Sunday 22 April 2018

5 books, 5 digest reviews

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth, Prodigals, Blood Brothers, Fallen, Trials of Passion

Reviews of Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth, Prodigals, Blood Brothers, Fallen, Trials of Passion

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth

Jack Sutherland (as told by John Sutherland),

Faber, €16.99


Review by Hilary A White

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There are many things that make Jack Sutherland’s memoir noteworthy, not least the fact that it has been ghost-written by his father, the author and respected UK academic John Sutherland. The former PA to the stars and crystal meth addict has lived a life of both squalid risk-taking and self-destruction that must surely have been one long wince of pain for the fatherto take down.

That said, both men are clearly aware of their target audience, namely those who enjoy the car-crash drama of the darkest corners of LA showbiz. There is regret and shame, for sure, but also a spirited, almost gonzo tempo when an anecdote is just too salacious or narcotic to be skimped on. 

Both qualities marked the lifestyle of Jack Sutherland. After battling addiction during his teenage years in Pasadena, he worked as a talent liaison on the sets of music promo shoots. This led to a job as a PA to Michael Stipe on REM’s bedevilled Monster tour, and subsequent stints at the side of drag star RuPaul and infamous diva Mickey Rourke. A flourishing soiree in the limo business was also embarked upon by this admirably hard and canny grafter.

Gradually, an addictive but thus-far clean personality began buckling under the increasingly lavish and stressful life he found himself in, leading to a spectacular and protracted fall off the wagon after being introduced to crystal meth. This in turn accelerated Sutherland’s thirst for edgy chemsex orgies with strangers sourced on LA’s gay cottaging scene.  John (who detailed his own battle with addiction in 2001’s Last Drink to LA) comments from the sidelines via footnotes in this game but grisly volume that knows when to calm the wild tales and scour for depth. Naturally, catharsis and cold remorse butt heads by the end.



Greg Jackson

Granta Books,



Review by Patrick Kelleher

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Vanity, drugs and breakdowns: these are just three of the themes that link the eight short stories in Prodigals. It delves into the lives and challenges of the American middle-class. What they have in common is that they all seem to be experiencing some kind of inner turmoil.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds slightly pretentious — and at times it is. For the most part, however, Jackson manages to avoid lurching into self-indulgence. His wry reflections on the meaning of life through the prism of middle-class breakdowns is unique —and often very funny too. ‘Wagner in the Desert’ is both hilarious and unsettling, as is the incredibly witty and surprisingly sad reflection on loneliness in ‘Epithalamium’.

The first six stories of Prodigals are immensely enjoyable. They’re witty and beautifully written. ‘Dynamics In The Storm’ is extraordinary, as is the wonderful ‘Amy’s Conversations’ and ‘Tanner’s Sisters’. These stories show Jackson at his best: able to veer between hilarity and soul-crushing sadness in a matter of words, while also building a sense of unease throughout. 

The lows come in the form of the final two stories. ‘Metanarrative Breakdown’ is overlong and self-indulgent, coming in at nearly 50 pages. Similarly, ‘Summer 1984’ is a bit of a slog, although it redeems itself somewhat in the

end. Jackson’s talent is there, however, and most of the stories are a thing of beauty — balanced, entertaining, incisive and poignant. Prodigals is a remarkable debut.


Blood Brothers

Ernst Haffner,

Vintage, €11.99


Review by Hilary A White

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‘Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Heinrich Heine’s line from his 1821 play Almansor came into sharp focus during the rise of the Third Reich. Ernst Haffner’s only novel Blood Brothers was one of many victims of the 1933 burnings and was banned by the party, possibly for its grimy and anarchic account of Weimar Germany.

What the journalist and social worker thought of this is, like Haffner’s fate itself, a mystery (he vanished around the time). Luckily, Blood Brothers, one of Germany’s great lost novels, has finally been reprinted and translated into silken English by Michael Hofmann. Street gangs were a daily reality of that impoverished and decadent interwar period and Haffner reflects this. The Blood Brothers are such a mob of desperate young men, living on the edge of hunger and dedicating a chunk of their energies to back-alley pursuits that Haffner spares little detail in describing.

Both Haffner’s social conscience and journalistic sensitivity are fed into this tale of the laws of society and the jungle melding. He understands drama as well and there are some scenes (such as that involving a punishment beating) that are told with lacerating menace. Alpha male Jonny and the rest of his vagrant mob are products of their environment, Haffner quietly argues. If they seem inhuman as they steal, scam and fight, remember too that they are fiercely loyal and on the lesser end of inhumanity given what had taken place in the trenches.

Removing the mystery of Haffner and the interest the novel’s rediscovery has caused, Blood Brothers unquestionably stands up as an absorbing and visceral saga of raw survival instinct on the street.



Lia Mills

Penguin €11.99


Review by Madeleine Keane


To read Fallen over the Easter weekend as the Last Post sounded in Kilmainham’s Breakers’ Yard and children placed daffodils at the GPO lent it a special immediacy and poignancy. Lia Mill’s third novel is a superb choice for Dublin City Libraries One City, One Book initiative which encourages people to read a book connnected with the capital during April. For 2016 Belfast was invited to join in and both cities will host events around Fallen.

 April 1915 and young middle-class Katie Crilly is heartbroken that her beloved twin Liam is heading off to fight on the Western Front. A year later she’s mourning the anniversary of his death when her native town suddenly darkens into a violent and unpredictable place as the Rising erupts.

 The novel, which wears its considerable research lightly, works as a tale of two cities. The opening chapters are stately, civilised as Katie rails against the constraints imposed by her bourgeois mother, forced to take up research work instead of college. Twelve months later and all is changed. Mills, pictured, conveys chaos and fear as she zig-zags her courageous heroine across a Dublin aflame with rage and tension. Against this horror, a tender love affair flowers as Katie meets a wounded captain who fought with her sibling. With precision and poetry, the nightmare of war is juxtaposed with unexpected passion: “My heart thudded, like the slow tongue of a bell.” 

An unflinching portrait of grief and growing up, this is a fine addition to the literature of 1916. 


Trials of Passion, Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness,

Lisa Appignanesi




Review by Deirdre Conroy

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This is more than a story of crimes of passion and the courtroom dramas that ensued. It is neither a sensationalised nor gratuitous account of murder, but a highly academic investigation into the mental fragility attributed to murderers throughout history, not least, those of the female kind.

Appignanesi selected three intriguing cases which distinguish the legal approach in Britain, France and the United States. It is 1870 in Brighton and a respectable spinster infuses chocolate creams with strychnine to put an end to her lover’s wife. In Paris, 1880, a treacherous lover is gunned down. In 1906, millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw shoots dead Stanford White at a cabaret on the roof of Madison Square Garden.

The principle of mitigation for murderers who were non compos mentis goes back to Roman Law.  English common law followed suit; certain lawbreakers, such as children or ‘lunatics’ could not be held accountable for their acts. Being ‘mad’ was its own worst punishment. In the 20th century, psychiatry intervened and criminal rulings took on the complexity we acknowledge today.  The author goes beyond comparative analysis — she scrutinises the impact of ‘mind doctors’ through a feminist lens.

Criminology has become a popular specialisation in legal studies. This is a great academic read, engagingly theatrical, atmospheric and includes valuable endnotes. 

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