Saturday, 8 July 2017

Drinking for Scotland: Rachel McCormack's Chasing the Dram

Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky
By Rachel McCormack
Simon and Schuster, £16.99

Rachel McCormack is someone I am in contact with only through her acerbic Twitter presence, but she is the only person in my sphere of even virtual acquaintance who has ever heard of, let alone read and critiqued (very forcefully), the Catalan author Manuel Vazquez Montalban. Who was so admired by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri he named his protagonist Inspector Montalbano after him. 

Rachel did live in Barcelona and is well known for her Spanish and Catalan cookery expertise, some of which may have permeated down from the otherwise (apparently) loathsome Sr Montalban, who was both a gastronome and writer of several cookbooks, notably La Cocina Catalana. He was (at different stages of his life) also a Marxist, a CIA agent and writer of some of the most peculiar detective novels in the genre. If you want to know what may be going on in the dark underbelly of both the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, his last book, The Man Of My Life, is available in English and I’d highly recommend it. Nobody else likes it.

Anyway, Rachel herself has just published a book which is, and she won’t appreciate me saying this, not dissimilar to some of the Montalban canon in its enormously entertaining eclecticism. Just as Pedro Carvalho, Montalban’s detective, veers from political pondering and philosophy through gourmandizing on a grand scale to cooking, unearthing criminal activity and making impenetrable jokes, Rachel has produced a whisky travelogue which purports to be a ‘road trip’ through Scotland searching for ‘the meaning of whisky’. While championing the inclusion of whisky in food through a series of recipés, some of which are  appealing, some  hilarious, while others appear to be spirit-fuelled culinary fire hazards. There is also quite a bit of politics, some very funny and piercingly sad family encounters, and a lot of extremely entertaining drinking, much involving the conversion of whisky-haters to lovers of at least some version of the cratur. And there is truly wonderful travelogue. The sojourn in Kilmarnock is worth the price of admission alone. Hogmanay  with her mother and blue-rinse pals is the funniest and most accurate piece of writing about Milngavie I’ve ever read.

There are some great character studies, notably of broadcaster Billy Kay’s hair, beard and voice, as well as  an occasional (knowing) submission to the PR blandishments of things like the risible Keepers of the Quaich ceremony (a Masonic Lodge/Orange Order for upmarket drinks retailers). But there are some really splendid insights, too  - and while some of the less worthy in whisky geekdom have already tried to trash the book (jealousy, I’d guess, in particular of the Simon and Schuster imprint, and now removed from the Amazon listing) one of the most erudite and experienced of topers I know was hugely impressed by her wheedling out of dark secrets concerning what Ben Nevis’s Japanese owners actually do with their new-make spirit.  I ended up spending £37.70 on a bottle of Ben Nevis 10-year-old, for reasons you’ll have to buy the book to discover.

Rachel’s breezily clear descriptions of whisky making, its legal and historical  context and maturing processes are accurate and careful, and it’s only her initial and typically belligerent dismissal of ‘terroir’ that both misleads and, in the end, is contradicted by the book itself. In the early sections she argues that nearly all of a whisky’s character and taste comes from its ageing in wood, and that all that stuff about distillery location, sea breezes and water is romantic nonsense. As her journey progresses, though, Rachel inadvertently marshals various facts against her own argument: Malting barley turns out to be crucial, as is the design of the stills, the methods of heating them, and yes, location. 

We move towards an admission that there’s perhaps a 70-30 split in the effect of wood against other factors, or maybe 60-40...but by the end of Chasing the Dram we know, as this Glasgow woman who left Scotland and then came back surely does, that whisky is all about place, and people; history, myth and magic as well as science. And for Scotch Whisky, that can only happen in Scotland. It’s our terroir, pal, and we’re gonnae use it. You could even write a book about it.

Provided with a superb, note-perfect cover by Sarah Mulvanny though it is, I can’t help feeling Chasing the Dram deserved the kind of large-format, copiously-illustrated presentation the late, great Leslie Forbes (artist and writer) produced so well with things like A Table in Tuscany and her masterpiece, Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail. That design approach might have made the abrupt arrival of the ‘whisky recipés’ , which at times have little to do with Rachel’s actual textual adventures, a little less jarring.

Still, this is an enjoyable, erudite, funny, sometimes brilliant book full of passion, insight and ebullient, feisty, boozy sarcasm. And chips. Mustn’t forget about the chips. She is very good on chips. Or patatas fritas we call them in North Lanarkshire.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Not Very Cheap Thrills: Kindling a price war over Rankin, McKinty, Moore and Ben-David

In the crack cocaine world of the  long-running detective series, waiting for the next Rebus or Duffy can be excruciating. I haven’t decided if Adrian McKinty’s habit of blogging teaser chapters of upcoming books is a good or a bad thing - personally I couldn’t face the gap between the opening chunk of Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly (Tom Waits song) dangled online by McKinty and the rest of the book, which I consumed on release day at a single sniff. Ian Rankin’s I’d Rather Be The Devil (John Martyn/Skip James song) was another much-anticipated sequel, though it’s a case these days of slumping with a pleasurable sigh alongside a crumpled, semi-retired and ageing Rebus  (and his dog and assorted retinue) as he more and more measuredly ponders mortality,  slouching along the crime-ridden streets of Disneyburgh, grumbling.

With Duffy, whose journey through the Troubles has reached the late 1980s, there’s still an aghast, stomach-churning sense of being in an out-of-control car heading for unfathomable horror, even as the drugs and wisecracks flow, the intellectual references and gunfire rattle out and the BMW 535i V8 (derestricted) hits 140 mph on the M2 outside Belfast, either NWA or Arvo Part on the stereo.

But here’s a thing. I admit to being a McKinty addict. Which is why paying £9.09 (as I write; it was £12.99 earlier) in paperback -yes,  paperback -  from Amazon might have been a genuine option, had the Kindle version not been a more agreeable £4.74. Go on, Serpent’s Tail, take ruthless advantage! The Rankin book is in a more peculiar position. You can get it in hardback - yes, hardback - on the Big A for £7.00, while the Kindle version is a frankly lunatic £9.99.

I know Amazon prices are set partly by algorithms depending on sales as well as whatever deal the publisher has struck with Bezos and his acolytes, but some of the Kindle prices on high-demand books are frankly disgusting attempts to rip off the hopelessly addicted - or, if you prefer, the faithful fan. Publishers are, on the whole, short-sighted idiots who just don’t get digital; even the vicious fools in the record industry, while punting the dead format of vinyl in pursuit of the vast mark-up an LP offers, will offer you a download code as part of the deal. But seek an offer of a souvenir hardback with a free Kindle edition, and the Neros of print will laugh in your face, and fiddle their launch-lunch budgets as their industry smoulders.

Another example. Alan Moore’s amazing (and badly under-edited, not to mention logorrheaic) Jerusalem came to me as a gift in the single-volume hardback edition. That would be 1100 pages of tiny type, 600,000 words. I wanted badly to read it but it was too heavy and it hurt my eyes. Easy, I’d download the Kindle version and beef up the font. How much? £14. FOURTEEN QUID? Nope. A Kindle version as part of the hardback (£17) deal would have saved sprained wrists and damaged eyesight for thousands.

Grumping about pricing aside, Rather Be the Devil is Late Rebus (Continuing), and extremely enjoyable. Far more concise and focused than the early Rankins, and, dare I say it, relaxed. It offers considerable pleasure alongside a nagging sense of doom. Rebus must die, will die and you sense the author knows that, but can’t bear the thought. The wait for cancer results may be pushing it a bit, though...great music choices, the delights of various restaurants and of course the Oxford Bar. Rankin’s cruising here, but Rebus undoubtedly knows there’s an iceberg ahead,

Police At The Station And They Don’t Seem Friendly - a ‘Troubler’ as some call Northern Irish political thrillers - is among the best of the superb Duffy series from McKinty. Some find these books a bit broad-brush but the speed, wit, sense of place and history are, to my mind, irresistible. Duffy’s Catholicism is very much on display in this latest book, which looks at some extremely unpleasant aspects of Ulster’s past policing, in the form of the infamous ‘B Specials’. Assured plotting, the best gunfight descriptions in the business, vast quantities of drink, drugs and fast cars...that was Royal Ulster Constabulary life in 80s, folks! I absolutely loved this book which in its hectic, full-on humour, constant threat of violence and looming  tragedy, captures the more lurid aspects of Norther Irish life you will find nowhere else in literature. And it doesn't even come close to Altnagelvin A&E on any Saturday night.

Pricing problems looming again, this time for a text which, as I write, isn’t out yet. I loved (see Thrillfilters past) the first  Mishka Ben-David book to be released in English, Duet in Beirut. Now Final Stop Algiers, which I read pre-release, offers even more insights into the strangely casual world of Mossad missions

At first, this tale of a would-be artist recruited into counter-intelligence seems oddly deliberate, then romantic and unlikely. But Ben-David writes as a former Mossad officer and has always stressed in interviews that he keeps his books as realistic as possible. Finally, it occurs to you that this is what it’s really like, right down to the matter-of-fact approach to death and violence, meted out as part of the job and described with great candour.

The final section of the book, detailing a mission to Algeria, grips not because it’s particularly well written (and I don’t think the translation is as colloquial as Duet in Beirut) but because you know it’s really like this. Terrifying, compulsive and uncompromisingly patriotic, there is nothing like Ben-David’s work in the thrillersphere. Powerful, memorable stuff.

But expensive. £11.99 in paperback on release to pre-order and £9.49 on Kindle. Then again, I got mine for nothing...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Murakami's 1Q84 and Hawkins' The Girl On The Train, via two books by undertakers

You can do yourself a psychological injury, I have decided, by being a tad too eclectic in book consumption. Promiscuity is all very well in any aspect of life, but you can be left a bit befuddled. And going from Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (Books One and Two; waiting for Part Three to arrive) to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, via two memoirs about the funeral trade: Robert Connolly’s Over Your Dead Body
and James Baker’s A Life in Death, has left me slightly discombobulated. One minute it’s timeshift parallel worlds in Japan with a vengeful assassin afflicted by leprechauns and classical music (Murakami), then you’re queasily learning about embalming techniques and how cremation will be displaced by dissolving bodies in strong alkali solutions. That’s for research purposes, honestly -
Baker’s book is a curiously happy, rather self-satisfied  memoir about undertaking in Stroud; Connolly is much more astringent and offers a brief history of death and how we deal with it. With some very funny personal memories covering similar ground to Baker (though in more lip-smackingly horrific detail). Nevertheless, Baker is better on embalming. Absolutely nothing seems to have upset him during a career which began with work experience aged 15...

Then I found myself attempting to read a discarded copy of Paula Hawkins’ 10-million-selling debut sensation The Girl on the Train. I got to page 182 before throwing it down in frustration. Both my wife and daughter had done the same thing. How such an obvious and clumsy reworking of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with an easily guessed ‘real murderer’ and seriously unconvincing, not to say unpleasant characters, could become so successful is really...oh, but the clue is in the criticism, or the critic. This isn’t pulp. It’s heavily sugared and spiced mush, served in a reassuringly familiar container, easily gulped or sucked through a thick straw, and not so much ingested as absorbed and then painlessly excreted. There’s going to be a movie, with Emily Blunt, set in the USA. Oh shit.

But 10 million copies? Why? Well, it’s banality pretending to complexity, wrapped in the blindingly obvious. That universal experience of seeing something inexplicable out of a train window, of wondering about the lives exposed as you gaze into other people’s houses. Hooked? Three narrators, with the central one so unreliable you know from the start she can’t possibly be as bad as you’re initially meant to think. And then it’s all soap opera sex, betrayal. Infertility and ‘imagining his long fingers on my body’. Believe me, Gone Girl this is not. Gone Girl is like a Japanese bullet train compared to this tarted up Thomas the Tank Engine. A sophisticated piece of engineering as opposed to cartoon tech from another century. Actually, I’m being unfair to Thomas.

But it’s popular. And popular  (also to be blindingly obvious)is not always good. Even though early Thomas the Tank Engine was very good, actually, before Ringo left the series.

On the other hand, Murakami’s absolutely insane, berserk epic IQ84 is also massively popular worldwide, despite being so demanding of your credulity, plotwise, that once completed you wonder how anyone could possibly get away making it so brilliantly, compulsively readable. And with Books One and Two in the hands of separate translators, too.

To summarise (deep breath): Deadly young female assassin killing off abusers of women in and around Tokyo finds herself in what appears to be a parallel world, very similar to hers other than it having two moons. The lost love of her life, a maths lecturer and author, ghost writes the story of a strange young girl concerning the aforementioned, and malevolent, leprechauns (‘little people’, not called O’Shea). A strange religious cult, much coolly described sex, family dislocation, a fantasy about cats and much else comes together in what is an utterly absorbing and often very funny/violent fable about faith, intimacy and the power of fiction, riffing constantly about music, martial arts, food and fashion in modern Japan. Murakami’s use of labels and trade names anchors his writing in ‘reality’ (cf William Gibson, also obsessed with Japanese culture) even as its explodes into areas which initially seem utterly fanciful, but then become accepted as part of the reader’s reality. It’s playful in the extreme.

Friends who have been to Japan say that the country’s religiosity is omnipresent, and highly eclectic, with magic, Buddhism and extreme cultish Christianity sometimes casually combined. Murakami’s book identifies the bizarre dangers in this, with clear references to the Aum doomsday group, the subway sarin gas attacks and more.

Wonderful, really. But I’d better get back to my study of funeral practices. Did you know that this new method of ‘liquid cremation’ is being pioneered by a Scottish company? But of course!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Eoin Colfer's Plugged and Screwed

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books  were favourites of my son James and extremely entertaining, carefully iconoclastic young teenager fiction which led Jimbo straight on to The Great Carl Hiassen. Thence to Hemingway, McCarthy, all kinds of ‘proper’ literature and now a flourishing career as an author of wildly successful tomes on how to make bread, cakes and beer. Fortunately, having seen where writing and showbiz get you, he has a proper job as well.

Anyway it’s at least partly Eoin Colfer’s fault, who - while remaining a top bairns’ writer, and currently being Laureate nan Og (Ireland’s children’s laureate)has come up with a brilliant plan to maintain contact with his demographic as it ages. Many of his once-young readers are now adults, sort of, with an implanted need for the same kind of witty brutality as found in Fowl, easy-reading crime fiction though now with the violence, coy sex, super-sweariness and arch media references young men with tattoos’n’tweed expect in their light reading matter. Post-Hiassen stuff, in fact, Jack Reacher  with a sense of humour. Kind of Tony Soprano  - they’re set in New Jersey - with less angst. Oh, and McEvoy’s Irish. “If you loved Artemis Fowl” goes the publisher’s tagline on one edition’s cover, “it’s time to grow up.”

So we have Daniel McEvoy, former Irish army sergeant, suffering PTSD from his time as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon (but hey, often to hilarious effect) and now (in Plugged) a doorman in the small NJ town of Cloisters. The follow-up, Screwed, sees Daniel as owner of a sleazy casino and drinking den called Slotz. Presumably the third book will be called Fucked, though his publishers may have words to say on the subject.

Both Plugged and Screwed (Screwed more so, as Colfer was evidently in the Adult Orientated Raunch groove by the time he wrote it) are effortlessly brilliant romps, seamlessly plotted, frenetically paced and full of characters you recognise from TV shows, films and other books. Notably, McEvoy is like a cartoon version of Adrian McKinty’s early Michael Forsythe character.

It’s broad brush stuff, but very funny, full of outlandish Hiassenesque scenes (especially echoing Striptease) and with a host of deadpan one/two liners (“there isn’t a naked person on this planet who isn’t scared of hot pasta”...”they say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I would argue that a scorned woman would pale and back out of the room when faced with a Rottweiler who just got his scrotum twisted…”)

McEvoy has psychological and hair transplant problems, plus a shrink (from The Sopranos) and a Jewish doctor pal (out of Hiassen and MASH). He’s very good at killing but queasy about the actual act. He has a lot of sex but is loath to go into details. Hey, kids might be reading. And there’s a complicated family background involving his mother’s millionaire dad (shades of Benjamin Black/John Banville’s Quirke).

Colfer is very good in Jersey and NYC psychogeography and breakfast at Norma’s in the Park Meridien is definitely on the cards for me should I ever visit the city again. The occasional lapses into maudlin self-examination are forgivable. Just.

I read Screwed first, which I definitely do NOT advise, as some of the characters only make proper sense if you first meet them in Plugged. Which I didn’t. These are fast, snacky reads, full of fun, guns and violence, very cleverly constructed and snappily written. Worth a penny plus postage on Amazon in my book. Liam Neeson in the movies, surely? Perhaps too much hair.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Turning Blue, by Benjamin Myers: Reservoirs of rural evil

Turning Blue

Benjamin Myers

Moth publishing, £7.99. Published 11 August 2016

Like any other trend of temporary grooviness, the hipster nature writing thing will surely run its course. There have been some outstanding pieces of tweedy, wind-scoured, leaky-wellie writing over the past few beardy years, but the whole Caught By the River cult, this back-to-nature reaction to cokefreak urbanism, will inevitably wither and fade. Too much of its confessional wing wallows in the river twee, and its fashionable links with the whole vintage canvas knapsack and hand-made clog scene is hard to take here in the real, Gore-Tex and ripstop world of remote living.

Benjamin Myers, though an enthusiastic participant in the Robert MacFarlane landscapery-worship movement, is destined to outlast and outgrow the merely transient Lawrence-lite, and there are some very good reasons for that. His body of work is a fascinating progression from commissioned cuttings-file rock biography (System of a Down, Lydon, Green Day, Muse, The Clash) through the hilariously transitional The Book of Fuck (squat-dwelling rock hack tries to interview a Marylyn Manson figure) to the pivotal Richard, a truly affecting fictionalisation of Manics songwriter Richey Edwards’ last days.

Carefully and lovingly written, that controversial book’s tale of a rural journey into oblivion saw Myers tackling landscape for the first time to great effect. Myers’ relocation to Yorkshire (he’s a Durham lad originally) then brought about a severing of ties with the rock music that had hitherto fuelled his muse and paid the bills, and initiated a concentration on overtly rural themes: The gypsy death-fighting of the ferocious Pig Iron and then the astonishing Beastings - a child kidnapping, a priestly pursuit, the utter corruption of religion set among the glowering Cumbrian fells.

Pig Iron and Beastings are both brutal, beautiful books, prose pared to the bone, owing greatly to the Hemingway via McCarthy school of American writers but uncompromisingly English in tone. And they benefit greatly from the fact that Myers is a pro. He’s been a prolific rock hack since his university days, he’s fought the sub-editing wars for decades; he’s grammatically armed, experienced,  and capable of subverting language to dangerous effect. Beastings has the power of folk myth, and some uncompromisingly disturbing scenes which led me to lend it out with stern warnings for the easily offended.

I wondered, though, when I heard Myers was planning a, for want of a better term, ‘detective series’. It would be ‘folk noir’, we were promised. OK, that could work. But was this an attempt to commercialise his vision of rural life, to render his themes more accessible to a bigger audience? And is there anything wrong with that?

No, in my opinion. And so we have Turning Blue, which is being sold as the first in ‘the Brindle and Mace series’. That would be Detective Sergeant Brindle of the mysterious Cold Storage unit (which bears a certain resemblance to Derek Raymond’s The Factory) and Roddy Mace, former tabloid journalist, who has renounced the moral soup of London for a local newspaper in the dales and a beer-and-vodka stymied attempt to Write A Book.

Rural detective stories are nothing new. The Midsomer Murders concept has become a joke (how dangerous IS Midsomer?) mainly due to its endlessly repetitive televising, and then there’s the Anne Cleeves phenomenon, with the Jimmy Perez books set in Shetland and the Vera Stanhope mysteries, which take place not far away from the desolate moorland of Turning Blue.

Barnaby, Perez and Stanhope are mass library fodder, inoffensive plodders whose agonising is all Mumsnet forum stuff. Myers is trying for something much closer to what we see Sally Wainwright going for in Happy Valley and in the first series of Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line. Only much, much darker.

I mentioned Derek Raymond’s Factory novels earlier and if you’re aware of how deep into the details of moral degradation I was Dora Suarez or How the Dead Live go, you’ll still be unprepared for the sheer amount of human horror in Turning Blue. The descriptions never cross the line into the truly unpleasant sadism found in the likes of Stuart MacBride’s Logan Macrae books, but finding yourself more and more inside the head of the appalling Steven Rutter grows increasingly hard to take. Yes, I know there are mythic overtones to what he gets up to, horrible old folk songs that clog dance the same murky territory, but still. I’d argue that this aspect overbalances the book, leaves the truly unique partnership that develops between Brindle and Mace, and their fascinating characters, a little swamped.

As for the Yorkshire landscape, as you’d expect it’s superbly captured, initially in a snowbound winter, then spring, then summer, the seasonal structure tracking the revelations effectively. It’s extremely well plotted, moving inexorably from the disappearance of one girl, Melanie Muncy, to a vast and pullulating evil spreading from the Dales throughout the land. Though I’m loath to give away too much, I will say that TV star ‘Lovely’ Larry Lister’s resemblance to Jimmy Saville, and what Saville was involved with (cf the last series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty) is more than significant.

There are echoes of the great Bill James (Harpur and Iles) at his peak, but in terms of the current pantheon of crime writing, there truly is nothing with Turning Blue’s dark power and literary ferocity, save perhaps some of Louise Welsh’s early work. It IS the first in a series. Good. This is very serious, very disturbing but hugely compulsive crime fiction.

Two things: the textual device of running the dialogue without any quotation marks may give a sense of uh, poetic literary-ness, but in a book of this length and with this many characters it truly messes up your appreciation of who’s actually speaking…(a sub-editor writes). And I should mention the ‘press pack’ (pictured) which came with my advance copy.

Experimentation has proved that was just dried moss in the tobacco tin...