Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Murakami's 1Q84 and Hawkins' The Girl On The Train, via two books by undertakers

You can do yourself a psychological injury, I have decided, by being a tad too eclectic in book consumption. Promiscuity is all very well in any aspect of life, but you can be left a bit befuddled. And going from Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (Books One and Two; waiting for Part Three to arrive) to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, via two memoirs about the funeral trade: Robert Connolly’s Over Your Dead Body
and James Baker’s A Life in Death, has left me slightly discombobulated. One minute it’s timeshift parallel worlds in Japan with a vengeful assassin afflicted by leprechauns and classical music (Murakami), then you’re queasily learning about embalming techniques and how cremation will be displaced by dissolving bodies in strong alkali solutions. That’s for research purposes, honestly -
Baker’s book is a curiously happy, rather self-satisfied  memoir about undertaking in Stroud; Connolly is much more astringent and offers a brief history of death and how we deal with it. With some very funny personal memories covering similar ground to Baker (though in more lip-smackingly horrific detail). Nevertheless, Baker is better on embalming. Absolutely nothing seems to have upset him during a career which began with work experience aged 15...

Then I found myself attempting to read a discarded copy of Paula Hawkins’ 10-million-selling debut sensation The Girl on the Train. I got to page 182 before throwing it down in frustration. Both my wife and daughter had done the same thing. How such an obvious and clumsy reworking of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with an easily guessed ‘real murderer’ and seriously unconvincing, not to say unpleasant characters, could become so successful is really...oh, but the clue is in the criticism, or the critic. This isn’t pulp. It’s heavily sugared and spiced mush, served in a reassuringly familiar container, easily gulped or sucked through a thick straw, and not so much ingested as absorbed and then painlessly excreted. There’s going to be a movie, with Emily Blunt, set in the USA. Oh shit.

But 10 million copies? Why? Well, it’s banality pretending to complexity, wrapped in the blindingly obvious. That universal experience of seeing something inexplicable out of a train window, of wondering about the lives exposed as you gaze into other people’s houses. Hooked? Three narrators, with the central one so unreliable you know from the start she can’t possibly be as bad as you’re initially meant to think. And then it’s all soap opera sex, betrayal. Infertility and ‘imagining his long fingers on my body’. Believe me, Gone Girl this is not. Gone Girl is like a Japanese bullet train compared to this tarted up Thomas the Tank Engine. A sophisticated piece of engineering as opposed to cartoon tech from another century. Actually, I’m being unfair to Thomas.

But it’s popular. And popular  (also to be blindingly obvious)is not always good. Even though early Thomas the Tank Engine was very good, actually, before Ringo left the series.

On the other hand, Murakami’s absolutely insane, berserk epic IQ84 is also massively popular worldwide, despite being so demanding of your credulity, plotwise, that once completed you wonder how anyone could possibly get away making it so brilliantly, compulsively readable. And with Books One and Two in the hands of separate translators, too.

To summarise (deep breath): Deadly young female assassin killing off abusers of women in and around Tokyo finds herself in what appears to be a parallel world, very similar to hers other than it having two moons. The lost love of her life, a maths lecturer and author, ghost writes the story of a strange young girl concerning the aforementioned, and malevolent, leprechauns (‘little people’, not called O’Shea). A strange religious cult, much coolly described sex, family dislocation, a fantasy about cats and much else comes together in what is an utterly absorbing and often very funny/violent fable about faith, intimacy and the power of fiction, riffing constantly about music, martial arts, food and fashion in modern Japan. Murakami’s use of labels and trade names anchors his writing in ‘reality’ (cf William Gibson, also obsessed with Japanese culture) even as its explodes into areas which initially seem utterly fanciful, but then become accepted as part of the reader’s reality. It’s playful in the extreme.

Friends who have been to Japan say that the country’s religiosity is omnipresent, and highly eclectic, with magic, Buddhism and extreme cultish Christianity sometimes casually combined. Murakami’s book identifies the bizarre dangers in this, with clear references to the Aum doomsday group, the subway sarin gas attacks and more.

Wonderful, really. But I’d better get back to my study of funeral practices. Did you know that this new method of ‘liquid cremation’ is being pioneered by a Scottish company? But of course!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Eoin Colfer's Plugged and Screwed

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books  were favourites of my son James and extremely entertaining, carefully iconoclastic young teenager fiction which led Jimbo straight on to The Great Carl Hiassen. Thence to Hemingway, McCarthy, all kinds of ‘proper’ literature and now a flourishing career as an author of wildly successful tomes on how to make bread, cakes and beer. Fortunately, having seen where writing and showbiz get you, he has a proper job as well.

Anyway it’s at least partly Eoin Colfer’s fault, who - while remaining a top bairns’ writer, and currently being Laureate nan Og (Ireland’s children’s laureate)has come up with a brilliant plan to maintain contact with his demographic as it ages. Many of his once-young readers are now adults, sort of, with an implanted need for the same kind of witty brutality as found in Fowl, easy-reading crime fiction though now with the violence, coy sex, super-sweariness and arch media references young men with tattoos’n’tweed expect in their light reading matter. Post-Hiassen stuff, in fact, Jack Reacher  with a sense of humour. Kind of Tony Soprano  - they’re set in New Jersey - with less angst. Oh, and McEvoy’s Irish. “If you loved Artemis Fowl” goes the publisher’s tagline on one edition’s cover, “it’s time to grow up.”

So we have Daniel McEvoy, former Irish army sergeant, suffering PTSD from his time as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon (but hey, often to hilarious effect) and now (in Plugged) a doorman in the small NJ town of Cloisters. The follow-up, Screwed, sees Daniel as owner of a sleazy casino and drinking den called Slotz. Presumably the third book will be called Fucked, though his publishers may have words to say on the subject.

Both Plugged and Screwed (Screwed more so, as Colfer was evidently in the Adult Orientated Raunch groove by the time he wrote it) are effortlessly brilliant romps, seamlessly plotted, frenetically paced and full of characters you recognise from TV shows, films and other books. Notably, McEvoy is like a cartoon version of Adrian McKinty’s early Michael Forsythe character.

It’s broad brush stuff, but very funny, full of outlandish Hiassenesque scenes (especially echoing Striptease) and with a host of deadpan one/two liners (“there isn’t a naked person on this planet who isn’t scared of hot pasta”...”they say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I would argue that a scorned woman would pale and back out of the room when faced with a Rottweiler who just got his scrotum twisted…”)

McEvoy has psychological and hair transplant problems, plus a shrink (from The Sopranos) and a Jewish doctor pal (out of Hiassen and MASH). He’s very good at killing but queasy about the actual act. He has a lot of sex but is loath to go into details. Hey, kids might be reading. And there’s a complicated family background involving his mother’s millionaire dad (shades of Benjamin Black/John Banville’s Quirke).

Colfer is very good in Jersey and NYC psychogeography and breakfast at Norma’s in the Park Meridien is definitely on the cards for me should I ever visit the city again. The occasional lapses into maudlin self-examination are forgivable. Just.

I read Screwed first, which I definitely do NOT advise, as some of the characters only make proper sense if you first meet them in Plugged. Which I didn’t. These are fast, snacky reads, full of fun, guns and violence, very cleverly constructed and snappily written. Worth a penny plus postage on Amazon in my book. Liam Neeson in the movies, surely? Perhaps too much hair.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Turning Blue, by Benjamin Myers: Reservoirs of rural evil

Turning Blue

Benjamin Myers

Moth publishing, £7.99. Published 11 August 2016

Like any other trend of temporary grooviness, the hipster nature writing thing will surely run its course. There have been some outstanding pieces of tweedy, wind-scoured, leaky-wellie writing over the past few beardy years, but the whole Caught By the River cult, this back-to-nature reaction to cokefreak urbanism, will inevitably wither and fade. Too much of its confessional wing wallows in the river twee, and its fashionable links with the whole vintage canvas knapsack and hand-made clog scene is hard to take here in the real, Gore-Tex and ripstop world of remote living.

Benjamin Myers, though an enthusiastic participant in the Robert MacFarlane landscapery-worship movement, is destined to outlast and outgrow the merely transient Lawrence-lite, and there are some very good reasons for that. His body of work is a fascinating progression from commissioned cuttings-file rock biography (System of a Down, Lydon, Green Day, Muse, The Clash) through the hilariously transitional The Book of Fuck (squat-dwelling rock hack tries to interview a Marylyn Manson figure) to the pivotal Richard, a truly affecting fictionalisation of Manics songwriter Richey Edwards’ last days.

Carefully and lovingly written, that controversial book’s tale of a rural journey into oblivion saw Myers tackling landscape for the first time to great effect. Myers’ relocation to Yorkshire (he’s a Durham lad originally) then brought about a severing of ties with the rock music that had hitherto fuelled his muse and paid the bills, and initiated a concentration on overtly rural themes: The gypsy death-fighting of the ferocious Pig Iron and then the astonishing Beastings - a child kidnapping, a priestly pursuit, the utter corruption of religion set among the glowering Cumbrian fells.

Pig Iron and Beastings are both brutal, beautiful books, prose pared to the bone, owing greatly to the Hemingway via McCarthy school of American writers but uncompromisingly English in tone. And they benefit greatly from the fact that Myers is a pro. He’s been a prolific rock hack since his university days, he’s fought the sub-editing wars for decades; he’s grammatically armed, experienced,  and capable of subverting language to dangerous effect. Beastings has the power of folk myth, and some uncompromisingly disturbing scenes which led me to lend it out with stern warnings for the easily offended.

I wondered, though, when I heard Myers was planning a, for want of a better term, ‘detective series’. It would be ‘folk noir’, we were promised. OK, that could work. But was this an attempt to commercialise his vision of rural life, to render his themes more accessible to a bigger audience? And is there anything wrong with that?

No, in my opinion. And so we have Turning Blue, which is being sold as the first in ‘the Brindle and Mace series’. That would be Detective Sergeant Brindle of the mysterious Cold Storage unit (which bears a certain resemblance to Derek Raymond’s The Factory) and Roddy Mace, former tabloid journalist, who has renounced the moral soup of London for a local newspaper in the dales and a beer-and-vodka stymied attempt to Write A Book.

Rural detective stories are nothing new. The Midsomer Murders concept has become a joke (how dangerous IS Midsomer?) mainly due to its endlessly repetitive televising, and then there’s the Anne Cleeves phenomenon, with the Jimmy Perez books set in Shetland and the Vera Stanhope mysteries, which take place not far away from the desolate moorland of Turning Blue.

Barnaby, Perez and Stanhope are mass library fodder, inoffensive plodders whose agonising is all Mumsnet forum stuff. Myers is trying for something much closer to what we see Sally Wainwright going for in Happy Valley and in the first series of Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line. Only much, much darker.

I mentioned Derek Raymond’s Factory novels earlier and if you’re aware of how deep into the details of moral degradation I was Dora Suarez or How the Dead Live go, you’ll still be unprepared for the sheer amount of human horror in Turning Blue. The descriptions never cross the line into the truly unpleasant sadism found in the likes of Stuart MacBride’s Logan Macrae books, but finding yourself more and more inside the head of the appalling Steven Rutter grows increasingly hard to take. Yes, I know there are mythic overtones to what he gets up to, horrible old folk songs that clog dance the same murky territory, but still. I’d argue that this aspect overbalances the book, leaves the truly unique partnership that develops between Brindle and Mace, and their fascinating characters, a little swamped.

As for the Yorkshire landscape, as you’d expect it’s superbly captured, initially in a snowbound winter, then spring, then summer, the seasonal structure tracking the revelations effectively. It’s extremely well plotted, moving inexorably from the disappearance of one girl, Melanie Muncy, to a vast and pullulating evil spreading from the Dales throughout the land. Though I’m loath to give away too much, I will say that TV star ‘Lovely’ Larry Lister’s resemblance to Jimmy Saville, and what Saville was involved with (cf the last series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty) is more than significant.

There are echoes of the great Bill James (Harpur and Iles) at his peak, but in terms of the current pantheon of crime writing, there truly is nothing with Turning Blue’s dark power and literary ferocity, save perhaps some of Louise Welsh’s early work. It IS the first in a series. Good. This is very serious, very disturbing but hugely compulsive crime fiction.

Two things: the textual device of running the dialogue without any quotation marks may give a sense of uh, poetic literary-ness, but in a book of this length and with this many characters it truly messes up your appreciation of who’s actually speaking…(a sub-editor writes). And I should mention the ‘press pack’ (pictured) which came with my advance copy.

Experimentation has proved that was just dried moss in the tobacco tin...

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Thrillfilter is back! Coming up in the next few days and weeks: Rankin, Myers, Mitchell, Gardner, Colfer, Proulx and more

It’s not that I stopped reading after the heart business, the stent, the relapse, the heavy duty medication and the sense of imminent demise. I read like a crazy man. I read as if each book was going to be my last. I just couldn’t be bothered writing about the writing I was reading. There was always another Amazon Prime two quid deal (including postage), a heap of back catalogues to catch up with, the occasional full-price quagmire to squelch through (thank you, Annie Proulx). Dearie me, Barkskins is absolutely terrible.

So Thrillfilter has taken a back seat. A seat in the bleachers. A perch on a faraway tree, overlooking a deserted motorway interchange. Until now.

I’m at a point where the medication has eased, the stent has presumably bedded in and there’s a distinct possibility I could go on living, reading and even writing for a time yet. I’ve started cycling again. Given up the medicinal red wine (when my cardiologist said ‘one drink a day’ he meant one bottle, right?’). And I’m suddenly busy with stuff like 60 North Radio, serving as a non-exec on the local health board, one or two wee magazine columns, and most recently being a (surprisingly busy) funeral celebrant.

What have I been reading over the past year? Deluges, veritable cataracts of ‘genre’ fiction - much of which is going to have to remain uncelebrated in these colyooms. And re-reading, a comfort thing. A third (or it may be fourth) trip through the entire Len Deighton/Bernard Sampson saga - 10 books, in order, starting with A Berlin Family. Lumps of Ian and Ian M Banks. PG Wodehouse (overrated). The wonderful, ignored and now mostly out of print Anthony Price. Alexei Sayle (those short stories are stunning, especially Barcelona Plates, still). And much more, as those DJs say.

Anyway, I’m going to revive Thrillfilter, and imminently there will be reviews appearing of the amazing and harrowing Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers, Screwed by Eoin Colfer, Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild, The awful Barkskins, the lost spy novels of John Gardner and a look at the work of the aforementioned Anthony Price. Oh, and David Mitchell’s mind bending, rip-roaring take on sci-fi fantasy, The Bone Clocks and Slade House.

All coming up...very soon

Friday, 7 August 2015

Quick trawl through the recent woodpulp (August 2015)

...and woodpulp it has been, largely, as I've grown somewhat fed up with the inability to gauge my progress through a book by thumb and forefinger. Still, the Paperwhite continues to lurk, and there have been some entertaining downloads.

My son Sandy recommended the George RR Martin anthology Rogues, which contains some great stuff as well as the occasional piece of impenetrable sword-and-sorcery. Worth the price of admission for stories by Neil Gaiman and Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn.  Sandy also pushed me in the direction of Christopher Brookmyre, whose arch-Caledonian sarkiness I've found hard to handle since Quite Ugly One Morning. I enjoyed Dead Girl Walking, though, for its deft rock'n'roll tourbus background.

Big re-reading and rediscovery has been Daniel Woodrell, fuelled by my daughter picking up my copy of Winter's Bone and loving it, then a re-viewing of the movie version (Jennifer Lawrence's first). I remember reading the novel and immediately thinking it would make a great film (same feeling as with Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men....and by the way, how could the Coens get a 'best script' Oscar when the novel basically WAS the script?).

Since then I've worked or re-worked my way through most of the Woodrell oeuvre, including the wonderful early 'crime' novels in The Bayou Trilogy, all featuring detective Rene Shade (Under The Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing and the Ones You Do), all set in 'St Bruno' on the Mississippi, a fictionalised St Charles.

They're  longer and more florid than his later, Ozark-set work, which owes something to Faulkner at his most lurid, Hemingway, Jim Harrison and - oddly, two Scottish writers I think, William McIlvanney and ( 'Greenvoe' reference noted). George Mackay Brown. The Maid's Version draws on Woodrell's own family history in the area, and may be his least successful novel. Give Us a Kiss is the most explicit of his books, a brilliantly vicious exploration of family, history, revenge and lust, with a weird tacked-on happy ending which is probably meant as a literary joke. The Outlaw Album is probably his masterpiece - a collection of short stories which read a bit like McCarthy with a sense of humour. They are superb. Tomato Red has just arrived (0.01p via Amazon).

Along with all this southern USA rurality, I've been unable to get Ben Myers' astonishing novel Beastings out of my head. Lauded as part of the uber-fashionable Caught by the River school of 'cool nature' writing, it's far more visceral than that label implies. Gruelling, in fact, but not so much haunting as utterly unforgettable.It concerns a runaway girl and child in a Lake District rendered brutally oppressive, pursued by a psychopath who makes McCarthy's Anton Chigurh seem like Santa Claus. Every terrifying scene remains with me in detail.

Having no idea who Ben Myers was, I was surprised to delve into his back catalogue and find he is an ex-rock journalist, specialising in the extremes of heavy metal, whose early literary efforts bookwise were band biographies. I decided to avoid most of that, but couldn't resist The Book of Fuck, allegedly written in just six days and all about a rock hack's pursuit of legendary reclusive satanic rock proponent The God of Fuck (clearly based on Marilyn Manson).  It is fantastic, one of the best rock'n'roll books since Nik Cohn's I Am Still  The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo and very, very funny. Difficult to get as it was printed in small quantities. Not be left casually lying about the house when elderly folk are visiting. Or missionaries.

Anyway, I have Myers'  much-lauded Pig Iron unread on the Kindle, but I got hold of a secondhand copy of Richard, which I regarded with some suspicion. It is a fictional look at the life and mysterious disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards, and has had what one might safely say are mixed reviews. Some Manics fans have apparently been outraged.

Not an easy read, written in the first person from Edwards' point of view, its portrayal of depression and despair in the rock context is, I would say, carefully and compassionately realised. The detail of 80s and 90s music biz indulgence is accurate and compelling. The last harrowing scenes have both a dreadful inevitability and a hallucinatory power as nature, in the form of the Welsh Marches, imposes itself. Another 0.01p worth spending.

So, onwards we go, via  a borrowed copy  of Edzard Ernst's A Scientist in Wonderland ('a Memoir of Searching for Truth and finding Trouble') which is already (only a few pages in) much lighter and more accessible than the much-praised On the Move by Oliver Sacks, another medical memoir but one I found oddly leaden.

Right. Back to reading.