30 November 2013

Light of the World, James Lee Burke

I make no secret that Burke is one of my favourite writers. However, he is not one of my favourite novelists. His descriptive prose creates a setting so authentic you can almost smell it but varied characters and credible scenarios are simply not his forte. He draws from his collection of standard villains to the extent that most are interchangeable from book to book.
The latest outing sees Sherriff's Deputy Dave Robicheaux, his buddy, Bail Agent Clete Purcell, their two adult daughters and Dave's wife Molly staying with a friend at his remote Montana ranch. Needless to say, a serial killer and various violent cronies soon appear on the scene. As usual Dave's family comes under personal threat, and he and Clete override local law enforcement pursuing the villains themselves. The chase culminates in a bloody shootout to rescue hostages.
Burke has particular difficulty with female characters. His women are invariably hard, angry and with chips on their shoulders. Perhaps this gives a clue about the women in his real life; look no further than Alafair, the irritable daughter of his main protagonist Dave Robicheaux. Even her very unusual name happens to be the same as Burke's own daughter. Dave's wife Molly is absent from ranch settings for much of their stay. Burke just seems to forget she's there!
Put simply, Burke cannot do dialogue. No one answers a question. Instead they pose another. Conversation is always minimal; at best testy, at worst venomous. Ultimatums are issued to friend and foe alike: "Don't ever... "Don't you dare... "You say that again...." Characters repeat themselves from page to page and from book to book: Alafair continually rejects her father's various terms of endearment for her. Clete's daughter, the abrasive Gretchen, argues with everyone within earshot.
I know this is meant as escapist entertainment, and that some repetition is necessary to help newcomers, but each instalment is a barely disguised variation on the last. Burke is seventy-seven and his protagonists are getting close to that too. I wonder how much longer they can scrap like youngsters and whether Burke should retire them and divert his undeniable writing skills in a more cerebral direction.

26 November 2013

People wave frantically at their own image on the big screen...

I see this all the time at televised sporting events and it bugs the hell out of me! Call me too darn clever for my own good but, from the angle, I know I would be able to work out where the camera was and so appear to wave at the viewer. It's just spacial awareness, like not getting lost in the woods.
"Nigella's off her head on drugs!" Thus says the Daily Mail. Well, that's celebrity chefs and Chancellor of the Exchequers' daughters for you. Probably lining up a rehab book out in time for next Xmas. If it's not pseudo celebrity trivia it's alarmist stories of NHS patients abandoned to their fate in hospital corridors. I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads the BBC for news and the DM for a light-hearted alternative take - complete with 'hilarious' spelling, grammar, punctuation bloopers, and hopeless errors of fact.
I'm irritated that people have moved into the top floor apartment in the building opposite me. It stood empty for two years after the previous urinating-over-the-balcony types moved out. It shouldn't bother me but it does. I like to wander (almost) as nature intended with my blinds open. I can't for the time being. One of them came out with a towel on her head to smoke in minus 8C this morning. Again, not my problem really, but.
I'm not keen on the gigantic healthcare facility for seniors a quarter of a mile away. In fact I don't like seeing all the new ground being broken around town. We're in danger of spoiling our small town feel. I really MUST move out to the country.
People are parking too close to the school entrance where school buses arrive, in fact almost blocking it. Again, none of my business but when I picked Maisie up from school today I felt a nice flood of satisfaction as a teacher came out, waving wildly and angrily. Three had to move, hoo-ray.
Maisie lost her first milk tooth today and proudly showed me her gap which is "just like Daddy's." It's not stopping either of us eat homemade fries, eggs, toast and baked beans!

12 November 2013

We Are Water, Wally Lamb

Gaps between the publication of Wally Lamb's novels range from five years to ten, a significant departure from today's usual churning process. A lesser writer would risk their readership drifting away but in WL's case the wait only heightens expectation.
As with his four previous full novels, emphasis is heavily on relationships, internal thought processes and consequences. Lamb really draws you inside the mind of his protagonist(s), revealing, often in flashback, the circumstances which shaped the present day characters. In this novel there are at least six first person narrators, each delivering accounts of their past and how it interlaced with that of their parents, siblings and partners. The result is a multi-layered and intricate portrait of a family.
The initial conflict centres around the decision by Annie, an artist, to leave her twenty-seven year marriage and set up home with Viveca, a Manhattan art dealer. What follows is an account of the week leading up to Annie's remarriage told through the voices of herself, her former husband, their three children, a childhood cousin of Annie's and a couple of minor players.
Reaction to Annie's new future prompts conversations and internal reflections that lift the lid on some truly ghastly secrets, making, on a couple of occasions, for very uncomfortable reading. No one it seems is guilt free. As the novel edges towards the wedding day, the revelations force family members to confront themselves and each other, with dramatic consequences. There are sideswipes at modern America, Politics and Race but these are suppressed, serving as a backdrop, and don't detract from the main account.
There is no rush here. Wally Lamb takes time to savour characters and events, illuminating them with authentic dialogue and sometimes a credible, tumbling stream of consciousness. Don't be deceived by the nonchalance of some encounters, as subtle clues to help piece together this intricate portrait abound. It all distills to a story about how we perceive ourselves and our family; how we handle (or bury) extreme difficulties; and ultimately about the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

05 November 2013

runner's playlist

If my running route involves city streets I like to hear what's going on around me so I have never been in the habit of listening to an iPod. However, I took my Nano on the Island's recent half marathon and enjoyed it, possibly even benefited from it.
Since then I have run three times a week in stony silence with only my thoughts for company. Today I decided to give it another go and spice up my usual 10k route to Victoria Park. I use a dedicated armband and although routing the cord through a sleeve and head hole is fiddly it's worth getting right as the weight of flapping cord will pull out your earbuds, already loosened from a combination of jiggling and sweating. Yes, even your ears sweat when you run!
Choice of music is important. It needs to be rousing, thrilling and familiar. Does it help me run faster? Possibly. It certainly helps take my mind off the pain. This is the playlist which motivates and excites me:   (Today I got as far as Morrissey - 55 minutes, and sprinting for the finish line.)
Woke Up This Morning Alabama 3
Golden Earring Radar Love
Bad to the Bone George Thorogood
Black Betty Ram Jam
Sultans of Swing Dire Straits
Mountain Top Bedouin Soundclash
Fake Palindromes Andrew Bird
Maria Blondie
Santa Monica Everclear
Give Me Novacaine Green Day
Guiding Light The Veils
Still Rock & Roll to Me Billy Joel
Summer of '69 Bryan Adams
Time for Heroes The Libertines
Boeing 737 The Low Anthem
First of the Gang to Die Morrissey
Some Might Say Oasis
Country Girl Primal Scream
Easy Deer Tick
Common People Pulp
Smile Like You Mean It The Killers
Still in Love Song The Stills

02 November 2013

Birdman, Mo Hayder

This novel is awful. The plot is cliché-ridden and could have been lifted from any number of TV crime dramas. A serial killer (with some medical knowledge) preying on prostitutes; London detectives with racial prejudice and puerile humour; endless references to wasteland near the Millennium Dome; Jamaican drug dealers with at least twenty words for the same substance. Puh-lease! I'm not going to consider the story because it has all been done before in 'Prime Suspect' etc.

The writing is poor. Chapters begin with unidentified pronouns, word choice is sometimes jarring and inappropriate. Descriptions are peppered with brand names dropped from the most exclusive catalogues which comes across as the author showing off and the worst sin of all...Hayder loses her readers' trust by introducing inaccurate observations.

Such as: a man is reclining in the bath. He sinks lower and the St. Christopher medallion, on a chain around his neck, floats to the surface and bobs by his chin. When you know that solid metal does not float you start to doubt other references. Consider also the flies seen gathering above the outdoor floodlight. Yes, above. That has no basis in reality and anyway, how would you even see them. An abductor, lurking out of sight in the rear seat of a very small car jumps over seatbacks into the front. Pretty much impossible for a man described as overweight, especially as all car seats contemporary with publication were equipped with head restraints which come close to the roof.

Then there is the strange colour-shifting: at one point I read about 'brown' clouds; next a policeman's white shirt is stuck to his chest with 'yellow' sweat. She talks about the Police driving Sierras. Not in 1999 they didn't because Ford discontinued that model in 1993. I ended up not believing much she wrote.

So what about the action and the little descriptors which bring scenes to life? Oh dear, policemen seem unable to talk to the occupant of any parked car without first leaning their elbows on the roof and poking their heads through the window. Car drivers only ever speak to their rear seat passengers after hooking their arm around the back of their seat. I have never known so many characters to rock back on their heels and look at the sky/clouds/rain, some several times. Goodness me, such lack of balance.

I listened to the audio book version 'performed' by Damien Goodwin, and he's just as much to blame for this mess. I laughed out loud at some of his pronunciation howlers. Hic-cough does not rhyme with 'off'! Oh, and the median cubital vein used for venipuncture has the first syllable stressed. It's not spoken as 'muh-dee-un'. While on matters medical how about 'meta-bow-lite'! OK, we all know it's 'met-ábo-lite' but should we really have to make these mental corrections as we go?

I persevered despite these weaknesses because, perhaps unwittingly, Mo Hayder has created an interesting central character. Jack Caffrey is a hard-drinking cop somewhat wed to the job, attractive to women but unable to sustain a regular relationship. Here the familiarity ends. His dialogue is clipped, short to the point of rudeness; he doesn't tell anyone about his personal life or his background which includes a brother abducted and missing since childhood. Caffrey is a self-deprecating anti-hero who deserves a superior setting.