Gift of the Gabby

Connemara debutante novelist Alan Stephenson went straight for the teen fiction jugular on his debut and drew blood. This is my messed-up way of saying Gabby is a nifty stocking filler for those complicated folk we call teenagers this Christmas. The Sunday Independent were good enough to let me explain why.


WHO’D be a teenager these days, what with having to contend every day with raging bodily chemicals, awkward dispositions and peer pressure.

Spare a thought, then, for Gabby, the protagonist of this fleet-footed fantasy debut by Connemara-based author Alan Stephenson. If all these things were not enough, our young heroine has the added complication of transforming into a titanium-winged harpy when her humour is tested. And teenage humours are easily tested, you may have noticed.

Of Traveller stock, Gabby’s family is massacred one night in the West by a foreign hit squad intent on snuffing her out on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. The reason for this, one that slowly dawns on her in the aftermath of the attack, is the threat she poses to a clandestine crime cult based in the north of Spain who know that, as the daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son, burgeoning puberty will equip her with terrible powers.

She goes on the run, aiming for refuge on an island off the coast near the fishing village of Cleggan.  Chapterless, bite size scenes carry us along as she discovers that when her adrenaline rises, Gabby grows talons and huge metallic wings while undergoing a sense of heightened sensory awareness. These very much come in handy as she is hunted across Connemara by specialist assassins, Romany gang leaders and those trying to help her.

Stephenson takes a careful aim at the teen-fiction market and hits a bullseye. It’s not rocket science, he shows us. He makes an entertaining emulsion of rhythm, danger, character empathy and the usual teenage dilemmas of getting to grips with hormones and emergent adulthood. The animals she befriends offer her what the humans around fall down on – loyalty and trust. That said, by the time of the brisk finale, she has a band of relatives and colourful local well-wishers around her that react to her plight with either familial defensiveness, desire or the awe and devotion of witnesses to a miracle.

If one could fault Gabby it would perhaps be in the magnitude of her powers which by the end of the book are so fearsome that you are in little doubt that she will come out the right side of any altercation with dart-slinging witches or crack snipers. It is important, therefore, that her deadliness is countered and subdued by all the trappings of her age and Stephenson makes sure that these are part of her saga (like when she is completely disarmed by flutters after crossing paths with dashing fisherman Crabapple Jones.

Stephenson doesn’t clutter the language with lexical flora. The modern and the mystical get fused in the dialogue, between jocular rural Irish and the dour, biblical speak of her tormentors who are packaged in the same darkly zealous robing as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code ghoul, Silas.

It’s an age-old template in a novel – a seemingly ordinary young person who develops amazing abilities. It resounds with young readers for whom nothing would be more wonderful than appearing ordinary on the surface in the school hallway but harbouring something inside that trumps their peers. Tolkien and JK Rowling built empires out of the blueprint. Even Cloud Atlas supremo David Mitchell has tried something similar (if more brain-scrambling) in his recent The Bone Clocks. If Stephenson can build on this debut and bring further riches to what he intends to be a trilogy, who knows where this could lead.

First published in the Sunday Independent


H Is For “Hell Yeah”

I had to work hard not to let my long association with falconry taint my Sunday Independent review of Helen McDonald’s nature memoir ‘H Is For Hawk’. Luckily, it is a beautiful piece of work regardless of whether you know your Barbary falcons from your Red-Nape Shaheens…


AFTER the death of her beloved father, writer, poet, Cambridge academic and falconer Helen McDonald sought out falconry’s most challenging charge – the goshawk, “the ruffian” of the hawk world. It would, she hoped, consume her so greedily as to soften the waves of remorse she felt for her father, a Fleet St photojournalist whom her nature-mad childhood had revolved around. The move chimed with other glaring absences in her life; a man, a family, a job or a permanent abode.

Unlike most reviewers, I have actually trained and hunted with a goshawk and would not wish it on anyone going through a time of emotional fragility. Only perhaps racehorses require more daily management than falconry birds, all of which are non-domesticated species that must be intensively conditioned to tolerate and respond to the trainer before flying free. In particular, however, few birds in this ancient art absorb patience or test resolve like the spring-loaded, mercurial goshawk.

McDonald’s subconscious took her and her grief into the world of this solitary species, a place where human connections and feelings would only get in the way. H Is For Hawk is about that process and what she discovers on the other side. But there is also much more going on in this achingly honest journey.

As a child, McDonald was a raptor “bore” to her parents, obsessing over them, drawing them, and poring over all the old falconry literature. One of these texts was TH White’s The Goshawk (1951). White – who deserved more fame in his lifetime for his Arthurian legends The Once And Future King and Disney’s adaptation of his The Sword In The Stone – had, as McDonald biographs with forensic sensitivity, a sorry life. He was abused by his violently incompatible parents as well as at school, and lived with little in the way of human companionship due to his closeted homosexuality. The goshawk he disastrously trained in 1936 was White’s way of “disappearing into nature” in order to treat utterly human wounds.

White thus looms large on the fringes of McDonald’s courageous memoir. Besides the skill and thought with which she pieces apart his nebulous life and motives, she uses White as a prism through which to understand her own self-imposed feathery exile. Where once she scorned White the novice falconer, she now finds herself softening to him. She stands back even further then, questioning the romantic myth of nature being a refuge for bruised hearts. Mabel – the name she gives to her own captive-bred goshawk – is a predator, a “spooky, pale-eyed psychopath”, no matter how comfortable and playful she comes to be in the author’s company. It is ultimately the hawk’s cold-eyed lack of humanity in the hunt that reminds McDonald of her need to return to more human temperatures.

And yet for a book that has death and dead people at its core, H Is For Hawk is not only full of light and buoyancy but is also some of the most charged nature writing to appear since JA Baker’s evergreen The Peregrine (1967). McDonald’s ruminations on Mabel, her prey, English wildlife and habitat are gilded, shimmering things, like graffiti being precision-flung before your eyes. Here, a cloud of bouncing linnets are “half midges, half musical notation”. There, a wild hawk’s swoop is “a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl”.

Baker, like White, leaked shards of himself into his OCD-laced diary, but McDonald has perhaps more in common with AL Kennedy whose On Bullfighting begins as a treatise on a mystery and ends up being illuminated by something from within the writer themselves. This, along with some exquisite language, is McDonald’s achievement and the reason for the many textures, both tame and wild, harrowing and celebratory, found here.

Hilary A White

H Is For Hawk, by Helen McDonald. Jonathan Cape, €14.99

First published in the Sunday Independent

(Why) I love Lucy

Yes, Lucy and I got on swimmingly. If you still haven’t seen it and are in the mood for fun, frolics and feminine grandeur from your local cinema screen this weekend, I present the below argument.


SUSPICIONS always circulated that Scarlett Johansson was some class of goddess, but it has taken hit-and-miss director Luc Besson to confirm this as fact. Johansson is now prime real estate in Tinseltown, and had a lesser mortal been cast in the role of a girl transcending her human limitations via a synthesised drug, it would be hard to see the worshipping public fall on board as it has to the tune of $170million in global box office revenues.

Lucy is unashamedly a star vehicle for Johansson, but besides her comely jawline adorning the posters, it also succeeds by being cheerfully freewheeling in its barmy sci-fi ambitions. Matrix-like action scenes rubbish the laws of gravity. Time and space are jogged through like Terrence Malick on espressos. Johansson, donning Louboutins and a little black number as her powers grow, is all straight-faced poise while she has her way with the universe.

Limitless (2011) played a similar trick by letting Bradley Cooper utilise all his brain capacity by way of a pill. Lucy, however, rides roughshod over such restraint. In Besson’s screenplay, packs of blue crystals alter our heroine’s very DNA to the point of omnipotence, turning the planet into her personal tablet to be swiped and paused and surfed at will. Silly mortals Morgan Freeman (the gentle professor), Amr Waked (the helpful Parisian detective) and a crew of nasty Korean gangsters can only look on in astonishment as they are left behind.

Mad, mind-bending and marvellous fun, as long as you don’t dare try to resist.

First published in the Sunday Independent

Royally impressed…

They’ve topped the charts, announced an Academy date and are resulting in a few more guitars going in the bin. From a couple of weeks back, this is my review. I called it first!


WHEN it emerged that it only took two people to be as loud as war – see Jack and Meg White, Death From Above 1979 and The Black Keys – the suspicion was that riff-happy duos would start popping up all over the landscape, but this has not been the case. It appears that while three-pieces require a cut above in terms of ability, duos must be of a different category of multitasking altogether to get the same rock results as more crowded outfits.

So with the above acts either disbanded, reformed or stuck in a holding pattern, the arrival of Royal Blood is timely. The Brighton combo of bassist/singer Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher here blast out a riff manifesto on their debut of the like not seen since long before Queens of the Stone Age began needing Elton John to make records.

Kerr dashes about the fret and pedal boards to make something as mundane as a guitar a superfluous idea. From the opening bars of ‘Out Of The Black’, the riffs, each elastic, bludgeoning and smart, hammer forth. Scuzzed-up, megaphone vocals hitch a ride on pulsating, buzzsaw basslines on slick single ‘Figure It Out’ before breaking into an outro rampage. ‘You Can Be So Cruel’ is a more glam cousin of Queens’ ‘Do It Again’, while ‘Blood Hands’ slows things to a hard, bluesy lurch. Only half of ‘Little Monster’’s title is accurate.

The playing is imperious. Overdubs aside, Kerr’s bass, like Jesse F Keeler before him, does the work of three men, and in Thatcher, a new granite-hard percussion talent is revealed. But a key ingredient is that vocal; like a battle-hardened Dan Auerbach or an Anglian Tim Vanhammel, Kerr – an admitted Jeff Buckley disciple – brings vital contrast to the sonic testosterone with wild, huffing yelps, melody and perk. There’s a fair whiff of adolescence about it all, but if Royal Blood stick around and their sound calcifies with age, you can imagine a whole generation pairing up and ditching six strings for four.


A moody movie ginger

There’s much to admire about JDIFF winner Love Eternal. I just wished it had taken itself a little less seriously…

IAN (Robert De Hoog) is a ‘non-functioning human being’, turning his back on life at the age of 16 and confining himself to his bedroom to mope online, obsess over death and go a bit ‘Howard Hughes’. His mother dies and he decides to take an indirect path towards checking out of life altogether. This involves a cold fascination with women who may not be long for this world themselves. When Ian starts making them dinner and bringing them for walks along the seaside, it’s but a guitar riff away from Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.

Adapted from Kei Oishi’s novel In Love With The Dead, this macabre curio won the Dublin Film Critics Circle ‘Best Irish Feature’ at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival this year. De Hoog’s performance is a study in low-wattage control, leaving the female roles (Pollyanna McIntosh and Amanda Ryan) to breathe colour into the glacial mood, even while dead. 

It’s stylish work but cracks start to show after a while. De Hoog’s blank face and meandering psychopathy start to get tiresome as the central message of the film drifts from sight. Is writer/director Brendan Muldowney suggesting that psychos have feelings too? Or that it’s OK to be a deathly recluse who mummifies bodies and collects dead-animal carcasses? Such ideas would make for dark fun if Love Eternal had more humour in its DNA. Instead, it wants to be a cold-blooded mood piece that relies on Tom Comerford’s handsome cinematography and a kooky soundtrack to drum-up enigma. 

First published in the Sunday Independent

Swede as a nut

It may not roll off the tongue easily but The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a delight to behold.

IF you took away the mawkish US cheese of Forrest Gump and scrubbed it with Scandinavian functionality and cleanliness, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out His Window and Disappeared might be the result. As laden with charm and wit as it is with syllables in its title, Felix Herngren’s adaptation of the Jonas Jonasson novel is a self-effacing cinema event as only the Swedish could muster. 

It’s hard to know at the start where things will go as we watch oldtimer Allan Karlsson (Swedish comedy star Robert Gustafsson) vengefully blowing up a fox who killed his beloved cat before being chucked in a nursing home. Fed up with things on his 100th birthday, he shuffles out the window and into a hot-potch adventure of vicious gangsters, new friends and tag-alongs, and a circus elephant.

Blissfully unaware of the seriousness of any situation he finds himself, Allan regularly looks back on his long and eventful life and how his interest in munitions brought him to key junctures in world history and seats at the dinner table with the likes of Oppenheimer, Franco and Stalin. 

These elaborate flashbacks – having a knees-up with Stalin, trying to escape a gulag with Einstein’s dim-witted twin brother – supply Herngren’s film with a high belly-laugh quotient, the dotty humour and Gustafsson’s shrugging tone proving irresistible. In the background, a soundtrack of bubbling brass and some lively cinematography keep the fires of mischief lit.

Daft and delightful.

First published in the Sunday Independent

Lukewarm In July

I thought Cold In July was a bit meh and far from the sum of its parts. Here’s what I said on Sunday…

OH DEAR. It turns out that meek middle-American suburbanites have the capacity to become gun-toting, steel-eyed angels of death if the mood takes them. This is the fate of Richard (a be-mulleted Michael C Hall) in Jim Mickle’s vaguely preposterous adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s crime novel. 

Downing a burglar one night when he hears footsteps in the sitting room, Richard is soon being intimidated by the dead intruder’s tough-as-old-boot-leather father (a show-stealing Sam Shepard). Between police procedural jigs and conspiratorial reels, it emerges that the pair have been duped and the man shot by Richard is not actually who police say he is. Lo and behold, Southern caricature and private investigator Don Jonson turns up to help them get to the bottom of things and go baddie-hunting.

On paper, Cold In July looks like a nicely atmospheric mix of Prisoners-like dark moralising and Bronson-y hard justice. The cast also looks formidable – Hall is hot property following Dexter and Six Feet Under, while Jonson’s powers of self-parody have struck gold before. So why, after a fine opening half, does the whole thing deflate so steadily? 

It must be something to do with the characters, who, apart from Shepard’s grunting old-timer, are not given enough reasons to prance so readily into the bloody finale. Also, writers Mickle and Nick Damici have an annoying habit of killing the noir with comedic one-liners. Genre hopping is all well and good, provided the thread running between is unshakeable. Disappointing. 

First published in the Sunday Independent