Thursday, 25 June 2015

One Man's Opinion: HOW I LEARNED TO SING by MARK ROBINSON


The short version of this review might read:

When I began reading How I Learned To Sing, I decided that I’d mark all the pages I really enjoyed. It wasn’t long before I ran out of post-its.

The longer version says the same in more words:

Mark Robinson has put together something rather wonderful in his collection of new and selected poems. It’s a substantial body of work that is hugely engaging and engendered a wide variety of emotions in this reader.  
It’s divided into several sections: The Dunno Eligies, How I Learned To Sing, Esperanto Anyone, from a Balkan Exchange, from Half A Mind, from Gaps Between Hills and from The Horse Burning Park. In this sense, it’s the best of the poet’s work and spans many years of penning.

The sections carry different flavours, but they do share common ground.

The theme I most enjoyed is one I’d call ‘loved and lost’. I don’t mean this in relation to meeting people and moving on, but in terms of the sense that all great moments, big or small, have passed. No matter how delicious the pie, it doesn’t last forever. This is such a great theme here because Robinson’s scope for love is enormous. We get to zoom in on details of everyday life and then back out again to gain perspective. We can find amazing ways of looking at the world through cooking and kitchen disasters. There are journeys through the generations that are intimate and personal on the one hand and universal at another level. There’s even a love of bitterness and frustration, for to feel these things one needs to be alive and that should be celebrated at some level. There’s occasional resignation but, like all else, this is transient and Robinson is able to regroup and find a way to cope or to move forwards with something resembling hope.

My favourite sections are the How I Learned To Sing of the title and those from Half A Mind. I found these sections incredibly moving. Many of them capture moments of family life, written as grandchild, child, partner and round the cycle of parenthood. The work achieves a huge amount in so few words that it made me wonder why I don’t read more poems and has me resolving to make sure I find space for poetry in my world whatever that requires.

A lot of the poems are concentrated and intense, so it was also a treat to be presented with bursts of humour that allowed for the cleansing the palate from time to time.

What I do realise is that I won’t be able to put together the words to do this work justice. I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt hugely moved on many occasions.

I’m sure that all who come to read it will take their own versions and interpretations away with them. For me, I felt reassured about my own life somehow, as if the journey through the ups and downs helped me to work something through my system that needed shifting.

Totally engaging, hugely enjoyable and ultimately rather uplifting.

So here’s to you, Mr Robinson. Bravo.


Saturday, 20 June 2015

One Man's Opinion: YOU DON'T EXIST by PABLO D'STAIR and CHRIS RHATIGAN



“Some people don’t know how to measure a good day. But Pullman had a clear system – the fewer people he interacted with, the better. His ideal day would be zero interaction with anyone.”

You Don’t Exist (US) brings together two novellas by a couple of very talented individuals. They have common themes and share something in terms of style, which means this is a strong marriage and a successful one.

Both stories concern the finding of money. In the first, Bleed The Ghost Empty, the protagonist stumbles into a load of cash that just happens to be in the car of a murdered individual. In the second, Pessimist, a much larger, life-changing, amount of cash is picked up by Pullman at the baggage collection of the airport (‘more like a bus stop’) in Moline.

You’d think that the finders would be celebrating, all this free money at their fingertips, only that wouldn’t make a very interesting story. Instead, both men feel the weight of paranoia upon them. They begin to question everything. Need to work out all the angles so they can keep themselves safe. They become so entrenched in their need to study all of their actions that even the simple decisions carry a new meaning.

D’Stair’s character is escaping from a broken life. His mind is already pumped full of adrenaline and insecurity as he passes through places that barely seem to exist. When he has to stop to fill his car with fuel, he makes his discovery and begins to unravel as his thoughts go into overdrive. In a very good way, this is typical of the author’s work. He worms his way into the present and finds an anxiety and pointlessness that borders on horror even in the smallest detail.  

Pullman, is a different creature. He is drawn to study his whole life and the prison of work and earning has created for him. The worst part of it all is that he’s become totally institutionalised in the consumer way of being and the prospect of liberation from it seems like a nightmare. This one’s more directly challenging to the reader, I think. It points the finger and asks about values and experiences and purpose all the way through – Pullman is a kind of cracked mirror that you are forced to look into and the reflection isn’t going to let you off the hook easily.

I really enjoyed these stories because they, perversely, made me feel incredibly uneasy and uncomfortable from the start. They plough through the present like razors through flesh and that unflinching attention to the moment is often very disturbing.
This is seriously good writing in a form that’s not likely to burst into the mainstream any time soon. Even so, I hope that this review will help it get into a few more hands so that it begins to gather some of the momentum it deserves. Whilst recommending this read, might I also suggest that you don’t tackle it when you’re feeling very alone and that you keep your own personal crutches (smokes, beers, whisky et al) very close to hand.


Another belter from All Due Respect books.  

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

One Man's Opinion: ANGELS OF THE NORTH by RAY BANKS


‘A soldier between wars was like a chimney in the summer.’

Ever wondered what might have happened if the plane in Lord Of The Flies had crashed on an estate in Gateshead in the middle of the 1980s? I reckon Ray Banks has. But that's possibly another story. 

At the start of Angels Of The North, Joe’s coming home from the army. He takes a cab. The driver is Gav. They happen to live on the same street and get talking, or at least Gav does. Has Joe heard the one about Brian who was done over when he stood up to the drug pedlars in the end house? Wasn’t he brave and isn’t it a shame that nobody helped the guy out? What on earth is the county coming to?

Life on their estate is a mess. The neighbours live under the enormous clouds of poverty, hopelessness and a constant racket from the junky house. It’s a symptom of the collapse of a once thriving industrial district, where community and joint effort have been replaced by inertia and a sense of failure.  Further afield, the broader context is of individuals trying to make good while being prepared to step on anybody to get along and economic success is seen as the only success.

Gav and Joe decide to do something about their hell. They set about taking on the scum at the end of the road and it’s not long before their underground movement turn to violence. As with any movement, however, there are political differences and conflicts that cause breakdown and reformation as some rise and some fall.

There are many conflicts in this book. There is the community against drug culture; there are the machinations at the local taxi firm; there are families where blood ties aren’t enough to provide the glue they need; there are the internal battles of individuals who struggle to find equilibrium; there are fights in the business world; and there are the tussles with the world as people just to try and stay afloat.  

The scope of this novel, though centred upon the three main players, is enormous. The protagonists are like particles in the Hadron Collider who bang into each other with such velocity and power that they create black holes and big bangs all over the place. They suck those around them into unstable orbits that put them at risk in a variety of ways. Among the things I loved about them was the way my levels of sympathy for each never stayed the same. They all have some redeeming features if you loosen the usual parameters a little, they’re all doing their best in extreme conditions and they’re all totally ruthless and misguided in different ways. My loyalties shifted regularly until the author finally played a few trump cards and allowed me to nail my colours to the mast.   

This is a brutal book that speaks about a dark and troubled time that will be ever present as long as there are people on the planet. It doesn’t hold back in any way and, in that sense, if feels totally honest. Ray Banks hasn’t compromised at any point. He’s not ducked out of any of the big issues by diluting his work to suit a conservative audience. He’s not avoided peeling back the layers of humanity to leave a warts-and-all package. There are no contrived plot-twists and the developments feel organic and natural. This honesty serves to make the story all the stronger.

If that weren’t enough, Angels Of The North (US)is written with a terrific style and voice. Best of all for this reader is the quality of the simile and of the amazing descriptive powers on show, for this is another area where I reckon Ray Banks truly excels.

Add to all of that a subtle humour and a great rhythm to the dialogue and you have yourself something rather special.   


Buy this one. Tuck it away on your shelf or your e-reader until you’re ready for a serious read. Get it out whenever you feel you’ve fallen into a rut with your habits or you find you’ve tired of the flimsy, the formulaic or the easy ride. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

One Man's Opinion: LOCK 14 by GEORGES SIMENON


Plenty going on in the world just now.

I’ve just come from a really nice read of an interview between Patti Abbott and Rob Hart. It’s a story that shows up some of the stresses and trials a writer may have to go through and is an example of how the effort is worth it when the quality is there. You can find it here if you’re interested.

I’m also enjoying a rare warm day here on the coast. I feels like summer and I’m going to take full advantage of it. I even wrote outside today. That doesn’t happen often. Whether it’s the weather or has more to do with me reaching a tipping point in my current novel, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping to make hay. This one’s the fourth in the Southsiders (US)series. If you haven’t checked out book one, take the link and have a look. Books two and three are somewhere in the Blasted Heath ether just now, but I have a feeling it won’t be long before we crack on.

Talking of Blasted Heath, I’m currently reading Ray Banks’s Angels Of The North (US). If I had a load of boxes that I liked to tick for a novel, this one would definitely have most of them covered. It’s tremendous stuff. How’s this for a turn of phrase?

   ‘She hated him like he was made of salad.’

In context of the sloth of a lady being discussed, this is absolutely perfect. I can wholeheartedly recommend the book even though I’m just a third of the way through (there’s no way this one is going to let me down).

Also in the land of the Heathens, it’s not long until the premiere of the movie of Douglas Lindsay’s books on Barney Thomson. The film’s called The Legend Of Barney Thomson and if you want to get up on what is likely to be a very hip and cult piece, you might do well to read the books first. The omnibus (US) is a bargain.

I can also offer you this freebie if you don’t have it yet. Beat On The Brat (US) is available to download for nothing for what’s left of today and tomorrow.

And to my thoughts on last week’s read.

I’ve read George Simenon’s Lock 14 (US)before. It was many years ago and at the time I was living on a boat on the Regent’s canal in London, which most likely made the book all the more of a treat.

This time around, it carried waves of nostalgia, set as it is on the canal boats of France.

A murder has happened at Lock 14. The body of a woman is discovered in the straw in a stable. She’s clearly not a local, but is unknown by all.

When she is identified as the wife of the owner of a pleasure boat, the almost aristocratic Sir Lampson, Maigret is surprised by the cold reactions of all those who knew the victim. There’s plenty of stiff-upper-lip and more besides.  

The search for the killer proves to be perplexing and the clues that are found seem to appear a little too easily for Maigret’s liking. It’s all compounded further when one of Sir Lampson’s companions is also found dead.

Lampson becomes the chief suspect, but he carries himself well and does his best to cope with things by remaining in a haze of alcohol.

Other boats and crews come in to play. There’s a touching relationship between a boat-owner and her mute crew, a beast of a man in the Jean Valjean mode. We have the entertaining Madame Negretti, soon to be thrown out like a piece of used trash, the stoic Russian Vladimir and the community who inhabit the Lock-keeper’s bar. All of them are to come under suspicion and it’s not a simple thing for Maigret to unpick.
As the story unfolds, there are some nice studies of canal life. We get to see inside the homes of a community of people in decline. There’s conflict between the diesel boats and the horse-drawn craft and they’re always in competition to get the best runs in order that they can do as much business as possible. There’s also, as is often the case, the pleasure of Maigret’s musings on the layers of society and his ability to feel respect for folk from any of those tiers as long as they’re worthy of it.

The first two thirds of this one were pleasurable rather than gripping, but it’s all worth the effort to get through for the last section where it all comes together to reach a powerful and emotional climax.


A good read then, if perhaps not a great one. The kind of book you might enjoy while idling away time on holiday or while taking a leisurely journey down the canal some time. It certainly had me looking forward to my summer break in France this year and I'll definitely be taking along another Maigret as a companion when I go. 

Sunday, 31 May 2015

One Man's Opinion: OLD GOLD by JAY STRINGER


“The drugs trade is like any other, full of office politics and juicy gossip. All you need to do is find the right office junior and apply pressure.”

Old Gold  (US) tells the story of Eoin Miller who is doing his best to get through life without emotional entanglement of any kind.

He’s working for the Mann brothers, the heads of one of the major firms running the area and has just completed a job for them when introduced. To celebrate, he goes for a drink or two in his local and is picked up by an attractive drifter of a woman, Mary, who has taken something very important from her boyfriend and with whom Eoin’s about to spend the night. He wakes up to find that the woman is dead and that someone has gone to a lot of effort to make it look like he’s the killer.

Eoin’s first instinct is to listen to his dad’s advice – to get the hell out of there – based upon the fact that with his Romani blood no one is ever going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He takes to the road and eventually realises that he needs to do something other than surrender. When he returns to his house, he finds the body gone and no evidence that anything is untoward.

His point of attack is to find out what happened to Mary. To track down the killer and find out how he can get out of a difficult situation.

Early links lead him to a new drugs peddler on the block, a Pole who is keen to work the angles and exploit any gaps between the main two gangs in the area. He starts poking sticks in places where they’re not welcome and it’s not long before he’s in an awful lot of trouble.

Add to this a missing person inquiry that the police have dropped due to the sensitive nature of the case and the fact that his estranged wife has been promoted in the force and you have a multi-layered novel to roam in.

I thoroughly enjoyed Old Gold and that’s from start to finish.

Eoin tells the story in the first person and that really works well. He’s a pleasure to get to know – a self-destructive investigator with a real life and real problems.

What I think I particularly enjoyed is the subtlety of the writing. Nothing is overblown. Everything comes in the right measure. The pace is terrific, constantly building yet never rushing to get to the end. The hoods are very well-formed, but are far from being caricatures. The hard-boiled swipes are there, but are more like body-softening jabs than knockout punches. The Midlands works superbly as a backdrop, as a place that is at once familiar and new. Nothing is crammed into the plot for its own sake – everything, including the denouement, works effortlessly. Eoin is complex and interesting, but his facets are introduced and explored gradually rather than in one big bang. There’s also a gentle exploration of a range of issues relating to gender, race, inequality and politics that provide plenty of food for thought (the label I’ve seen given to the book is ‘social pulp’ and that goes some way to covering it).


Above all this is fine fiction, entertaining and thrilling. It’s a book I didn’t want to put down for too long once I’d started and I’ll certainly be reading more in the series. Very good indeed.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

One Man's Opinion: LOVE YOU TO A PULP by CS DEWILDT


A little preface before the review. 

First of all, slightly premature congratulations to Preston North End on their promotion. It's 4-0 with ten minutes to go - I think we're safe. Great job and I hope any friends who made it down for the game are having a thoroughly good time - have a couple for me.

Another nice thing, my collection With Love And Squalor (US) is free just now and for the next few days. Take a copy if you haven't already.

And now to books.

“The scream that came out of that little girl was enough to wake the dead. But of course, it didn’t.”

Love You To A Pulp (US) tells the story of Neil. In fact, it tells two stories about Neil.

In the present, he’s a glue-sniffing investigator who is employed by the local chemist to find his daughter. He’s barely begun the case when he stumbles into difficult territory. His first port of call is a man called Hoon. After a violent interaction, it soon becomes clear that Hoon isn’t the guilty party. Things become much more complex for Neil when he finds Hoon dead in a murder that has been staged to look like a suicide. As we’ll discover, there are plenty of folk around who want that interpretation of Hoon’s death to stand. From this point on, Neil’s journey is fraught with difficulty – there’s violence and depravity in abundance and a lesser character might have given up the ghost at a much earlier stage.

We find out a good deal about the formation of that character in the other strand of the novel, which comes into being through Neil’s glue-sniffing reflection. This deals with Neil’s early life and, in particular, his relationships with his father and a local girl. Neil is dragged up rather than nurtured, though there’s an odd kind of love involved in this upbringing. They work through their poverty and do anything they have to do to survive. This section is very well told and emotionally engaging and to me is the stronger section of the book as there’s a little more complexity here. 


There’s a lovely irony to glue inhaling – that rather than bond things together, it tends to make the life of the user fall apart. LoveYou To A Pulp may be the perfect illustration of that. 

Worth a look if you like your noir in its darker shades.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

One Man's Opinion: GONE GIRL by GILLIAN FLYNN


Before my thoughts on Gone Girl, I have a few little deviations to take.

First of all, I had a story published online yesterday over at Near To The Knuckle. It’s one of the few short pieces I’ve penned in the last year and I’m delighted that it found such a good home. If you have five minutes, I’d be grateful if you went over and had a read, especially if you wanted to leave an honest appraisal in the comments section.

Tangent two. A book came out last week that I had the honour of writing the introduction for. It’s called Trevor English and it’s a collection of five novellas written by the talented Pablo D’Stair. I know that if you made it to this blog that it’ll be one for you to consider. Check out a sample and see what you think – the opening pages are enough to give you a real feel for the style and the world you’ll be inhabiting if you take a chance. If you recall, the excellent This Letter To Norman Court opened live here at Sea Minor (that was a proud moment indeed – even prouder in retrospect).

And another aside, a longer short story of mine, Sleeps With The Fishes (US), is free for Kindle today.

And so to Gone Girl.

First of all, I wasn’t sure this would be for me. I picked it up from the bookshelf and felt the weight of the best-seller and almost returned it to the place from whence it came. Something about it made me curious, however, and my wife’s book group rated it, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I entered tentatively and wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s also difficult to talk about as the plot twists and alterations are crucial to the tensions, so I’ll try and work around that if I can.

What I found was a book told through the alternating voices of Nick Dunne and his wife Amy Elliott who take a chapter at a time to tell their stories. My first impression was that it wasn’t hugely exciting and that the style of writing for each character was too similar for my liking. I stuck with it, though, and found myself being intrigued by their lives. They both have interesting backgrounds and the fusion in their early days makes an engaging read. From then follows the main early strands – the aftermath of Amy’s disappearance and Amy’s diary entries reflecting upon the changes in the lives of the young couple as their relationship shifts from romantic to run-of-the-mill.

It wasn’t long before I was really interested. The actual investigation mattered less than the observation of Nick’s reactions to his new world. The police who enter his life are very well formed – they have a sort of Lieutenant Columbo naivety about them as they work in ever decreasing circles around their main suspect.  The writing was excellent at times and I was having a thoroughly good experience.

After a while I found myself flagging again and the end of Part One came as a bit of a relief.

Thankfully Part Two really took on a strong hold and I was back in the groove. It almost carried me through in a rush of page-turning. Almost.

And then the ending. This faltered a little to my mind. It felt like all the twists and turns had to be explained and wrapped up neatly and in doing so the story lost some of its energy and appeal. It also lost something of the plausibility that I hadn’t really questioned in much of the build up. I’d rather have had a looser climax where more was left to my imagination. Even so, there is something brutally noir about the finish that is chillingly cold.

Overall, I can see why this became such a successful book and was made into a film. I did find much of it very entertaining. I think that Gillian Flynn clearly has a talent for observations about people and relationships as well as a love of wordplay and irony, all of which she is able to express very well indeed.


I’m glad I took the time and made the space for this one. I’ll not recommend it with any passion, but certainly hope I haven’t put you off – that certainly isn’t my intention. If you’re curious, take the leap. I think you’ll feel it was worth it.