City of Tiny Lights review

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This is an interesting British crime/noir movie from BBC Films which I downloaded simply ages ago but have only just got around to watching.

The story is a fairly standard one: a hard-living private detective in London is hired to investigate the disappearance of a young Russian prostitute, in a case that has links to drugs, terrorism, a property scam – and a terrible event from his own past. In the process he’s reunited with an old flame, now something of a femme fatale, who helps him but also stirs memories that might best be forgotten.

So far, so noir formula, but this has one distinction – the PI is Asian, and most of the action takes place within the British Asian community. The property scam involves an old school friend; the terrorism centres around the local mosque. And the PI’s own father (a wonderful turn from Roshan Seth, reprising his ‘bonkers Dad’ role from My Beautiful Laundrette) has a pivotal role to play.

I enjoyed the film, with certain reservations. Riz Ahmed is cracking in the central role of hard-drinking, chain-smoking PI Tommy Akhtar, and Billie Piper lends star power as femme fatale Shelley. The back streets of London make a moody backdrop for the action, and there’s some clever nods to modern culture and the place of Islam in British society, alongside the more Chandler-esque elements. However, there are far too many flashbacks to Tommy’s childhood, with young actors who bear too little resemblance to their adult selves, which becomes confusing. And there’s too much reliance on Tommy knocking back shot after shot of whiskey, and lighting up cigarette after cigarette. This is presumably to show how dysfunctional he is – but it happened so often that it started to get in the way of the action.

But my biggest worry, which poked me from time to time during the film and then sat up and shrieked at me once I’d switched off, was the uneasy feeling that deep down, this is an unpleasantly stereotypical portrayal of the Asian community. The hero is a westernised lapsed Muslim who drinks, smokes and dates white women. The heroine is pretty – and white. Most of the other Asian characters are either slimy con artists or wild-eyed fundamentalist terrorists plotting to overthrow nasty western society. And the book the film is based on was written by a non-Asian British bloke. I’m hoping any negativity was unintentional, but the anti-Muslim, pro-western sentiments were blatant enough to make me thoroughly uncomfortable – and I’m white. It’s a shame, because a more balanced approach could have added tension, and made the film more intelligent – and much more interesting. As it is, I probably won’t bother watching it again.

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Farewell, Brotherhood

brotherhoodYesterday I drew the curtain on another long-standing favourite TV series, Brotherhood. I’ve been watching it, on and off, for the last few months, downloading episodes from the Sky box sets service whenever I got the chance. And I’ve enjoyed it so much that it feels like saying goodbye to an old friend.

The series focussed on the lives of two Rhode Island Irish-American brothers, Michael and Thomas (Tommy) Caffee, one a vicious gangster, the other a successful local politician. The characters were loosely based on the real-life hood Whitey Bulger (played by Johnny Depp in the movie Black Mass) and his brother Billy, but moved from Massachusetts to Providence and with fictional family, characters and plotlines added. However, the basic conflict between an apparent ‘good guy’ politician and his violent, mob-based brother was explored at length and formed the backbone of the series.

I liked it for a number of reasons, not least because it had one of my favourite actors, Jason Isaacs, playing the role of Michael Caffee. However, what began as a bit of a fan-girl thing quickly moved on, and I came to appreciate the authenticity and ‘real-ness’ of the writing. Most of the action was filmed on location in Providence itself (rarely the case with US dramas), which added a sense of grounding. And the characters were a terrific mixture of good and bad, to the point where they were sometimes interchangeable. Tommy Caffee wasn’t above doing a dodgy deal or three to further his political career, while gangster Michael had a strong ethical code which he imposed not only on his family but also on other criminals who worked for him.

This level of complexity is also unusual in American drama, which tends to have a much stronger moral message of ‘good vs evil’ where good is perfect and evil has to be destroyed in order for the good to prevail. That extreme ‘black and white’ world view can feel alien to British audiences and Brotherhood was much more British in its humanity and its portrayal of real life as opposed to something out of a comic book.

Brotherhood was apparently first conceived as a movie and the producer, Blake Masters, was persuaded to turn it into a series by the TV executives. I’m glad he did, but in the end I’m not convinced there was quite enough material to fill the three seasons that were made. In the early episodes it felt fresh and you never knew quite what was going to happen next. By the end of series 3, it was starting to repeat itself. There’s only so many times you can watch Michael being jittery and paranoid, or Tommy and his wife Eileen having yet another domestic falling-out. There has been criticism that it ended too soon, but for me it seemed to be losing its way and I’m not sure that dragging it on through another season (or more) would have worked.

That doesn’t mean I won’t miss it, though, from the slick mix of violence, sex, and American politics to the stellar performances from almost all the cast – but particularly Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke as Tommy Caffee, Fionnula Flanagan as arch-matriarch Rose, and latterly Brian F O’Byrne as the family’s Irish cousin Colin. RIP Brotherhood, I’m glad I had the chance to see you when I did.

Fun with fossils

Just what do you do on a baking hot afternoon in Birmingham, in the middle of a heatwave, when even the modern shopping centres feel like the seventh circle of hell?

We had some time to kill in the city last week, in the sort of heat you normally associate with a middle-eastern country, not the UK. It was sunny, it was unforgiving, it was almost 30 degrees. Ordinarily I’d want to find the nearest patch of shade or countryside, preferably by some open water, to crash out. But in a city centre that’s not really an option, so we did the next best thing – head indoors to renew our acquaintance with Dippy.

For those of you who don’t know, Dippy is a dinosaur. Or was, 70-odd million years ago, before shuffling off this mortal coil and leaving his or her bones behind, to be dug up and turned into something of a national treasure. For the last century or so they’ve been gracing the main entrance hall at the Natural History Museum, where they’ve inspired generations of small children (and dare I say it, adults). Until last year, when the unthinkable happened. A blue whale moved in, and Dippy was booted out.

Since then he’s been on tour, stopping off at museums and exhibition halls around the UK so the public can pay their farewells, rather in the way of an ageing rock star doing one last world tour. And at the moment, it’s the turn of Birmingham.

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Of course, finding somewhere big enough to display an entire diplodocus skeleton isn’t easy. Brum has turned to one of its Edwardian ‘show’ spaces, an enormous hall  built in 1912 to house the Birmingham Gas Corporation. Nowadays it’s part of the larger Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery complex and is used for big exhibitions, and there aren’t many that come much bigger than Dippy. Even so, compared to the space at the Natural History Museum it’s pretty compact, and the poor thing looked rather squashed – to the point where they’d actually had to kink the last few feet of his tail upwards to fit him in.

This is rather a shame, as the impact of the sheer size of a fully-grown diplodocus has been reduced. Also, in the Nat Hist he served as a sort of ‘gatekeeper’, an introduction to the wealth of other exhibits and treasures waiting beyond. Not just dinosaurs but every other kind of living thing ever to inhabit the earth. Here, there’s a few cases of stuffed fluffies, a few explanatory boards, one small companion dinosaur, and a rather tacky gift-shop. And that’s all.

The whole thing is free (although you do have to book tickets in advance because of the crowds) but that isn’t really the point. Dippy was an inspiration. Everyone loves dinosaurs, even people who aren’t really interested in nature, and he was a fantastic way of getting kids into the museum in the first place. However grand the blue whale might be, I can’t see it having the same iconic, cult effect. So although it seems a bit daft to get so soppy about a bunch of old dinosaur bones, I’d really like to see the whale sent on tour instead (or put back in a box) and Dippy restored to his natural home.

And before anyone says it, I’m well aware that these aren’t even real bones. The actual skeleton is locked away somewhere and this is just a plaster cast. But no less impressive for that…

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Shrimp Floyd

P1000299Other Half and I recently spotted this great Weird Fish T-shirt in a local department store and just had to have it. Other Half beat me to it by ordering one in his size, which is about 67 times too big for me. Sadly, that was the smallest size available, so I shall either have to steal his and look like a tent with feet, or go without. But what fun!

For those of you who can’t read the small print in the picture, the T-shirt is titled Shrimp Floyd Classics, with four fishy pictures roughly approximating Pink Floyd album covers. Clockwise from top left we have Shark Side of the Moon, The Difishin’ Bell (groan), Fish You Were Here, and Clamimals. Hats off to the Weird Fish pun department, which is obviously alive and very well.

We love some of the details in the cartoons. The clam seen floating over Battersea power station, for instance, has a puncture which has been partly mended with sticking plaster. Not quite like the original inflatable pig, which broke free, floated into Heathrow airspace, eluded every attempt to shoot it down, and eventually came to earth in a field of cows somewhere well outside London… but then I guess those details are heavily copyrighted by the band!

I do wonder, too, if the header is a wry reference to the fact that a newly-discovered shrimp species was recently called after Pink Floyd, mostly because, er, it’s pink. I blogged about this colourful critter last year so you can see I’m not pulling any legs, not even of the crustacean variety.

Now I’m off to scour the Weird Fish website to see if they’ve got any more sensible sizes in stock. It’s a very funny place, so I may be some time…

 

 

Raise the Blade locations: 2 – City Centre Gardens

This is a really dull name for a surprising little space tucked away behind some of Birmingham’s most well-known buildings.

Follow an unprepossessing alley-way between the new city library and the white bulk of Baskerville House and you come to an unappealing (if useful) multi-storey car park on the corner of Cambridge Street. So far, so ordinary, as are the high-rise blocks of flats beyond.

But just across the road from the car park is a small, but surprisingly attractive, city park. It must only measure around a quarter of an acre, if that, but it includes shrubs, trees, manicured lawns, flowerbeds, and a circular pillar-thing in the middle with more flowers inside.

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Annoyingly, I can’t find out a single thing online about the gardens or their history. How big are they? Who designed them? When were they opened? Are they on the site of a special building, landmark, or former park? I have no idea, which is quite frustrating. If anyone knows anything about them, please pass it on in the comments here because I’d love to know.

The paths are lined with benches and in good weather it’s a favourite lunchtime hang-out for office workers and staff from the nearby International Convention Centre/Symphony Hall complex, as well as locals and a scatter of visitors who’ve tripped over it.

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And it’s a lunchtime sandwich that proves pivotal for Nigel, the second victim in ‘Raise the Blade’. Noticing a foul smell, and realising it doesn’t come from his sarnie, he and colleague Vannie track it down to the space between their bench and the encircling wall.

‘Over there’ proved to be behind them, in the narrow space between bench and road, bounded by thick bushes and a low stone wall. At first, craning over the back of the bench, he couldn’t see anything that might be causing the niff. Then, behind a thicket of twiggy stems he caught a glimpse: black plastic, something spilling out.

When I visited last year to take some photos, the bench that best illustrates this was occupied by a couple of teenagers making out. Not wanting to look like I was taking an unhealthy interest in them, I snapped the benches further along instead. They don’t match the description in the book quite as well, but hopefully it gives some idea of the scene…

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As for hiding the body in the first place, well, this is an out-of-the-way corner but with main roads only yards away. After dark there’s probably not many people about, and there’s that multi-storey car park just across the road… Perfect for offloading, and either dragging the body in through the nearest entrance, or for someone strong, even lobbing it straight over the wall.

It put Nigel off his lunch, and caused him a bit of bother afterwards. But if you’re in this area of Birmingham with a few minutes to kill, make the effort to track the gardens down. And head to my website if you want to find out more about Nigel, the bodies, and ‘Raise the Blade’.

Gravy Train cover reveal

Regular readers will remember that I mentioned a few months back that my first ever full-length novel, ‘Gravy Train’, is due out from All Due Respect in November.

Well, work has been going on in the background ever since and the big news is that the book now has a cover. And here it is.

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I love it. I love the grungy look, I love the sense of speed conjured in the top image, I love the fact that it could easily be a street corner pub in Birmingham. I even love the font, which is similar enough to the one used on ‘Raise the Blade’ to be something of a Tess Makovesky brand. Many thanks to Eric Beetner for all his hard work in conjuring this up from not much more than a blurb and some vague mumblings from me.

November might sound like ages away yet but it’s only five months and the time will pass in the same high-speed blur as the cars on that photo. I’m already getting excited – I hope you are too.

The Puppet Show

 

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Thanks to a lift to the nearest mainline station (and back) I made it to Carlisle on Sunday for author M.W. Craven’s launch party for his latest book, ‘The Puppet Show‘. And what a lovely day it was too.

Things kicked off with a gang of us meeting up for lunch at the Quarter Lounge, a nice bistro/bar in Carlisle city centre with friendly staff, a relaxed atmosphere, and yummy burgers to munch. After a good catch up with lots of my writer friends, we headed to the Old Firestation, another great venue, for the event itself. Here we were treated to an hour of repartee between Mike himself and guest ‘compere’ and fellow crime writer A. A. Dhand, who asked lots of questions about the book, the characters, the prospect of a TV series, and Mike’s writing processes.

‘The Puppet Show’ is the next installment in the Washington Poe series of crime novels and involves strange, dare-I-say-ritual killings in stone circles around Cumbria, which the murderer seems to actively want Poe to investigate. Mike has also introduced a brand new character, Tilly Bradshaw, a brilliant but socially inept analyst who’s become something of a favourite with readers already.

Mike kept us entertained with his usual stream of amusing anecdotes, plus some fascinating snippets about the history of stone circles in Cumbria (there are 63, apparently, more than anywhere else in the UK). And after that we all trooped into the bar for drinks, more chat, and a slice of cake. Well, all except me for the latter, as I suddenly realised I was late for my train back and had to dash before I got the cake! Here’s a pic of what I missed, courtesy of Linda Wright.

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Missing out…

Last week I was invited to two separate writing events, both of which looked fantastic. Annoyingly, I didn’t manage to get to either of them.

The first was the latest in the series of Noir at the Bar: North East, held every few months at the Town Wall bar in Newcastle. I’ve been to one there (and another in Carlisle) and it was excellent – high quality readings, great fun, a really good night out. I’d have loved to go along again, not necessarily to read this time but just to soak up the atmosphere, listen to some great crime writing, and enjoy putting faces to the names I meet every day on social media.

But it wasn’t to be, because it more-or-less clashed with my good friend Les Morris’s book launch, held in Carlisle the very next night. Newcastle is a three-hour train journey away from home which means having to stop in the city overnight, and I simply wouldn’t have had time to travel home, get everything ready, and set out for the next event again. So, regretfully, I said no.

51uWmD4CEPLI was determined to get to Les’s launch. He’s a good mate from early Facebook days; it’s thanks to him that I discovered Crime and Publishment, and you might even say because of that it’s thanks to him that I’m published at all. ‘Desperate Ground’ is his debut novel so all the more exciting, and I really wanted to be there to help him celebrate.

But that wasn’t to be either. I’d had a bug all week which meant I lost my voice (no cheering, please) and then on the day the local trains decided not to run. Actually, they’ve been deciding not to run, on and off (but mostly off) for several weeks, and it’s starting to get annoying. The train company run replacement buses, but there’s virtually no schedule, they take twice as long to get anywhere, and they only run one 60-seat bus to take up to 300 train passengers at a time. Needless to say, it descends into chaos. I couldn’t see how to get to the mainline station in time to make my connection, and more worryingly, I couldn’t see how to get home again. Especially as I wasn’t feeling a hundred percent. So, even more regretfully, I had to send Les my apologies.

I’m sure he had a fantastic time (I still remember the excitement and sheer terror of my own launch party for ‘Raise the Blade’) and I hope that he’ll forgive me eventually. As for his book, you can find all the details here. Do go and check it out, because it sounds like a real page-turner. In fact, it’s described as explosive. So if you order a copy, just be careful when you’re opening up the parcel from Amazon!

Elephants, giraffes and crocodiles, oh my

P1000219Elephants loose in Birmingham? And not in one of my books?

Well, yes and no. Like the ones in my books, these aren’t actual elephants. Unlike the ones in my books, they are at least concrete – or rather, metal – and often life-sized. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Akamba.

Back in the day this was a small, exotic garden centre selling a range of sub-tropical plants like ferns and bamboo from a small sliver of land in the suburb of Acocks Green. It was deeply mysterious, with trees lacing overhead and a network of ‘paths’ created through the jungle-like undergrowth, plus tribal music playing quietly on hidden loudspeakers, and a tiny shop selling African crafts.

It was one of those hidden gems that only the locals know about, but it was obviously very popular because soon after we first visited, it closed its Acocks Green premises and moved to a much larger site on the southern fringes of Birmingham, near to the new town of Dickens Heath. And here it remains, although there have been big changes recently (and I’m not just talking about the elephants).

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Nowadays the garden centre part of the business is something of an afterthought, and this is primarily a ‘venue’. There’s a large cafĂ©/restaurant with a stage area which can be hired out for events; there’s a vast outdoor beer garden/cocktail bar area; there’s a tropical house and bird walk for the kids. And everywhere you look there are metal sculptures of animals, looming out of the bushes in a quirkily entertaining way.

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As an unusual venue it must be right up there at the top of the list. Perfect for book launches, was my first thought – especially anything set in Africa, the jungle or the tropics. Even the restaurant is done out like a colonial tea-house, with lamps formed from (metal) antelope heads and pendant lights designed to look like weaver-bird nests. It’s very atmospheric, and tremendous fun. And if you’ve got a spare few thousand pounds, you can even buy an elephant.

“Brilliantly dark humour”

Raise the Blade FrontI’m extra happy today, because the wonderful Jen of JenMed’s Book Reviews has tackled ‘Raise the Blade’ – and loved it!

She’s been particularly complimentary about the book’s ultra-dark humour, and also about the Birmingham locations, which I’d only just started to blog about in detail on here.

If you’d like to see more about what she liked and why, then head over to the review. (And have a good rootle around her site while you’re at it, because it’s simply stuffed with books.)

If you’d like a bit more information on those settings, then check out my most recent post, and keep your eyes peeled because I’ll be adding more in the next few weeks.

Raise the Blade locations: 1 – Edgbaston Reservoir

It occurred to me recently that I’d never really blogged in depth about the Birmingham settings in ‘Raise the Blade’, which is a shame for two reasons. One, Birmingham is full of amazing – and often surprising – locations, and two, they’re really important to the book. So, to set the record straight, and hopefully provide something of a guided tour around the city’s less-well-known nooks and crannies, I’ll be writing about various locations over the next few weeks.

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The first is Edgbaston Reservoir, which forms the backdrop to the discovery of the very first body in ‘Raise the Blade’. I first came across the reservoir in the mid-1980s, soon after I’d moved to Brum, when a couple of friends took me there for a walk. I was pretty cynical at first; the suburb it’s set in is leafy enough, but tends towards streets lined with houses rather than huge open spaces that you can use for long walks. Just how much of a lake could there be in such a relentlessly urban location, I naively thought. Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. A short stroll down a path between two properties took me to a whole new world. A world of wide open vistas stretching out all the way to the city centre skyscrapers and beyond; a world of yachts and ducks and great-crested grebes; a world of trees that feels a million miles from the busy, traffic-choked streets just a few hundred yards away.

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The reservoir was built (or at least commissioned – I don’t suppose he lifted a shovel himself) by Thomas Telford, the great canal engineer, in the early nineteenth century, and it was built for one purpose – to provide water for Birmingham’s vast network of canals. A small stream was dammed, and water was also piped from another reservoir around three miles away, and together they formed a lake covering some 58 acres – although the overall site including a round-the-lake footpath, grassland, woodland, and the dam, covers as much as 70 acres.

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Although the reservoir itself is open to the cross-city views and skies, the surrounding trees give it an enclosed, secluded feel, particularly in summer when the leaves are fully out. At the end furthest from the dam, large houses back onto the site, their gardens barely visible over high fences, often topped with wire. It was this location in particular that I used in ‘Raise the Blade’. Rotton Park Road, with on-street parking, is only a few hundred yards away, and the path from there slopes downhill, so it would be easy enough for a strong murderer to drag a body into the undergrowth. In the book, one of the fences has been damaged – enough for the foxes to get through – and this is presumably where the murderer gains access to Mrs Rai’s garden, and where hapless victim Brian finds the body and decides to hide it, setting the book’s characters off on a chain reaction of their own.

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This is just one of Birmingham’s many hidden gems. Dashing past on the surrounding streets you’d barely know it was there, which is another reason why it might be useful for disposing of unwanted evidence. All that nice deep water (40 feet, apparently); all those trees. And when the leaves are out, it’s barely overlooked. Of course, I’m not condoning leaving dead bodies there myself, but all things considered you can see why Duncan did!

You can find out more about the reservoir, its facilities, and the various events it hosts at the Birmingham City Council webpage here. And to find out more about ‘Raise the Blade’, its victims, and the other locations I used, head for my webpage here.

All photos in this article are my own. Thanks for reading – there’ll be another unusual location along soon.

The Right to Remain Silent

Dark_Side_of_the_MoonI didn’t remain silent, and perhaps it’s just as well. Nope, nothing to do with getting myself arrested (yet!) but a brilliant interview with a fictional (honest) introduction over at Jason Beech’s blog.

The interview is fairly standard although some of the questions really made me think. But the fictional bit is amazing. How Jason came up with the whole thing armed with only a few snippets of information I shall never know. Pink Floyd, murder, urban legends, they’re all in there. And if he can do that with just my bio, imagine what he’s like with a whole book!

Do head over to his blog and check the interview out. After all, it’s not every day that you’re in the presence of an urban legend. Cough. And while you’re at it, have a look at some of his other willing victims, because there are lots of them and they’re all just as good. And then have a look at his latest book, City of Forts, because that looks brilliant too.