Friday, April 16, 2010

Changing places

Well, folks, I've finally decided to take the plunge and move this blog over to Wordpress - not least in response to Minnie's input about difficulties in leaving comments here.  We'll get all the links and archives and stuff sorted out shortly, but in the meantime you can find the all-new blog over here.  Look forward to seeing you there. 

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

As large as the island of Manhattan

More positive news from Mongolia.  As this report from the BBC indicates, it's been a hard winter for the country, with intense cold and protests on the streets, but perhaps now, to coin a phrase, things can only get better

Monday, April 05, 2010

Surprised by Mongolian contortion

There's not been a lot of good news coming out of Mongolia over recent months, but I thought I'd draw your attention to a typically intriguing story from the always-reliable UB Post.  These are people who will literally bend over backwards to entertain you. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The most powerful of these is the sky

Excellent coverage from today's Sunday Telegraph on the devastating impact of Mongolia's harsh winter.  Perhaps surprisingly for the Sunday Telegraph, the article suggests that the impact of the natural disaster has perhaps been exacerbated by the country's move away from its former 'Soviet-inspired co-operative agriculture system' towards market-driven reforms. 

I was particularly struck by the description of one herder:

'Baavankhon worships the land that sustains him, making offerings to a sacred mountain but in recent years, he says, people have been cutting firewood from the holy places; just one example of how the ancient compact with nature has been broken in modern Mongolia.'

 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Twisting the tale

Interesting piece by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent last week exploring why, in his words, 'we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride...while at other times we celebrate the fact'.  Sutcliffe's article takes in a couple of recently-published novels, including Tim Pears's intriguing-sounding Landed, but is prompted primarily by Martin Scorsese's new adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.  The film's ending has, as he points out, provoked 'yelps of complaint' from some reviewers - although I've also seen some positive comments about the concluding twist.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I have read Lehane's book which also provoked considerable irritation among some reviewers  - the ever-reliable Petrona, for example, descibed it as 'the worst "cheat twist" I've ever read').  I didn't feel quite that annoyed, but, having largely enjoyed the book, I did find the conclusion disappointing, which I imagine was not the effect that Lehane was aiming for.  The question, as Sutcliffe suggests, is why. 

As a reader and as a writer, I'm not keen on the twist ending - mainly because it's so difficult to do well.  If nothing else, you have to be pretty confident that you're a step ahead of the reader - if the reader's kept pace with you, then your smart ending is likely to appear decidedly lame.  That's not quite the problem with Shutter Island (Lehane's too good a writer for that), but the book does face similar difficulties.  As it moves towards its conclusion, the reader is left trying to make sense of an increasingly puzzling narrative.  Various  interpretations are possible, but many readers will, by that stage, be at least toying with the option that in the end proves to be the right one.  In other words, I suspect the problem with Shutter Island is not that it has a twist ending, but that the ending isn't quite twisty enough.  My personal view is that Lehane has set himself an almost impossible task - because the reader is toying with possible explanations (each of which carries its own implications and significance), any definitive ending is almost bound to feel like a let down.   I would have preferred the book to have ended more ambiguously, but I realise that that would probably just have infuriated a different set of readers. 

It's interesting to contrast Shutter Island with another tale of pananoia with an island setting - Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man.  As I've mentioned before, the film's a perennial favourite of mine, which I never tire of watching, even though it's also heavily dependent on a twist ending.  Echoing Sutcliffe's question, why should that be?  The film's ending works, I think, partly because it plays with our expectations of genre and narrative.  We know how films like this work.  We may not know how the precise details will pan out, but we make assumptions about how this kind of film ends.  When it lurches in a different direction, it is - for the first-time viewer - genuinely shocking.  Interestingly, though, my experience is that knowledge of the ending then enhances subsequent viewings of the film.  While the initial shock has gone, we're left with a new poignancy, an awareness of what's coming which colours our view of the film's characters (particularly Edward Woodward's brilliant buttoned-up Sergeant Howie) and their interaction.  It's one of the few instances I can think of where a 'twist' ending transcends gimmickry and gives the preceding narrative a new resonance.  I'd be interested to hear suggestions of other examples. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

The darkness and blowing snow

Another account of this year's devastating winter in Mongolia.  As the article says, this is the country's second successive dzud - a harsh winter after a dry summer - and the impact on livestock and herders has been incalculable. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A lot of trouble

In the UK, we have to contend with the private lives of footballers John Terry and Ashley Cole.  In Mongolia, they have the champion Sumo, Asashoryu.  I've written about Asashoryu and his (substantially) larger than life antics before, but the latest news is that Asashoryu has dramatically quit Sumo. 

Some have claimed that his decision to quit the sport followed a 'drunken brawl' in which Asashoryu allegedly broke another man's nose.  Asashoryu himself has now denied this, and claims darkly that he was the victim of a conspiracy which forced him out before he could break the record for the number of Emperor's Cup victories. 

Whatever the truth, the key question is what the ever-entertaining Asashoryu will do next.  This highly entertaining article suggests some possibilities, but this piece from Bloomberg suggests a rather duller future in, um, investment banking.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The future of nomadic herding

I've discussed previously the very harsh winter that Mongolia has endured this year, and its devastating impact on people and lifestock.  Here's a piece from the Economist blog about the immediate and longer term impact on the nomadic herdsmen who still comprise a substantial proportion of Mongolia's population. 

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Shadow Walker

Just a brief addendum to the posting below to let you know that today is the official release date for the new US mass market edition of The Shadow Walker.  Available in all good bookshops and, I hope, quite a few not-so-good ones too. 

And I'll be back with some more substantive posts very shortly.  Promise. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shadow Walker in the US

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks - unfortunately, I've had one or two other distractions to contend with.  For the moment, just a brief interruption of the radio silence to let you know that those good people at Berkley Prime Crime have just sent me some advance copies of the new mass market edition of The Shadow Walker, due out in the US at the beginning of March.  As always, they've done a terrific job - coverwise, it's quite a different feel from previous editions, but just the thing to catch your eye at the airport. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

A multiple natural disaster

I reported recently that Mongolia was currently suffering from a winter which, even by local standards, is proving disastrously severe.  This report from Mongolia-Web indicates that the situation remains critical, particularly for those in the most remote regions. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Alibi and Murdoch Mysteries

Many of you will no doubt be familiar with the television channel Alibi which, uniquely, devotes itself entirely to crime drama. I've been impressed by the channel, not only because it provides an outlet for some excellent classic and contemporary crime series, but also because its marketing has made a genuine effort to engage with the crime fiction community (for example, in its involvement in the Crimefest convention last year).

The channel is currently promoting a new series of its exclusive show, Murdoch Mysteries, set in Victorian-era Toronto. Rather smartly, they've decided to support the promotion by involving members of the crime-fiction blogging world. As a result, I found myself approached to help publicise a competition linked to the series. Anything that helps raise the profile of crime-writing is fine by me, so I'm delighted to assist (and not only because in return they've promised me a Murdoch Mysteries cafetiere, which sounds like something any coffee-addicted crime writer should have).

On that note, let me have over the lectern to those good people at Alibi.

To celebrate the launch of Murdoch Mysteries Season Three on Tuesday 16 February, Alibi is giving you and a friend the chance to win tickets to a special preview screening in London. Hosted by Thomas Craig and Lisa Faulkner and with champagne on arrival you can be sure it’s one mystery that you won’t want to miss out on!

Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) is back on our screens with a thrilling third series of Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Victorian Toronto, the series begins with William running for his life through the streets of Bristol, England where he meets a beautiful bar maid Anna Fulford (Lisa Faulkner).

Your prize includes a pair of tickets for you and a friend to a special preview screening of Murdoch Mysteries on Monday 15 February at the Soho Hotel, London. The lucky winners will arrive at 7pm, and will be offered champagne or a soft drink on arrival. Thomas Craig and Lisa Faulkner will also be there to introduce the episode and afterwards you will get the chance to ask questions to the both of them!

For your chance to win tickets, simply unlock this page by cracking the code

http://uktv.co.uk/alibi/competition/aid/633310

Can you figure out the question hidden in this code?

M U R D O U M D E E

Q W U I X C H L O S

E S H I S R T Y X U

Y I A Q W W H A T I

N E P I S T Y I U P

P Y I G W O D E 1 ?

Is the answer to the question...?

a. Wife

b. Memory

c. Notebook

For a clue to crack the code, click here

Entrants must be over 18, see the competition entry page for full terms and conditions. The competition closes on Tuesday 9th February at 23:59 and the winners will be notified within 24 hours.

 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue Monday

According to one of those fatuous pieces of non-research that marketing companies generate every now and then, last Monday was supposedly 'blue Monday' - the midwinter point when our collective spirits are at their lowest.   I don't know about that (though spending a fair portion of the day sitting on a Virgin Train travelling to and from London didn't particularly enhance my own joie de vivre), but Monday did see two sad departures from the artistic firmament. 

The first was the crime writer, Robert B Parker, best known as the author of the long-running series about Spenser, the poetically-named Boston private eye.  I first came across one of Parker's books in some long-gone bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street in London in the early 1980s, and I immediately became a huge fan.  It's easy to underestimate the quality of the books because they slip down so easily, and part of Parker's skill was to make it look so effortness (although, since Parker claimed to produce only a first draft, maybe it really was).  But his best books are utterly gripping, slickly plotted and full of characters that linger in the memory.  They're fantasies, of course, and perhaps lack the real grittiness that characterises much noir fiction today, but as intelligent escapist entertainment, they're hard to beat. 

The second loss was Kate McGarrigle.  She's now perhaps best known to a younger generation as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but she was of course, in partnership with her sister Anna, a fine singer and songwriter in her own right.   The first McGarrigles album contains as good a collection of songs as you'll find, and the sisters continued to produce splendid material, albeit rather sporadically, over the subsequent decades.   I'm particularly fond of the two family CDs they produced, The McGarrigle Hour and The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, which gathered together the disparate talents of the McGarrigle/Wainwright clan to perform a selection of traditionally-based songs, and in the process created something quite magical. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Mongolian winter

A few days of snow recently brought the UK to a predictable halt, and in this neck of the woods we had temperatures of -17 degrees C, which seemed more than cold enough for me.  Spare several thoughts, then, for Mongolia which is currently experiencing a particularly ferocious winter, even by its own extreme standards.  The UB Post reports that:

"The average temperature in northern Mongolia has dropped to -35 degrees Celsius, with temperatures in the rest of country ranging between-17 to -22 degrees Celsius. So far, the coldest temperature of -47 degrees was recorded in Uvs Province. ... According to estimates by the Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), a total of 786,639 heads of livestock have perished. ...The total loss of livestock is approximately 17 per cent of the estimated 43.6 million heads of livestock in the country. Some five people died during a recent snowstorm."

Pretty dreadful.  The Mongolian Government has initiated a large-scale relief campaign, estimating that around 120000 are affected by the conditions.  By contrast, our few blocked roads seem very small beer. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Clean and bloodless

So far, most of my Mongolian murderers have managed to evade criminal justice, one way or another.  However, I'm delighted to see that President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in Mongolia

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An accredited premier tasting event

Technology is a wonderful thing.  It means, for example, that I can update this blog from pretty much wherever I am.  Unfortunately, it also means that where I currently am is sitting on a stationary train somewhere outside London because of a snow-inspired power failure. 

Still, that's given me the opportunity to scan the news from Mongolia so that you don't have to.  I'm not sure that I've ever fully understood the concept of 'brand' (and, no, I wouldn't like you to explain, thanks all the same).  But I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that two Mongolian beer brands, Fusion and Borgio, have taken the gold and silver awards at the 2009-2010 World's Largest Beverage Competition.  I presume that means it's the world's largest competition in this particular field, rather than a cometition for the world's largest beverage, attractive as that idea might sound as I sit here on a motionless train.  The two Mongolian beers were apparently beaten only by the splendidly named US wheat beer, Son of  a Peach.  I note also that China took the gold award for water (yes, I know) for a product called L'Ice, which possibly sounds better in Chinese.  At a more chauvinistic level, I was delighted to see that England  took the platinum award for tea (what else?) with Stress Test Earl Grey Blend,. narrowly beating China's Organic Panda Orange.  No, I still don't understand the concept of 'brand', I'm afraid. 

Mind you, the highlighted comments of the award judges are a source of delight.   They range from the hyperbolic - 'madness is an understatement to this flavor explosion!' - to the possibly backhanded 'a very pleasant surprise awaits you with this vintage', with a particular fondness for puns that don't quite work. For instance, Greenall's Bloom gin is described as offering: 'A BLOOM of flavor; certain to catch the eye of Gin lovers everywhere!'.  Come again?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Seventies in the shade

I am, in the literal sense, a child of the 1960s.  But the 1970s was really the formative decade for me.  Even now, much of my taste - in books, films, music - seems to have its roots in that decade. 

I was intrigued, therefore, by Francis Wheen's new book, Strange Days Indeed, an account of the 1970s subtitled 'The Golden Age of Paranoia'.  As Wheen indicates, the book is in part a prequel to his last, highly entertaining work, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which began with the oddities of the Reaganite 1980s.  He quotes John Fowles in turn referencing Gramsci's Prison Notebooks: '...the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.'  Wheen's book details just some of the 'morbid symptoms' that characterised the decade that sat uncomfortably between the optimistic idealism of the 1960s and the increasingly unfettered capitalism of the 1970s. 

Like its predecessor, Strange Days Indeed feels more like a collection of essays than a sustained history, and at times this left me feeling slightly frustrated.  There were points where I would have preferred a clearer exploration of cause and effect or a more thorough exposition of the linkages between the various phenomena that Wheen describes.  But the descriptions themselves are fascinating.  We get chapters on Nixon and Watergate, the Heath and Wilson governments, international terrorism and the 'underground' movement, the Oz obscenity trial, developments in Russia and China, Idi Amin, the CIA, Uri Geller and Erich von Daniken, and plenty more.  One senses that Wheen wasn't exactly short of material. 

Wheen describes the 1970s as 'that most distant of times, the day before yesterday'.  It may be that any decade, subject to this kind of scrutiny, would reveal its share of peculiarities.  But there does seem to be a sense that, for a few years, the world lost its collective senses (alongside Sir William Armstrong, head of the civil service during the Heath government, who at the height of the Heath's conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers had to be led away babbling about Armageddon).  Many of the stories - Nixon effectively bugging himself, the faked suicide of the MP John Stonehouse, Harold Wilson having to break into his own aide's property to recover papers withheld in a fit of pique - seem scarcely credible to a contemporary reader. 

And yet, as Wheen concludes in the final chapter, there are odd parallels with our own time - global economic crisis, the US engaged in a prolonged and increasingly intractable war, the resurgence of fanatical terrorism, the prevalence of conspiracy theory and political paranoia.  It may be that our current fascination with the decade - from Mamma Mia to Red Riding, from Frost/Nixon to Life on Mars - reflects a growing sense that they are perhaps tapping into a contemporary zeitgeist.  If so, we should perhaps treat Wheen's enjoyable book as something of a warning. 

 

Saturday, January 02, 2010

All aboard the Sun Train

A slightly belated but heart-felt happy new year.  Here are some splendid images of Mongolians preparing to celebrate the first sunrise of the year. 

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Midwinter ghosts

MIdwinter is the time for ghost stories, and I was pleased to see that this year the BBC revived its practice of producing a spooky Christmas drama, though this year opting for Henry rather than M R James with an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.  Sadly, I've not yet had a chance to view it as it clashed with yet another showing of that splendidly creepy film, The Wicker Man.  Even though I possess both the original version and the so-called Director's Cut on DVD, I never pass up an opportunity to see it again. (I should perhaps point out for younger readers that this is the original 1973 film with Edward Woodward not the quite remarkably dire Nicolas Cage remake.  I still can't understand why anyone would want to remake the original film while apparently having no understanding of its unique qualities.)

My real ghostly treat this year, though, was re-reading Kingsley Amis's wonderful short novel, The Green Man.  Since his death in 1995, Amis's reputation seems to have faded slightly, and there's a danger that he may be remembered for little more than Lucky Jim.  Wonderful as that first novel was, there's plenty more in Amis's oeuvre that's equally worth of attention, and The Green Man is a splendid example, not just of Amis's unique genius, but also of his craft.  It's a beautifully constructed tale of an alcoholic innkeeper and restaurateur, Maurice Allingham, and his encounter with the troublesome spirit of a prior inhabitent of the inn that gives the book its title (and which itself takes its own name from some apparently older inhabitent of the woodlands around...).  Amis was a great admirer of M R James, and the book brilliantly translates James's methods into a  modern setting.  Like James, Amis is adept at balancing humour with terror, and the novel applies  typically Amis comedy as a counterpoint to some genuinely unnerving scenes. Above all, unlike many ghost stories, The Green Man is filled with utterly convincing, three-dimensional characters.  Allingham's alcoholism, for example, is not simply a plot device - though it usefully positions him as the most unreliable of narrators - but is also fully explored and realised. Amis even manages to contrive an encounter between Allingham and God, which somehow succeeds in being both moving and disturbing, rather than risible. 

If you feel like seeing out the old year with a chill to match the weather outside, I'd recommend settling down with The Green Man.  In any case, best wishes to everyone for the coming year and thanks to all those who've supported my various endeavours over the last twelve months. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Airth Works

Rennie Airth's first book, River of Darkness, was well received on its release in 2000 and nominated for various awards.  I read it a while ago and enjoyed it very much.  Its an unusual crime novel, set shortly after World War I and featuring a hero, Detective Inspector John Madden, who is both a survivor and a victim of that war.  The book is not so much a mystery novel - we're made aware of the killer at a relatively early stage - as a combination of police procedural and psychological thriller, and it's Airth's handling of those two elements that I found particularly engaging.

Airth is interested in the machinations and politics of a police service  just edging itself into modernity, and much of the book's entertainment arises from the delicate dance between policemen and politicians faced with a particularly brutal set of killings.  At the same time, Airth is clearly fascinated by the endeavours of psychologists - another emerging discipline - to come to grips with behaviour which, only a few decades before, would have been characterisedas simply evil.  Lurking behind this, of course, is the shadow of the war itself - both a cause and a manifestation of the brutality in question. 

I've recently finished reading the second in the series, The Blood-Dimmed Time.  This is set some years later, in 1932, and Madden has  retired from the Force, and is now married and occupied as a farmer.  Once again, though, he finds himself involved in the search for a serial killer - this time a sexual predator on children.  The themes of the second book parallel those of the first - the politics of policing, the psychology of savagery, the impact of the First War and the growing threat of the Second.  As before, Airth develops an impressively rounded set of characters and beautifully captures the landscape and atmosphere of the Sussex setting.  And implicit in the book is the sense of a society, a century, gradually spinning out of control.

Airth's not the most prolific of writers.  The third book in the series, The Dead of Winter, set in 1944, has appeared only recently.  It's now made its way to the top of my 'to be read' pile, a treat in store over the Christmas break.  I hope it's as good as the first two.