Life imitating art. Or something.

Got sent this a few days ago by Red.

See if you can spot what’s entertaining about this link to a story in last weeks’ Times newspaper.

Pope ‘is at centre of Vatican abuse cover-up’, says Hans Küng

By Roger Boyes, Berlin

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the Paul VI hall for his weekly general audience at the Vatican

One of Europe’s leading theological thinkers has accused the Pope of being complicit in a Vatican cover-up of child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

You couldn’t make it up if you tried. Also, nice picture.

Book review: Clean cut, by Lynda La Plante

Clean cut, by Lynda La Plante, Simon & Schuster, €17.75

Published in The Sunday Business Post on September 22nd, 2007, reviewed by Alex Meehan

At first glance, Clean Cut is a police thriller of the old school.

Detective Chief Inspector James Langton is a driven London cop, hot on the heels of a gang of illegal immigrants thought to have murdered a young prostitute.

While trying to make an arrest in connection with the case, he is stabbed and almost killed. As Langton struggles for his life and then comes to terms with being invalided in a police hospice, his girlfriend, Detective Inspector Anna Travis, attempts to pick up the pieces.

She puts her career on hold to care for Langton, but he’s a less-than-ideal patient: embittered, angry and obsessed with tracking down the men who attacked him. However, the case seems to go cold, and his overworked colleagues are quickly assigned to more pressing duties.

Travis is assigned to a new murder team in Brixton and a new case – that of a woman whose body is found in her home by her 12-year-old daughter. This time, the murderer was a particularly cold-blooded type. He killed at random, and then stopped to make a sandwich at the crime scene.

Travis is drawn into the case when the killer is caught and confesses, but all is not as it seems. While making the case watertight, a suspect threatens her with the chilling words: ‘‘You want to get cut up like your bloke? Stay away from here or you’ll get the same!”

Are the cases connected in some way? Is Travis being threatened by the same people who attacked Langton?

Clean Cut is the third crime thriller from La Plante to feature Detective Inspector Anna Travis, and it is obvious from the first page that this is the work of a masterful creator and manipulator of believable characters.
Click here to find out more!

La Plante has a long and illustrious career behind her writing for television, where her credits include Prime Suspect and The Governor, and it shows in her work.

It takes skill to create characters that the reader cares about within the first few pages of a book, but La Plante handles it with ease.

The story is well-paced and interesting, with a good balance between police procedure and plot development.

The criminals are nasty pieces of work and their crimes stomach churning.

La Plante is a writer with strong opinions on the criminal justice system, and she isn’t afraid to voice them. Clean Cut allows her to vent her feelings about the revolvingdoor criminal justice system in Britain, where 67 per cent of criminals sentenced to jail have previously served time.

In the book, Travis has to face the problem of dangerous criminals released back into the community to re-offend, as well as highly-paid legal defence teams defending the indefensible.

At times, the crimes committed by the villains in Clean Cut seem almost over the top, but in interviews, La Plante has said that all the criminals are based on real people.

All crimes depicted in the book took place in real life and came from newspaper clippings she collected while researching the story.

Clean Cut is a great example of an occasionally moribund genre. This is a page-turning thriller with a strong message that is sure to appeal to casual readers as much as crime fans.

Author interview: Jason Pinter

I met Jason for a very pleasant morning of coffee and chatting in The Merrion Hotel a while ago, and this was the piece that came out of it. He’s a really decent guy, depressingly young to have achieved so much, but altogether a down to earth geezer.



Jason Pinter interview

Published in The Sunday Business Post on June 22nd, 2008, by Alex Meehan

Having won a seven-book contract, author Jason Pinter says he’s nervous but excited about the faith shown in his work.

When you’re a 25-year-old aspiring writer, getting your first book published is a big deal. Getting a three-book contract means major success, but having that deal almost immediately extended to seven books is the stuff of dreams.

For New York writer Jason Pinter, that’s exactly what happened three years ago. His debut novel, The Mark, was bought by publishing house Mira as part of a three-book deal and two weeks later, in an astonishing vote of confidence, he got a call to tell him Mira wanted four more.

‘‘I worked as an editor for five years in publishing and I saw a lot of deals get made. Usually, multiple book deals are for authors much further along in their careers,” says Pinter.

‘‘A publisher usually won’t be interested in a multiple deal like that until you have ten to 15 books under your belt and they can be sure you’ll deliver and they’ll sell. When an author like James Patterson signs a contract, it’s for 12 books at a time, but he puts out four or even six titles a year and it’s not that big a deal for him.”

‘‘For me, my deal was an incredible vote of confidence but also a little daunting because I knew this wasn’t usual. I have a lot to live up to.”

The Mark, which has just been published in Europe, features a rookie journalist, Henry Parker, who finds himself caught up in a story he is sent to report on. Parker has just arrived in New York City fresh from the Cornell School of Journalism and has landed himself the job of his dreams – working at the prestigious New York Gazette. His first day on the job starts out brilliantly when he find himself seated in the same office as grizzled newsman Jack O’Donnell, his journalistic hero.

O’Donnell is an old school newsman, renowned for breaking stories of national and international significance and Parker feels privileged to be in the same room as him. He is quickly pulled down to earth, though, when his first assignments arrive – instead of pounding the streets reporting hard news, he is put to work writing obituaries.

Parker can’t conceal his disappointment and O’Donnell decides to cut the new kid a break, promising him an ‘additional reporting by’ credit if he helps research a story. Parker’s task is to track down and interview minor mob convicts released from jail and see how their lives have turned out a few years down the line.

Henry sets out to interview young Hispanic man Luis Guzman and finds himself accidentally caught up in a shooting when a mob gunman turns up to threaten Guzman. A scuffle ensues, the gunman is killed and against his better judgement, an injured and confused Parker flees.

The next day, Parker wakes to find his own face peering out of the front page of the New York Gazette, under the banner headline ‘Cop killer.’

Pinter’s hero Henry Parker is deliberately not a world-weary anti-hero. Unlike the central characters found in the majority of popular crime fiction, he’s young and relatively optimistic.

‘‘I loved the idea of keeping the series a little different,” says Pinter. ‘‘There are loads of crime novels featuring cops or FBI agents or pathologists, so a reporter is a character that isn’t so saturated as an idea. He’s also young – there are actually very few central characters under the age of 40 in crime fiction but Henry’s only 24.

‘‘He’s not a cynical, divorced, alcoholic, world-weary misogynist – I wanted him to be an optimist, at least at the beginning. I really wanted to create baggage the reader could see and then explore how Parker carries it.

‘‘The things that happen to him over the course of the first book change his life and that’s what I want to explore in the later books – how is what happened to him in the first book going to affect him later on?

‘‘He goes into the second book having become exactly what he most disliked in his profession – a celebrity. He hated journalists who put their name above the headline – the Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses of this world – guys who had became bigger news stories themselves than the stories they wrote about. He just wanted to report good stories – but he acquires a degree of unwanted celebrity.

‘‘He then has to deal with former Gazette colleagues writing articles about him and trying to place him at the forefront of a new trend for notorious young journalists who’ll stop at nothing to become well known.” Now that Pinter has a bigger publishing deal, he’s looking forward to using the space to develop the stories he has had floating around in his head for years.

But becoming a publishing sensation is not something he is entirely comfortable with. Given his experience in the publishing business, Pinter is in a uniquely qualified position to weigh up the pros and cons of being touted The Next Big Thing.

His five years spent as a book editor in New York have made Pinter painfully aware that marketing a new author is most easily done with an angle – something that sets them apart.

‘‘I worked in publishing and sat in on a lot of meetings where people discussed the author’s age or looks or other aspects of their marketability but thankfully in crime fiction, nobody cares what age you are,” he says.

‘‘If you’re going to write a tell-all about the fashion industry, then it helps to have worked for Anna Wintour. If you’re writing a tell-all about Hollywood, then it helps if you’ve worked with the Weinsteins.

‘‘But you don’t have to have been a cop, or for that matter a murderer, to write a crime novel. Nobody cares – the story is everything. I write the kind of books that people judge based on what’s between the covers as opposed to the age of the person in the mugshot on the back cover.”

One thing you will find on the back cover of Pinter’s books is the kind of endorsements other crime writers can only dream about. Authors like James Patterson, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen and Jeffery Deaver have all raved about The Mark and obviously that doesn’t hurt when it comes to shifting copies of the book.

‘‘Eleven authors endorsed The Mark, but I’d only met one of them. Many of them were writers I’ve been a fan of for years so I was amazed. If anything, it gave me confidence to keep going and to think of myself as more than a one-trick pony.

‘‘If a reader picks up a book on the basis of an endorsement by James Patterson or Jeffery Deaver and they hate it, then they’re going to lose a little respect for that writer. So it means a lot to me that people put their reputation on the line to add to mine.” Pinter knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age, but his career to date has included a few literary detours. ‘‘Pretty early on I knew I wanted to write, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry and actually tried to query literary agents without having written anything. Not surprisingly, not many agents were champing at the bit to represent me,” he said.

Deciding it would be a good idea to see the industry from the inside, he spent his summer vacations from Wesleyan University interning at a literary agency in New York. This turned his head enough to make him opt for publishing and he subsequently worked as an editor with publishers Warner and Crown’s Three Rivers Press and then at St Martin’s.

A cynical observer might wonder if industry connections like these might open certain doors for an aspiring author.

‘‘Contacts will get you in the door of a publisher, but they won’t get you published and anybody that thinks working in publishing is going to get them a leg-up is sadly mistaken. The bottom line is that publishers want books that the public want to read. Had I written a book that nobody wanted to read, it would still be sitting in my desk drawer.”

‘‘I understand the business side of publishing better than most other writers, but I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. There’s something to be said for being blissfully ignorant.”

The Mark is a cinematic read. It’s fast paced, stylishly visual and it would be easy to imagine it as a movie. Was it written with this in mind? ‘‘I wrote it hoping that a film version might be made, but trying to write with that in mind is a mistake.”

Nevertheless, The Mark has been optioned by Irish company Treasure Films, best known for movies such as Shrooms, I Went Down and Man About Dog. Pinter says he’s thrilled about this development.

‘‘It wasn’t a carefully orchestrated campaign to sell the film rights. Paddy MacDonald from Treasure happened to be at Los Angeles airport and happened to buy a copy to read on the plane. He liked it and called my agent and that got the ball rolling.

‘‘It’s really exciting because they get what I was trying to do with the book and they seem like dynamic guys. My wife and I sat down to watch Shrooms and we thought ‘These guys have style and vision, so it would be great if it happened with this company’. We’ll have to see, though.

‘‘It would be nice to see something different and gritty done with it, and they seem like the guys to do that. But I’m getting ahead of myself – I’m very far down the pecking order when it comes to these things. They say the writer is positioned below the caterer on the totem pole of the movie business.”

Book review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem. By Neal Stephenson. Atlantic Books, €19

Published in The Sunday Business Post on November 9th, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

As an exponent of the more cerebral variety of science fiction, Neal Stephenson’s books are not for the fainthearted. Readers of his work are more likely to find themselves dealing with complex mathematical and philosophical issues than with the standard cliches associated with the genre.

In Anathem, his latest (and, frankly, huge) book, he takes this approach to an interesting new extreme, delving in depth into the significance of mathematics, architecture, philosophy and reason on the human condition.

Set on the Earth-like planet Arbre, Anathem tells its complex story from the perspective of a young monk, Fraa Erasmus. A resident of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, an ancient monastery-like sanctuary in which science and philosophy take the place of religion – Erasmus is just one of thousands of the ‘‘avout’’ who spend their days cossetted and kept away from the corrupting influence of the outside ‘‘saecular’’ world.

In the concent, the ‘‘fraas’’ and ‘‘suurs’’of the avout concern themselves with ideas and books, rejecting the worldly concerns of the ‘‘extramuros’’, or outside world. Only three times in the history of the concent have violence and war intruded on the community, but each time it has recovered and been reborn. In this way, this subculture has existed on Arbre for 3,700 years, ignoring the rise and fall of governments, the waging of wars and other saecular concerns. As a reaction to the outside world, the avout have become more and more austere, rejecting materialism and technology and cloistering themselves in a world of thought and ritual.

Community members obey strict rules and are not permitted access to the outside world. Against this backdrop, Erasmus takes part in the celebration of the weeklong ‘‘apert’’ festival, an event which happens once every ten years and which sees the fraas and suurs venture outside the stone walls of the community. At the same time, curious members of the saecular world are allowed in to explore.

Erasmus looks forward to his first visit to the world he grew up in but hasn’t seen since becoming an avout. However, hi s plans are thrown into disarray when an alien spacecraft is spotted in the skies above Arbre. The saecular world is unprepared for such an occurrence and, in its pursuit of material gratification, has lost any means of coming to terms with this event. To avert disaster, the saecular and avout worlds need to come to an accommodation, and Erasmus and a contingent of colleagues are sent out into the world to attempt to discover what the mysterious craft is and what its inhabitants want.

From this point on, the plot advances quickly and the story becomes more fast-paced but, in general, Anathemis not an easy read. Stephenson has gone down the route of giving his imagined world and culture a complex vocabulary and structure, making the story obtuse at the outset. There is a point to this approach, as a key part of the story concerns the effect living a secluded life in the concent has upon Erasmus and how his worldview has been effected.

He must go out into the world and explore it from a sheltered and, in many ways, ignorant point of view. It’s through those eyes that the reader also must learn many things about this world.

Anathemis an intense and well-realised story – and, at 937 pages, it’s not a short book – and hardened science fiction fans will probably love it. For those with only a passing interest in the genre, though, be warned – this is no Star Wars-style work of cliche.

Making social media work for businesses

As many of you know, I mostly write technology articles for newspapers and magazines here in Ireland. I don’t usually post that content up here as it tends to be time-specific and of niche interest. However, this piece might be interesting to people. It appears in this month’s Computerscope magazine, a controlled circulation publication.

The publishers only post selected parts of each edition online, and this month, one of my pieces is up and available. It looks at how social media can work for business users.

While getting involved in social media is extremely cheap, and in many cases free, maintaining and growing an online presence isn’t.

It doesn’t cost anything to create a Twitter or Facebook account, or to set up a WordPress or Blogspot blog, but creating content and keeping your online persona visible takes time and effort. At a time when many companies have had to let staff go, the business case for getting involved in social media needs to stand on its own.

So just what is that business case? Is it about business development, or selling more product through using Twitter? Is it about marketing? Should you have a Facebook page because everyone else has one, and if you choose not to bother, will that damage your brand?  The answer depends on the business you’re in and the kind of relationship you want with your target market.

Book review: A Death in Tuscany, by Michele Giuttari

A Death in Tuscany. By Michele Giuttari, Abacus, €13.95

Published in The Sunday Business Post on August 10th, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

When it comes to continental crime novels, Italy’s Michele Giuttari has a lot going for him in the credibility stakes. Unlike crime writers who do their research sitting in the back of police cars scribbling notes on late night ride-alongs, Giuttari has seen it for real.

He spent eight years as the head of an elite branch of the Florence police and was responsible for jailing several key mafia figures involved in the Florence bombings of 1993.

He was also instrumental in reopening the ongoing case of the Monster of Florence, a serial killer who murdered 14 people in the hills of Florence between 1974 and 1985. Such life experience in a genre author is extraordinary and holds out fantastic promise for crime fans looking for a realistic dose of gritty procedural sleuthing.

In A Death in Tuscany, we’re introduced to Michele Ferrara, chief superintendent of the Florence police, as his attention is drawn to an unusual case file.

The body of a 13-year-old girl has been found lying at the edge of the woods, suspected of dying as a result of a heroin overdose.

Disgusted by the age of the girl and that nobody has claimed the body or reported the girl missing after a week, Ferrara decides to supervise the case personally. What initially seemed to be a drugs overdose quickly turns out to be something more sinister and a routine Jane Doe case soon becomes a murder investigation.

However, a second case appears to occupy Ferrara’s time. An old friend, Massimo, has disappeared and is now being sought by the carabinieri, who suspect him of being a conspirator in an unrelated murder.

As Ferrara tries to find Massimo and identify the girl, he has to contend with mafia heavies, a paedophile ring, a network of freemasons-gone-bad and a gang of people-trafficking Albanians.

To make matters worse, he must also negotiate inter-departmental rivalry with the carabinieri officers, searching for Massimo, and bitterness and resentment from colleagues whose collective noses have been put out of joint over the years.

Despite an over-reliance on conspiracy theories and a slightly formulaic approach to the subject matter, A Death in Tuscany is a decent read and Giuttari’s police experience makes up for a lot in terms of establishing credibility.

A Death in Tuscany, and his first novel, A Florentine Death, have been major sellers in Italy and have now been translated into English – a tricky thing for novelists as so much depends on the translation maintaining the feel and flow of the original version.

In this case, the effect is to make the Tuscan setting seem authentic and colourful.

A Death in Tuscany is an entertaining read, more than competent enough to stand next to similar offerings on the bookshelves.

Tokyo food and travel

Interested in visiting Tokyo on a culinary adventure? Well, I’ve a feature in the current edition of Food & Wine Magazine on Tokyo that might be of interest.

(Pic courtesy of the Japan Tourist Board.)

Unfortunately, it’s not online but you can get it in shops in Ireland now. I may post it up here once the magazine is off the retail shelves, but in the mean time, if you’re interested you can do that old fashioned thing and go buy a copy.