Sunday, 22 November 2020

ELVIS LIVES, BUT WE'RE ALL DEAD by CHRIS CRAVEN

 


A Salford lad sets out to hitchhike his way to Munich. A helter-skelter road trip ensues. Destinies collide, lives are changed forever. This darkly comic tale asks the less than comical question - Who are the real psychopaths amongst us?
"A gripping rollercoaster ride" John Robb. Louder than War

Here's something new, in more ways than one: Chris Craven's ELVIS LIVES, BUT WE'RE ALL DEAD

It includes three short pieces linked by events and characters in ways that seep into the reader's consciousness as the book unfolds. There's a terrific sense of nostalgia for those who remember the eighties and anyone who likes a dash of music with their prose. Each story balances dark undertones with comedy moments and, given that the author is an outstanding drummer of some pedigree, the timing is sharp and clean. Well worth a delve into if your the kind of person who enjoys a smile with their murder tales.  

On a slight tangent, the editor is also a musician/poet of some standing and his Long Hat Pins have a new release that's hot off the production line You can find The Insistence over at Bandcamp here.  

 



Friday, 20 November 2020

Lockdown Literature

September 29th. That was the last blog post here. It's been an age and reflects the impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown on my state of being. That last post, Clearing Out The Family Home, was about a great piece of radio and if you didn't give it a listen, I think it's well worth half an hour of your time. In terms of the house, it remains all quiet on the Preston front, which means there's still some emotional pressure as well as more time to appreciate what the place has meant to me and savour those lingering memories. 

Lockdown Literature is practically an oxymoron here. I've been reading the same book since then, or rather, I haven't. It's a slim paperback, I've enjoyed each visit and have always left it wanting to return soon, only it's not happened. Fiction seems so very far away just now, like some shadow from the distant past. The world, in fact, seems to appear as it might when looking through a set of binoculars the wrong way round. The very earth beneath my feet is more crumble topping than firm ground. I've traced back the journey of the year and the new dissonance makes sense. Being ill back in March and for an extended period knocked me for six. My dad suffering from the virus, his hospital visit and his isolation was all tough, while his very welcome survival has left him scrabbling around in the dust of dementia, lost in a fog most of the time and being looked after by some lovely folk who probably have much more complex and difficult stories to tell than I. Adjusting to the pressures of teaching from home was difficult and returning to the workplace was equally taxing. There have been many times when I've screamed STOP, but sadly the universe was unable to hear. Which eventually took me to the edge of a cliff of sorts. Thankfully, I've stood at that clifftop many times and have learned to recognise not only it's contours but the fact that when I'm there I need support. Thanks then to family and friends who've been there, for a the patience and kindness of my GP, for the counselling service I was put in touch with and for the medical intervention offered. Each of these is greatly appreciated and has been an essential part of what is now taking shape as the early strides towards recovery. 

It's been hard. And it's been hard for everyone. I'm not here looking for sympathy and if I'm able I'd rather send out warmth and care to anyone who might need it. I still do have some fuel in the tank, even if I've had to take a break from my crisis counselling shifts that were causing me more harm than I could endure. It's possible I'll go back to taking those shifts and it's also possible that I might not. In case anyone out there feels a need to do something positive, getting trained up and taking a turn might be an outlet for you (check out this site for more info).  

There were a couple of books read before things ground to a halt, both worthy of a mention. 

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley was rather intriguing. It's a story told in flashback to a series of childhood pilgrimages made to find the miracle that will cure the protagonist's brother and help him to speak. It's set in the north west coast of England in an area I adore, full of stillness and peace and yet carrying sinister tones due to it's sands, tides and remoteness. The bare bones of the novel are excellent and some of the description of person and place is exquisite. That said, if it were a three-layer cake (and, yes, I've been clinging to The Great British Bake Off as one of my many rafts of comfort) the top and the bottom might be perfectly made with the middle feeling a little overcooked and dry. It's definitely worth attention and the dark events that unfold skirt the edges crime and horror, occasionally falling deeply into both.

A Study In Scarlet is the last book I managed to finish. I can't add anything to the many things that have been said or written about it, so I'll not say much. Sherlock Holmes is such an icon who has appeared on screen in so many forms and interpretations that it's easy to forget the fine writing that set it all off. I began at the beginning because it felt right and found the tale to be fresh and intriguing from the off. Watson's return to England and his meeting with Holmes is deliciously told and the murder at the centre of the case is fascinating. I'd have been happy enough with the case alone, but the inserting of the back story of those involved as a separate entity works brilliantly and really had my adrenaline gland working overtime. Excellent stuff. 

So, if the reading's on hold, what of the writing?

I can't say I've managed to create anything fresh for a few months, but I've been able to satisfy myself working through novels I've already completed. I had to re-read my next release from Down And Out Books (My Funny Valentine) as a final check and ended up making far more improvements than I would have hoped were necessary. The good news is that I really enjoyed the story, so I'm hoping you will too when the time comes. I shouldn't be too long and I'm grateful that it exists because it really does bring light to the tunnel to have it to look forward to. 

I'm also giving the third in the series its final edit. So far it seems to hang together and manages to satisfy my need to work on my stories even when there's no fresh material inside me. I'm very grateful for that and hope that the tap to my creative juices is turned on soon so that I have somewhere to go when I'm finished. 

From the pits of lockdown literature, then, here's looking forward to some rapid climbing in 2021. Thanks for sticking with me. x   
    

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Packing Up The Family Home

 



It may be one of the least discussed rites of passage, but is nonetheless loaded with emotional weight - clearing out the family home. 

With our dad having recently moved into a care home and our mum long-since passed, my brother Geoff put together a piece on sorting, sifting and cleaning half-a-century's worth of stuff at the beginning of summer, sometime in the middle of lockdown.

Among the masses of broken ornaments and faded certificates, we also found forgotten treasures and surprising glimpses into the lives of our parents. 

Part family portrait, part meditation on the nature of things and the charge they carry, 'Packing Up The Family Home' serves to remind us of just how far our homes provide the stage upon which so much of the joy and the tragedy of our lives is played out. 

It's not a book, but it's certainly a story that was worth telling. 

First broadcast last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 and now available on the BBC Sounds app. 


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

One Man's Opinion: DEATH OF A DIVA by DEREK FARRELL

 


In Death Of A Diva, published by Fahrenheit Press, Danny Bird has big plans and they all rest on the launch of his new pub where Lyra Day is set to kick off an evening of high camp with renditions of her long-distant greatest hits. Lyra hasn't read the script and choses the moment to leave with maximum impact, only her departure is not of her choosing. She's found poisoned by a pill even more bitter than she is and there don't seem to be many possible suspects to pin it on, Danny being right at the front of that queue. 

And so begins Danny's quest to solve the case. 

On his journey he meets a cast of grimly entertaining folk, each of whom has a story to tell. There's also a rather handsome policeman who Danny gets on with rather well and may well be the antidote to a heart that was broken by his former lover and the window cleaner. 

While there's a crime at the centre of the plot, it's not always centre stage. The murder is a vehicle that allows us to journey through a series of meetings and experiences in a way that made me laugh as much as anything else. The dialogue and description are packed with humour ranging from the pun to the straight gag to the innuendo. In many ways, the Britishness is reminiscent of the excellent Paul D Brazill and I reckon these two would make an ominous pairing should they ever choose to collaborate.

Very enjoyable and pleasingly light (in a dark kind of way). 







Friday, 28 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: FACELESS KILLERS by HENNING MANKELL



An old farmer living in isolation in the Swedish countrys
ide wakes up in the middle of the night to a familiar set of aches and pains. What's unfamiliar is that there's no noise from the horse in the neighbour's stable. The lights are on in the house next door and one of the windows appears to be smashed. He contacts the police and Inspector Kurt Wallender responds to find an unsettling bloodbath at the scene. 

The neighbour lies butchered on the floor and next to him, his wife lies with noose tied in an unusual fashion around her neck and is fast approaching her own death. She's rushed to hospital where her final word, recorded by the officer watching over her, is 'foreigner'. When this is leaked to the press, not only does it bring disquiet to the team of officers in whom trust has been compromised, but it stirs up the narrow minds of right wing agitators who are already at odds with Sweden's immigration system. 

When another murder takes place, Wallender is forced to prioritise. This case is where all the energy lies and provides a strong contrast to the cerebral slow-burn of the rural affair. 
The stories that follow come together well as the plots unfold, the key elements binding slowly to create a nicely-paced whole. 

There's a fine cast of characters with relationships that exist in a fragile balance. We have an old detective who is meticulous and dying, a woman on the switchboard who will to the extra-mile if treated right and who knows all the station's gossip, Wallender's father who has painted a version of the same image throughout his life and whose mind is rapidly crumbling and a prosecutor who is firm, strong and prepared to cut corners if it serves a case, but will not bend an inch if justice is in jeopardy. Throw in an ex-wife and a compelling daughter even though we barely get to know her and you have a terrific ensemble. 

The key player is, of course, Wallender himself. He's a satisfying mix of traits: a cerebral cop who can play the action hero when required; a liberal who's an old-school conservative deep down; a damaged human being who is frequently a bit of an arse. One particular incident involving the attempted seduction of the young prosecutor shows not only his flaws but his frailty. In spite of several unpleasant characteristics, the veneer of charm is just thick enough to cover the cracks and keep a reader like me on board. 


Bar a few irritations with the self-questioning and over-analysis in the detective's mind, this is a strong novel. Essentially, Faceless Killers (US) a dark canvas where clever use of flashes of light allow contradictions to live together successfully on the page. Unlike with the British television series, I'll definitely be back for more.

Monday, 24 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: THE ANCESTOR by LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG

 

I was lucky enough to work on the edits for The Ancestor (US). It was a real privilege. Here's the blurb:

A man wakes up in present-day Alaskan wilderness with no idea who he is, nothing on him save an empty journal with the date 1898 and a mirror. He sees another man hunting nearby, astounded that they look exactly alike except for his own beard. After following this other man home, he witnesses a wife and child that brings forth a rush of memories of his own wife and child, except he's certain they do not exist in modern times--but from his life in the late 1800s.

After recalling his name is Wyatt, he worms his way into his doppelganger Travis Barlow's life. Memories become unearthed the more time he spends, making him believe that he'd been frozen after coming to Alaska during the Gold Rush and that Travis is his great-great grandson. Wyatt is certain gold still exists in the area and finding it with Travis will ingratiate himself to the family, especially with Travis's wife Callie, once Wyatt falls in love. This turns into a dangerous obsession affecting the Barlows and everyone in their small town, since Wyatt can't be tamed until he also discovers the meaning of why he was able to be preserved on ice for over a century.

A meditation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams, The Ancestor is a thrilling page-turner in present day Alaska and a historical adventure about the perilous Gold Rush expeditions where prospectors left behind their lives for the promise of hope and a better future.

The question remains whether it was all worth the sacrifice...

My own thought is that this book has an amazing range. It blurs genres and weaves a number of strands together to form a beautiful and brilliant whole. It's a fusion of excellent story telling and great writing and it has the span of an epic. To my mind, this is a novel that will stand the test of time if given the chance. Highly recommended and I'm tipping this to be in many a top-ten list at the end of the year. 

Do yourself a favour and dive in. 


Saturday, 22 August 2020

One Man's Opinion: HOW TO KILL FRIENDS AND IMPLICATE PEOPLE by JAY STRINGER


"He didn't like Glasgow. He didn't like the people, and they didn't like him. He didn't understand the football, or the accents. He didn't like the drivers. They only had two speeds: road rage and stop. And he didn't like the rain. It rained for 360 days a year. On the other five? Baking sunshine. Every skinny ned in town takes his top off and worships the strange ball of fire in the sky."

Blurb:

Fergus Fletcher is a hit man. For five thousand pounds, he’ll kill anyone you want. For seven, he’ll frame someone else. Pretending to kill someone is a first, but Alex Pennan has stolen from the mob and needs to fake his own death.

Fergus is looking for love. So is Sam Ireland, a private investigator and part-time bike messenger. But she’s got her hands on a very important package and is in a world of trouble with the mob. Joe Pepper, pillar of society and corrupt gangland fixer, will stop at nothing—nothing at all—to intercept the package and protect his reputation.

Can Alex stay dead while his widow dances on his grave? Can Joe save himself before his stomach ulcer explodes? Can Fergus and Sam make it to a second date before Joe hires him to kill her?

Welcome to Glasgow. It’s a love story.


I don't often put in the blurb for a book, but in this case it felt right. There's so much in terms of plot development and intricate twist that I felt I might blow the whole thing by trying to offer an outline.


It's been a few years since I read the first of the Sam Ireland books, Ways To Die In Glasgow. It was such a great book that I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to the second. Perhaps it speaks more of my general lack of organisation skills and my the chaos of my reading patterns than anything else. Whatever the reason, I finally made it and I'm so very glad I did.


Though I didn't imagine it would be possible, I think that this book outdoes the previous one. It has the same levels of high drama, similar bursts of action and energy and the ever-present shots of humour, but getting the chance to hang around with Sam Ireland again means we know her just that little bit more. It's hard not to love her drive and determination and it's impossible not to want the best for her. When she meets Fergus, a hitman who is losing any sense of job satisfaction, we know they go together like Hepburn and Tracy while understanding that there's a fair chance their growing feelings will be the end of both of them. Throw in a bunch of criminals who are as interesting a bunch of lawbreakers as you're likely to find and put it against the backdrop of a city that has a heart that beats constantly throughout and you have something very special to entertain you. 


The chemistry between the hitman (who has to rank up there with any other) and the private investigator (also right up there) is so strong that it begs a revisit at some point in the future. They're a great combination and another appearance would be impossible to resist. The only issue might be keeping it real. In How To Kill Friends (US), even though each strand is extreme and unusual, it always comes across as entirely plausible and down to earth. It feels as if this kind of thing could be happening in a city nearby right now. I guess that's a mark of a master story teller.


Jay makes no secret of the fact that he's dyslexic and I admire him for the way he talks with passion about it. Supporting pupils dyslexia is part of what I do. The identification often makes a child feel better about themselves when they come to understand why aspects of learning are so difficult. It always helps when we point to dyslexics who have achieved success in their fields and done wonderful things in the past. From now on, I'm going to add Jay Stringer to that list. I'll tell them that one of the finest crime writers in the UK is Scottish and that when they get older they might enjoy the books, on audio if necessary. I think they'd get a kick out of that. 


Gripping read. Hugely entertaining. Highly recommended.  


I'm not sure what the usual price is, but I think it's on offer just now at around the £1/$1 mark, so what are you waiting for?