Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lost River, Mystic River, Frozen River, Cold River, Red River, Hidden River, River Horse, River's Edge

Lost River is the directorial debut film of Ryan Gosling. Booed at Cannes and savaged by the critics Lost River's badness does not live up to the hype. Heavily influenced by David Lynch, Terrence Mallick and Nicholas Winding Refn (3 really good influences if you ask me) Lost River has some striking images of a ruined Detroit. Not much of a story but its no worse than Mallick's last 3 films.
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Mystic River is a book by Dennis Lehane and a film by Clint Eastwood. The book explores the impact of a brutal crime upon a close knit neighbourhood in working class Boston. A contemporary crime classic this is probably the high point - so far - of Denny Lehane's career. The film is good too if you can stand the sight of a lot of grown men blubbing on cue to camera. (I can't.)
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Melissa Leo's extraordinary central performance is the heart of Frozen River about a poverty stricken middle aged woman trying to cope with life on the edge of the Mohawk Indian Reservation in upstate NY. Throw in people smugglers, an actual frozen river (the St Lawrence) and some beautiful cinematography and you have a rare portrait of blue collar American life that - mostly - doesn't condescend. This was one of Roger Ebert's favourite films of 2008 and it won the Jury Prize at Sundance. 
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Cold River: I liked this little indy YA movie. I'm taking this synopsis straight from John N Daly's perfectly concise IMDB entry: Based on the novel Winterkill, by William Judson, Cold River is the story of an Adirondack guide who takes his young daughter and step-son on a long camping trip in the fall of 1932. When winter strikes unexpectedly early (a natural phenomenon known as a 'winterkill' - so named because the animals are totally unprepared for a sudden, early winter, and many freeze or starve to death), he suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving his two children to find their own way home without food, or protection from the elements.
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Red River is a big sprawling 1948 Howard Hawks western starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift who are driving cattle north to the railhead. Wow, is this not my cup of tea. My preferred classic western is - I suppose - The Searchers. My preferred Howard Hawks movie is the wonderful His Girl Friday. 
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Hidden River is my 2005 novel about a disgraced ex cop from the RUC trying to achieve redemption by finding out who murdered an Irish girl in Denver. Struggling with a heroin addiction Alexander Lawson screws everything up on arrival Stateside. This book was a big flop when it came out getting almost no reviews and selling less than a 1000 copies. It more or less killed my career in America after the good reviews but poor sales of my debut Dead I Well May Be. I haven't been reviewed in the New York Times since...Still I have a lot of affection for this story and in 2015 I resurrected Lawson and put him in my book Gun Street Girl (which takes place several years before the events of Hidden River) as a newbie trainee cop. And some day I hope to release the crazy 150,000 word director's cut of this book if I can get the rights back...(the actual released version was 99,000 words long)...
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River Horse is a travel book by William Trogdon whose nom de plume is William Least Heat Moon. Ever wondered if its possible to travel by boat entirely across America with as few portages as possible? William LHM also wondered that and then attempted to do it and wrote a terrific travel book about the whole adventure. 
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River's Edge: a high school slacker kills his girlfriend and shows off her dead body to his cynical jaded druggie friends. Tim Hunter conjures superb performances from Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves and a whole bunch of other kids who - amazingly - are all in their 50's now. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Locke

Locke is an exercise in film minimalism. Going one better than Vertigo, Drive and Bullitt Locke takes place entirely in the car of Ivan Locke in real time as he drives from the West Midlands to London on a damp winter's night. To provide too much of the plot would be to spoil everything so I'll just give you the set up. Locke is the manager of a building site, who on this particular night, is in charge of preparing the foundations for the concrete pour ("the biggest non military concrete pour in Europe"). The foundation concrete pour we learn is the most crucial part of the construction of any building and a disaster at this stage will cost everyone millions of pounds. Instead of remaining on site to supervise the arrival of dozens of cement lorries from all over England, Locke drives off in his BMW X5 SUV to deal with an entirely different situation. Over the next 85 minutes we watch Tom Hardy as Locke attempt to manage 3 different crises over the phone while also having a Hamlet style conversation with his dead father who abandoned Locke when he was a boy.*
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If all this doesn't sound promising then you probably shouldn't rent Locke but for my money this is one of the best films I've seen in a while. How Tom Hardy didn't get an Oscar nomination is beyond me because his performance is underplayed, focused and utterly compelling. I watched Locke on Saturday night and I spent all of Sunday talking to everyone in a calm South Welsh baritone...You'll probably end up doing the same. Locke has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It should be higher. Many directors these days feel that to entice people into the cinema you need striking visual images and awe inspiring special effects. In Locke Tom Hardy's beardy face is all we're given and all we need. The close up has been a cinematic tool for over 100 years and wise directors know that humans love looking at other humans, especially humans undergoing extreme emotional turmoil. If you enjoyed The Passion of Joan of Arc or the close ups at the end of The Good The Bad & The Ugly or the work of Kelly Reichardt you'll love Locke...Locke was written and directed by the great Stephen Knight and apart from Hardy it has a stellar cast of other voices that you will definitely recognise. 
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*(Anthony Lane in the New Yorker found this part of the story "hokey" but I thought it was the key to the entire narrative and completely fascinating. Maybe it's a Celtic thing (?) because I'm pretty sure that a high percentage of Irish, Welsh & Scottish men do indeed talk to their dead fathers....)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bicycling Without A Helmet

This (below) is an incident that happened to me last week. I don't come out of it looking
particularly well but the other guy is definitely worse in my opinion. I wish I'd taped the whole thing on my ipod but I am not a very fast thinking chap. (I've been saving up the civil disobedience line for 2 years when someone hassled me before about not wearing a helmet). I did take a pic of the other guy as he was cycling away but I have decided not to post that here for legal reasons. And for the record I do agree with bicycle helmet laws in general but I think cities that enact them often see helmet laws as an end in themselves and they really ought to do a lot more to protect cyclists from cars. Studies have shown that drivers will get closer to cyclists wearing helmets and take less care of them in traffic. Helmet laws can discourage casual bike riding and bike sharing schemes and thus (unintentionally?) promote car driving. If a municipality is going to make cyclists wear bike helmets that does not end its obligation to protect bike riders, it's only the beginning of a process that requires it to build more dedicated cycle lanes and to segregate bikes from cars in those lanes. Melbourne does very little of that. Anyway this is the encounter from last week on the St Kilda cycle path (above) where there are no cars.
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2 characters:

Me cycling on the St Kilda bike path in shorts and a T shirt with my helmet off at my typical very low speed. (It was a lovely sunny day and I decided to put my helmet in my bike basket for a bit.)

Him cycling the opposite direction in the full lycra getup with helmet on.

Him (as we passed): Oi, you forgot your helmet!
Me: (cheerfully) I didn't forget. I'm practising civil disobedience.
Him (braking): What?
Me: (braking): I'm practising civil disobedience.
Him: Where are you from?
Me: Melbourne.
Him: Before that?
Me: That's none of your business.
Him: In Australia you are required to wear a bike helmet when riding your bike.
Me: I am aware of that. I am practising civil disobedience. . .As in Thoreau?
Him: It's against the law not to wear a helmet.
Me: I know.
Him: I should report you to the police.
Me: I wouldn't be surprised if you reported me, you have an informer's face.
Him: What?
Me: You have the face of a police informer.
Him (clipping his feet back into this bike): Fuck you.
Me: Fuck you too.
Him (cycling away): Fuck off back to Ireland.
Me: Fuck off back to wherever you come from you busybody cunt.

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You can read Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience here.
The CRAG has some interesting stuff on helmet laws, here. This site is a bit more objective about helmet laws and has some good links. In Victoria the minimum fine for not wearing a helmet is $159.00 but apparently you can be fined up to 5 penalty points which wd take the fine up to $750.00. Of course the police officer has to catch you before he can ticket you which isn't so easy if he's on foot or in a car and you're on a bike...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Australian Magpie


If you're like me then you probably spend much of your "writing time" staring out of the window looking at birds. In our backyard we typically have 4 daily visitors: the common pigeon, the crested pigeon, the rainbow lorikeet and the common myna bird. They are all charming except perhaps for the myna bird which is an invasive species, very territorial and a sometime pest who frequently attacks children and cyclists and who drives out other birds. Mynas have twice come into our house to lay waste the land. Our cat will not go outside if there are myna birds around because he is terrified of them. Occasionally we also get seagulls, parrots and ravens; crows, of course, and now and again Australian magpies. I do miss having songbirds in my backyard but the lorikeets are a lovely splash of colour and they do sing or rather chirp in the morning. But the bird I want to talk about here is the Australian magpie. The Australian magpie has a strange throaty call but he is also an incredible mimic who can reproduce the calls of other birds, cars, dogs barking and machinery. Until very recently I had assumed that the Australian magpie (lower picture) was a corvid, a related species to the Eurasian magpie (pica pica) (above) which looks very similar. Its obviously a bigger bird more like a rook but since corvids began in Australasia and have more or less conquered the entire world since I thought that the Australian magpie was the original form and the European magpie a variation. This is not the case at all. The Australian magpie is in fact one of the cracticinae. As wikipedia explains:

The cracticinae gathers together 12 species of mostly crow-like birds native to Australasia and nearby areas. The cracticines have large, straight bills and mostly black, white or grey plumage. All are omnivorous to some degree. The female constructs bulky nests from sticks, and both parents help incubate the eggs and raise the young thereafter. The cracticines are highly intelligent and have extraordinarily beautiful songs of great subtlety.

But are Australian magpies of the class cracticinae as smart as their European non cousins? This is what a clearly impressed wikipedia says of the European magpie:

The Eurasian magpie is believed not only to be among the brightest of birds but among the most intelligent of all animals. Along with the jackdaw, the Eurasian magpie's nidopallium is approximately the same relative size as those in chimpanzees and humans, significantly larger than the gibbon's. Like other corvids, such as ravens and crows, their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to most great apes and cetaceans.

Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief. Mirror self-recognition has been demonstrated in European magpies, making them one of but a few species and the only non-mammal known to possess this capability. The cognitive abilities of the Eurasian magpie are regarded as evidence that intelligence evolved independently in both corvids and primates. This is indicated by tool use, an ability to hide and store food across seasons, episodic memory, using their own experience to predict the behaviour of conspecifics. Another behaviour exhibiting intelligence is cutting their food in correctly sized proportions for the size of their young. In captivity magpies have been observed counting up to get food, imitating human voices, and regularly using tools to clean their own cages. In the wild, they organise themselves into gangs and use complex strategies hunting other birds and when confronted by predators. 

Furthermore European magpies carry with them a lot of folk magic which I assumed also applied to the Australian kind but which probably doesn't now. Magpies have been seen as ill-omened, or lucky depending upon your point of view and I've told my daughters the one for sorrow rhyme which they sort of half believe but shouldn't because the magpies we're seeing in the park every day aren't the same birds at all. The Australian magpie is confusingly named but it is an intelligent, interesting, curious bird that I'm happy to see hopping about in the back yard, especially since observing only one of them is not the unlucky event I used to think it was now that I know it is of a different class entirely. 

Anyway here's the Spencer Davis Group singing the one for sorrow rhyme for the ITV series "Magpie" a kind of edgier funkier Blue Peter than ran from 1970 - 1980. 


Monday, April 6, 2015

'71 & Odd Man Out

The plot of '71 is very simple. A British squaddie gets sent to Belfast to keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants; after a riot he gets lost in a nightmarish gothic city of shifting allegiances and unknown streets, unsure of whom to trust and unable to grasp who is a friend and who is an enemy. The film is a modern take on the old Carol Reed classic Odd Man Out, which if you'll recall was about James Mason's attempt to escape through an Expressionist 1940s Belfast in the wake of a failed robbery. Not quite as good as The Third Man, Odd Man Out is still a terrific movie with some great performances, deep shadows and dodgy accents. (If you're interested I've written the introduction for the new edition of Odd Man Out by F L Green just published last month by Valancourt). What I like about '71 is its relative sophistication regarding the Troubles. We don't get good guys and bad guys, we get shades of grey. The Official IRA versus the Provisional IRA, the various Protestant paramilitaries, the army versus British Intelligence - on all sides there are good and bad people in extraordinary circumstances. I also like the film's look - not since Resurrection Man (based on a great Eoin McNamee novel) has a film captured Belfast's 1970's scariness. This is a thriller which at times has a real horror movie feel: cobbled streets, blind alleys, and a strange menacing stalking presence as the Provos come for the soldier. I also liked the acting which I thought was naturalistic and underplayed and good.
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But '71 is by no means perfect. First of all it was NOT FILMED IN BELFAST. The new Dracula movie was filmed in Belfast, Game of Thrones is filmed in Belfast, they're making Goddamn zombie movies in Belfast but '71 was filmed in Blackburn, Lancashire. I've been to Blackburn and it looks nothing like Belfast. Filming '71 in Blackburn is as bad as filming Rumble in the Bronx in Vancouver. My second problem with the movie was its portrayal of the policemen. Why are the RUC policemen always either sinister or stupid in every Troubles movie? I knew about twenty cops in the RUC and not one of them was evil. A couple were very stupid indeed but none of them was actually evil. (Well except for one dude who pulled his revolver out at a party, emptied out five of the shells, spun the chamber, pointed the gun at me (because I was yelling at him to put the piece away) pulled the trigger and then put the revolver against his own temple and pulled the trigger again.) Thirdly....ok there is no thirdly. As I've written this I've talked myself out of disliking the movie quite as much as I did when I started this blog post. I'm glad '71 exists. The British critics have embraced the film, the Irish critics like it and it's going to blow minds in America, where the discourse about the Troubles is, shall we say, not as sophisticated as it cd be. Go see it and judge for yourself.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Review This Book...

I've been told by Amazon that if any of my books can reach 250 reviews then I have a chance of being featured on amazon's home mystery page for a day. It seems very unlikely that any of my books will ever get close to 250 reviews but not mentioning this on my blog would have been a neglect of the basic authorial duty of care almost as insidious as Donoghue v Stevenson (of which case I'm sure you are all aware). So if any of you would like to review any of my books on amazon I certainly would appreciate it. Many thanks in advance... 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Three Chords And The Truth

a post from last year...
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When I first started reading the novels of James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtyDaniel Woodrell, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner it didn't initially occur to me how strange it was that I understood all the dialect words. Burke and McMurty's great westerns and McCarthy's early books set in rural Tennessee often used such Ulster Scots colloquialisms as "sleekit," "skitter," "shite," "piece," (for bread or a snack) "wean," "fixin," "crittur," etc. all of which were very familiar to me growing up in Northern Ireland. Later I understood why this was so. Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee books in particular paint a vivid picture of the Ulster Scots migrants to Appalachia and the world they live in: clannish, violent, musical, economically poor but culturally rich. I liked the fact too that these novelists wrote about blue collar working people (an increasingly rare phenomenon in American literary culture). The Ulster Scots (or Scotch Irish if you prefer) migrated from northern Ireland to America in the eighteenth century taking their customs, dialect, poetry and especially their fiddles with them. It's been well said that America's greatest contribution to world culture has been its music. African Americans invented Jazz, Blues, R&B and Rap, but the Ulster Scots invented country music or rather country music grew organically from their preexisting folk music and country music has a largely pessimistic outlook on the universe that comes from the bleak, fatalistic folkways of the Ulster Scots.
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Too few people realise that the history of the Irish in America does not begin with the potato famine but goes back a century earlier to the 1740 migrations from Ulster. The best book about this hidden history is probably Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, but Senator Jim Webb has written an entertaining primer called Born Fighting, both of which are well worth a read. Part of Jim Webb's premise is that the Ulster Scots' fighting and a feuding ways meant that they were predisposed for military service and that Scotch-Irish officers were the backbone of Washington's Army, the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War, the Doughboys of WW1, the GIs of WW2 and Vietnam. There may be some truth in this. Although I've never had any desire to serve in the army (all that shouting in the cadet force put me right off) my little brother has served 2 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, my dad was in the Royal Navy for twenty years and my grandfather fought in the trenches in WW1 for the duration. And of course it's well known that the British peacetime army was largely made up of Irish and Scots. Biology and culture are not destiny but maybe this is why I write (fairly) violent crime novels, not romance fiction. Mercifully though all the country songs I wrote as a teenager have gone to that great storage locker in the sky.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Game Of Thrones: A Day In The Life

Interesting short film (below) on the making of Game of Thrones but what's really fascinating to me is how much of this documentary is spent in Magheramorne quarry which is just opposite my granny's house and where I used to play as a little lad. Larne Lough, where I often went swimming as a kid (and which my dad used to swim across every Sunday to have dinner with his gran) is where they filmed the Battle of the Black Water and many many other scenes in GOT. A few years ago, before Game of Thrones had been shown in the UK, my little brother and I managed to gain access to this set (something I strongly do not recommend because it's actually a pretty dangerous place for the unwarry) but now security has been tightened and this is not possible. However if you go to Islandmagee up the Mill Bay Road you can look across the narrows and see the entire set and sometimes actual filming of the show. For four years I've been wondering why Game of Thrones don't film at Carrickfergus Castle which is literally round the corner from my mum's house - I thought that maybe they didn't know about it, but in this film you see them driving right past it. A perfectly good castle going to waste! Anyway there are good shots of Carrickfergus (at the 11 minute mark), Magheramorne and Belfast as well as some other places in this documentary...
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Monday, March 23, 2015

Cologne and Berlin

One of the great things about jet lag is waking up at 5.30 in the morning and going for a walk in a city and pretty much having it all to yourself. I was in Cologne and Berlin recently and enjoyed getting up very early and walking through empty city streets. 





In Cologne it was the day after St Patrick's Day that I walked around and I was particularly struck by the trail of devastation outside both the city's Irish pubs (including pools of vomit which I did not photograph). I did photograph my rather strange looking (but delicious) 3 tier breakfast which I had after my long walk (I kept wanting Mr Spock to say "your move, Jim")....Thank you also to everyone who came out to my readings in both Berlin and Cologne. Really nice knowledgeable crowds that I very much appreciated....


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Free Audible Books

If you haven't listened to the Sean Duffy series on Audible then you are missing on a real treat as Ger Doyle does a terrific job narrating the books. (He's also the narrator for Stu Neville and Ken Bruen.) Audible.com have kindly sent me some offer codes to use to download any of the Duffy books. Some of the codes give you two credits (all of the books are only 1 credit) long so you can get 2 Sean Duffys. If you do use the code to get your free audiobook I ask two things of you: 

1. Please let us know that the code has been used in the comments below so that readers can move onto the next one. 

2. The whole purpose of this is to get the Sean Duffy series a little more notice on the Audible site so please leave me a review on audible in exchange for your book. 

thank you!!!! The codes are: 


WAAP2R2P5ZH4Q

T6E3MNBAR75UF

FQT2UMGW7DYEK

EXGQHZ3H7ETC8

5BNZYH63Y54FK

2K8QF8CU4HDSC

R46D4X7RTXQ7A

W482ZUTGJCR5H

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Sydney Morning Herald reviews GSG

First of all I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who has reviewed me on amazon, good reads, audible etc. As usual my reviews from ordinary readers have been kind, insightful and well written...And speaking of well written:
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The well read, learned and extremely wise Sue Turnbull reviewed GSG for Fairfax Media last Saturday (The SMH, The Melbourne
Age & The Brisbane Times). I especially like it when a reviewer gets the black humour in the Duffy series. Too many books, articles and films about Ireland during the Troubles are utterly humourless but that's not the way I remember it at all....People used a very dour black Belfast humour as a coping mechanism and I've always tried to put that in the books. Anyway Ms Turnbull's review below:

Crime Fiction
Gun Street Girl ADRIAN MCKINTY
Serpent's Tail, $29.99

Inspector Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is back on duty in Carrickfergus. It's 1985, Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev are in charge and the state of the current pop charts is causing Duffy, with his taste for American soul music and Haydn, considerable grief. Music means a lot to Duffy as it has to many other fictional detectives before him. Gun Street Girl should come with a soundtrack. 

Also causing Duffy grief is the debacle of a joint forces operation unravelling in the middle of the night on a beach near Derry. Officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Gardai, the FBI, MI5 and Interpol are beating time in the sand dunes awaiting the arrival of a boatload of American gun-runners: "The policeman wait. The spooks wait. The men on the boat wait. All of us tumbling into the future together." McKinty has never been more poetic than he is here, in this the fourth outing for the intelligent but self-sabotaging Duffy.

After the calamity of the gun-runners, there's a call from his new boss, who needs help dealing with a celebrity cocaine crisis in an upmarket brothel. With half the confiscated cocaine stashed in his garden shed for personal consumption, a vodka gimlet in hand, and Sam "The Man" Cooke on the stereo, Duffy is not expecting call number three.

This time it's a territorial dispute over who should handle the case of a wealthy couple murdered in their faux castle on the cliffs. Suspicion immediately falls on the missing 22-year-old son. Duffy thinks it looks like a professional hit, but he wants his detective sergeant to handle the case. Duffy just wants his bed.

McKinty's observation of people and place is astute and very funny. His prose, at times telegraphic, at times lyrical, demands to be read out loud, preferably in a Carrickfergus accent. As McKinty has revealed, Duffy lives on the very council estate where he himself once lived: on a street where a neighbour did indeed walk his toothless lioness at night.

McKinty draws on vivid childhood memories, real historical events (remember Oliver North?), and the fictional gem that is Sean Duffy to produce a story about crime that is both funny and just a bit tragic. As Duffy wryly observes: "Out here, on the edge of the dying British Empire, farce is the only mode of narrative discourse that makes any sense at all."Gun Street Girl revels in the farce that was the past to deliver a stellar crime novel for the present. 

Simply outstanding. 

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/adrian-mckinty-review-making-great-crime-in-the-heart-of-belfasts-troubles-20150228-13px4s.html#ixzz3UKK19s81

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Pre St Patrick's Day Guide To Ireland's Best Counties

You're visiting Ireland, your time is limited, you only want to go to the best counties. Well, fortunately I'm here to help you out. In reverse order: 

10. Kerry. Kerry has it all. Beautiful coast, beautiful islands, lovely people. You'd be a fool to miss the Ring of Kerry on your Irish visit. But it is far away, and a little bit closer to Dublin airport is: 
9. Cork. Right next door to Kerry is the equally fabulous County Cork. Cork City has its own unique culture, accent and food and drink. The townlands around Cork are diverse and interesting. I first went there during Cork Week - which is a thing. Better than Cork though is: 
8. Galway. Stunning cliffs and strands; bleak wild, stark uplands; stony empty sheep fields; hidden villages off the beaten path; and in Galway Town the craic is always happening. 
7. At number #7 on my personal list is Sligo. Here you'll find WB Yeats buried under Ben Bulben and some of the great poet's favourite landscapes. The Lake Isle of Innisfree (Lough Gill) anyone? You'll also find Ireland's second best surfing beaches and some of the most beautiful watercolour landscapes in the land.
6. Donegal. Where everyone in Northern Ireland went for their holidays from 1950 - 1985 (until the invention of cheap flights to Spain). Almost empty beaches, lots of rain, lots of wind, a 100 shades of green. Amazing place, but you know, bring an umbrella.  
5. Fermanagh. Almost no foreign tourists visit the Fermanagh lakes which is a bit sad because they are the hidden gem of Ireland. Nothing in the British Isles is quite like the secret islands of upper and lower Lough Erne. 
4. County Meath. The mystical capital of the island. The site of the Hill of Tara, Newgrange and the Battle of the Boyne. A strange, dark, fascinating and dangerous place is County Meath. Forget kissing the Blarney Stone, kiss the stone of destiny on Tara Hill (if you are the rightful High King of Ireland the stone will roar in response to your touch.)
3. Mayo. County Galway's wilder, darker, bleaker, wetter more beautiful brother.  
2. Dublin. You could spend your whole trip to Ireland just in County Dublin and I wouldn't fault you. The city is endlessly interesting and the surrounding hills, villages and beaches are worth a visit too. 
1. Antrim. Ireland's best country? Yeah, of course. County Antrim has everything. The Causeway Coast is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the wonders of the world. The A2 coast road up to the Causeway is also one of the wonders of the world. Inland you have forests and mountains, bogs and waterfalls and strange inbred hill folk talking about tractors and the Old Testament. Two of Ireland's great rivers, the Bann and the Lagan flow through the county and its also got the British Isles's biggest fresh water lake, Lough Neagh. The Glens of Antrim, Slemish, the best surfing beaches in Ireland, Carrick Castle etc. etc. You know all that cool shit you see on Game of Thrones? well all of the non sunny stuff is, of course, filmed in Country Antrim. If that wasn't enough the southern part of the county contains Ireland's second city, Belfast, with all its baggage, craziness and culture. 
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Go where you like on your visit to Ireland but if your itinerary doesn't include at least some of this top 10 it needs to be fixed. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Is The Most Despised Literary Genre?

In a wide ranging interview in the New York Times Kazuo Ishiguro talked about his new book and how he hoped it wouldn't be "considered as a fantasy novel" because it's set an England populated by elves, ogres and pixies. He mentioned David Mitchell's recent fictions which are all largely fantasy novels cunningly embedded within literary fiction tropes and he hoped that his new book would be considered the same way. This raised the hackles of Ursula Le Guin who, in her typically polite but firm way took Ishiguro to task in a blogpost devoted to this interview. An angry Le Guin wondered why being associated with "fantasy" fiction was so awful that serious writers needed to distance themselves from it. You can read her full argument by jumping on the link above. It's a decent enough piece but the lady doth protest a little too much and because she lives in Portland the dimension she completely misses out on is class. Much institutional English cultural snobbery is class based and fantasy and science fiction are considered to be "low" genres because they are popular. (David Mitchell was so concerned about the critics attacking his new novel as a "fantasy" book that he spent a paragraph in the novel sort of breaking the fourth wall and premptively going after these critics.) As I said Mitchell gets name checked favourably in Ishiguro's NYT interview and to add another incestuous level here Mitchell's book was favourably reviewed by Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian when it came out last autumn. The Guardian comments on the whole Mitchell, Ishiguro, Le Guin mallarkey, here.
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I'm not going to step into that minefield. I like well written fantasy, just as I like well written books of any other genre. If you despise fantasy without actually reading any of the books you're just cheating yourself of some fun writing. China Mieville, for example, has done really good things in the fantasy genre and we've all seen how popular George RR Martin has become in recent years. Of course there are a lot of bad fantasy novels floating around, as Ted Sturgeon famously said 90% of everything is crap and with fantasy novels its closer to 95%. What I'm more interested in however is the question of why some genres are more despised than others and which genres are the most hated. It was Margaret Atwood, I think, who bristled at the notion that she wrote science fiction "isn't that just giant squids zapping lasers at each other in space?" she said, horrified. No, it isn't. It hasn't been giant squids zapping lasers at each other in space since the 1930s, but clearly among the literary elite science fiction is still a horrible genre from which they must distance themselves. In a revealing interview in the 1980's Patrick O'Brian said that he had no idea that "sea stories" were the most despised literary genre, and other people think that crime fiction is the genre most looked down upon (I was at a reading just after Christmas where a woman said to me that before she retired "she would never have allowed herself to read a crime or mystery novel.") So what are the most hated genres? I think it goes a bit like this (in increasing order of hate):
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10. Literary fiction: Even though most English literary fiction is largely written by posh privileged people about other posh privileged people, it is not considered to be a genre, but the correct literary form. Ergo it's low down on the hate list. I fucking hate most of it though. 
9. Crime fiction: crime fiction used to be despised but now it has largely become respectable, possibly because you get courses on it at university or possibly because the best crime writers have elevated the genre. 
8. Horror. Stephen King has raised the visibility of the genre so its not as loathed as it was in, say, the 1970s. 
7. Sea Stories. Patrick O'Brian has done the same for sea stories. 
6. Science Fiction. Science Fiction is now respectable. The really good sci-fi books are really good. 
5. Fantasy. Fantasy is increasingly respectable, but there's still something whiffy about it. It's the covers I think that let the genre down. Too many unicorns and scantily clad princesses on the covers. John Norman I'm looking at you.
4. Airport thrillers/war books. People love reading these but literary critics almost universally despise them but secretly read them. (Le Carre's spy stories don't make my top 10 hate list at all because they are now completely respectable, as is historical fiction thanks to Hillary Mantel.)
3. Funny novels. You know the type of thing, some dude has comic misadventures that aren't remotely funny or interesting. I've got to admit I hate these bloody books.
2. Chick lit. Chick lit has more or less saved published in the last 15 years but chick lit books don't get much respect from metropolitan male literary critics. And what goes for chick lit goes double for:
1. Romance/erotica. The most despised literary genres are romance and erotica (although not by me). Misogyny is the reason for this because most buyers of these books are women. Actually most romance novels aren't bad and if you've only read EL James in the erotic realm you should try and find some of Angela Carter's stuff from the 1970s. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Australian reviews GSG

The multi-talented (look him up) Graeme Blundell reviews Gun Street Girl in last week's Australian
newspaper thusly:

Adrian McKinty’s Irish Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, the literary Catholic cop in a predominantly Protestant constabulary, returns and is also on the road — and in the first person too — in Gun Street Girl (Allen & Unwin, 323pp, $29.99) during the Troubles in Belfast, 1985.

This is a pleasurable surprise. It seemed that last year’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone was the final novel in what appeared certain to become a classic crime trilogy. But long may the roguish Duffy continue to entertain us with his Beckettian wit and choices of soundtrack in these wonderful novels.

Belfast-born, Melbourne-based McKinty emphasises a more cinematic approach to his first-person narrative this time around, slightly percussive, subjective and impressionistic, without losing any of his much loved lyricism: “I stuck on the lunchtime news. More riots. Tedious now. Depressing. You ever read Thucydides? I’ll boil him down for you into one easy moral: intergenerational civil war is a very bad thing.”

This is crime writing at its finest. The novel’s title is from a Tom Waits song (Duffy’s musical choices are one of the many pleasures of the McKinty experience) and Jorge Luis Borges is quoted in an epigraph: “I do not know what your gift is to me, but mine to you is an awesome one: you may keep your days and nights.”

But McKinty writes so well he takes them away from us, those days and nights, and we read relentlessly on, avidly following Duffy as he investigates the murder of a wealthy couple, shot dead while watching TV, and the apparent suicide of their son who leaves a note appearing to take responsibility for the deaths. But nothing is simple when Duffy is involved. There are also missing anti-aircraft missiles, the Iran-Contra affair, sneery-faced American spooks, duplicitous Special Branch, neat lines of cocaine and many fingers of Glenfiddich, burning buses, fires, no truth and a lot of death. Always death.

And as McKinty, in a kind of Joycean stanza towards the end, writes, overlooking it all from the world of helicopters and planes is an oily-winged crow called Morrigan of the black eye, of the sorrows, the goddess of battle, fertility and strife who knows that to end war you must first change the nature of man.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Interview in the Melbourne Age

Jason Steger, the Melbourne Age's literary editor, was kind enough to do an interview with me in last week's
paper. It's mostly me talking about the inspiration for the Sean Duffy books. (the pic is me outside with house with my daughter Sophie just back from school eating some ice cream and chocolate sauce) Here's the link if you wanna read the piece....

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sean Duffy #4 Gun Street Girl

A little video of me talking about the new Sean Duffy book released in North America today! Available at all good book shops, Amazon, B&N etc. 
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If you get the book and you dig it I would appreciate it if you could possibly leave me a review somewhere if you get the chance...Many thanks.  



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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Top 10 Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. You can pretty much stop reading any of those other lists at the point where they claim that Clueless is better than Pride and Prejudice. Ahem. Ok my top 10 or 11 if you want to be technical about it. 

10. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. Pretty feeble source material and a time travelling ending that ruins the logic of the series is turned into a good little film by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron. 
9. The Shawshank Redemption. Even though, technically, there is no actual "redemption" (because Andy was innocent (wd have been a much better film if he'd been guilty)) and despite the fact that Morgan Freeman's VO gets very annoying by the end, this is still much better than the thin on the ground source material by Stephen King. 
8. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl and a plane and Mr Memory none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. 
7. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Stephen King was never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s which is, predictably, a crashing bore. 
6. The Silence of The Lambs. I know not everyone will agree with me on this but I found the book to be gruesome, campy and overbearing, whereas the film is...oh wait a minute...
5. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book which isn't actually that great. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed 'supertram' yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange, clunky, slightly cheesy book with bizarre mafia subplot, 70s style affairs and then some old sea dog prose, but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
4. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick. Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and 2001 could have been on this list too. The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
3. The Graduate. This is a short book that you will still struggle to finish. How anyone thought there was a movie in this material is beyond me. I guess Mike Nichols is a genius or something. 
=2. The Godfather. Have you read the novel? Wow: schlocky, tacky and very much of its time. Written rapidly in the style of Harold Robbins the words kind of assault you with their clumsiness...Puzo, however, carefully rewrote the screenplay with Coppolla, they cast it well, they filmed it well and produced a masterpiece. 
=2 Goodfellas: Henry Hill's memoir has its moments but the film is probably Scorsese's best (and that's saying something). The Copacabana steadicam scene and the editing in the final 10 minutes are cinematic high points of the twentieth century. 
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so bad that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 150 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however, is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Audie Awards

I've been shortlisted for a 2015 Audie Award. As usual all praise is due to Gerard Doyle my
audiobook narrator and the good people at Blackstone Audio.

The full thriller/suspense list below. (Good luck to Michael Koryta and James Lee Burke both of whom I sort of know)

THRILLER/SUSPENSE AUDIOBOOK OF THE YEAR

Hot Snow; Adapted by John Dorney; Narrated by Various; Big Finish Productions

Dead Six; by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari; Narrated by Bronson Pinchot; Audible, Inc.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone; by Adrian McKinty; Narrated by Gerard Doyle; Blackstone Audio Inc.

The Lost Key; by Catherine Coulter and J.T. Ellison; Narrated by Renee Raudman and MacLeod Andrews;Brilliance Publishing

Those Who Wish Me Dead; by Michael Koryta; Narrated by Robert Petkoff; Hachette Audio

Wayfaring Stranger; by James Lee Burke; Narrated by Will Patton; Simon & Schuster

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Age Reviews Gun Street Girl

GUN STREET GIRL
By Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail)
Age review by Jeff Popple

Irish crime-fiction is currently enjoying something of a golden period with  several outstanding books being produced each year from a range of impressive authors such as Stuart Neville, Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway and newcomer Anthony Quinn.

In recent years Adrian McKinty has also joined that mix. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, McKinty now  lives in Melbourne, where he writes some of the best Irish crime-fiction currently being produced.

Gun Street Girl is the fourth book in his series about Sean Duffy, a Catholic officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the early 1980s.  Hated by both sides of the sectarian divide, Duffy lives in the middle of a Protestant housing estate, where he has to check his car for bombs each day and deal with the anti-Catholic sentiment of his neighbours.

Following the dramatic events in the last novel, In The Morning I'll Be Gone, Duffy's career is in limbo and he feels even more on the outer.   When he is called to the murder of a wealthy couple, Duffy is initially not too interested, especially when it appears that their son killed them and then committed suicide.

However, it does not seem not quite right and when a few simple inquiries lead to more deaths Duffy finds that he is caught up in something very nasty that involves the security services and a shadowy possibly rogue American intelligence operative.  

This is a  first-rate crime-thriller that commands attention from the opening pages and keeps the reader interested until the end.  The writing is tight and the story is very well plotted...The tale unfolds at a good pace, with McKinty balancing the details of the investigation, and Duffy's frequent drinking, with episodes of fast, violent action and frequent twists and turns.

As usual, the characterisations are very strong and McKinty excels in his depiction of the period and the bleak Northern Ireland townships and the problems of conducting a murder investigation "in a time of incipient civil war": "December. Christmas lights in Carrick. Season of Good Will. Black Santa. Cops taking regular hits from both sides now.  Assassination attempts from the Republicans. Death threats and drive-bys from the Prods. Bricks through policemen's windows."

He also displays a good sense of dark humour and has a quick mordant wit that succinctly and effectively sums up characters and scenes: "Did I describe Deirdre before? You know the type: fake tan, dyed black hair, green eyes, chubby, pretty.  There was a bruise under her right eye but you should see the other girl …"

Gun Street Girl is probably not as good as its predecessor, the excellent In The Morning I'll Be Gone, which won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award, but it is still a terrific read and has set an early high standard for this year's crime fiction.

Jeff Popple is a Canberra reviewer.

Friday, February 20, 2015

An Alternative History Primer

my article on alternative history novels in last week's Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
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With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle now showing on Amazon and Ben Elton publishing a novel about a time traveller’s attempt to prevent World War 1 the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury showed in his famous story ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub had missed.
         I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading. Do check out the massive Wikipedia AH list and as usual complaints, suggestions and corrections in the comments below:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wolf Hall on the BBC

this was a good scene: Thomas Cromwell showing off his old skills as a soldier to all the beardy dudes in floppy hats
The BBC have been doing costume drama on television for sixty years now so they should be pretty good at it. And the material they've been given to adapt this time is first rate: Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies both of which won Booker prizes. Mantel's books tell the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which everybody is familiar with from countless movies, books, school work and TV adaptations...so not much heavy lifting there for the scriptwriters to explain the setting. Wolf Hall was given a generous budget by BBC standards and the directors were able to cast more or less whomever they wanted. All of this wd make you think that the series should be good and certainly the reviews of Wolf Hall in the British and Irish papers have been nothing short of ecstatic. "Utterly brilliant," "superb" "intelligent" and this from Daily Telegraph "the best BBC costume drama ever..." Wow...So by now you've probably twigged that I haven't been enjoying Wolf Hall. You've twigged right. For my money all the papers and reviewers are wrong. Wolf Hall is static, slow, poorly filmed and, I'm sorry to say, poorly cast. The casting is a big problem - far too many characters have speaking roles and they look far too much alike. I kept getting Anne Boleyn mixed up with her sister and her ladies maids and even Jane Seymour (a mistake you do not want to make in real life). And all those similar, pale, actory looking blokes with floppy hats and little beards. . .I've read the books twice and I didn't know who was who half the time. And the lead? Well, I'm allowed to be a little unkind here because everyone else has been so generous about him and he's never going to read this. . .Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell the way Roger Moore played James Bond: he's a game chicken but he's just far far too old for the part. Rylance is 55 and looks older, wiser and more defeated than the canny, spirited, lively Cromwell of the books. In real life Cromwell was in his early 40's when he began to have dealings with King Henry and in his 30's when he began to do wet work for Cardinal Wolsey. This is, famously, how Mantel describes her Cromwell: 

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 


Cromwell in the books is fluid, smart, mercurial, sexy, dangerous and vindictive. In Hans Holbein's painting he's bold, watchful, brassy and well fed. Rylance just isn't that guy I'm afraid. 

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Claire Foy is good as Anne Boleyn and Bernard Hill as the Duke of Norfolk is profane, bold, vulgar, swaggering and brilliant. Anton Lesser, alas, is a big charisma suck as Thomas More and Damien Lewis's Henry isn't very sexy or dangerous either (he simpers, cries and prays way too much) and because of that much of the tension and real fear of the books just isn't there. And, as I've said, the rest of the supporting cast is bland and samey... 
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The cinematography is a problem too. Wolf Hall has been shot in the same style the BBC has been doing forever. Establishing shot, close up, relentless scheme of shot/counter shot in the two handers. Wolf Hall could have been made thirty years ago: the camerawork is polite, uninventive, stationary, soft focused and dull. Futhermore the decision to film much of the interiors in what looks like natural light (or a simulated natural or candle light) is an interesting Kubrickian one, but it doesn't quite come off and the interior scenes are drearier than they need to be. And there are a lot of interior scenes. (Remember when they criticised The Phantom Menace for all its tedious scenes of people talking politics on uncomfortable chairs...well here there are endless scenes of people talking politics and God in dimly lit rooms on uncomfortable chairs.) I think if HBO had gotten the rights to this rather than the BBC they would have cast it better, lit it properly, had many more exteriors and filmed everything with more panache. 
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But look this is just one person's opinion and I am clearly a voice crying in the wilderness. (I thought the BBC's Sherlock was bollocks & I thought Stephen King's Mr Mercedes was a lazy piece of shit and they both got nominated for Edgar Awards so what do I know.) And I haven't read a single negative review of Wolf Hall anywhere. Watch it and you'll probably like it, and then you should watch the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy which will probably be right up your alley too. Me? I was disappointed. A great couple of books have been turned into safe, conformist, predictable, middle-class, rather mediocre television that'll play well for Anglophiles everywhere on the BBC, BBC America and PBS.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies

Thomas Cromwell, badass
I have now watched the first four episodes of the BBC's Wolf Hall...Review to follow but meanwhile my review of Hall & Bodies from a couple of years back...
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Let's talk first about the thing that few reviewers seem to want to talk to about: religion. As well as being a clever work of art Wolf Hall is a sustained and subtle attack on the authority of the Catholic church and its role in English affairs. Most reviewers of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel have somehow missed this overt agenda but when you grow up in Northern Ireland (with the sixteenth century Protestant-Catholic conflict regrettably still alive and well) you readily see what Mantel is up to. In 1935 Sir Thomas More was canonised by Pope Pius XI and his PR has been nothing less than excellent since, that is until Mantel got on the case. GK Chesterton, A Man For All Seasons, The Six Wives of Henry VIII etc. have all cast More as a witty man of principle attempting to deal with a bullying King Henry and a treacherous Thomas Cromwell. Mantel aggressively subverts this story in a way that only someone who suffered at a Catholic boarding school can. In Wolf Hall More is not the genial pacifist of the legend but in fact is a chilly religious fanatic who gets his kicks from torturing and burning alive those who dared to commit such heinous crimes as doubting the existence of purgatory or translating the Holy Bible into English. Thomas Cromwell by contrast is a smart, liberal, worldly man of the streets who has lived and fought all over Europe. Mantel's Cromwell is a good husband, a good father, a wit, he speaks half a dozen languages and he is tolerant of error. In a now famous passage Cromwell's talents are touched on:

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 

I wasn't convinced by Wolf Hall when I first heard about it. Do we really need another book about Thomas More and Henry VIII, I asked myself? We've got The Tudors on the telly, we've had several versions of A Man For All Seasons and numerous historical novels about this period in history. We also had this episode drummed into us in school and on half a dozen BBC history programmes. What else new is there to say? Well, quite a lot actually. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies together form a strident counter narrative to the prevailing view. The history I got in school was the story of a greedy Henry VIII and an evil Thomas Cromwell, wrecking the constitution, cutting womens heads off and destroying the monasteries, rare places of learning and charity. Mantel, as any good defence lawyer will do, goes a bit overboard to show us that Henry wasnt a mad wife killer, didnt subvert the constitution and, she claims, the monasteries were in fact places of corruption, sloth, cruelty, stupidity and pederasty. 
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In both books we also get the story of the famous women of the time, especially Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Anne is clever but indiscreet, Jane is simple, coy and beautiful. The young Queen Elizabeth is a spiky ginger and Queen Mary is a cold religious prude. But the real heart of these two novels is Cromwell. Mantel's Thomas Cromwell has become one of the richest and most interesting heroes of contemporary literature. It's obvious why this novel is more popular amongst women than men, because the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall is an idealised male lead, impossible for any man to live up to. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was anything like him I have no idea, but judging from the achievements of his children and wards I'd say that Mantel's take is probably closer to the mark than the villainous coxcomb of A Man For All Seasons. Early in Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell builds a tennis court at his home in London and his game play is described as a strategic, clever and canny, just the way you'd expect it to be. Mantel's Cromwell we come to realize is the true "man for all seasons" and the ball is now firmly in the court of the defenders of Sir/Saint Thomas More to attempt to return Mantel's devastating double volley.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Computer Chess

in any other movie these two would be lucky to get cast as extras but in Computer Chess
they're sort of (spoiler alert) the romantic leads
This is now on DVD, satellite TV, iTunes and Netflix. Most of you will be bored senseless by it, but I LOVED it...
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If, like me, you were a fan of Shane Carruth's low budget utterly brilliant time travel film Primer then Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess will be up your alley. Computer Chess is a wilfully strange, satiric sci-fi film set at a computer chess tournament in 1981-2(?) where coders (mostly from MIT and CalTech) pit their chess software programmes against each other in the hope of winning glory and a cash prize. The computer chess ubergeeks discover to their horror that their conference hotel has been double booked by a very 1970’s-style couples therapy encounter group. When the two worlds collide the fun really begins. The opening ten minutes, is according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian “audaciously boring”. I didn’t find it boring at all but I like this “audaciously boring” idea - as if the opening act is part of a clever scheme by Bujalski to get rid of the casual viewer early and keep the film for the true fans. To further winnow the audience, except for one very surreal scene in the middle the movie is shot on authentic 1980's style analogue black and white videotape - which I think works really well. I’m not going to spoil Computer Chess by saying any more about it but if you stay with the film to the very end you’ll understand why I brought up the Primer reference. I loved this crackpot little movie. 2013 was a year of plodding witless big budget sci-fi films such as Elysium, Oblivion and After Earth but a little picture like Computer Chess shows you how to do the job right with a sharp script and a clever idea.  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

10 Explanations For The Ending Of Birdman

Do endings matter? Can't we all just watch and absorb a piece of art without trying to impose our own meanings on it? No, we can't. Humans are pattern seeking animals and we want explanations and meanings for things. Even for magical realist movies like Birdman. If you haven't seen Birdman don't read anymore of this.
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Still reading? Ok you've either seen Birdman or don't have any intention of watching Birdman or just don't give a crap and all of that is just fine with me...
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10 explanations for the way Birdman ended:


1. Riggan could actually fly. Throughout the movie we get lots of hints that his powers are in fact only in his head, but what if they're not?

2. He jumped out the hospital room window in a psychotic state thinking he was Birdman and as he hit the ground he died imagining that he was actually flying and that his daughter was witnessing him hovering with the pigeons.

3. He really died on stage after he shot himself and imagined everything that happened after that in the final second of his consciousness.

4. He really died from the multiple jelly-fish stings in Malibu and imagined the entire movie in the final seconds of his consciousness while dying on the beach (hence that shot of jellyfish: one of the first and nearly the last thing we see in the film).

5. Riggan really died when the bystander talked him down off the building and he changed his mind and jumped again. Everything after that was imaginary as he fell to his death. I'm not so sure about this one because it creates a paradox: his flight over Manhattan seems to have been imaginary because we - the viewers - see that he got to the theatre in a taxi and didn't pay the fare because he thought he had flown there. I suppose its possible that he imagined the irate taxi driver too.

6. In the final scene he only imagined getting out of the bed and jumping out the window (since when do hospital rooms have slide open windows on the 20th floor?)

7. A la St Elsewhere the entire movie takes place in the head of Riggan Thomson's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who really is in the mental hospital we see at the end of the movie. Sam is in recovery from substance abuse issues and suicide attempts and this is her way of coping: imagining helping her father put on an artistic masterpiece and having an affair with a hot older famous actor.

8. Like #7 above the entire movie takes place in Riggan's head in a mental hospital where he has been committed because of his Birdman hallucinations. 

9. As in #8 above except that Riggan is in the hospital because the spotlight that supposedly fell on Ralph's head actually fell on his head. 

10. This is my favourite interpretation but not the one I actually believe in: Naomi Watts is still playing her character, Diane Selwyn, from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (who if you'll remember was also a minor actress trying to make it into the big time and who also had a lesbian crush on the female lead). This is going to require some explanation, so here goes. In Birdman Watts's character is simply called Lesley. The female name Lesley was popularised (some even say invented) by Robert Burns in his poem: Saw Ye Bonie Lesley. This is the first stanza of Saw Ye Bonie Lesley:

O saw ye bonie Lesley, 

As she gaed o'er the Border? 

She's gane, like Alexander, 

To spread her conquests farther. 

The 'Alexander' Burns is talking about is of course Alexander the Great who was born the night the Great Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) burned to the ground. Artemis of course is the Goddess Diana or Diane in the Roman Pantheon and the Romans referred to the Great Temple of Diane/Diana. The name "Selwyn" means one who dwells in the house/castle/temple. So the name Diane Selwyn literally means "Diana the Goddess who dwells in the house/castle/temple". Alexander himself was not only born the night the House of Diana burned to the ground but visited the temple and offered to pay for it to be rebuilt as he saw himself as the reincarnation of the God Apollo who was Diana's brother. Alexander is intimately bound up with Diana and her temple (Diane Selwyn) as is Lesley in the poem. Therefore Lesley = Diane Selwyn, the character Naomi Watts played in Mulholland Drive. In the Lynch movie Diane mixes imagination and reality for the first 4/5 of the film, but in the last reel we see the bitter reality she has left after she has paid to have her ex girlfriend murdered. Birdman could be another one of Diane's fantasies. . .Interestingly Riggan throughout Birdman hallucinates music and sees a drummer but no band, or as David Lynch has one of his characters say chillingly in Mulholland Drive: No hay banda. Silencio.
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The one I believe is the real interpretation of Birdman is #1. Alejandro González Iñárritu comes squarely from the Latin American magical realism tradition and in that tradition all such things are possible. Its also the most cheerful ending and who doesn't want a bit of cheer in these troubled times. Other possible explanations & comments below if you please: