Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The forgotten author

It's funny what happens to our reading habits, and those favourite authors who we read religiously, hunting down every new release the moment it hits the shelves.

I was reading Nick Stone's blog earlier - Nick wrote the ultra-cool Max Mingus thrillers Mr Clarinet and King of Swords - and he mentioned that he was reading the new James Ellroy, Blood's a Rover, the final installment in his American Underworld trilogy.

Ellroy has fallen off my radar. Having devoured everything up to and including his utterly brilliant LA Quartet - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz - I bought American Tabloid, the first in the Underworld trilogy, but struggled to get into it.

In his early novels, and the trilogy featuring brutal cop Lloyd Hopkins, Ellroy had a sparse writing style, but it flowed beautifully. As the LA Quartet progressed, that style changed, until by White Jazz he was writing in what has been termed 'telegraphic prose', omitting all connecting words and using short sentences.

White Jazz, while a great book, had grated on me slightly, and I was coming off a run of particularly stylishly written books when I picked up American Tabloid. I read a few pages and put it down, aiming to return at some point in the future. That never happened, and I don't think I can find a reasonable answer as to why; Ellroy just slipped off my must-read list.

But Nick's post has rekindled a fire. I dismissed American Tabloid far too easily, and Ellroy's back catalogue deserves more. I've retrieved Tabloid from the bookshelf and dusted it off. It now sits with new friends, in a pile of to-be-read books. It's a fair chunk of a size, and the second in the series - The Cold Six Thousand - is even bigger. So this could take some time.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Maine's very own dark knight draws closer to the truth

Review - The Lovers, by John Connolly

Lovers of literature and film are suckers for a tortured soul, and souls don't come any more beaten and crushed than Charlie Parker, the dark hero of this, the seventh offering in Connolly's series about the Maine-based private investigator.

Forget last year's The Reapers, which focused on Parker's deadly sidekicks, Angel and Louis, with Parker supplying a third person cameo. While entertaining and faster than a speeding bullet, The Reapers was Connolly-lite, like supping a shandy when you what you really need is the most potent ale on the menu.

The Lovers opens with Parker working in a bar in Portland, having lost his private investigator's licence at the end of the last fully-fledged Parker novel, The Unquiet. He's been told by the authorities to keep his nose clean - spotless, in fact - and he's doing his best. But this is Parker we're talking about. Spurred on by revelations made by the dangerous and enigmatic Collector in The Unquiet, Parker begins an investigation into his father's suicide three decades ago in an attempt to understand what made Will Parker kill two unarmed teenagers, a boy and a girl.

Perhaps the greatest of Connolly's skills in developing this series has been the way he has balanced the undercurrent of supernatural influences on Parker's life with the possibility that we, the readers, are being totally suckered by an unreliable narrator who is slowly losing the plot following the death of his first wife and daughter, and the estrangement of his second love and daughter. The books have grown in intensity and the bleak mood of The Unquiet suggested a resolution to this issue was coming. The Lovers delivers it, and then some.

As Parker interviews his father's former colleagues, it becomes clear that there was a cover-up into the circumstances that led to his father killing the two young lovers, and indeed his suicide. The Collector had hinted at Charlie having secret 'friends', that even he doesn't know about, and as he peels away the layers of the cover-up, he learns that everything he thought he knew about his family - indeed, his own origins - has been an elaborate, but necessary, deceit.

Running parallel to Parker's first person-related investigation is the emergence of the lovers of the title, as they close in on Parker. This element is told third person, a device that Connolly has used increasingly in the Parker books, and further evidence to undermine the unreliable narrator theory.

The Parker novels have always had strong themes running throughout - loss, revenge, redemption, hope - and they are again present, but it's betrayal that forms the focus of The Lovers, and the strength of character to forgive that betrayal.

Be in no doubt - this isn't a James Patterson easy-to-digest thriller you're reading here. Crime novels, although that is far too broad a term to define this series, don't come any bleaker. There is humour, of course, and as usual it's bang on the money. But Angel and Louis, whose banter with Parker lights up the darkest night, are mere footnotes in The Lovers. And that is how it should be; this is Parker's story, or rather his father's story.

This is also not a book for newcomers to the Parker series. It does stand alone, as much as it can, but there is so much rich backstory here, with characters from earlier books making reappearances, that I can only imagine that, as an introduction to Parker, it would be something of a hollow experience.

For Parker fans, that is not an issue. The Lovers might just be the best Parker novel yet. It may not have a Mr Pudd, Brightwell or Caleb Kyle for a villain, or have the pace and action of earlier novels, but Connolly's writing is sensational. Much of the story is told either in flashback or recounted by characters to Parker; little happens in the here and now, and it takes some writing chops to create such an intense story with Parker, by and large, being talked at by others.

Connolly has hinted that he has the end of the Parker series in his mind. He knows how it will be resolved, it's just a question of how long it takes to get there. Given the developments in The Lovers, there is a sense that we are building to a crescendo and I don't think there will be too many books left. Three, maybe four. And this, too, is as it should be, as Parker deserves some closure. Still, it will be one hell of a ride getting there.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

New blog launched - the greatest books ever written

I've long known that I don't read as widely as I should. In fact, for a writer, my list of books read is embarrassingly modern. I did experience a few of the so-called great works of fiction at school, but since then... well, it just hasn't happened.

But that's all about to change. I've started a new blog - The 113 Supposedly Greatest Books Ever Written - and over the course of the next two years (hellfire, that's optimistic...) I'll be reading each and every one of them. And ranting/raving about them.

The first post is up - it explains what the experiment is all about, and first on the menu is a book I've been meaning to read for, oh, the best part of 25 years. Better late than never, I guess. Have a gander and you'll see what it's all about.

More importantly, feel free to join in the discussion about each book as I make my way up the list, or join in and read a book or two with me.

Gentlefolk, start your engines...

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Amazing Morphing Literary Concept

There's been an itch I've been, er, itching to scratch for several months. The seed of an intriguing idea for a novel formed last autumn and really caught hold - I was desperate to play with it, see how it developed. But I knew it had to be stuck on the back burner while other, more pressing projects, were completed.

It was still in limbo until the middle of last week, when the moment arrived when I could ignore said itch no longer. You know what I mean. So I opened up a fresh word document and typed in the title - I'll call it Mr Stone here, for the title kind of gives the game away at this stage - stuck 'by John Quirk' below it and scrolled down to the top of page two. And away I went.

I wrote just over a thousand words, and it did me the world of good. First and foremost, it helped brush off some cobwebs. I'd hit a bit of a trough, as what should be the final draft of The Manx Giant has been slow in coming together and I've been feeling a bit rusty. It also reinforced my early belief that the core idea for Mr Stone was a solid one.

However, as the word count climbed, I found myself repeatedly returning to read what I'd written. I wasn't sure why this was, until it slapped me across the face with a dodgy kipper. The concept for Mr Stone was unusual - it would involve taking the bare bones of the central idea, but with no plotting, treatment or notes, and researching that idea as the protagonist does in the book. The bottom line would be that I learned what happened next at the same time as the protagonist did.

This was the first time I'd come up with what I guess is termed in the dark recesses of the publishing world as 'literary fiction'. No, it's not a term I'm comfortable with either, but in broad terms it would relate to character and theme rather than plot, and it wasn't to be a book that could be easily defined by genre.

I was happy with that; I'd be turning my hand to something new, hopefully improving my writing as I did. Yet, after those thousand words, I'm left with something of a dilemma.

As the opening unfolded, I couldn't help but think of possible plot developments - where before, I had no idea where the story was going, ideas for major turning points popped into my head and before I knew it the ending had all but formed, uninvited and unwanted. What was literary fiction is threatening to morph into an adventure story, with some fantasy elements thrown in and a conspiracy theory to boot.

So I've stopped. I've left the word document floundering in the new Mr Stone folder I'd set up on my desktop and I'm ignoring it. Because I don't know what to do. Should I strip it all back and start again, keeping it based in the bleak setting I'd created for Mr Stone? Or do I go with the flow, follow my instinct to where it's taken the story so far?

Buggered if I know. So I'm back on the Giant, which is starting to come together nicely. As for Mr Stone, answers on a postcard to one seriously confused mind. Or, alternatively, stick them in the comment box at the end.

Monday, 8 June 2009

A love letter to Afghanistan

Review - Born Under a Million Shadows, by Andrea Busfield

The bottom paragraph on the back cover for this, Busfield's debut novel, describes it as a 'humorous and harrowing love letter to a troubled land' and you'd do well to remember that phrase - love letter - as you read it.

Sage advice to would-be novelists looking to snare an agent or publisher is full of 'show, don't tell', particularly early on in a manuscript, and the need to hook the reader immediately, to produce the goods and induce that 'move to the sofa' moment for said agent/publisher. And go easy on the back story, whatever you do.

But they say rules are there to be broken, and Busfield seems intent on doing just that. Million Shadows is narrated first person by eleven-year-old Fawad, a boy born in Kabul during the time of the Taliban. It opens very quietly, as Fawad describes life with his friends on the streets of Kabul, working the foreigners, his fractured home that he shares with his mother, his aunt and her brood.

It's scene-setting - beautifully done scene-setting at that - but after ten or fifteen pages I had one thought in my head... when's this thing going to start? What I hadn't realised was, it had. And it had the hooks in, too, but all with such subtleness that by the time the 'story' kicked in I was unaware that the author had slung a bag over my head and carried me off into her world.

The event which sparks the plot into action comes when Mariya lands a job as housekeeper for Georgie, an intelligent and sexy western woman who shares a home with two friends, James, a journalist, and May, an engineer. Fawad, understandably, develops a huge crush on Georgie, who has relationship issues of her own - she's in love with an Afghan warlord, Haji Khan, who Fawad soon learns isn't the kind of bloke you want the girl you love so achingly to be hanging around with.

The story unfolds slowly - Fawad tries to act as matchmaker between his mother and a guard; he gets a job working in a small store with a blind shopkeeper; the three westerners take Fawad under their wing and introduce him, unintentionally, to alcohol and sex education; and he watches, helpless, as Georgie's love for Haji intensifies before, inevitably, their world threatens to break apart around them.

Busfield first experienced Afghanistan while working as a journalist for the News of the World covering the fall of the Taliban. In interviews she does not hide the fact that she fell in love with the country, so much so that she made it her home, and this knowledge permeates everything that transpires to Fawad and his friends. It also explains the 'love letter' reference, because that's exactly what this is. Plot is secondary here; it's a look at a year in Fawad's life, a momentous year during which he grows from a child into a young man. A love letter from Busfield to a trouble-torn but beautiful country.

Her style might not suit everyone, but for those who are happy to wait for their riches there is much to admire here. She manages to give a history lesson without preaching, and outlines the politics without being political. Fawad isn't just a fully-rounded character, he all but steps from the pages and grabs you by the hand. The relationship between Georgie and Khan is deftly handled, when it could have come across heavy-handed and cliched, and most of the supporting cast - particularly Pir Hederi, the blind shopkeeper - are a delight. There's also some real humour on show here, and not just the obvious situational comedy, such as the incident involving Fawad, a knife and a Frenchman's ass.
There are issues which detract. Some of the word choices for Fawad's internal monologue feel awkward and out of place and at times the dialogue, especially between the westerners, doesn't work; it feels clumsy, almost forced in order to propel the story onwards, and this is in stark contrast to the exchanges between Fawad and friends, not to mention some of the long descriptive passages which bring the country and its natives to colourful life.

As debut novels go, Million Shadows is a fine effort, a beautiful, slow-burning story of unconditional love, tragedy and, ultimately, life-affirming hope. Well worth a read.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A tale of cocktails, marathons and intense suffering

If truth be told, I've been struggling for the last eighteen months since the publication of The Manx Connection. Sure, I've been writing. And some of it might even be halfway decent. I'm one draft away from crossing The Manx Giant off the to-do list, and Quackenbush is a few solid weeks of head-down-no-distractions away from being a completed first draft, albeit one that needs major rewrites. I've knocked out some freelance stuff, and started this blog. So it's not as if I've been sitting under a palm tree drinking Douglas Town cocktails (two ounces of kahlua, one ounce of tequila, half an ounce of lime juice and stacks of ice, first sampled in Galva, Illinois).

But the bottom line is, I've not been anywhere near as productive as I should have been. There are reasons for this - wedding, honeymoon, baby, sleepless nights - the kind of thing over which you have little control. There's one other factor, however, which I could have done something about.

I'm a great believer in the whole healthy body, healthy mind way of thinking. Seven years ago, I could barely run for five minutes without risking coughing up several internal organs. I was a regular at the gym, but I've always been short and stocky and not built for running. After a particularly heavy night on the juice, I informed everyone that I was going to run the New York marathon. Cue much hysterical laughter.

Six months later, after one broken collarbone and some intensive late training, I completed the marathon in an okayish time of 4hrs 4omins. It was painful, but not an experience I'd swap. I don't think it's coincidence that in the two or three years that followed, when I was running fairly regularly, that my life kind of fell into place. My career developed, my writing improved, the idea for the Manx Connection was born and the research carried out. Everything came together.

Yet since December 2007, I've been somewhat slack. Or downright lazy, take your pick. Exercise has had to be shelved, with so many other commitments on my time. I've put on a stone since the wedding, and I was still a tad overweight then. It's not all my fault, mind you. Mrs Quirk is such a damn fine cook, that some of the weight gain has been out of my hands. When she works her magic, the angels drop their harps and gather round, wishing they were mortal. How's a bloke supposed to stay in shape?

However, I know that my disillusionment with my output during the last eighteen months, and in particular the last five months - when I had so much planned - stems largely from the fact I'm unfit, out of shape and developing bulges in places which I've been informed become increasingly difficult to shift once you hit forty, which is now just ten months away.

So, it's time to kick my arse into gear. I went for a run tonight, the first one in a long, long time. Three miles, over the steam railway line and down to the eerie, tree-veiled and walled estate near the beach at Gansey (I've got to get that place into a book one day) and back up in a loop. If I hold on to something, and avoid sudden movements, I can still stand up. But I feel exactly how I did seven years ago when starting out on the marathon training - damn sore, but determined to get back in shape.

All this is not just about providing the inspiration to write, although that's a major aspect to it. It's also about the quality of the writing I produce, which I know is reflected in how I'm feeling health-wise. Now, if I can just cut out the chocolate. And the cake. And the beer. And not forgetting the pasties...

PS - next blog post should be a review of Born Under a Million Shadows, the debut novel from Andrea Busfield. Well worth a punt.