book review

Guest Post: Portraits of Montserrat: AP McGrath

This week, Guest Blogger, Photographer and Author A .P. McGrath talks about his novel “A Burning in the Darkness” and his portraits of Montserrat.

Don’t forget, A Burning in the Darkness is available for free kindle download only until the end of today. So grab it while you can. And don’t forget to leave A.P a review!

“The small town in south Tipperary in Ireland where I grew up had a population of 5,000 and when I was a teenager I began taking black and white photographs of local people in the places where they worked and lived. My mum knew the editor of the local newspaper – everybody knows everybody in a town that small. He liked the pictures I was taking and offered a weekly slot entitled ‘The Town and It’s People’. I would approach shop owners, butchers, pub owners etc. and ask them if I could drop by some day soon to take their picture. I realised they would dress up a little and strike a certain pose, but people reveal themselves through these self-conscious acts as much as they do when they are caught unawares. These folk had a certain pride in their living or work places and I wanted to capture these spaces as much as the people themselves. I was interested in the details of the old shops that were giving way to the more modern out of town shopping. I liked the light and the tonality and the resonances of past times. The weekly portraits were a hit with the townsfolk. Indeed on more than one occasion I remember my mum remarking to me “Oh, I hear Mrs O’Reilly is disappointed you haven’t taken her photograph”. The townsfolk wanted themselves seen in and certain light and, in truth, I probably had my own slightly selfish reasons for taking the photographs. I knew that I wanted to leave.

“Probably all of the world’s biggest airports have a quiet prayer room offering sanctuary before a journey. A traveller might be embarking on a whole new life in a new country. Maybe he or she has planned an escape from an anxious past or is simply going on a welcome family holiday in the sun. Travel can also be a dreary necessity. We may need to make a business trip or a journey because of events that are beyond our control, as in the death of a family member or loved one. One friend told me she was about to go on a business trip when she miscarried her second pregnancy. She was in her mid to late forties and knew it was probably her last chance to give her young son a brother or sister. She entered the quietness of the prayer room and had a think and a good cry before she carried on with her journey. The prayer room had been a welcome and necessary shelter.

Smaller cover McGrath_DRAFT2 #2 Smaller Size (1)“In a novel, place is inseparable from character and events. Indeed it can become an effective character in itself, a protagonist, soaked in mood. My novel A Burning in the Darkness begins in the prayer room of one of the world’s biggest airports. There is a tiny confessional box and in its anonymous darkness a voice confesses a murder to Father Michael Kieh, but a young boy has witnessed the killer go into the confessional. Michael becomes the main suspect in the murder investigation because of a group of pitiless antagonists, but he doesn’t betray the identity of the young boy nor break the Seal of Confession.

“The airport is a cinematic place. It is a frenzied cathedral dedicated to travel. It is also a lonely place. Michael is one of a number of faith representatives tending to the needs of more than 80 million passengers who pass through its gates each year, yet he rarely gets to see members of his flock more than once. His environment is constantly changing and he begins to question his faith. As a consequence, he is drawn to the companionship of an art dealer, Joan, who frequents the airport for business trips.

“Michael grew up in Liberia in the midst of its brutal civil war. His childhood experiences shaped him and made him what he is: a good man. I wanted to explore the idea that he had the freedom to think differently from his environment. He had the ability to strike out against its dominant mood because he wanted the world to be good and not characterised by the destructive madness of war. And he had the strength of character to do it.  

“I studied English and Philosophy at University College Dublin, but I also trained and studied as a photographer. In the late eighties I had the opportunity to go to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat and used my time there to take portraits of some of its people. Some months ago, after I’d finished writing the novel, I was doing a clean-out of the attic and came across the photographs which had been hidden away for many years.

APMcGrath Montserrat 5aI was struck by the way they explore the intertwined relationship between character and environment. In technical terms the portraits are taken with a wide angle lens so that you see both the person and the surroundings. I was drawn to the looming Soufrière Hills volcano at the centre of the island and it becomes the backdrop to many of the photographs. However in July 1995, the volcano erupted and destroyed most of the main habitable areas, including the principle town, the airport and docking facilities. Two thirds of the population was forced to leave, mainly to the UK.APMcGrath Montserrat 6a

Most of the photographs were taken in parts of the island ravaged by the volcano. This area was designated an exclusion zone and it covers more than half of the island. So there is poignancy to these photographs that capture a world now lost.

Several months before the publication of my novel I realised I had to set up a web site. I’m not a corporate person. I couldn’t see myself in a smiling brochure portrait, passing myself off as a kind of salesperson. But I could see that the photographs of Montserrat might say as much about me as they do about the people in the photographs. APMcGrath Montserrat 4aThe quality of the relationship between the subject and the artist is crucial. The degree of imaginative sympathy for the subject is something that sets a good work of art a part from others. The ultimate skill is not in mastering the camera or a fancy ability with words; it is getting the subjects to reveal themselves – even if the subject is entirely your invention.”

AP McGrath

You can find more portraits of Montserrat on AP’s web site: http://www.apmcgrath.com.

Get A Burning in the Darkness free on Kindle, now. Last Chance.

Manly Stories Mainly for Men: Rivers of Gold and The Graybar Hotel

Two interesting looking books popped up on my Kindle this week: Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn and The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins. Both sounded gritty and noir-ish for different reasons, so I was pleased to give them a go. After finishing, I had a strange feeling, kind of like waking up after being hit by a plank of wood to find a credit card receipt for 20 shots of premium tequila in my pocket.

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I guess you could say that’s my masculine side coming out. I felt like a man – a manly man. Because, these books are just that – totally – manly.

32620303The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
First up, this is a collection of short stories written by a current inmate serving life without parole for a murder during a ‘botched’ house robbery. The first thing you notice in this collection is how well it’s written. This isn’t a teenager writing fan fiction, this is someone who knows their craft, and I suppose he should as he has an MFA from Western Michigan University. This book isn’t actually out yet and the publishers have asked that no quotes be shared, but I’ll just say this, the authority of the stories just melts off the pages.

The setting is mostly Kalamazoo Prison, Michigan and the narrator seems to be often the same person interspersed with an Arthur or a George as he tells us their stories too. He takes us through a wide range of experiences from Processing to spending time in Quarantine before being sent to a prison, to the prison itself. It feels dramatically realistic, but there’s also a smattering of the supernatural too.

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Where this book really shines is in the glimpses of insights into how an obviously intelligent and educated man mitigates the monotony of life in prison. Early on, ‘I’ tells us he isn’t normally a sociable person, talking for no reason, but in jail, you have to be, as there’s nothing else to do. And I think many of us could imagine this of ourselves (imagine it and shudder). So in order to reconnect with the outside world, he calls random numbers collect (he doesn’t have any personal contacts he can call) in the hope that someone on the other end will talk to him for 15 minutes, or at least let him listen to the traffic noise outside their house or the background TV and this as an idea is mesmerizing. In a nutshell, this book is mesmerizing, like been taken for an experience which I hope I’ll never encounter, but for which I’m grateful for the advice. It reads partly like a diary, partly like a philosophy.

However, a couple of factors got in the way of absolute pleasure. First off, there’s the issue of the author. If you want to learn more about him, check out Bullmenfiction.

The phrase, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot” shows up here and this reeks of a lack of genuine remorse. If I went to someone’s house and shot them without any reason, I hope I could muster up a little more emotion than that, but hey. The other issue is the short story format. I wish to high heaven, this were a novel, but alas, I’m guessing Mr, Curtis doesn’t have his own personal MacBookPro in his cell with all his research and files neatly organized in coloured folders. And you know what they say, if you don’t want short stories, don’t read them. It’s a free world – for some of us.

Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

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Okay, hold on tight. NYC 2013. Man in a taxi thinking about money and sex. My first impression of Renny was that he was a fat, boring version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho travelling through an NYC that seemed recognizable to me. But wait, it’s meant to be a dystopian future version of NYC after some huge financial crash and an over running of drugs… It’s always tough when fiction falls short of reality.

Now there is a storyline and once you get into it, it is good but it’s hard to get past the layers of (to a woman) boring man-stuff. There’s a fashion in women-centric novels at the moment for including the recipes of the foods the characters eat, and in Rivers of Gold, there is so much talk of cocktails that I felt it was just the same need being fulfilled but differently. The sex talk is grim and sounds like it’s coming out of a middle aged, over fed man who is partial to botox, as in ‘no thanks, I’m late for a spin class’. But I can imagine plenty of guys really love those scene. Plus Renny gives girls head, so that make him a modern-thinking man, right?

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But enough of the man bashing, because Rivers of Gold is a good book. Dunn has some great ideas and thoughts, which translate well on paper as the thoughts and ideas of his characters. He can also write well and in this age of self-publishing, that has to be recognized.

Naturally, this book, both these books, are populated with men and deal with how men think. The women are superficial, attractive or sexual characters or remarkable because they’re not attractive or sexual. I read and enjoyed both books on a surface level, but felt a little out of touch with the context and emotions.

Maybe this is just how guys feel if they read an Alice Walker/Munro collection. To each their own. Thank God we don’t all like the same stuff!