Ender’s Game


A couple of year ago, I met and got to spend some time talking to the American author Orson Scott Card. He wrote one of my all time favourite books – Ender’s Game. A science fiction classic, it’s being made into a movie due out later this year, with some heavyweight actors involved including Harrison Ford.

Card himself made a strong impression on me. To be clear, he holds some political and religious views that leave me scratching my head –  he’s fairly conservative and devout in his Mormonism – but as a writer there’s no doubt that he’s extremely talented.

It will be interesting to see how Ender’s Game is translated into a big budget movie – the main character is a small child and yet it’s a book that deals in quite adult themes. Card has apparently said that it’s a substantial rewrite from his book – but he’s smart enough not to mind. Why should he? A film doesn’t replace a book – it exists alongside the original version of the story.

When I met him, we shared a car ride for a few hours during which we talked a little about his book. I didn’t think to bring a copy along for him to sign, but with no prompting he pulled into a strip mall with a giant bookstore, bought me a copy himself and signed it. As I said, a nice guy. Sense of humour too.


Let’s Go Disco – the launch

So on Wednesday night we had the launch of Let’s Go Disco, with a party at the Cliff Townhouse on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Excuse me in advance, but there will quite a few superlatives in this blog post – I don’t see a way around them, and if you can’t express pride at a book launch for a book your very proud of, then when can you?

Around 130 people squashed into the dining room of the Townhouse, quaffed saffron-flavoured prosecco, Hendricks gin and tonics made with juniper-flavoured ice cubes and canapés drawn from the recipes in the book. Three large plasma screens showed off high definition pictures from the book, as well as the video clip Shane O’Neill made especially for the occasion, and the book was officially launched by guest of honour Derek Bulmer.

Adriaan Bartels, general manager of the Cliffhouse Hotel in Ardmore gave the introduction, Martijn gave a touching speech about the project and the importance of the team that lie at the heart of the House Restaurant and expressed sadness that James Rehill couldn’t be there to enjoy the evening with his colleagues.

The speeches were then finished off by the legendary Derek Bulmer. For people who don’t know who Derek is, he was the editor in chief of the Michelin Guide for the UK and Ireland for twelve years and worked as an inspector with the Guide for over 30 years. He’s the guy who decided on giving – and taking away – the much coveted stars that mean so much for the chefs and restaurants that have them. Think of any of the big names chefs in the UK or Ireland – the Hestons and Gordons of this world – he’s the guy who had the final say on awarding them their stars.

Michelin is an intriguing institution, and at a time when there seems to be a new restaurant awards taking place every month, the Guide still has a special place. I got a chance to chat to Derek for quite a while, and I could easily see how he was able to maintain his anonymity for so long – he’s a delightful, charming and totally unprepossessing guy. I would never have guessed who he was.

We are very grateful that Derek agreed to write the foreword to Let’s Go Disco, as it’s the first time he’s done that. Since he retired from the Guide two years ago, he’s been free to talk about his experiences and give interviews but amazingly he said nobody else had asked him to write a foreword.

In his speech he talked at length about his experiences in Ireland, as he came here three times a year for twenty years, racking up significant mileage driving around Ireland and dining incognito. He maintains a fondness for this country and had some very interesting things to say.

So that’s it, the book has been launched and is available to buy. I’ve updated the page on my website dedicated to the book with some photos and details on where it can be bought – for the record you can get it at receiption at the Townhouse in Dublin and the Cliffhouse in Ardmore or from the Cliffhouse website here.

Some preview copies of the book went out in digital form a few weeks ago so there will probably be some reviews or comment in the press about it. I’ll post these up as I find them and try to maintain a web presence for the book going forward. On Twitter, the hashtag #letsgodisco has seen a fair bit of activity in the last few days so if you’re interested, you can go check that out.

Otherwise, please buy a copy and enjoy it.


I’ve been working on a book project for the last year or so with Dutch-born chef Martijn Kajuiter of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford. Martijn is an exceptional chef, and his restaurant is one of the most innovative and significant in the country – it was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 and has kept it in successive years, as well as being awarded three AA Rosettes. His food is exciting and progressive as well as being firmly rooted in a very well established repoirtoire of classic methodology.

While not exactly a secret, we haven’t discussed the book publicly over the last year, because the immediate nature of social media would have meant the world was bored stupid by the idea of it, months before it came out. Instead we decided to keep quiet until it made sense to not keep quiet about it.

I still don’t want to say too much about it yet, because The Cliff House is preparing to launch the book and so it’s up to them to publicise it and release images and extracts to the public. However, now that the publication date is drawing near it’s nice to be able to start to acknowledge the book’s existence.

First of all, there are two editions of the book – a normal version and a special edition that has already sold out. (It was mentioned by Martijn casually on Twitter and within 24 hours, all 100 copies had sold out, and there is now a waiting list of over 30 people in case any more come up.)

But of the normal version, what can I say?

Well. the first and most significant thing is the price – €45.

The book is being self published and we’re quite proud to have been able to keep the cost relatively low, given the amount of work and the quality of the finish that’s gone into it. It might not seem low to someone used to buying mass-market food books, but it’s really not expensive for a book like this. It’s not uncommon for self published books of this kind to sell for €100 or €200 and it’s not hard to see why once you start making them.

In our case, there have been multiple photo shoots, spread out over the course of a year in order to shoot dishes in season and at their best. The photography has been presented on high quality paper in a hard back book wrapped in a truly gorgeous cover. The design work has been created from scratch by an excellent design agency and enormous attention to detail has gone into each detail of how the book has been created. Literally every aspect of it has been thought about, considered, explored and decided upon.

The book is currently scheduled to be available in the third week of October. I’ll post more information here as it’s appropriate, along with links to where you can buy the book and perhaps also some of the unused photography and behind-the-scenes material generated during the year we spent working on the project.

Book review: Procession of the Dead, by DB Shan

Procession Of The Dead. By DB Shan. Harper Voyager, €14.80

Published in The Sunday Business Post on March 2nd, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Procession of the Dead is the latest novel from Darren O’Shaughnessy, writing under the pen name DB Shan. O’Shaughnessy is one of I r e land’s most successful genre authors – his children’s fantasy and horror series The Saga Of Darren Shan And The Demonata are on sale in 35 countries and in 28 languages.

In Procession Of The Dead, Shan has turned his hand to writing for adults, and has taken the precaution of using a pseudonym to prevent children confusing this new book with his usual output.

The story starts with Capac Raimi arriving in the city to apprentice himself to his uncle, a once great gangster now fallen on hard times. Raimi has an unusual name, derived from ancient Incan culture, and this quickly saves his life and brings him to the attention of the Cardinal, the larger-than-life mafioso who rules the city.

The Cardinal’s tentacles are long and far-reaching, and nothing happens in the city without his saying so. Politicians beg for his backing, actors plead for help securing academy awards and popes come and go when summoned. The all-powerful Cardinal runs the city and, for some strange reason, he’s taken an interest in Raimi.

Offered a job in the Cardinal’s organisation, Raimi is set the task of learning the firm from the ground up, starting out in the insurance business. Much to the annoyance of the Cardinal’s existing henchmen and hangers on, Raimi looks like he could be destined to become the organisation’s next leader and the headman’s heir.

But all is not as it seems, and people close to Raimi start to disappear. This is not unusual in the city, but strangely, nobody but Raimi seems to notice they’re gone or even remember them. Raimi is compelled to investigate, but acting behind the psychotic Cardinal’s back is a very dangerous game.

Procession Of The Dead is the first book of the City trilogy and was previously published under the name Ayuamarca in 1999. At the time, both this book and its sequel, Hell’s Horizon, received good reviews but didn’t sell well enough to remain in print, and the third part of the trilogy – City Of The Snakes – was never published.

This time, however, O’Shaughnessy has returned to these adult novels and substantially rewritten them, drawing on the experience he’s gained as a writer in the last ten years. Aspects of the book betray its chequered past though – while the dialogue sparkles and rips along at breakneck speed, in places, the first person narrative descends into clunky and plodding description that is difficult to read and pulls the reader out of the story.

This is part of the problem that authors face when they choose to write in the first person – all events in the story have to be related via the experience of the main character. It can be a real challenge to do this creatively enough to not have the reader become aware of the man behind the curtain.

That said, in this case, the problem is forgivable, as the total package is well done and entertaining. The plot is excellent, with many twists and turns, and the technicolour cast of characters are as entertaining as they are repellent.

With Procession Of The Dead, O’Shaughnessy has produced a macabre, yet stylish, dark urban fantasy that’s more than worth the cover price for fantasy fans who like their strangeness to have an urban noir feel.

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.”

Author interview: Colin Bateman

Colin Bateman Interview

Published in The Sunday Business Post on April 13th, 2008

For some novelists, writing is a tortuous process, with each paragraph and page struggling to come to life. Not so for Colin Bateman. The ex-journalist has successfully applied his newspaper skills to the world of fiction writing and, as a result, enjoys an enviable chapter-a-day productivity rate.

‘‘As a journalist, you write two or three stories a day and nobody comes up to you and says: ‘Oh, you must be exhausted, you’re such a warrior.’ It’s just expected. You go in and do your job; the discipline of churning out thousands of words a day is a useful one. There’s a huge difference between the two fields, but I can touch type and I’m comfortable expressing myself in print,” he says.

Bateman joined the County Down Spectator as a cub reporter at the age of 17 and, as is the norm with regional papers, quickly found himself filling a wide range of journalistic roles. He particularly enjoyed writing a satirical column on life in the area.

‘‘There was lots of space to fill and I was pretty much allowed to write whatever I wanted, so I took the piss out of stuff a lot. Lots of bits of columns got recycled into later books, and the reactions I got locally for my writing gave me the confidence to sit down and do what I always wanted to do – write books. It was great training.” Today, Bateman has reinvented himself as a one-man media production unit – he writes bestselling novels, children’s books and movie adaptations (including the critically acclaimed 1998 comedy Divorcing Jack), and hopes to direct his first feature film in the next year.

He has returned to fiction with his latest novel Orpheus Rising, an unusual but deeply enjoyable road trip novel with a twist. Michael Ryan is an Irish journalist-turned-author who returns to the small Florida town of Brevard on the Space Coast, where his wife was murdered ten years ago during a botched armed robbery.

Accompanied by his Pulitzer prize-winning, but deeply irritating, journalist sidekick, Ambrose Jeffers, Ryan is drawn back to the area, needing closure and sensing that there’s unfinished business for him in Brevard. So far, so good – the reader is entertained comfortably within the boundaries of the crime thriller genre. Until around 200 pages into the book that is, when Ryan hits his head and things appear to take on a supernatural twist.

‘‘Or do they? That depends on the slant you want to put on it,” says Bateman. ‘‘I never plot my novels in advance, but I always knew this one would involve something like this. I actually wrote 20 pages of this book several years ago – it was called Ghost Town – before moving onto something else.”

‘‘But, generally, I don’t like supernatural things in books – I think Stephen King is a superb writer, but I don’t really like that kind of writing. So, the challenge for me was to write it in away that was believable tome, so that I liked it,” he said.

‘‘I grew up fascinated by writers and the way they write – the ones who struggled to produce the drafts they had to do by hand in pre-computer days, but also the pulp fiction writers who had this colossal output. I veer towards the pulp fiction writers. Write it quick, get it out, and once it’s out, it’s gone – I don’t think about it any more.”

In 1995, Bateman’s first novel, Divorcing Jack, was rejected by all the usual publishers and agents, before being pulled from the HarperCollins slush pile to become a huge hit. More books followed, along with successful screenplays and a film adaptation of Divorcing Jack.

Bateman’s books draw deeply from the conventions of the crime genre, but are also thickly peppered with humour and, as with his fellow crime writer Ian Rankin, references to popular culture and music. ‘‘One of my biggest influences in life has been punk rock, which was a massive part of my life when I was growing up,” Bateman says. ‘‘Ironically, I remember reading other people’s crime fiction as a kid and the authors would quite often go on about jazz – and I remember thinking: ‘I’m not in the slightest bit interested in Dizzy Gillespie, get on with it, would you?’

‘‘Of course, now, I’m doing exactly the same thing, with punk references all the way through. It’s a generational thing, but the music of those years was extremely important tome, and it came full circle with the Clash story.” Bateman is referring to the time when Divorcing Jack was being made into a film, and the producers asked Joe Strummer to write the title track for it.

‘‘To me, that was like Elvis or Frank Sinatra writing a personal song for me. I was thrilled. He wrote and recorded a rough demo mix of the song and submitted it to the producers, who rejected it and instead, re formed the Nolan Sisters and got them to do a song for the film.

‘‘I was able to get a copy of the song and a nice letter from Joe, so, in away, I have my own personal Joe Strummer song that’s never been released anywhere. It’s not a bad song either. That means more to me than winning a Booker Prize or anything like that.”

Since Divorcing Jack, Bateman has written a startling 21 books in 13 years, with significant chunks of time spent working full time on screenplays, including the successful BBC series Murphy’s Law.

‘‘I did the pilot for that and the first two series of it, and then the producers and I had artistic differences and, essentially, I got fired from my own series,” he says.

‘‘Basically, it was a crime series that was reasonably dark, but one that had a humorous element. They wanted to take out the humour and make it darker with more violence, to change it significantly from one series to the next.

‘‘I didn’t object to that as such, but my feeling was that, if you want to dramatically change a series, why not just make a totally new one, rather than alter the existing one so fundamentally? It’s done quite well since I left, but I wasn’t comfortable with that move.”

So, is he bitter? ‘‘In some ways, but in another way, it was a good thing for me. When you spend a long time working on a series full time – and I wrote almost non-stop for two or three years on Murphy’s Law – it does affect your other writing. It was good to get back t o novels after that experience.”

According to Bateman, writing scripts is quite deceptive. ‘‘You can finish one in two weeks and think, ‘That’s easy money’, but then you can end up rewriting it for the next year. On a series, there are multiple scripts for multiple episodes, so it gets a bit hairy. I do like seeing my stuff on screen though.”

When it comes to researching his novels, Bateman does not conform to the cliche of the method-writer. He doesn’t exhaustively collect background information and freely confesses to basing an entire 500-page novel set in the Empire State Building on the leaflet given out to tourists taking the tour.

‘‘At the end of the day, it’s fiction; as long as it reads well and you can lose yourself in the world, then that’s good enough for me. I don’t do a lot of research in general, and I’m not from the John Connolly school of research – I don’t need to live it. That’s not to say you can do all your research online – I do need to be there in order to pickup on the little things that happen that add authenticity to a book.

‘‘I don’t write outlines for any of my books, but I think if you watch enough movies, you pickup intuitively how stories should work. I don’t worry about character arcs or intersecting plots,” he adds.

‘‘I’ve had producers come tome and say they want me to write a screenplay using this story structure and this arc, and I just say, ‘Stop there, I’m not interested’. If I can’t write it the way I want to, I’m not interested. Especially when it involves humour – how can you ask a writer to do something as forced as insert a joke on page 26?” Unlike many of Bateman’s other books, Orpheus Rising isn’t funny, and isn’t meant to be. ‘‘It just didn’t lend itself to that – in fact, in some places, it’s quite romantic and in other places, tragic. I don’t try to analyse these things, they organically grow.”

Even though the book has only just been published, Bateman has already finished his next novel, due out next year. Entitled Mystery Man, it’s about a crime-solving bookseller and sees the writer return to his familiar Northern Ireland stomping ground.

He also has a new children’s novel out in June, and is working on a TV documentary on the changing face of Belfast, as well as editing an anthology of Northern Irish crime fiction, entitled Belfast Nights. Bateman hopes to try his hand at directing a feature film in the next year.

‘‘I directed a short before for the BBC and the bug bit me,” he says. ‘‘Last year, I also got to go to Moonstone, the film maker’s lab in Germany, to shoot some scenes from a book of mine [Mohammed Maguire], and that was fantastic. I came back expecting someone to meet me with a cheque for millions at the airport saying ‘make your movie’, but sadly it doesn’t work like that.

‘‘Your ambitions change over time. At one point, I just wanted to be able to write the words ‘the end’ and finish my first book- but then you want the book to be well received, and then you want it to sell well, and then you want a screenplay made of it. It’s the oldest cliche in the book; the screenwriter who says, ‘What I really want to do is direct’.

‘‘I think it’s a Northern Irish thing. I’m not sitting here thinking I can be the best director in the world – instead, I’m sitting here thinking I can do at least as well as some of the crap directors out there, so why shouldn’t I have a go at it?”

Book review: The Last Theorem, by Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl

The Last Theorem.

By Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl, HarperVoyager, €22

Published in The Sunday Business Post on August 31st, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

It’s always tempting to address a writer’s body of work through their most recently published book, and never more so than when the writer in question has recently passed on.

Arthur C Clarke died in March this year aged 90, having started The Last Theorem in 2002.Unable to finish it due to his ailing health, he invited fellow science fiction heavyweight Frederik Pohl to complete the book, although he apparently read and approved the finished draft just a few days before his death.

However, it would be a real shame if this massively influential author’s legacy as a futurist and writer hinged on this final novel.

The Last Theorem tells the story of Sri Lankan protagonist Ranjit Subramanian and his obsession with Pierre de Fermat’s infamous mathematical theorem. In real life, Fermat’s last theorem went unproven for 357 years until 1995, when Andrew Wiles published a proof.

In Clarke and Pohl’s novel, the story begins by introducing Ranjit as the son of a Hindu priest and a student in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. He is obsessed with maths and astronomy, and when he is caught in a compromising situation with his best friend Gamini Bandara, his father disapproves, not because Gamini is male, but rather because he is of the wrong social class.

As a result, Ranjit is temporarily disowned by his family and, in a bizarre twist of events, is kidnapped by pirates and held captive for several months. With nothing to do except think about maths, he hits upon a solution to his life’s obsession – Fermat’s last theorem.

When he’s released and the proof is published, Ranjit is catapulted into a position of global recognition. As a result of his new found fame, he comes into contact with representatives of a shadowy international organisation, Pax per Fidem (Peace through Transparency), keen to recruit his services as a mathematician.

Ranjit can initially find out little about this group until an overnight military attack on North Korea brings them into the light of public scrutiny. Pax per Fidem is the guardian of a new super weapon held in common by the largest of Earth’s nations – silent thunder.

Based on electromagnetic pulse technology, the weapon destroys all electrical devices for hundreds of miles in every direction but leaves people unharmed. When North Korea is effectively neutralised as a nuclear threat, a new period of peace arrives as rogue nations around the world are rendered impotent.

However, unbeknown to the people of Earth, a race of overlord beings known as the Grand Galactics have had their attention drawn to Earth by the unmistakable trace signatures of nuclear explosions.

The book follows Ranjit throughout his life from youth to old age, taking in his involvement in the new world order that emerges as a result of the use of silent thunder, as well as his marriage and subsequent children.

However, the characters around Ranjit are not well fleshed out and, as a result, it’s hard to stay truly immersed in the story.

The Last Theorem is an imaginative and challenging book, but many of its ideas and themes will already be well known to Clarke’s fans. Most, such as the use of space elevators and the question of man’s place in a wider universe likely to have intelligent life, have been dealt with before in previous works, most notably in Fountains of Paradise, Childhood’s End and the hugely influential 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What this book does very well is to take some fascinating science and maths, and make them intelligible. It’s just a shame the story doesn’t carry its technological payload a bit more proficiently.

Book review: Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin

By Ursula Le Guin
Gollancz, €18

Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 31st, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Ursula Le Guin is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, but with Lavinia she has sunk her teeth into an altogether more literary challenge. Part historical fiction, part fantasy and part literary conceit, La Guin’s latest novel tells the story of a minor character in Virgil’s 2,000year-old epic poem, The Aeneid.

In the original work, Lavinia is a 19-year-old princess who appears briefly, blushing at the prospect of marrying the hero Aeneas. However, in Le Guin’s novel, her story is fleshed out and extrapolated, with Lavinia becoming the central player in a story about politics, mysticism and civil war. Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata of the Italian kingdom of Latinum in an era before the founding of Rome.

At the start of the book, King Latinus is thinking of his legacy and of finding a successor. Lavinia is his only surviving child, as both his sons were killed many years previously by mysterious illnesses.

While his kingdom has enjoyed peace for the last 20 years, he needs to secure its strategic position by marrying his daughter off to the right suitor. His wife, Queen Amata has strong ideas on the matter she has become unhinged with grief and has never fully recovered from losing her sons.

She sees her nephew, Turnus, as a surrogate son and is determined to marry her daughter off to him. Turnus is ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Rutuli, and in many ways is a suitable match he is young, good looking and charismatic, if a bit impetuous.

More importantly, King Latinus knows that Turnus would make a good ally for the kingdom of Latinumat a time when there is much political instability in the area.

However, Lavinia is reluctant to agree to the match. She is a headstrong girl and, having grown up in peace time, has no idea of the political trouble brewing on the horizon. Like her father, she experiences visions and hears the voice of an oracle in the family’s sacred grove in Albunea. The oracle tells King Latinus to refuse Turnus’ proposal and to wait for a better suitor.

Meanwhile, a band of refugees from the Trojan War arrive on the shore s of Latinum, and Lavinia has a premonition that she will marry their leader, the hero Aeneas.

Latinum welcomes the Trojans and agrees to marry his daughter to Aeneas, leading to marital conflict with Queen Amata and war with King Turnus, who feels slighted by the choice.

Le Guin is an extremely accomplished creator of imaginary worlds. At 79 years of age, she has been a respected science fiction writer for more than 40 years and she has applied herself to Lavinia’s story with zeal. Latinum comes alive and the ancient Italy portrayed in the book feels authentic.

However, Lavinia is not really a historical novel, and Guin is clearly happy to play around with the rules of this universe.

A central part of the storyline involves Lavinia meeting and talking to a mystery presence in her family’s sacred grove.

This important narrator turns out to be the poet Virgil himself, travelling back in time in ghost form to let her know how events around her are to play out.

Many writers of historical fiction commit the cardinal sin of giving modern sensibilities to their historical characters placing liberal feminists in the dark ages or social democrats in medieval times, and so on despite the fact such ideas would have been unthinkable to those characters.

Le Guin doesn’t do this. The central character is accessible to the modern reader, but enough of the society she is supposed to live in is presented to make the context clear.

Lavinia is expected to marry whoever she is told to marry, and her objection to Turnus isn’t based on any idea of love or personal preference, but rather by a strong sense of predestiny.

In some places the book is unevenly paced the second half is much more enjoyable as the plot speeds up and more happens but overall, it’s a fascinating read.

Lavinia opens a thought provoking window into a long dead world, and offers something interesting from the hands of a writer who is extremely competent and passionately engaged with her subject matter.

Book review: The Strain, By Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain
By Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
HarperCollins, €14

Published in The Sunday Business Post on July 12th, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Set in New York City, The Strain starts with a mysterious Boeing 777 arriving at JFK airport from Europe. The plane lands normally when suddenly the lights go out, the blinds go down and radio contact is lost. Worried that some sort of biological weapon has been deployed, the authorities call in Dr Eph Good weather of the Centre of Disease Control to seal off the plane.

When the door is opened, the crew and passengers are found sitting in their seats, dead and drained of blood, but – as there is no obvious sign of disease – the bodies are bagged up and sent to the morgue. With the authorities under extreme pressure to explain the deaths, the media descends on the airport, generating headlines all over the globe.

The reports are seen by millions of New Yorkers, including an elderly Jewish pawnbroker sitting in his shop in Spanish Harlem. Abraham Setrakian thinks he knows what’s caused the incident and quickly realises he has to convince the authorities that a supernatural plague is about to break out in Manhattan.

Setrakian is a retired Polish professor who spent World War II in a concentration camp, where the prisoners’ misery was compounded by nightly visits from an ancient vampire, killing with impunity under the noses of the prison guards. Now Setrakian is the only one with the necessary knowledge to help Dr Good weather battle the imminent outbreak and trace the source of the infection back to the master vampire which must have been onboard the plane at JFK.

It’s probably not surprising that even the bare-bones plot description seems more like a summary of a screenplay than a book, coming as it does from the pen of mystery writer Chuck Hogan and lauded film director Guillermo Del Toro – the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Interestingly, the entire book reads like a fleshed out movie script, and has clearly been written with as much thought given to the look and feel of the story as the motivation and development of the characters.

Throughout the narrative, Del Toro and Hogan mix magic and science without much concern for believability.

The bad guys in The Strain are sub-human vampires that start out as regular people until they’re infected with a virus that kills them and reanimates them, creating mindless bloodsucking automatons in the process. At the same time, the inception of the virus comes from a supernatural uber-vampire, Joseph Sardu, who appears to be almost entirely magical in origin.

Regardless of their origin, the vampires featured in The Strain owe a lot more to movies like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend than they do to Bram Stoker’s original vampire story – and unlike Twilight’s brooding Edward Cullen, they’re certainly not going to be the object of any teenage girl’s romantic fantasies.

It’s impossible to discount the influence of the many vampire and zombie movies to appear in recent years on Del Toro, and The Strain is an unashamedly derivative book. Del Toro recently gave an interview where he said that the idea was originally conceived as a TV project for the Fox network, but he decided to pull it from negotiations when he was asked if he could make it into a comedy. It’s not hard to see why.

The story is genuinely chilling, and features violence and gore to the extent that it’s hard to see how it could be made into prime time television.

At the same time, it strikes enough of a balance between creating clever psychological tension and breaking out the chainsaws to make it both readable and interesting. As the story plays itself out, the scene is set for the next two books that are already scheduled to appear to complete The Strain trilogy.

As horror stories go, this is a well written and absorbing read, but it’s unashamedly a genre work – so if you’re not into horror, you’ll probably find it pretty silly. On the other hand, as a poolside read, it’s an enjoyable romp with plenty to recommend it.

Book review: The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol
By Dan Brown
Bantam Press, €11.40 (half-price)

Published in The Sunday Business Post on September 20th, 2009, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Booksellers everywhere have had the release date of Dan Brown’s latest novel The Lost Symbol circled on their calendars for months. Not since the last Harry Potter book appeared in 2007 has the publishing industry been as sure of a hit as it was with this book, the followup to the phenomenally successful The Da Vinci Code, which racked up paperback sales of over 80 million.

Released last Tuesday, The Lost Symbol had sold over one million copies for publishers Bantam Press by the end of the day, while the online bookseller Transworld said it had sold more copies of the book in its first 36 hours of release than any other hardback ever published.

The good news for fans who have yet to get their hands on a copy is that, with his third Robert Langdon outing, Brown hasn’t drifted far from the formula that made The Da Vinci Code such a huge international hit. Harvard academic Langdon’s specialist interest in symbology enables him to reprise his role as publishing’s most unlikely action hero.

Where the Catholic Church and Opus Dei were the focus of the conspiracy theories in The Da Vinci Code, this time around freemasonry comes in for Brown’s scrutiny.

Summoned at the last minute to Washington to give a lecture by his friend and mentor Peter Solomon, Langdon finds he’s been the victim of a hoax and there is no lecture.

Solomon has gone missing, and his severed right hand has been found on the floor of the national statuary hall in the Capitol Building.

Solomon is a prominent mason, and his hand has been tattooed with mystical symbols and then positioned specifically to communicate a message to Langdon using an obscure reference only he would know.

Under pressure from both the CIA and Solomon’s kidnapper, Langdon must find a supposedly legendary Masonic portal that acts as a repository for a body of ancient knowledge that can confer mystical powers on practitioners.

In a plot that seems like it could have been written for a computer game, Langdon must dash from point to point in Washington, solving puzzles and delivering mini-lectures along the way about the city’s Masonic founders and hidden symbolic references.

Along for the ride is the kidnap victim’s sister, Dr Katherine Solomon , a specialist in the obscure study of noetic science, which deals with mind-body connections and the nature of human consciousness.

Meanwhile, a variety of civil servants and state officials get in Langdon’s way, as the clock ticks and time runs out for Peter Solomon. Brown specialises in rip roaring plots that jump quickly from scene to scene, and this novel is no exception.

The story takes place over a 12-hour period, and is written with the kind of pacing that helps communicate the panic and rush of the protagonists.

Unfortunately the pace of the story doesn’t leave much time or space for anything as trivial as character development, but then that’s probably not the point of a book like this.

Brown is well versed in working with the particular formula he favours, so expect lots of cheesy, cliché-ridden dialogue, interspersed with extensive explanations of cutting edge science and ancient history.

There are some interesting twists and turns along the way, but the final resolution of the story is surprisingly predictable.

By no objective measure can books like The Lost Symbol or The Da Vinci Code be described as particularly well written, and once again Brown has come up with some improbable plotting, shallow character drawing and illogical story twists.

But to dismiss The Lost Symbol out of hand would be a mistake, because a vast chunk of the book-buying public isn’t all that interested in literary criticism – they care about fast-paced, easy to read thrillers laced with an exciting streak of conspiracy and intrigue.

The average Lost Symbol reader is looking for a book that will make their train journey home go that bit quicker, or help a few hours by the pool slip by pleasurably.

And for them, Brown has produced a fun read that, as long as it’s not taken too seriously, delivers exactly what was expected.