Wednesday, April 18, 2018

David Park's New Novel

my review of the new David Park novel in last weekend's Australian newspaper...

David Park’s Travelling In A Strange Land

A man called Tom is setting off on a journey in the dead of winter to bring his son back home again. The boy, Luke, has gotten sick while at the University of Sunderland – he’s not ill enough to go to the hospital, but he is feeling awful and he just wants to be looked after by his mum. The problem is that a freak blizzard has closed all the airports and made driving on the roads treacherous. Tom and his wife Lorna live on the Ards Peninsula in eastern Northern Ireland and getting to Sunderland will entail a ferry crossing from Belfast to Cairnryan and then a drive across Scotland and northern England. Tom, Lorna and their young daughter Lily help pack their trusty RAV4 full of food, water sleeping bags, a torch and in case he gets stranded, Lilly solemnly gives him her toy wig-wam tent. Tom waves drives away from the house, skids on the bend at the bottom of the road, nearly crashes right at the start but makes it to the Belfast docks.
            Thus begins Irish writer David Park’s tenth novel. Park writes in the lyrical, psychologically acute tradition of the late twentieth century masters of the Irish short story John McGahern and William Trevor but his style remains nimble and flexible enough so that discussions of Morrissey’s lyrics, Brexit shenanigans and the Marvel Cinematic Universe do not seem out of place. Park, born in 1954, is a near contemporary of Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry but unlike those two Dublin based novelists, Park flew largely under the radar as an English teacher in Belfast until the publication of The Truth Commissioner (2008) which found him a whole new audience. The Truth Commissioner was a masterful exploration of what life was like in post-conflict Ulster, as the province, ten years removed from Troubles, struggled with a kind of collective post traumatic stress disorder.
            Travelling In A Strange Land also deals with some aspects of the city’s recovery from three decades of low level civil war (there is a flashback to Tom dealing with a vicious paramilitary who is bothering his primary school teacher wife) but Park is more invested in delving deep into Tom’s personality and his relations with his family, all of which become manifest as the book progresses.
            Park flits skillfully between the present drive through Scotland, Tom’s recollections of his past and dialogues that Tom has with his Lorna, Lilly, his ailing son Luke and his enigmatic lost son Daniel. Tom is a photographer and he has a bold visual painter’s eye for landscape and place. He imagines himself like one of “Brueghel’s trudging hunters who return from foraging for food in the wilderness” to an indifferent village who “don’t rush to greet them or understand anything of what they have endured.”
            Like the Hunters in the Snow, Tom does endure physical hardship on the journey across Scotland, helping out the victim of a nasty car accident but Park is more fascinated, like the German poet Novalis (also a Brueghel devotee), in the inward journey which is “The Way full of mystery.”
            Tom paints himself as an ordinary bloke in an ordinary middle class job taking photographs of school kids and newly-weds but in fact he’s a man who “has come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: you don’t make a photograph just with a camera, but [with] all that you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
            Nowhere in Europe or possibly the world has the Christian religion failed as spectacularly as Ireland with its history of abuse, blood feud and the toxic ‘Narcissism of the Small Differences’ between different sects; Tom like many disaffected Irish people has carved out an intriguing personal mythology that bespeaks an older religion vested in totemic places in the land. Tom imagines himself in Belfast’s hidden river, the Farset, (the origin of the city's name - Béal Feirste) which has long been culverted over and flows now like the Styx under the feet of the living and the dead. In Tom’s mind we visit Ulster’s ancient holy places, the Giant’s Causeway, The Dark Hedges and when Tom’s troubled eldest son Daniel disappears from home Tom seeks him out in Belfast’s facetiously named Holy Land: Jerusalem Street, Palestine Street, Damascus Street, Carmel Street. Tom eventually finds Daniel, like his Biblical namesake, fallen among the Babylonians, where he fares rather worse than the dream weaver of King Nebuchadnezzar.
            The Old Testament Daniel is saved from the lions by an Angel of the Lord and as we travel east with Tom towards the sunrise we realise that his secret destination is Antony Gormley’s massive steel statue The Angel of the North just outside of Sunderland.
            “What is the purpose of this journey?” Tom asks himself on page one and by the end we know that the journey has two purposes: to rescue his ailing younger son and to seek to lay to rest his guilt over how he somehow lost the prodigal older boy.
            Like the extraordinary 2013 Stephen Knight film Locke the action in Travelling takes place almost entirely in a car in the protagonist’s own head and yet this is somehow a visually arresting, gripping and completely compelling novel from one of Ireland best contemporary writers.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Cold Cold Ground in Japan

The Cold Cold Ground, a "parochial story about grim, grey 80s Belfast with only limited cult appeal" (a direct quote from an anonymous publishers reader's report) gets translated into its 14th language - Japanese - and is published in Japan today:

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

My Favourite Swimming Books

These are some of my favourite books about swimming, swimmers and the writers who have reflected on swimming. 

Find A Way - Diana Nyad. Diana Nyad's life and what inspired her to try - again - to swim from Havana to Key West and succeed this time at the age of 64. Diana Nyad is one of my heroes. 

Waterlog - Roger Deakin. The eccentric Englishman's attempt to swim wild (in rivers, canals, loughs, lakes & seas) all over Britain. A classic of the genre. This book has serious longevity and a growing number of cult fans. I saw a German man reading it on a bus near Alice Springs a thousand miles from the nearest bit of Ocean. 

Hell And High Water - Sean Conway. An unemployed man living with his mum decides to swim nearly 1000 miles (in stages) from Land's End to John O'Groats and raise money for the charity War Child. 

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero - Charles Sprawson. The best look at swimming through literature and attempting literary swims (the Hellespont, The Grand Canal etc.) Everyone should read this book even if they don't actually swim or like swimming because it's just so well written.  

Swimming to Antarctica - Lynne Cox. Maybe the greatest long distance swimmer of all time the amazing Lynne Cox recounts her adventures all over the world including, of course, swimming to Antrarctica. 

The Man Who Swam The Amazon - Martin Strehl. Another ordinary bloke who decided one day to swim the Amazon River. Why? Cause no one else had done it, of course. 

Swim: Why We Love The Water - Lynn Sher. Does what it says on the tin. A lovely book to have if you liked Sprawson's Black Masseur and want some more in a similar vein. Well researched and fun. 

The Swimmer - John Cheever. A classic. No point in buying this though. One of my alma maters (can you have more than one mater?) has put it online for nothing, here. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

All The Books In The Duffyverse (updated)

...I've figured out a way of tying in Fifty Grand to the Duffyverse in The Detective Up late so this is now the complete list of the Duffyverse books. However I'm more convinced than ever that the Alexander Lawson of Hidden River exists in not quite the same universe as the Alexander Lawson of the Sean Duffy novels, maybe one universe over...All the rest works fine. And yes Michael Forsythe and Killian will be appearing in the final trilogy...

Monday, March 26, 2018

5 reasons to read....Angie Thomas's The Hate U GIve

Angie Thomas's powerful YA novel The Hate U Give has just won the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize - your correspondent ahead of the curve comme d'habitude...

Thursday, March 15, 2018

More Info On The Final 3 Sean Duffy Novels

so as I said a couple of weeks ago Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly will definitely not be the last Sean Duffy novel. I've announced a new deal with Blackstone Books for a final Duffy trilogy. Here are some more details...(all the titles of course are Tom Waits songs)
Sean Duffy 7 will be called The Detective Up Late. Sean Duffy and the crew have to investigate a missing person's case that involves some very scary people. Around the station they're calling it "Duffy's last case" but untangling that particular thread threatens to unravel their whole world. 

Sean Duffy 8 will be called Hang On St Christopher. Duffy serving out his days as a part time copper is called up to look into a 'simple' murder investigation while Detective Sergeant Lawson is on holiday. A portrait painter's car has been hijacked and he is shot dead in the attempt. Unfortunately for Duffy there was more to the painter than meets the eye and this is a far more dangerous and terrifying case than a simple carjacking gone wrong. 

Sean Duffy 9 will be called The Ghosts of Saturday Night and deals with what happens as a result of the 90's Peace Process in Belfast when 300 murderers are released back into the general population many with old scores to settle and some bizarre new ideas to implement. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin

My review of Dervla McTiernan's The Ruin from last weekend's Australian newspaper
A winter’s night in the far west of Ireland in 1993. A trainee Garda officer, Cormac Reilly, is driving through the rain between the bog and the mountains. Something has happened at Dower House, a derelict Georgian mansion in the hamlet of Kilmore.
When Reilly arrives at the property he finds Maude Blake, a near-starving, wide-eyed 15-year-old, and Jack, her bruised and battered five-year-old brother. The girl points upstairs, where Reilly finds the children’s drunken, emaciated mother, Hilaria, with a heroin needle sticking out of her arm.
For Reilly it’s a gothic, distressing scene but the case seems straightforward enough: the Blakes were a dissipated Anglo-Irish family on the decline and Hilaria’s death was clearly only a matter of time. Two things then happen that complicate the story: the medical examiner says that Hilaria had never taken heroin before the fatal overdose and, shortly after this, Maude Blake completely vanishes.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan.
Twenty years later, in Galway, Jack Blake is engaged to a brilliant young doctor, Aisling, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The day he hears this news he goes out for a walk and does not come back. Reilly, meanwhile, after a high-flying career in the anti-terrorism taskforce, has moved back to Galway town to further his wife’s career as a research scientist.
Reilly is not exactly thrilled to be working in the cold-case basement but when the 20-year-old case of Hilaria Blake is dumped on his desk he wonders if this is more than a ­coincidence.
This is the arresting opening to Dervla McTiernan’s assured debut novel, The Ruin. A lawyer from Galway, McTiernan moved to Western Australia following the global financial crisis of 2008.
As The Ruin progresses, we follow Reilly and Aisling’s dovetailing quest for truth. When Jack’s long-lost sister returns from Australia to find out what happened to her brother, all narrative gears are set in motion.
I like the vibe McTiernan creates of a small-town police headquarters with its dank offices and “slurping foul-smelling pot noodles­” and I like Reilly’s pal, the dodgy Danny McIntyre, who is a copper on the rise. McTiernan joins such contemporary masters­ of the Garda police procedural as Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway, Anthony Quinn and Arlene Hunt, with a polished and original story that also draws on the hidden secrets storylines of such writers as Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy. Her dialogue and milieu are authentic and I found no examples of cop talk catachresis.
The Ruin delves deep into the police troika of sins: corruption, laziness and bigotry. But McTiernan also has something to say about the changes that have taken place in Ireland over the past 20 years.
She writes about the seemingly endless wave of scandals that hit the Catholic Church of Ireland in this period, particularly ones ­involving the abuse of children. As mentioned, McTiernan is a lawyer and a text that is mentioned several times in The Ru in is the Irish constitution, which is not as alarming as it sounds.
Ireland’s original constitution begins: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ ...”
You get the picture. For 70 years after it won independence, Ireland was a quasi-theocracy with whole areas of civic life devolved to the church. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but no one seemed to notice this until the dam began to break in the mid-1990s.
Into this heady mix McTiernan also has time to skilfully unpack Maude and Aisling’s grief and to give us an acute psychological portrait of Reilly, a policeman who worries that his career might just have peaked.
McTiernan’s writing style is best described as workmanlike. There are few opportunities for wit in this dark story but this is Ireland, so there is still time for the occasional piss-take.
Stephen King teaches young writers that their prose mustn’t become distracting, that what is important about a novel are the characters and the story. This is good advice but perhaps you can take a little too much of the medicine. I don’t see anything wrong with ­allowing your prose to breathe a bit and let some of your personality leak out, even in a police procedural. This goes doubly for a writer from the land of saints, scribes and scholars.
Still, The Ruin is a breezily confident debut and promises a bright future for this new Irish-Australian talent.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the award-winning Sean Duffy crime novels.
The Ruin
By Dervla McTiernan
HarperCollins, 400pp, $32.99

Monday, March 5, 2018

The 50th Anniversary of Electric Sheep

my piece from last weekend's Irish Times on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep...
March 2018 marks the 36th anniversary of the death of science fiction writer Philip K Dick whose most iconic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was finished fifty years ago this spring. All of Philip K Dick’s novels are back in print, there is a current Amazon TV series (Electric Dreams) based on Dick’s writings, this Sunday Blade Runner 2049 (the sequel to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s Electric Sheep) will almost certainly win the Academy Award for best cinematography and there are at least a dozen TV and movie adaptations of Dick’s works in the pipeline. Add to that the number of knock off PKD movie and TV adaptations out there (*cough* Black Mirror) and it’s obvious that we are living in a Philip K Dick saturated world. This is a pretty amazing turn around for a writer who died broke and in near obscurity (his hasty obituary in the New York Times was a scant three paragraphs long and riddled with errors).
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written during the period 1966-1968, probably the two most turbulent years America has experienced since World War II. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, counter-culture, scandals and the Cold War were the context for Dick to write a book which is basically a pretty straightforward detective story set in a nightmare future. The McGuffins are different but we’re in the same world as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler: missing people, a shot partner, a femme fatale, trouble with the local cops and a bleak cynical universe from which no hope is expected and none is given. Perhaps it’s not even that big of a coincidence that when the movie version of Electric Sheep was filmed – as Blade Runner – the cameras rolled on the same set where they shot the Maltese Falcon forty years earlier.
The plot of Electric Sheep is complex but basically we follow the story of detective Rick Deckard in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco as he tracks down runaway androids (who as slaves are forbidden to come back to Earth from the off world colonies), deals with his Virtual Reality-addicted wife, and keeps up the pretence that his electric sheep is in fact real. The latter storyline is the most interesting thematic element of the novel. After World War Terminus, real animals are rare and caring for and protecting any kind of a real creature gives one incredible status. For someone with low self esteem in a job he hates, Deckard hopes to fool everyone, including ultimately himself, about the sheep; perhaps if he pretends hard enough that his sheep is real and that he is a decent man these things might actually come true. The eco disaster theme was largely dropped from Blade Runner but was developed again in Blade Runner 2049.

Deckard meets up with the beautiful and deceitful Rachael, who turns out to be an android, and later in one fantastic scene he is taken to a police station where he either has a mental breakdown or else he sees the world for what it really is: everyone in this precinct appears to be an android – it’s the humans that are unusual and in this place it’s Deckard himself who is the fake like his sheep. Shaking off this strange vision he pursues the final runaways, becoming more disillusioned than ever as he realizes that cracking this case will bring not happiness but only further existential crises. Where is he going? What is he doing with his life? What are any of us doing with any of our lives? Like Sam Spade at the end of The Maltese Falcon Deckard has no solutions. He wonders what all of it means and comes up with nothing. Philip K Dick doesn’t give us any answers either except for the vague but possibly deep idea that the meaning of life is to be found in the search for the meaning of life. The best we can do is to strive for the truth, although we are constantly reminded to be wary, for falsity is everywhere: the Maltese Falcon is a fake, the electric sheep is a fake and Deckard himself is the biggest fake of all. This is an idea that Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 flirt with throughout both films.

Like his near contemporary Philip Larkin, Dick increasingly became obsessed by and wrote about death. Dick wondered what being alive really felt like and whether death would kill that state of consciousness; sometimes he believed that death was merely a transition between states and other times that it was the final destination. Perhaps he hoped it was the former but knew it was the latter. “I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said. Electric Sheep explores various aspects of dying and consciousness and asks if it is possible to be a good person whose job it is to track down and kill sentient creatures who just want to be left alone.

Dick’s death obsession began early. Born in Chicago in 1928, his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick died when he was only a few weeks old. All his life Dick felt Jane’s absence and her loss is frequently referenced in his fiction. Jane was buried in a lonely grave in the bleak Colorado plains town of Fort Morgan with, morbidly, a space left on the headstone for baby Phil. The grave awaited Dick for five decades and when he died in 1982 sure enough the twins were reunited in death. In middle age, after years of amphetamine abuse, Dick even flirted with the idea that in a parallel universe he was the one that had died and Jane had survived – he was already buried in the grim Fort Morgan cemetery, next to Interstate 76, and Jane was the science fiction writer living in California. (This idea was further developed in the playful novel Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff.)

In our universe, after Jane’s death, Dick and his family migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He went to the same high school as Ursula Le Guin and after a brief period at UC Berkeley he dropped out and quickly began selling science fiction stories to magazines and newspapers. Dick’s adult life was fragmented to say the least. He moved often, was married five times and even though he wrote constantly he was not good at keeping money. His default paranoia was exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, his dealings with local street thugs, and his anti-government activities during the Nixon era.

Many of Philip K Dick’s stories were written hastily under the influence of speed and are of dubious quality, but the books that he took trouble over – Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said – are all well-crafted novels often with a cop protagonist.

Dick’s final years were spent in an increasingly eccentric investigation of the true nature of God and the cosmos. In a March 02 1980 diary entry, Dick predicted that because he was close to uncovering the secrets of the universe, God would pull the plug on this version of Philip K Dick; two years later, on March 02 1982, the plug was literally pulled on a brain-dead Dick as he lay in a hospital after a stroke.

No one would argue that Dick was a great stylist or an inventor of an American idiom, like, say, Hammett, but he was the creator of brilliant concepts and visions that were uncannily ahead of their time. Philip K Dick’s paranoid world view distrustful of government, computers, purveyors of information and even our own inner view of reality seems radically in step with our contemporary world. Lovers of big concept science fiction will enjoy Dick’s better novels and will judge him not by his prose but by his gift for originality and his ability to convey extraordinarily prescient ideas in even more extraordinary worlds.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

5 reasons to read...Patrick O'Brian

my favourite historical novelist bar none...


Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Final Duffy Trilogy

The story broke on Publishers Weekly this morning (right) and I couldn't be happier about sharing the news with you here on the blog. The Edgar, Barry, Anthony, Audie, Barry and Ned Kelly Award winning Sean Duffy series will return for one final trilogy to be published by Blackstone Books. 
Book 7 will be called The Detective Up Late and will be out later this year.
Book 8 will be called Hang On St Christopher and will be out next year
Book 9 will be called The Ghosts of Saturday Night and will be out in 2020.

(Yes the titles are all Tom Waits songs (some more obscure than others)). This will be the end of the line for Detective Sean Duffy and his comrades in arms, so fingers crossed it's going to be all right...(I really have no idea if it will be or not if I'm honest.)
riot police at Carrickfergus of whom cd be our boy...