase, the book hurtles along with plenty of action and intrigue. The story is well plotted and Pratchett effortlessly ties all the threads together. After a slow start, as usual, a very entertaining read. Perhaps not the best of the Commander Vimes books, and perhaps not a one to start with (given most of the characters are first introduced in early books), but if you want a police story with a difference, this is one to try.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I've just finished Field Grey by Philip Kerr. It's a while since I've been really down on finishing a book. I was a little disappointed with the last book in the series, If The Dead Rise Not, but Field Grey is absolutely first rate from beginning to end. And now I've turned the last page I'm a little lost. I need the next installment, right now. Definitely one of the best crime series going. It's going to be a very good book that knocks this off the top of my best book of the year slot. Review to follow shortly. Speaking of which, I did a little catching up yesterday and drafted three reviews, which I'll post this week. Now back to crafting my own work in progress.

My postings this week:
The Ice Harvest - book and movie
January reviews
Interactive socio-economic mapping of all 43 constituencies
Future housing supply in Ireland
Mapping for the election
Manifesto? What manifesto? Housing? Planning? Nah, forget those.
King Canute: Short story

Saturday, February 5, 2011

King Canute

Dave is in a jam. Three local thugs have invited themselves into his house. They're after something, but first they want to watch a movie. King Canute, one of my flash fiction pieces, has been published over at Powder Burn Flash. Go check it out. My first short story of the year. Hopefully more to follow at some point.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mapping for the election

It's election time in Ireland. Polling day is 25th February. Over the past few weeks we've been working on a new mapping system to help candidates and political parties formulate local policy and better understand their constituencies. The interactive mapping modules allows election candidates to quickly analyse data for all 43 constituencies relating to potential voters; population demographics; socio-economic status; deprivation indexes; economic status; housing; transport; social class; marital status; religion; industry; households; and education. Separate mapping modules allow unemployment data to be mapped at social welfare office level, and to map unfinished housing estates, planning permissions and housing development.

On Monday we released the system as part of our AIRO project - All-Island Research Observatory. The press release went out this morning and I'm going to be on Drivetime, RTE Radio 1 this evening to talk about it. Unfortunately to use the system you need to be working in the public/community sector in Ireland, but hopefully it'll be helpful to those who use it. Heaven knows we need evidence-informed decision making in Ireland!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

January reviews

January didn't feel like a great month of reading. Nothing totally blew my socks off, but The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson was superior fare and was my read of the month. And Peeler by Kevin McCarthy gets a notable mention as a good, solid, entertaining read. I actually read three other books during the month, but I've been slow to right up the reviews due to general busyness.

Black Diamond by Martin Walker **.5
Tilt-a-Whirl by Chris Grabenstein ****
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson ****.5
Gun Monkeys
by Victor Gischler ***
Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee ***
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson ***.5
Peeler by Kevin McCarthy ****