Sunday, 31 May 2015

JO NESBO'S BLOOD ON SNOW

Olav is a fixer, working for Daniel Hoffman, formerly Oslo's biggest heroin dealer, now in competition with someone called The Fisherman. Olav 'fixes' problems for Hoffman, which usually means eliminating someone. He's just completed a hit when Hoffman gives him a new assignment: to 'fix' his wife Corrine, who is having an affair. Olav hesitates, not because he's opposed to taking care of someone who's made a mistake, but because he senses extra risk in getting involved with Daniel's personal life. But still, he has little choice, so he starts to stake out Corrine, and that's where everything begins to go wrong.

On the surface, Blood On Snow reminds one of Headhunters: a character forced to work out a seemingly intractable problem on his own, with major questions about love and trust getting in the way of his judgement. Olav is a different kind of main character, of course, introspective and private and not greedy, as opposed to very publicly successful and avaricious art thief in the earlier novel, but the books are similar in their sense of narrative drive, but in this book the headlong rush is slowed by Olav's nature, and Nesbo shows a deft touch with the contradictions in his character. Olav's in love with an ex-junkie he 'rescued', who's a mute working in a supermarket; but he someone feels Maria is too good for him.

It's getting near Christmas, and what Nesbo has done here is create a classic film noir storyline, complete with an angel and a femme fatale, and in Olav he's made an almost perfect film noir hero: a romantic underneath his hard shell, who can't help himself from falling into the self-destructive web of hopeless love. What becomes evident is the linkage between our modern noir and classic fairy tales, and again Nesbo's style in this book: simple and restrained, emphasises the point. And even though you can see where it is going, he manages to take you by surprise at least once, and he ends it in a scene of beautiful sadness. 

It's a piece of finely crafted writing, a slighter-seeming novel that may as good and more powerful than any he's written before. Movie rights have been sold, Leonardo DiCaprio is mentioned and would be all wrong for the role, but like Headhunters, Blood On Snow will adapt well to film. If the well-judged book is just left alone.

Blood On Snow by Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846558603

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

MINETTE WALTERS VISITS THE CELLAR

Muna is 14 years old. They think. She's been brought to Britain illegally, used by the Songoli family who keep her in the cellar where the 'father' Ebuka abuses her when she isn't working. One day, the Songoli's younger son, Abiola, disappears, and Muna's world changes. The presence of police forces the Songolis to bring her out in the open, where they discover there is far more to Muna than they might have thought.

It's presented as a horror story, but it is horror that is created by a deft combination of psychological thriller and fairy tale. You begin with the obvious comparison with Cinderella, see elements of Henry James or Arthur Machen, and wind up with something much darker, that builds with a intriguing kind of logic as Muna adapts to the strange world outside.

Much of the story is borrowed from the news, and familiar headlines come to mind as you read it. But the potential mundanity in that is overshadowed by the construction of the narrative, from Muna's point of view, and using Muna's language. She has learned English secretly, by osmosis, and she has comprehended only parts of the world through the actions of those holding her prisoner. It makes for a classic fairy-tale narrative, from a child's-eye point of view. Her 'brothers' are Roald Dahl-type figures, cartoonish exaggerations, but the massive presence of her 'mother' Yetunde, with her jewellery, bonbons and domination of her husband, is a villainous creation of chilling perfection, as if a Disney film had taken a much darker turn.

One by one her tormentors disappear, and the tale picks up speed when Muna deals with the outside world, authorities and curious neighbours, while coping with the now-crippled Ebuka. And it is here that the story has to choose its finish, between horror and thriller. My instinct would have been for the latter, bleaker and more chilling. But in the best traditions of fairy tales, Walters finds a moral in her resolution, and a chilling moral, and story it is.

The Cellar by Minette Walters
Hammer £12.99 9780099594642

Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 18 May 2015

DENNIS LEHANE'S WORLD GONE BY

When we left Joe Coughlin at the end of Live By Night, he'd worked his way up to the top of Tampa's gangland, but lost his beloved wife Graciela in a shootout. He seemed ready to take his son and head for a quieter life in Cuba. But when World Gone By opens World War II is on, and Joe is of almost respectability in Tampa society, removed from the day-to-day of the gangster life while acting as the consigliore to the family headed by his old friend Dion Bartolo. But life will not stay quiet.

The war has taken many of the best soldiers who did the mobsters business, and a sort of chaos is brewing, sparked, Joe and Dion think, by an informer within their organisation. Joe's private life is about to get complicated; he's carrying on a dangerous affair, and he's informed, by a hit woman looking to stay safe in prison, that there is a contract out on him. But who would want to kill Joe Coughlin, whom everyone respects and nobody seems to hate? And he's started seeing a ghost.

You may recall Coughlin as a young boy, in The Given Day, where his father was a bigshot in the Boston police and his older brother was working his way up the blue ladder. But none of that was for Joe, and what Dennis Lehane's novel is about is the lure of the gangster life, Joe's inability to leave it behind, and the impossibility of squaring its twisted morality with that of the 'straight' world. 'Our thing' may swear by family, but as Joe knows all too well, his read family has paid a huge price to the other family whose life he so enjoys.

On the one hand, this is a fast-moving thriller. Who is trying to destroy the Bartolo-Coughlin good thing? Who wants Joe dead? And as Joe moves between a series of bad and worse men, you see the crack widening between his personal world outside the business and the business itself. And then slamming together very tightly. Within the pace of the plotting, some of this is Lehane's best writing: any number of chapters could literally stand alone as short stories (see 'Bone Valley' or 'Names On The Wind' as examples), and the punch line of 'Names On The Wind', in which a black gangster kills the man sent to kill him, who has just that day become a father, is telling: 'Who knows if you would have been any good at it?'.

It's like riding a car, which is under control, but just barely, because the driver knows what he is doing, but you know you are headed for a crash. In the end, it's as if Lehane himself is as much in love with the gangster life as Joe Coughlin is, only he's detached enough to see a bigger picture, a picture which includes ghosts. It is a marvellous feat to be able to write a sequel that at first seems to be a lesser version of its predecessor, and then turns out to be both simpler but more profound.

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
Little,Brown £16.99 ISBN 9781408706695

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 15 May 2015

TODAY I HAVE THE BLUES: RIP BB KING (BLUES ALL AROUND HIM, THE FT REVIEW)

B.B. King's death was expected, the papers were ready, but the outpouring of both respect for his artistry and importance in music and admiration for the man as well as the artist was spontaneous and well nigh universal. It reminded me that sometime shortly after I left university, I went back to Wesleyan to catch a King concert. Because I was for some reason well-regarded by one of my ex-professors, I was invited to sit in the next morning as B.B. gave a lecture to advanced music students. Bluesmen, like athletes, have far too often been described as 'natural talents', King was showing how much hard work and study went into his success. I was already a fan, of course, now King had elevated himself further in my personal pantheon. Many years later I wrote the following review of King's autobiography for the Financial Times; it appeared in the 28/29  December 1996 Weekend section pretty much as written, but with the line about King's resentment of his treatment while in the Army excised, for reasons I have never understood. The title was their subs' creation; the reference to Babe the pig dates it somewhat.

HAPPY SINGING THE BLUES

B.B. King's signature tune is "Every Day I Have The Blues", but reading this good-natured biography it's sometimes hard to believe that's true. Despite taking more than twenty years to reach a mass audience, King has always been the most accessible of bluesmen, visibly trying to please his audience. As a ghost-writer's subject that attitude hasn't changed. His story's told as a form of seduction, of love-making, and love appears to be the key to King's life. 

      According to his recollections, B. was six years old when he began making love with his seven-year old sweetheart. He has spread himself wide, if not thin, ever since, fathering 15 children. Although he would appear to have remained true to only one partner, his famous guitar, Lucille, he also reveals that there have been 17 Lucilles: this is like discovering that Babe the pig was really a group of pigs!

     Riley B King began life as a sharecropper: his father left his mother, only to reclaim young BB after his mother's early death. This double-abandonment produced a premature self-sufficiency in King. Apart from an eye-opening stint in the segregated US Army, where he still resents the reality that his country treated German prisoners of war better, and with more respect,  than black soldiers, King found his own work ethic, talent, and attitude rewarded by sympathetic authority figures, both black and white. This gave him the foundation which resulted in his eventual move to Memphis to make it in the music business.

      King's early blues influences were his cousin Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lonnie Johnson. But radio brought all kinds of music his way, and from the first his tastes were eclectic, embracing jazz and white country music and as well as the blues. His easy approach owes much to Louis Jordan, just as today's leading popular bluesman, Robert Cray, owes much to King.

      He began playing that music on the radio, disc jockeying and performing before he took off for the hard life of performing on the road. Although his music was popular from the start with black audiences, he missed the first chance to "crossover" to whites in the 60s because his mix of blues, pop, and jazz was not considered "authentic" enough. He finally was discovered by the mass white audience through the adulation of white musicians, many of whom were British. King's generosity of spirit toward white imitators of the blues like Mike Bloomfield, Bonnie Raitt, or Eric Clapton was seen by many "purists" as a sellout. Yet his gratitude is real, and his generosity of spirit is the keynote of this book.

      King was influenced by many people, and helped by many more, along the way: he acknowledges all of it. Yet it is his remarkable talent for seducing with the blues that made him a worldwide star. This leaves little time for negatives, whether they be the pain of his upbringing in a racist society, or the perils of the music business. Lots of thanks and no regrets. It's not the usual formula for a show-biz biography, and the formula should make it bland. But this is BB King. It works.

      I once sat in on a talk to a small group of music students which Dr. King (he has four honorary degrees, including one from Yale) gave, describing each of his guitar influences, while imitating their styles perfectly. He demonstrated everyone from Charlie Christian to Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery, and of course all the blues greats. Then King began to play his own style. A group of highly trained musicians was mesmerized. "The Thrill is Gone" was King's biggest hit. The thrill of B.B. King is never gone. 

BLUES ALL AROUND ME: B.B. KING

The Autobiography

B.B. King with David Ritz

Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 324pp, £18.99

Thursday, 7 May 2015

WE3 BY GRANT MORRISON & FRANK QUITELY

The US Air Force is working on cybernetics, and Roseanne Berry has created a method of weaponizing domestic pets; she's turned a dog named Bandit, a cat named Tinker, and a rabbit named Pirate into a coordinated weapon with deadly abilities. But the project has moved beyond her; rats working in groups is the latest advance, and the politican behind the whole idea doesn't think he can sell turning people's pets into warriors. So WE3 are supposed to be decommisioned. But Berry has a heart, and she sets her animals free, turning them into a threat, and, away from the medication and support of the base, putting them into a situation they're unlikely to survive.

WE3 works on two levels. The more obvious is the story of animal survival, of the relationship between pets and humans, and it's not hard to see why this graphic novel was a best-seller a decade ago. It raises all the basic questions about the way humans think of and treat the animals they possess, and it appeals to the better side not only of its readers but even a few of the characters in the story.

But it's also a commentary on the callousness of our attempts to de-humanize war itself. I thought of Fred Saberhagen's Beserker series, and I thought also about our drone programs, ways of taking ourselves out of the messy business of killing for profit, power, or ideals. That raises questions about the nature of humans as pets as well.

Grant Morrison's story is, at heart, pretty simple, but it's told in a relatively challenging way by artist Frank Quitely, very much influenced by Manga. I'm tempted to say it tries to work on a non-verbal delivery as much as possible, which helps the reader identify with the nearly speechless main characters. It can be a little hard to follow, particularly in the action scenes (my 11 year old son got lost once or twice, and I had to read very carefully at times), but it is resolved deftly and with great sensitivity, whether you're a kid or adult, whether you come to it from sf novels or from children's tales about pets.

WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
DC Vertigo, ISBN 9781401243029, $14.99

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A SMALL MANIFESTO FOR THE UK ELECTIONS

I actually posted this on facebook today, but I thought I should have put it here first--

Before you vote for who you think is better at running the economy, remember some points Ed Milliband ought to be making, and the media ought to recall because it wasnt that long ago. Ignore the deficit script which has dominated the election and consider:

1. Labour did not cause the collapse. Wealthy bankers and brokers caused the crash. Gordon Brown may have 'saved' both the British and US economies.
2. He did so by finding nearly a billion pounds from the 'emergency fund' that is never used to help the poorest in this society. The only protests from Tories were that he wasnt digging deeply enough.
3. Labour, to their shame, took us into illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have cost British taxpayers somewhere between £34 and 37 billion. This money too has come from outside the precious budget, and this time too the only howls of protest from Tories was that not enough was being (borrowed) and spent.
4. The UK has NEVER been anywhere close to financial failure like Greece, though its economy was performing worse than Spain's through most of the past Con'dEm regime. Britain controls its own currency and debt, Greece doesn't.
5. Austerity is a way of transferring more money from poor to rich, of maintaining privilege, and of cutting back on social mobility. It is an excuse, not a rational policy. Were it a rational policy, the Tories would have cut borrowing, not increased it.George Osborne borrowed more in the first 4 years of his regime than Labour had in the previous 13 (source: the communist weekly, the Spectator)

Monday, 4 May 2015

THE BRIDGE AT WHITE RIVER JUNCTION: A POEM

I wrote this poem in 1986, in Ponte di Legno, so it's pretty obvious what inspired it. That I could associate the scene in the mountains of Italy with the place where the White River joins the Connecticut River, which forms the border between White River Junction, Vermont and Lebanon, New Hampshire (nowadays it's better known as the place where I-89 intersects with I-91), says something about how I perceive my expatriate existence...it was intended for a collection I was working on called The Crossing Place; who knows maybe it will get done after all..




THE BRIDGE AT WHITE RIVER JUNCTION

The crux of
a moment

a lifetime
suspended

between

New
Hampshire
&

infinity



Saturday, 2 May 2015

CALVIN PEETE: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obit of Calvin Peete is in the Daily Telegraph today, you can link to it here. It's a bit different to the way I wrote it. Usually, when dealing with sports, desks are worried their audience won't understand what's being talked about, but golf, particularly for Telegraph readers, was something I'd thought immune to that. So there was a bit of the technical stuff about golf, and even about the Ryder Cup, which was lost. And interestingly, the idea of a high school equivalency diploma was something of which they'd never conceived.

What was lost was my second paragraph, going into more detail about how Peete was the final bit of the bridge of the post-war struggle for black golfers to compete with whites on the PGA tour. It was lost for space reasons, and here is what I wrote:

Peete also stands as the final link uniting Woods, who joined the PGA tour in 1996, and the half-century of struggle for racial equality in the sport. Competitors in PGA events were, by rule, exclusively Caucasian. When Bill Spiller was barred from an event in California, he and Ted Rhodes, the 1948 US Open winner generally regarded as the first full-time black professional, sued the Association, arguing the denial of work on racial grounds violated the US constitution. The golfers settled out of court, but a verbal promise from PGA president Horton Smith to lift the colour bar was ignored. Not until 1961, under threat from California and other state governments to bar the PGA from public courses, did Charlie Sifford became the first black player on the tour; it was Sifford who taught Tiger Woods' father Earl to play. Pete Brown was the first black man to win a tournament in 1964 but not until 1975 would Lee Elder break the segregation of the Masters; Elder actually played in apartheid South Africa's PGA Championship, invited by Gary Player, four years before he stepped on the course at Augusta.


Peete grew up unaware of this history.

Peete didn't encounter the blatant discrimination even his immediate forebears like Elder did (having to change in car parks rather than clubhouses at some tournaments) but that didn't mean he was fully accepted the way Woods was. But the concentration on Augusta and the Masters was indeed the Telegraph's preference, and part of the description is theirs (the 'genteel racism' is mine).

But Peete's story is really two parallel arcs: the personal struggle and the golfing struggle. There's a movie in that, which might encapsulate some of the changes in American society. And one thing I wanted to mention, but couldn't think of a serious way to do it, was just how perfectly 70s Calvin Peete, and his kangols, always looked on the course.