Friday, April 9, 2010

Your Cheatin' Heart

Annie McCartney
Timewarner Books

After reading this. I’m finding it real difficult not to write in a Southern drawl. Set mainly in Chattanooga, Tennessee, this is the story of a naïve Belfast girl, Maggie Lennon, arriving in the States with two friends for a working holiday. When their flat is flooded after the upstairs neighbour’s waterbed explodes (the result of strenuous sexual activity), and her friends eventually leave, Maggie finds herself moving in with the upstairs neighbour, Sharla Emma-Lea Ayn. And in her own words, ‘that is it. My life has changed forever.’

Sharla appraises her new friend’s assets, and decides that Maggie’s accent should be exploited. Accordingly, she takes her to a local radio station, where Maggie points out to the owner, Follie D Zollie, that he needs a ‘lady DJ’, it being ‘an oversight’ not to have one. Amused, Zollie, who loves British music, notes that her surname is Lennon. So he takes her on, and next thing Maggie knows, she is being introduced as ‘John Lennon’s cousin’ on the air.

The story is not only a hilarious insight into the workings of a small radio station, but gives a vivid portrayal of the launch of a young, foreign innocent into a wild world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and the colourful, eccentric Southern characters who populate that world.

In the space of less than a year, Maggie’s life is transformed. Her openness, refreshing honesty and game-for-anything approach to life warms people to her, and she in turn responds to their humour and spontaneity.

Maggie is initiated into sex by a beautiful young surfer, and later falls in love with Nate, whose family owns half of Tennessee. Partying is no longer a few pints but a few snorts, and a lot more besides. Suddenly, after playing a number on the air that her sister sent over from Belfast, it becomes a hit, and she is rocketed to celebrity fame.

While there is less of a plotline than a narrative of events (and no sub-plot at all) the humour, the pace (it’s all in the present tense) and sheer curiosity keep those pages turning. I would like to have seen Maggie’s Belfast accent written phonetically too. But maybe it would have been too obscure for world readership.

An engagement, a marriage, and an incident with a gun – it’s all mayhem in this hilarious, spinning top of a tale.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in Irish Examiner

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

City of Thieves

Cyrus Moore

In this, his first novel, Moore, the former number one UK telecoms analyst, lifts the lid on the shennanigans going on in the City, where obscene amounts of money can be made if certain influential analysts can be persuaded play ball.
His progatonist is Niccolo Lamparelli, a high-ranking business analyst with the Financial Telegraph. He thinks all his Christmasses have come at once when he gets a call from Larry Sikorski of the US corporate bank, Saracen Laing, offering him a job with an irresistible financial package.
Another perk is that his closest friend, Jack, also works as an analyst at Saracen Laing. Like Nico, Jack spent his summers in Japan as a child, where their fathers worked for a time, and they became attached to Miso-san, a wise old fisherman, who taught them fishing, karate and the importance of honour and integrity. At Miso-san’s request, Jack, older than Nic, always looked out for him and bailed him out whenever he was in trouble. Nic owes Jack.
Nic becomes wary when he is pressured to change his ‘Sell’ rating to a ‘Buy’ for Globecom, a leading telecoms company. When he refuses, he is invited to address a Globecom meeting, explaining his rating. The meeting is a disaster, and Larry subsequently orders him to make a formal apology to Globecom, which he refuses to do.
In the meantime, we meet Dr Picton, who is fronting for the prince of a certain Arab state. We also meet Arnaud Veryrieras of the Financial Services Authority, who has been tailing Dr Picton for years, in an attempt to capture him for fraud. Dr Picton is in contact with a certain ‘suit’ from Saracen Laing, and the intrigue begins to build when a Japanese telecoms company comes up for sale.
The world of the City is teeming with multi-nationals, witty, if chauvinist male banter, the lavish lifestyle that goes with outrageous wealth, beautiful and ambitious women, provocative TV panel discussions, and treachery at every turn. As Charlie, a veteran analyst, advises Nico, ‘Rule number one: stand up for what you believe in. Rule number two: don’t follow the crowd. And rule number three: never trust anyone in this business. They’re all a bunch of lying, dirty, mother*******’
This is a brilliantly constructed, intelligent, thrilling read, and an eye-opener for anyone unfamiliar with the world of corporate finance.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Chris Binchy

Chris Binchy’s third novel, Open-handed, presents a gritty picture of Dublin as a city fast learning to adapt to the rapid changes of the last decade.
It is some years into the release of the Celtic Tiger, and there is a hardening, an edginess that wasn’t there in his first book, The Very Man.
The world created by Binchy is one of impressions, fleeting movements, snatches of dialogue. The book opens with a hotel scene, from the point of view of the porters and night workers, those who witness the hidden muck behind the glittering façade. This is what Binchy is good at, showing us the sordid backside of life, ‘places where these people washed and pissed and shat.’ He is attentive to his surroundings, to mood and atmosphere, to the pulse of a city, a moment in its history.
Four characters eventually emerge more distinctly: Victor, a bouncer who is ashamed of his origins and pretends to be Italian, Agnieska, a beautiful Polish bar worker whose boss senses her potential for other work, Marcin, another Polish arrival, who is an archaeologist, but settles for temporary shifts as a night worker, and Dessie, who gets caught up in the life of his dubious employer, Sylvester, for whom he works as a driver.
The novel hints at corruption at every level, giving us enough glimpses to imply that nothing is as it seems. There is a wariness in every exchange, and trust comes with great difficulty. Even in close relationships, there is a loneliness and sense of isolation.
The rhythm of Slyvester’s secret life undergoes a hiccup when a freelance journalist starts probing. The risk of exposure unsettles him just as he is about to make a significant development deal. And Dessie starts wondering if Sylvester will ever give him the contract his wife has been urging him to secure.
With a deftness that comes from knowing this world intimately, Binchy captures the emerging social fabric of an urban environment that has witnessed an influx of immigrants who arrive hopeful, and instead experience exploitation, dislocation, conflict over allegiances and miserable working conditions. It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a compelling story of four individuals who must resist the situation they find themselves in, or succumb to temptation and lose their integrity.
A revealing portrayal of the darker side of Dublin.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner

The First Psychic

by Peter Lamont

Have you ever heard of Daniel Dunglas Home? Neither have I. Apparently he’s the world’s ‘First Psychic’. And according to Peter Lamont, (also author of The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick), Home is "the most interesting person who ever lived - more interesting than Jesus, Caesar or Napoleon".

Like everyone who ever met Home, by the end of the book, I was truly baffled – but not only by the ‘notorious wizard’, who undoubtedly had a talent for conning ‘the great and the good’, sponging off Europe’s elite, and exploiting people’s thirst for mystery. What was more baffling was how impressed Lamont is by him. He certainly wasn’t my idea of a psychic. The renowned escape artist, Houdini, was disgusted by Home, whom he accused of desecrating the good name of wizardry by associating his ingenious performances with religiosity and spiritualism, and I agree. Why couldn’t he simply have been satisfied with a reputation as a brilliant illusionist?

Clearly, Home was very sensitive, and tuned in to what people were craving. And in the 1800s, what people were craving were answers to the new questions science was throwing up. It was the age of Enlightenment, and there was a frenzy of interest in matters religious and scientific.

Born to a clairvoyant mother and the illegitimate son of an aristocrat in 1833, Home started out life as a sickly, delicate, highly sensitive boy. His parents believing he ‘could not be reared,’ sent him off to a childless aunt. Later, his new family took the boat to America, where he spent his early years.

At the age of 13, Daniel Dunglas Home (pronounced in the Scottish way as Hoom) had his first vision. His closest and only friend appeared at the end of his bed in a glow of light, making three circles with his hand. Daniel understood this to mean his friend had died three days previously. Sure enough, a few days later, a letter arrived to confirm the fact. Soon after this, mysterious rapping sounds were heard in the house, much to the horror of his aunt, who called in ministers from three different churches. Bewildered by their observations, the best comfort they could offer was that Daniel was a ‘lost sheep’ and that if this was the work of Satan, it wasn’t Daniel’s fault.

Later, at the home of a more sympathetic relative, he tried communicating with the rapping sounds, and received intelligent replies. The first was a message from the spirit of his mother, who told him he had ‘a glorious mission’: ‘You will convince the infidel, cure the sick, and console the weeping.’

It was all perfect timing too, because around this time, two young girls, the Fox sisters, also experienced ‘spirit rappings’ within the walls of their home, causing great public excitement. They attempted to communicate with spirits via the rappings, and on apparently obtaining some success, the president, who had recently lost a son, invited them to the White House, where they conducted a séance. Subsequently, they were called back for numerous séances.

Soon, New York was boasting over a hundred mediums. The era of Modern Spiritualism had begun.

As for Home, owing to his poor health, and limited choices of occupation, becoming a medium, with his background, was probably the most glamorous and brazen career he could have chosen. The challenge, of course, was to avoid being labelled a charlatan.

From the age of 18, he began to conduct dramatic séances, at which physical manifestations such as moving tables, performing musical instruments and spirit hands writing messages were witnessed. Word spread, and as séances were the latest fashionable novelty, Daniel was soon being invited to society homes. He always refused payment, believing that it would cheapen his ‘glorious mission’, but accepted the hospitality of his hosts. Before long, he was well known in the most select circles, but owing to poor health – he developed consumption – he was advised to return to England in 1855.

Home duly did so, worming his way into polite English society as easily as he had done in the States. He travelled around Europe, performing for royalty and the aristocracy, and by exploiting his father’s aristocratic bloodline, eventually married the 17-year-old daughter of a wealthy Russian aristocrat, no mean feat for the puny son of a paper miller. His young wife, Sacha, gave him a son, and a daughter who died in infancy. She died herself a few years later, leaving him, after some difficult years chasing it, with her inheritance. His son Gregoire, having been palmed off on other medium friends throughout his upbringing, came to a dodgy end.

After being excommunicated by the Pope for practising sorcery, hounded out of Rome, and dragged through the London courts by an irate widow who claimed she’d simply wanted to adopt him, Home fell out with many of his one-time admirers, and finally died in France in 1886. He was buried beside his infant daughter at St Germain-en-Laye, taking to his grave the mystery of his stunts, which frustrated and eluded his sceptics, including the great Scots physicist David Brewster.

The most interesting man who ever lived? Well, at any rate, he was controversial. Elizabeth Browning considered him ‘wonderful’, while her husband foamed at the mouth whenever he heard his name. He ranted that Home’s séances were the most ‘impudent…piece of imposture (he had seen) in his life’. Charles Darwin considered him, ‘remarkably liberal,’ while Charles Dickens regarded him as ‘an impostor.’ Alexandre Dumas, who was later his best man at his wedding, believed he could ‘conjure up the spirits of the dead,’ while George Eliot wrote, ‘he is an object of moral disgust to me.’ But his champions included Napoleon lll, Queen Sophie of Holland and Tsar Alexander ll, all of whom invited him to be their guest.

Houdini described Daniel as ‘a hypocrite of the deepest dye,’ and a ‘moral pervert’, but could not replicate his more amazing feats. He argued that the newly invented optical devices such as the zoetrope, the stroboscope and the kaleidoscope simply reinforced the notion that the senses could not be trusted. But the dilemma for scientists was that science itself is based on observation. If what witnesses were observing at Daniel’s séances were the result of hallucination, delusion, illusion or mesmerism, what of the evidence of scientific observations?

It is the controversies that Home and similar spiritualist showmen generated, that are interesting. Scientists and rationalists dismissed them as frauds and fakes. To Roman Catholics, they were a blasphemy, and to Protestants, an affront to their sense of God’s order. As for genuine conjurors and illusionists, they were particularly annoyed, undermining as he did, their own performances.

Home did many things in his life. He provoked people’s disgust or amazement. He probably pulled off the greatest con trick of his day, fooling all of the people all of the time. It is delight with this idea that fires Lamont’s account of Home’s life and career. The result is great fun, an entertaining, engrossing, provocative portrayal of Victorian society in the mid 1800s. You have to laugh. At the end of the day, Home has the last laugh. He is, after all being resurrected from his rightful place in obscurity, by Lamont. Or, maybe Lamont is having the last laugh, right now.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jack the Lad and Bloody Mary

Joseph Connolly
Faber and Faber

Plunging into Joseph Connolly’s pre-war London is like tumbling into a more modern Dickens world, or stylistically, into the mind of Joyce’s Molly Bloom. A daring narrator, Connolly takes us into the thoughts of several East Enders and one mislaid West Ender at the outset of the Second World War. His point of view weaves from omniscient to various interior monologues, sometimes mid-sentence. But the narrative voice of each of the main characters is so individual, it’s easy to keep track.
Jack Robertson is an engaging fellow, with a chip on his shoulder because of his lack of education. Quick to anger, it riles him that his friend, Jonathan Leakey has made it good, calling Jackie a fool for doing labouring work for a pittance. Jonny offers to introduce him to the ineffable Nigel Wisely, whose fabulously lavish mansion, butler and assortment of exquisite female companions are an indication of his wealth. After losing his job, Jackie reluctantly agrees to a visit – and from that moment, his life changes. Before long, he’s known as Jack the Lad.
His Mary is a sweetheart with the most innocent nature, and she’s devoted to him. Her days revolve around their son Jeremy, keeping house, entertaining their friends and feeding her man. With more schooling than Jack, she loves to read, and is kept supplied with books by the idealistic Dickie Wheatley, educated at Eaton, who is studying to be a doctor, and would rather work in the East End helping those genuinely in need than in Mayfair with wealthy hypochondriacs.
While the behaviour of Jack the Lad and Dickie (called Weakly by Jonny) change dramatically as the war progresses, the greatest change occurs in Mary, who responds in an extraordinary way to the situation she finds herself in.
Finely researched to the last detail, the social and historic realism is faultless. The book is comparable to A Woman in Berlin (by Anonymous) in the way it conveys what becomes of ordinary city civilians trying to survive during wartime. It’s a portrait that begins cosily, gradually darkening to sinister layers of black. As to style, Jack the Lad and Bloody Mary (great title) is the colourful literary equivalent of a Gauguin painting. Once the various classes of language and dialogue take hold, the story is addictive. Definitely recommended.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner

This Human Season

Louise Dean

It’s November 1979, in Belfast. British soldiers storm a Catholic house, searching for weapons. Kathleen’s elder son, Sean, is in Long Kesh prison, after a year on the run. Last time, they mistakenly arrested her husband while Sean escaped out the back.

Meanwhile John Dunn, after 22 years in the army, is starting work as a prison warden. Ten wardens have already been targeted by the IRA. John has also recently discovered he has a son, Mark.

This Human Season follows the separate stories of these two characters, their families, relationships and love for Belfast. John likes that it’s a ‘hard’ place, not like England, ‘all white bread and keeping the lawn trimmed.’ He has already served two tours in Belfast, and cannot imagine leaving. It emerges that he has never reconciled himself to a dark incident in his past, and wants to do the right thing now. He admires the Catholics, their austere humour, the discipline and cohesive, hardcore ideology of the IRA prisoners, who refuse to wear prison uniforms until they are reclassified as prisoners of war. ‘On the blanket’, they are also involved in a ‘dirt’ protest, smearing their cells with excrement, and there is talk of a hunger strike. In retaliation, the prison wardens, with instructions to break the prisoners’ resolve, play mind games, and inflict humiliating pain.

At times, Kathleen bitterly regrets not having moved down south, but her younger son Liam, who already makes petrol bombs and joins the rioting, says fiercely, ‘you’ll never take me away from here.’ When John’s girlfriend Angie warns his visiting son about West Belfast, vividly describing atrocities, Mark sees in her eyes, something ‘proud. Excited.’ A burning passion for this life-and-death existence seems addictive on both sides.

In researching this book, Louise Dean interviewed over a hundred prison guards, IRA members, Unionists, mothers, priests. She studied the Northern accent intently, and for the most part, the dialogue is convincing.

A novel set in the North is a balancing act, particularly for an English author, but Dean manages to walk the tightrope without toppling. In intensity, This Human Season is to the North what JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is to South Africa. Only in this case, the stark pain of the place is relieved with plenty of Belfast humour. Compelling and powerful, it’s definitely a contender for major literary awards.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner

The City of Falling Angels

John Berendt

This evocatively-titled non-fiction book brings to life the mystery and decadence of Venice, which Berendt describes as ‘a floating city of domes and bell towers’. Arriving in the city three days after the burning of the splendid Fenice, arguably one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, Berendt scrupulously records the aftermath of the devastation. He describes the former glory of the sumptuous building, with its ‘crescendo of ornamentation’: sartyrs, nymphs, angels and swirls being only some of the decorative adornments of a building that also ironically boasted frescos of Dante’s inferno. Years later, these would be painstakingly salvaged and restored. In the meantime, the brilliant prosecutor, Felice Casson, renowned for his giveaway crimson blush when stirred to passion, investigates allegations of arson and/or negligence.
The fire itself, witnessed by famed master glassmaker Archimede Seguso, is captured on vases and bowls in flickering, swirling colours of blue, green, yellow, orange.
Save Venice, a charity for the ultra-rich in America to raise money for the restoration of Venetian buildings and artefacts, has its own agendas, dilettante socialites and in-fighting, which Berendt follows with wry detachment.
Moving in privileged circles, Berendt meets members of the Curtis family, originally from Boston, but owners of the Palazzo Barbaro since 1885. Now, five generations later, they are forced to sell their beloved palace.
He uncovers the scandal associated with Ezra Pound’s literary legacy, which appears to have been hoodwinked from his mistress of 50 years, Olga Rudge, with whom Pound was living in Venice in his last years. She was paid $7 000 for assets worth millions.
Also woven into the tale of Venice is the story of Mario Stephani, a poet, who commits suicide, and the ensuing suspicions over his will. Add to these mysteries Massimo Donadon, the rat man, and Mario Moro, soldier, sailor, fireman, policeman, airman, vaporetto and conductor to mention some of his personae, and you get a sense of a narrative populated by fascinating characters, in a city famed for its romantic allure.
Ignoring the downsides of this undoubtedly bewitching city, Berendt (also the best-selling author of Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil) weaves a spell with this meticulously researched, affectionately recorded portrait of an aristocratic Venice and its residents. A beautiful book, marred only by numerous proof-reading errors and incorrect pagination of its contents page.

Afric McGlinchey
Reviewed in The Irish Examiner