A Great Movie (and book): The Day of The Jackal.

jackal bookFrederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel “The Day of the Jackal” has already secured its place in novel history. The concept, about right-wing French fanatics hiring a professional assassin to murder President de Gaulle in 1963 is daring for two reasons. The first is that it reads pretty much as a cold heavily detailed step by step almost journalistic expose of the plot rather than a thriller. The second is that we all know the outcome: President de Gaulle survived a number of assassination attempts, but died peacefully in an armchair in his home. In short, not as much a Who-Did-It as How-They-Did-It.

It shouldn’t work, yet it does, and brilliantly. So brilliantly in fact, that one finds oneself reading it again despite knowing the outcome and pretty much every twist in the story. Forsyth’s great success is his ability (honed as a foreign correspondent) to communicate great detail in a absolutely readable and enjoyable manner. For years later many believed it was a true story.

The book (and even more Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 masterpiece movie) also conveys nicely the Europe and France of its day. The shadow of the war still there, yet a continent on the verge of huge integration.

The movie is a stylish joy to watch. Cold and methodical, with minimal use of music, Edward Fox as the Jackal and Michel Lonsdale as the French police chief pursuing him steal the movie. A wealth of British TV stars of the 1970s fill the background.

Both the book and the movie are an absolute treat.

https://youtu.be/dusBnj4bYnA

Good reads.

I’m one of those people who takes ages to finish a book because I’m reading a couple at a time, but I finished a few I enjoyed (and show my rather eclectic tastes).

showtimePat Leahy’s “Showtime”, about FF from the mid 1990s to the Cowen administration is a great read. I’d never read it before, and reading now, in the current context with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a shocking indictment of the short term amateurism of the 97-2007 FF/PD government. It’s a pacey read, and Leahy has that great ability to dig out those gems of personal elements (and laugh out loud moments) that pepper Irish politics. The detail would make one think that many a university will make a grab for “The Leahy Papers” when the time comes! Well worth a read.

Graham McCann’s “Bounder”, a biography of Terry-Thomas, on the other hand, is very much for the committed fan. Few people under 40 know who Terry-Thomas even was, but from a period starting in the 1950s right up to afternoon repeats of his movies in the 1980s, Terry-Thomas’ performance as an upper class cad and scoundrel was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Basil Brush and Dick Dastardly (of Wacky Races fame, or as we know it, Catch The Pigeon) were based on him.

Terry-Thomas

Terry-Thomas

The book is a detailed record of his career as one of Britain’s first TV stars and through movies like “Those magnificent men in their flying machines”. Then there’s a sad and depressing fall into poverty caused by Parkinson’s Disease, eventually being rescued through trojan fundraising efforts by his cousin, fellow comedian Richard Briers. As I said, a good read but one for the fans.

Good books: Bryant and May by Christopher Fowler

BryantI’ve recently started enjoying the “Bryant and May” series of books by Christopher Fowler, about two octogenarian detectives in the British Home Office’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

The books involve the two men and their colleagues investigating odd happenings around London, allowing Fowler to weave in many of the often surreal aspects of the city’s history. For example, “Bryant and May off the rails” has them investigating a mystery on the Undergound, and allows for fascinating reveals about the subway system and its history, whereas “The Victoria Vanishes” centres on a mystery involving London pubs.

The books are very character driven, involving not just the two leads but the other oddball and plain worn out members of the PCU and their exasperated boss.

I’ve enjoyed them as audiobooks, where Tim Goodman not only narrates them but effectively performs them. They’re great fun, and well worth a go.

A great book: The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is one of those books that I had never heard of when I first saw it on Audible, and after I read it could not understand why, because it’s great.

It’s a techno rather than sci-fi thriller about an astronaut who gets trapped on the Mars surface. I don’t want to tell anything else, because I’ll just give plot away, but the concept of the novel is so simple and yet genuinely inspiring.

Weir puts across the simple idea that out there in space left, right, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, nothing matters. You’re just a human in a spacesuit and nature is trying to kill you 24/7.

There’s already talk of a movie of this. I seriously hope they make it, because it would be a wonderful tale of humanity at its very best.

Read it!

 

Self Publishing: Vanity publishing or the future of writing?

Repost: Ever since I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a published author. In fairness to myself, I had no illusions about being the next Hemingway or the next Fitzgerald, that was not the goal. I was reading Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum and later John Grisham and these were what I wanted to do. In short, I wanted to see people reading my books in airports, and made into TV mini-series starring that gruff one from Simon and Simon and one of the lesser girls from Baywatch.

So, I went and did what you are supposed to do. I wrote a 65,000 word novel, The Unisio Agenda, which was pretty awful (a suspended animation Hitler was just one of the minor features in the plot), and sent the first chapter to a load of literary agents, having researched and discovered that these were the fabled gatekeepers to the great publishing houses, or at least had coffee and a bun with them occasionally.

In the following weeks, self-addressed envelopes would make my heart thump just slightly faster as they lay on my hallway floor before telling me very politely that “this was not for us, but best of luck elsewhere”. One or two even gave a little advice on the novel. Not one, to their credit, sent me the fabled “Do humanity a favour and take a hammer to your PC” remarks.

I set that novel to one side, and started on my second, The Ministry of Love. This novel was the result of a running joke with a friend of mine about the government deciding to intervene in people’s love lives for the better, and the more the joke ran, the more I felt there was material for a story. It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finished it, and sent it out to the agents, feeling more hopeful that I was now a better writer and perhaps my subject was a bit more commercial. That and the fact that it featured a serial killer butchering celebrities in various creative ways, which I felt was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the time.

Again, the rejection slips came back.

At this stage, the aspiring writer can do one of three things. The first is rail against the conspiracy in the publishing industry to keep his/her unique voice out. The second is to keep trying, normally by writing another novel, and the third is to just accept that it is not to be, and give up.

The first was not an option, because I just didn’t believe it. I had started to read a lot about the publishing industry and realised that it was not a vendetta against me personally, but an industry in crisis. Being an HR manager in my day job, I knew that rejecting a candidate for a vacancy was not a judgement call on their fitness but a reflection that someone else fitted the profile better.

Of course they could not take risks with unknowns like me. Just look at the piles of books on sale now, and how many have to be fronted by a celebrity who (hopefully, at least to the publisher) brings his or her own market with them. It was just too risky for publishers to take a punt on people like me. The “What about JK Rowling, Dan Brown et al?” argument would be thrown back at me, but they were just flashes in the pan. Traditional publishing, through its own economic necessity, was looking less likely as an option.

The second option was to keep trying. A funny thing about writing is that you’d probably do it anyway, in that the desire to commit a story to page is there no matter what. It’s a question of getting it out of your head; so continuing writing is not a painful option. However, there is also a question of ego, which plays a huge role. You can see yourself being transformed from the romantic notion of The Guy Who Is Writing A Novel to guy in Firefly tee-shirt sitting in back room writing his 15th rejected novel about teenage vampires who are allergic to blood but can travel through time. It’s a thin line, and you’re very conscious of it.

Option three is to just give up, leave your manuscript in a drawer or on your hard drive, and carry on with life. Many do, especially when you realise how long it takes to write a novel, and without the validation of publication, you query as to whether you are wasting your life on this?

I say three options, but there is a fourth. The dreaded “self publishing”. Up until recently, self-publishing triggered certain images. An author announcing a new book. Admiration from friends and family, followed by realisation that author has not being endorsed by professionals putting faith through cash on his skills as a writer, but has paid for book to be published. Slightly grimaced “God bless your diligence” smiles all around. Embarrassed author either lashes out at industry for not recognising him, or feels like a fraud, or a nut. Or both.

Then I read about Amazon’s willingness to let self-published authors sell direct for shared royalties, dangling the keys to the kingdom in front of me. It’s here that you make a decision.

You accept that your book will probably never see the light of day traditionally, so you can either wait for the day the Great Editors In The Sky recognise your genius and come calling, or you can put it out there yourself, and that is the biggest temptation of all.

The opportunity to deliver direct to the marketplace, either as a Print-On-Demand actual book or as an eBook. It’s a brilliant strategy by Amazon, because it triggered the “what if” in every aspiring writer like me to put my book out there just to see what happened. It taps into the brilliant “what’s to lose?” section of the writer’s brain. In fact, it even goes one step further, because the old argument, that traditional publishing houses want nothing to do with self-published authors has been killed stone dead. If anything, self-publishing has become a form of showcase for the publishing houses to see how potential authors perform in the market without investing a cent.

There are costs. I commissioned a professional cover designer, ebook formatter, developmental editor and copy editor, and all that costs money, but I reckoned that as I was competing against professional books, I had no choice. Actually, the copyediting turned out to be a huge challenge, and to this day I am still finding typos despite professional eyes having roamed the manuscript on multiple occasions. Interestingly, I also find typos in professionally published eBooks too, which makes me wonder about the format itself.

After much effort, I launched my novel, The Ministry of Love, and a year and a month later, a radically rewritten version of The Unisio Agenda, The Gemini Agenda (now Hitler free). I hyped it a bit on a politics blog I write, and with my modest following on Twitter and Facebook.

The result?

A tiny number of people bought my books. Were the publishing houses right? Quite possibly. But here’s the thing: people are buying my books every month, books that would have sat on a hard drive otherwise. I’ve received reviews and emails from people who have read and enjoyed them, and more to the point, I’ve actually enjoyed the whole process. Will I lose money? Probably. But as a hobby, like photography or cycling it has its financial costs but also its pleasures. There are some, like E L James and Amanda Hocking, who will make fortunes from it. There are others, like JA Konrath who see a new business model and a means of making a decent living.

But for me, it allowed me to not quite live an aspiration but get close to it. Will I write another book? Possibly, although the sheer effort required mixed with the feeling that I am just indulging myself expensively will act as a deterrent. There is also the fear, in the back of every self-published writer’s mind, that his friends and family, behind nodding heads and encouraging smiles are rolling their eyes at his putting out this stuff. But regrets? Not one.

Books worth reading: Dominion.

“Dominion” by CJ Sansom is set in a 1952 Britain which, following Lord Halifax’s accession to the premiership in 1940, has become a “finlandised” satellite state of Nazi Germany.

The plot, about resistance agents trying to get an important person out of the country, is particularly engaging on how fascism and anti-Semitism can creep into a society. It’s very easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to see how the choices made in 1940 were correct, and accuse those who wished to sue for peace as collaborators or fools. Yet at the time, the horrors of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of many, and essentially decent men like Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid war. Not everybody who opposed war with Germany was a Nazi sympathiser.

The book is a bit overlong and meanders anxiously too much, but really gets going in the final third. Sansom paints what I think is a very accurate picture of what the road not taken could have looked like. He’s no fan on nationalism, and certainly no fan of the SNP judging by this novel!

A great book for the political anoraks: Then Everything Changed.

Jeff Greenfield is a political reporter for CBS, and his book “Then Everything Changed” paints three What-If scenarios based on real life facts: That JFK was nearly killed in December 1960, before being sworn in as president, that Bobby Kennedy nearly didn’t go through the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, and that Gerald Ford nearly beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. The three stories are not only very informative (Greenfield brings his personal knowledge of US politics and its players to bear) but also quite cheekily written, with asides about what effect these events would have had on other well known individuals.

A great read for the American political junkie. You can get it on the Amazon link here:

The Visual Society.

I recently published “The Gorgeous War”, a short story on Amazon.com about a product which allowed the great majority of people to be, effectively, beautiful. I wrote it primarily because it’s a subject which fascinates me, in the fact that our society, especially with the rise of handheld devices, is so incredibly visually orientated.

That orientation has had all sorts of curious effects on our society, from the manufacture of political candidates (look at Forza Italia) to the arguable reversal of feminism and the rise of the WAG, to the recent Abercrombie and Finch row, where a business suggested that a selective approach to seeking custom based on the physical attractiveness of their customers might well be a reasonable business model. Odious as it is, I’m not sure they were wrong in their  analysis.

There are those who despair at it, who question the fact that we seem to value the beauty of a world class model over, say, a world class research chemist. I’m not so sure: after all, is it right to differentiate between a person who inherited DNA which made them physically attractive over a person with DNA which made them intelligent? Probably not.

Then, of course, there is the reality that physical attractiveness as a general rule has a shorter lifespan than intelligence.

But what would happen if we could manufacture beauty cheaply?We can do a lot now, of course, with plastic surgery and weight  reduction surgery, but supposing we could do it at a cost that permitted pretty much everybody to access it?

What if we could all be the beautiful people?

A Superb Book: Seasons in the Sun

If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979” is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of  Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.

What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s  cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.

But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted  efforts to make education more equal.

Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.

Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public  spending.

From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.

I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.

A great book: “2030” by Albert Brooks.

Within minutes of starting to read “2030: the real story of what happens to America” I knew I was going to love it. In fact, I’ll go one step further. This is my favourite novel of the last 12 months. It’s just plain great.

Set in 2030, the novel tells the story of the issues faced by Americans in that year. There’s a president not only recognising that America is no longer the world’s leading nation but also finally having to confront its inability to add to its massive debt. There’s the consequences for individuals caused by inter-generational strife as a result of senior citizens living far longer than the social security net ever planned for.

It’s also funny in a wry way, exceptionally thoughtful, and full of little future nuggets.

But most importantly, it is very, very credible. Reading it, you can see a direct line from where we are today to where the novel arrives at. This is an indictment of reckless entitlement democracy at its worst.

I hesitate to call it science fiction over satire, but it is both, throwing out “what ifs” in the best speculative tradition of both genres.

I really, sincerely hope that this is not his only novel in this genre, because Brooks has a serious talent for it.