Category Archives: Reviews

WOOL, by Hugh Howey

I found out about WOOL from a Facebook friend, who recommended it highly. And boy am I glad she did! Post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature doesn’t come much better than Hugh Howey’s five novel series(with more to follow, as well as the prequels FIRST/SECOND SHIFT).

From WOOL’s ominous beginning – a recently widowed sheriff volunteers for “cleaning” – to its revealing conclusion, the author fills each page with characters that grow from accepting the status quo to questioning everything they’ve been led to believe about how and why they live the way they do. Even the ‘villain’ of the piece is motivated by what he thinks is right – and a part of me understood why he acted the way he did.

Mr. Howey’s writing is superb; his descriptions of life underground are both real and affecting, and his action scenes gripped me with their authenticity and pace. In WOOL, mankind’s future is as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, but the hope Hugh Howey offers at the end makes following Juliette’s journey a sign that maybe, just maybe, we can make amends for our mistakes.

Read WOOL. Please.

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David Foster Wallace: The Infinite Jester.

I have just finished reading Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, an author I’ve heard about but never read. I doubt I’m the only one in the latter category. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Dave Eggars, Thomas Pyncheon, Jonathon Franzen and Dom DeLillo. Of these authors, I’ve only read DeLillo’s Point Omega – and that’s only because it’s a short novel. I still didn’t get it – if there was anything in there to “get” that is.

Wallace achieved fame after the publication of his second novel, Infinite Jest. There is a copy of this 1,079 page monster beside me right now, looking at me, daring me to open it up and read it. It’s a scary proposition. All the more so because the author himself felt he couldn’t top it. No matter how hard he worked (and he came up with some great excuses when he couldn’t quite find the inspiration), Wallace’s anxieties and ongoing struggle with depression and addiction – as well as a succession of failed relationships – ripped his undoubted talents as a fiction writer to shreds. His non-fiction, particularly his journalism, kept him alive – but only to a point.

Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46. He left behind his wife of four years, and an unfinished manuscript for what would eventually become The Pale King, a novel about boredom and the I.R.S.

So why would I be interested in a writer I’ve never read, especially one I’d probably never read? * Because he (and I’m sorry if this sounds clichéd) suffered for his art. When he faced long bouts of writer’s block, he wrote to DeLillo and Franzen to complain about his lot. Nowadays we writers moan about our lack of creativity on Facebook or Twitter. Both actions are cries for help, but Wallace had a bit more class about him. He was also a deep thinker; there wasn’t a subject he didn’t want to know about. He studied philosophy, mathematics, tax accounting (for The Pale King), and was a clever, funny, but insightful critic on modern-day consumerism and mass entertainment. Infinite Jest is Wallace’s commentary on a society brought up to worship television, a society that has become addicted to addictions, become increasingly disconnected, and mourning for a loss of community. Wallace gives us no answers because that would be the easy way out. We have to find these for ourselves.

And this is why I am drawn to this man. He echoes my thoughts right now. The world he wrote about in 1996 is still very much the world of 2012. We’re still searching for answers, looking for meaning in an ultimately meaningless society. Will we find them? Wallace didn’t stay around long enough to find out.

* (I will clarify my above statement. I have read Wallace: it was an article he wrote about Roger Federer – Wallace played tennis to a high level when he was younger – and it’s an exquisite piece of writing.)

Leonard Cohen: The Man with the Hat.

A few years back, I started writing a story about a boy with anger management issues. He found himself involved in an adventure that would take him all around Europe, culminating in a big face-off with the bad guys, in Athens. The only things he really cared about was his girlfriend and the music of Leonard Cohen. As part of my research for this still unfinished story I downloaded Cohen’s greatest hits. The only thing I knew about him was his melancholic music, his downbeat lyrics, and a voice that matched both of these attributes. Listening to his songs changed few of my preconceptions; but they stayed with me long after I stopped working on my story.

Tonight I got to see Leonard Cohen perform live for the first time. A friend had seen him on each of the four previous occasions the Canadian visited Ireland. He spoke highly of him, and when a ticket became available he asked me along. Cohen was playing the second of four dates at Dublin’s Kilmainham Hospital, the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). It was a cold but dry September evening. 10,000 adoring fans packed themselves into this excellent arena, waiting for The Man himself to appear on stage at exactly 7:15pm. I didn’t know what to expect.

Three and a half hours later, I realised I was in the presence of a beautiful mad man. At 77-years-old, Cohen led from the front, aided by a band of international musicians and singers that have been with him since he began touring again after an extended stay in a Buddhist monastery. (I did say mad, right? But in a good way.) Every song from his greatest hits – if they can be called that – got an airing. Personal favourites like “So Long Marianne”, “Suzanne”, “Tower of Song”, and “Dance Me To The End Of Love” had me in goosebumps. His performance of “Democracy” will go down, for me, as the highlight of the evening.

I can’t continue without mentioning Cohen’s backing singers, Sharon Robinson, co-writer of many of his well-known songs, and the fabulous Webb Sister, Hattie and Charlotte. Each of them got their own moment in the setting September sun, with Robinson’s rendition of “Alexandra Leaving” suitably spine-tingling.

What enamoured me about Cohen was his obvious respect for his musicians. Each time they had a solo to play, he would take off his hat (a Fedora or Trilby, I’m not sure which) and watch them play. He knows he wouldn’t be where he is without them. We know that, too. And we wouldn’t be where we were without Leonard.

I don’t care if he has to wheeled out in a chair the next time he visits – I just want to be there.

The Daily Rant: Raving Haruki Murakami and 1Q84

Rather than rant away on some topic that’s currently got my back up, today I wish to rave about an author I’ve recently discovered. I don’t know a lot about Japanese author Haruki Murakami, but 200 pages into his new novel, 1Q84 (first published in his native country in 2009), I am astounded and captivated by this literary marvel.

This is a long book and was originally published as a trilogy. However,  the American publishing company Knopf published all three novels in one volume last week and it’s this edition that I picked up in Hodges Figgis. For reasons best known to myself I tend not to read foreign authors (my recent attempt to read Les Miserables stalled at the end of the first volume), but it appears Murakami’s style is distinctly Western by nature.

I can’t give too much away about the story mainly because I don’t really know what it’s about. Okay, it has a fantasy feel to it because of its theme of parallel universes and a race of beings known only as the Little People. But it’s the power of Murakami’s prose that’s holding my attention. He is a very ‘readable’ literary fiction writer (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and his characters are uniquely drawn and compelling.

From what I’ve read so far, there is murder, sex, religious zealotry, magic realism and a 17-year-old Japanese dyslexic who may or may not have written a book called Air Chrysalis. It is this girl, Fuka-Eri, around which the plot revolves.

At the moment I’m taking every opportunity to read this novel, whether it’s stealing a page or two while working, or whole chapters when I have more time. Like I said, I’m only a fifth of the way through the novel. but already I feel like I’ve discovered lost treasure.

Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical

The last time I went to a musical, it was Jesus Christ Superstar, at the Point Theatre, in 1999. The Point is now called the O2 and is the perfect venue for concerts, but not great for musicals Something to do with the acoustics, I’ve heard. Anyway, a couple of years ago, when Ireland had the money, a theatre was built near the Grand Canal Docklands. It is called, imaginatively, the Grand Canal Theatre, a 2,500 seater venue, ready for some of the biggest musicals in the world to come our way. Maybe I’ll finally get to see Les Miserables, some day.

So this evening, some friends and I went to see Jekyll and Hyde. Okay, it’s not the biggest musical in the world, nor is it among the very best musical entertainment has to offer.(For my money, that particular accolade must go to My Fair Lady.) But it’s a classy production which takes a well-known text, and then turns into something out of the ordinary.

 

The lovely Sabrina Carter, who plays Lucy Harris

I’m sure most of you will know that the original story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was a short novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson – he of Treasure Island and Kidnapped fame. It tells of a doctor who experiments with the nature of good and evil and concocts a formula that will hopefully separate the two. The results are catastrophic and ultimately good man Jekyll loses control of his alter-ego, the monster Edward Hyde.

 

The text can be looked at from a number of angles. For psychiatrists and philosophers, it examines the good and evil that resides within each one of us, and the struggle humans have of keeping our dark side at bay. For other medical practitioners (and some sociologists), it highlights the nature of addiction. When the addict is clean, the good person is in control. When the addict uses and is in the throes of addiction, the dark side (or Hyde) has the keys to the castle. It’s a simplistic definition; no doubt there is more to this than what I’ve summarised. But at the end of it all is the story. It’s interpretation is up to the reader.

The musical features the talents of former Wet Wet Wet frontman, Marti Pellow; himself no stranger to addiction. Indeed the whole point of seeing a performer of his calibre and history playing a part such as Jekyll and Hyde reminds me of Robert Downey Jr. as he is now: playing characters with manic and addictive behaviours of their own. Experience is everything. It brings a sense of realism to the stage.

Standouts in the musical itself include the aforementioned Pellow, who can more than carry a tune. His centre-piece, This Is The Moment, is the highlight of the first act, right before his transformation into Hyde. Pellow’s co-stars each get their moment to shine, but I reserve special praise for the brilliant Sabrina Carter, who plays the conflicted but tragic Lucy Harris. Her solos, Someone Like You and A New Life, made the musical for me. Her duet with Sarah Earnshaw, who plays Emma, Jekyll’s fiancée, In His Eyes, is beautiful, too.

The sets were top-notch and invariably I felt a thrill each time I saw how the whole show flowed seamlessly. Like I said, it’s not the greatest musical I’ve ever seen, but as a night out, it beat sitting at home, waiting for something to happen. I really must make it my business to return to the theatre as soon as I can.

I see Spamalot is coming soon, to the same venue. Hmmm….

Richard III: Fast and Loose

Image by James Toumey, courtesy of Fast and Loose Theatre Company

And indeed it is a winter of discontent. If Ireland’s current economic woes aren’t enough to deal with (yesterday’s Budget hits – and hurts – everybody), the sub-zero temperatures have most people wrapped up like Sand People from Star Wars (unless of course you’re Polish; in which case you’re wearing shorts and breaking out the sun lotion). So when my friend Dennis suggested we go see a play at Dublin Castle, I said why not. If it’s not going to cost too much I’m there. As it turned out, there was no cost; the tickets were free. And as Dennis says, free is the best price of all.

The Fast and Loose Theatre Company was set up in 2009 “with the intention of producing Shakespeare in unusual and non-theatrical settings.” (This is taken from the programme for this evening’s performance.) And it was true to its word: the company staged on of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Richard III, in the former official Church of Ireland chapel of the Household of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland from 1814 until 1922, when Ireland became a Free State. So basically, we were going to see a play in a church.

The Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle

As it was when Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed, the audience were very close to the action. We sat in the centre of the chapel while the actors walked and ran up and down. Every entrance and exit was used, and at times, even spectators became part of the play, by way of gestures or hands on shoulders. It was an intimate presentation.

I know very little about Richard, other than he wasn’t a very nice person; a deformed madman (he was rumoured to be a hunchback) who murdered and plotted his way to the throne of England. Though his reign was mercifully short (1483 until his death in 1485), it was filled with incident, most notably for the murder of The Princes in the Tower. He was eventually defeated by the Earl of Richmond (who later became King Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth, and so ending the War of the Roses.

Richard III, King of England, 1483-1485

The play itself is one of Shakespeare’s longest. So in order to keep the running time at two and a half hours, the producer and directors pruned a fair amount of historical background. It was necessary, but if you were unfamiliar with the play (like me) and unsure about English history (again, like me), you might get lost (I’m saying nothing). But it was easy to put that aside because the production was so energetic. (I mentioned there was a lot of running around, didn’t I?) The young and talented cast, led by John Cronin as Richard, oozed vibrancy and enthusiasm. It was hard not to get wrapped up in their characters’ dilemmas. In fact, a number of the cast held down more than one role (which was handy if you were murdered early in the production). I give a special mention to Eva Bartley, who played Queen Elizabeth. As the main female lead (no disrespect meant to Margaret MacAuliffe, Denise McCormack or Camille Rose – each gave full-blooded performances), Bartley stole each scene she was in and I felt her conflict when Richard demanded her daughter as his new wife (he murdered his first wife, Anne). I thought she was stunning, and she and Cronin were the lynchpins of this deep and complex play.

Not that it was all blood and guts; there was an element of comedy to it, too. The cast interpreted the Bard’s language expertly, complete with knowing asides to us, the audience. There were laughs to me had, amid the murdering and scheming. Two and a half hours flew by.

My friends and I left the Chapel Royal very much energised by what we’d witnessed. We bade each other goodnight and went our separate ways. I waited for my bus home, in the freezing cold, and knew that I would have given my kingdom for a horse.

Thank you for reading – and thank you Fast and Loose Theatre Company.

Jack Reacher: Literary Action Hero Supreme

Extract from Worth Dying For (2010)

Reacher said, “Pop quiz, guys. You spent four years in college learning how to play a game. I spent thirteen years in the army learning how to kill people. So how scared am I?”

No answer.

“And you were so bad at it you couldn’t even get drafted afterwards. I was so good at it I got all kinds of medals and promotions. So how scared are you?”

“Not very,” said the guy with the wrench.

Wrong answer.

End of extract.

Jack Reacher is an ex-Military Policeman and the hero of Lee Child’s fifteen novels. I’ve read them all and they’re a masterclass in succinct, action-packed thriller writing. Child and Reacher are my heroes.

In the above extract, taken from Child’s latest novel, Worth Dying For, all you need to know about Reacher is there. I’ve no doubt in my mind that already you have an image of what he looks like and how he thinks.

He can survive anything the bad guys throw at him. In the end of the last book, 61 Hours, there was some doubt about whether or not he made it out of the cave that was packed to the hilt with explosives. There was no mention of him getting out. In Worth Dying For there is no mention of how he did manage to escape; except that he did. He’s bruised and in some pain, but that’s not enough to stop him from being a relentless force for good.

In a fight between Rambo and Reacher, Reacher would make the muscle-bound Vietnam vet eat his bandanna through a tube.

In a scrap between the Incredible Hulk and Reacher, it would be the monster who’d get smashed.

In a duel between James Bond and Reacher, all the gadgets in the world wouldn’t save 007 from an embarrassing end.

That’s how good Reacher is as a fictional action hero. He shouldn’t exist. But he does. He shouldn’t be real. But he is.

My recommendation? Start with The Killing Floor and work your way through the series. Be prepared for late nights because these books do not let up.