Thursday, 4 February 2016
It wasn't that long ago when the Kindle and ebook revolution threw up the opportunity to writers to publish single short stories. Go back five years and there were plenty of them to be had. It was a treat and great to see work coming out in a range of shapes and sizes. For 75p or 99c, you could get a quality short read. To some that might sound a lot, but in terms of value that seems pretty good to me.
Things have changed a little. Market forces have done what they usually do and ironed the world out. Flattened it in some way and taken away some of the edge. And it's not something I have a big problem with, it just seems like a shame, that's all.
In a world where people are able to get hold of great novels for 99p or less (even for free, of course) it stands to reason that a short story for around the £1 mark isn't going to seem like value. I'd argue that, given the single short story can't be available any more cheaply, it's the longer work that should be priced higher to give those little guys a chance.
To offer comparison, surely a tightly written story is worth about the same as a couple of tins of beans or half a mug of coffee in a cafe (and less than half if you're going for your Starbucks take-out).
This isn't a moan. It's simply an observation.
The reason it came to mind was Tony Black's decision to release a short story called Stone Ginger (US). The actual title is Stone Ginger: a short noir story, which is great because there can be no complaints from readers that there aren't enough words. It's a piece that I really enjoyed and feel is well worth that lowly price of entry.
The only problem I have with the length is that it doesn't leave a lot of room to work with in terms of a review. The blurb reads:
'When Charlie 'Minty' Lamb meets the gorgeous Ginger down the local boozer he thinks all his Christmases have come at once. Even the boys from the back-shift can't believe his luck, that is until one or two of them start to notice that Ginger might be something other than she appears. Soon Minty's questioning himself, and everyone else with good reason. A fast-paced noir short for fans of the classic London crime caper.'
That's a pretty good summary.
I'd like to add that the story-telling voice is strong and that the twist isn't the one I was expecting. There's a good line in humour and it's oozing with flavour. There's a lot packed in here and it's well worth taking the time to check it out.
If you feel that the price-tag is too big for your pocket and you're a Kindle-Unlimited subscriber, you can get this one for free, so what are you waiting for?
Friday, 22 January 2016
At the opening of the story, Ellie is struggling to cope with life. Her son, Logan, killed himself by jumping from the Forth Road Bridge and there’s no escaping the hurt and confusion that has brought. This early section is a painful dissection of suicide and the after-effects of the event on the survivors. It’s harrowing stuff. The author has clearly done his homework and knows how to present the information in a way that is very unsettling.
On one of her obsessive forays out along the bridge to the point where Logan jumped, Ellie encounters a young man who is contemplating doing the same. In a tense scene, she manages to persuade him to come down. For Ellie this is the second chance she never had with Logan. She takes Sam home and does her best to put him back together without informing her husband Ben, who is coping with his loss in a very different way to her.
As she gets to know Sam, she uncovers a dark background behind his misery. It involves the stabbing of his policeman father and a nightmare of a family situation. Suffice it to say that this is also disturbing and distressing and, once again, Johnstone pulls no punches in his delivery.
In order to protect Sam, Ellie has to take many risks. She’s prepared to push the boat out (sometimes literally) beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour.
The Jump is often gripping and moves with the energy of a good thriller. Whilst shifting with the action, the psychological scars and the open wounds are explored and offer an interesting foil to the adventure. The balances and interplay here is interesting and Johnstone does a pretty good job of holding the internal and external narratives together.
As well as deserving credit for producing another engaging read, the author should also be applauded for his choice of material. Suicide is not something that is openly discussed. It might be that because of this book there’s a shift from this position. Here’s hoping.
Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Louis Waters is an elderly widower with a routine of his own to keep him going. Life is a stagnant pool with the occasional splash. Death is waiting around the corner and it doesn't really matter when it arrives. Until, that is, his old neighbour pops round with a proposal that will change everything.
Addie Moore is also old and living by herself. Her loneliness has become too much to bear and she's come up with a possible solution: asking Louis if he'll come over to spend nights with her so that they can talk. There's no sex on the agenda, just companionship.
Louis can't resist and decides to give the proposed arrangement a try.
What unfolds from there is a wonderful story that overlaps the past and present in a superb balance. Addie and Louis reflect upon their lives. Neither's journey has been straightforward and each have had plenty of time to allow emotions to settle since the major incidents of their time.
Their new arrangement soon sets tongues wagging and word gets out to their children. The range of reactions of the people in their small town and the way the couple cope with them offer some wonderful vignettes and tell huge tales in small packages.
Life becomes more complicated and far richer when Addie's grandson comes to stay. The early complications of the transition are dealt with using tenderness and wisdom and a series of adventures follows in which the three bind tightly together.
The whole read has a magical feel to it. Part of that magic lies in the fingers of the writer. Using simple strands of conversation and events, he has woven an elaborate and moving tapestry. There's an effortless energy to the tale and yet it carries an ever-present tension to add a gentle momentum throughout.
I found the story to be strangely soothing. It's life-affirming without being manipulative. The emotions that run through it are strong and hit home. I loved spending time with Louis and Addie and hope that my twilight years can be half as warm, complicated and fulfilling as theirs.
Our Souls At Night (US) is a special book, one that's going to stick around with me for a good while. Treat yourself.
Thursday, 14 January 2016
‘At one time he had believed the nineteen-fifties would bring him to greatness. Now they were almost at an end and he was through.’
Fat City (US) centres upon the lives of a stable of boxers and their coaches. In truth, it’s not much of a stable. There are has-beens and hangers-on and never-had-a-hope-in-hell characters who sometimes turn up to train and sometimes don’t.
Things look to be on the upturn when Tully discovers a new talent in the form of the young Ernie Munger, so much so that Tully begins to think that a return to the ring might not be beyond him. All he really needs is to get over his divorce, kick the booze and get himself in condition and anything might be possible.
The tales of the history of the training and their bouts is compelling. Even more powerful is the examination of their personal battles. Each of their lives a struggle against demons without and within. Their worlds are tough. Money is tight. Women bring pleasure and pain in equal measure. The mundane is everywhere and the only hope of escape seems to be to put on the gloves and either take or dish out a beating.
Some of my favourite scenes revolve around the seasonal work offered on local farms. These are handled superbly and highlight the depth of the desperation.
‘And so Tully, relating the story of his marriage, crawled through the afternoon, separating the nuts from clods until all the nuts were the same hated one thrown forever into the bucket.’
I love this sentence. It resonates with me as I’m sure it would with many. That sense of the pointlessness of the daily grind. The repetition week after week. The harnesses that have to be endured. Working is tough. Surviving can feel hard. Life could always be better. Even for the lucky ones.
This is a fantastic read. The prose is tight and powerful. The cycles of hope and despair are compelling and the desire to root for the characters in whatever they do is strong.
Wednesday, 6 January 2016
It’s been a while since I read my last Dutch-set crime novel, which most likely would have been an old Van der Valk in the form of a tattered old Penguin paperback (note to self, dust off the old Nicholas Freelings). My visit this time came courtesy of a new detective on the scene, a cold case worker called Lotte Meerman. I’m very pleased to have made her acquaintance and I hope we get to meet up again at some point in the future.
In A Cold Death In Amsterdam (US) Meerman has become something of a celebrity on account of her solving an old investigation of a missing girl. Her growing status hasn’t done her any favours, however. For complex and personal reasons, she is hiding the truth about the way she came about her information. She is also haunted by her findings as it reminds her of her own brief time as a mother.
We meet her driving through the snow in the middle of a restless night. She stumbles into an armed robbery, the consequences of which lead her into another murder inquiry from the past. This time, her work will be complicated because her father worked the initial investigation and appears to have a rather large secret to hide. It’s not long before it becomes impossible for her to hold all the threads together and her own unravelling is accelerated.
Her relationship with her estranged parents is explored and tested throughout. This personal journey is very nicely handled and the unfolding of the detail and history is nicely paced.
As the central focus of the book, she couldn’t be stronger.
The physical setting here is also pleasing. Holland offers a great landscape that is more than just a backdrop for the story. The book also allows some insight into the internal workings of the psyche of a particular strata of Dutch society – lurking shadows, rational application, a sense of the desire to protect privacy and the ways lies are told without completely destroying the truth.
If there’s a slight flaw to this one, I’d mention the financial aspects of the new case. As the murder was related to a big investment company this has to be dealt with, but at times its narrative detracts from what is otherwise a steadily building tension and nicely handled drama.
Overall, a very enjoyable read. Anja de Jager’s creation offers fresh and fertile pastures for those looking for a new detective to follow, especially if an interesting continental clime is appreciated.
Tuesday, 22 December 2015
For the last couple of years, I have been toying with the idea for a collection of stories that could be read as stand-alone fiction, but were interconnected in a way that reveals a whole narrative world. Down in the Devil Hole (US) is my attempt at that.
How would you describe the kind of characters that populate this collection?
Well, these folks are rural southerners and rough around the edges for sure. Some could be considered white trash criminals, but I would like to think that there are some honest, salt of the earth types sprinkled in for good measure.
What message if any would you hope the reader takes away from this work?
Provided that it is written well enough to pull the reader in and get them involved, I would hope that they find their own meaning. My own take away is that there is darkness just under the surface in any town or burg you travel through, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find some twisted shit.
What is your writing process like?
Imagine a medieval torture device…no just kidding, I don’t put myself under much pressure to write. When the ideas come, I put them down in a rough form and polish from there. If they don’t come, I do something else for a while. I’m a lazy writer I guess. When I do get a viable idea, I would say I spend the most amount of time trying to find the voice for the piece. Once that is established, the rest is pretty straight forward. Finding the tone and voice is the hardest part for me.
Why write crime fiction?
I am fascinated with the concept of choice and how it affects our lives. Through crime fiction, I can explore how bad choices lead to catastrophic consequences in people’s lives. I can watch a poor bastard come unraveled and spiral into self-destruction from the comfort of my desk chair. That kind of thing is fun to me. I’m a sick puppy.
Who are your literary heroes?
There are so many. The top two would be Jim Thompson for his ability to craft cold blooded killers out of seemingly ordinary people, and Elmore Leonard because his dialogue leaps off the page. There is a long list of indie writers who inform and inspire my work and I won’t take the time to list them all here, but a few standouts would be Todd Robinson for his use of humor, that guy is funny. Angel Colon for his unique, colorful characters and Paul Brazill for the pacing and witty banter he injects into his dialogue. Again there are so many, and I find it very exciting that the genre has so many talented voices that are still up and coming and ready to take it to the next level.
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Last week I put together a short list of my favourite UK reads this year. You can find them over here if you’re interested.
Now it’s time to turn my attention to the overseas picks. As it happens, they’re all American. I did journey to Canada, Sweden and France, but those reads didn’t make my cut. What I think it shows me is that I need to broaden my choice of material next year and see where that takes me.
I noticed something else about my reading habits in 2015. I’m becoming a lot less patient with books I’m not enjoying. A substantial number of stories were cast aside for one reason or another. I mention this only to highlight how good the books below are. Not only did I make it to the end, I also loved them.
Anyway, in no particular order, I’d like to draw your attention to the following in case you’re hoping to add a little more quality to your To Be Read pile.
My thoughts back in February?
‘This isn’t a novel that shines a torch on the wonders of humanity. Rather it looks down into the chaos of life and the extremities of existence and refuses to shirk away from the darker crevices. Smith pushes the characters hard and their flaws are ruthlessly exposed.
He [Smith] deals with a huge scope and a complex plot and yet always keeps control. The dialogue is well delivered and the book is densely populated by brilliant phrases that speak volumes in few words. Add to that the constant surge of the characters and the story-line (even the back story moves forwards) and there’s one page-turning novel that will satisfy the appetite of many a crime reader.’
It’s excellent stuff, believe me. Just don’t pick it up if you’re a timid soul.
It’s not Redbone’s day. A series of events force him to look at the world in a different way. There are a multitude of injustices to deal with and he’s the man who’s going to step up to the plate (on the cover you can see that baseball bat in his hand as he does so).
‘What makes this book work so well for me is the way Redbone accepts his situation. He knows what he has to do and why and that’s enough for him. He’s been a victim long enough and it’s time to take a stand. Even when those close to him try to warn him off his course and even when the world finally seems to give him a break, he sticks to it all the way and make sure he works things through to the very end. What he has to do is too important to think of himself only – it’s not just those who’ve offended him that he’s taking on, it’s the whole system.’
Prodigal Sons (US) by Mike Miner is something special. It has a dreamlike feel in parts. The world often becomes translucent as Miner paints it for us.
‘I’d cite the finale as a mark of the author’s quality. So many of the possible endings that I’d predicted would have been a poor fit and I was worried that Miner had painted himself into a corner by creating such a wonderful story in the build up. I should have had more confidence. What happens at the close is sublime. The consequences are more profound than I’d imagined and I was moved to the point of tears by its gentle power.’
Miner also pulled off my favourite opening chapter of the year in the book Hurt Hawks in case you want to check that one out.
The Free (US) is another gem from Willy Vlautin and it will remind all of you here in the UK that we should all be grateful for our National Health Service.
‘I read it in small bites because I wanted to savour each section and as I came to the end, didn't really want to finish. It's a complex tale that builds up through the telling of a number of simple stories.’
I was also delighted by my visits to visit some older books.
I read a couple by Ed McBain, both of them featuring the Deaf Man (US). They’re terrific and McBain is on the list for next year.
That Was Then, This Is Now by SE Hinton also knocked me for six. I’m not in the habit of re-reading books, but this is one I was happy to return to and will pull it down from my shelf again one day if I can.