Monday, 29 December 2014
The festive fifty? Here on Sea Minor? What was that all about?
Truth be told, it was a little fun activity to help me pass the hours as time shifts and I move closer to my 50th birthday.
It's a time for reflection, without doubt. I've turned things upside down and inside out and looked at them through various lenses and I'm struggling with the view. For all the amazing stuff I find, it still seems like there's a hole in my dreams.
Something has to give. It's just the way it goes. I just have to work out what that will be.
Something needs to go.
Monday, 22 December 2014
10 Die A Little by Megan Abbott and Ella Fitzgerald
9 The Damage Done by Hilary Davidson and Neil Young
8 Volt by Alan Heathcock and Cabaret VOLTaire
7 Old School by Dan O'Shea and Grandmaster Melle Mel
6 White Jazz by James Ellroy and Chet Baker
5 Boom by Mark Haddon and John Lee Hooker
4 Old Ghosts by Nik Korpon and Jethro Tull
3 Jimmy Jazz by Roddy Doyle and The Clash
2 Abide With Me by Ian Ayris and The Grimethorpe Colliery Band
1 Bye Bye Baby by Allan Guthrie and The Bay City Rollers
Sunday, 21 December 2014
A new list in the Festive Fifty, this time from 20 - 11
20 The Song Is You by Megan Abbott and Frank Sinatra
19 The Good Son by Russell D McLean and Nick Cave
18 Northline by Willy Vlautin and Willy Vlautin
17 Road Rage by Ruth Rendell and Catatonia
16 The Mercy Seat by Martyn Waites and Johnny Cash
15 The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald and Half Man Half Biscuit
14 The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley and The Monochrome Set
13 Downtown by Ed McBain and Petula Clark
12 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and The Rosie Taylor Project
11 Live Wire by Harlan Coban and Wire (live)
Friday, 19 December 2014
30 Hit Me by Lawrence Block and Ian Dury
29 Trouble In The Heartland by a whole bunch of great writers and Bruce Sprinsteen
28 Dirty Old Town by Nigel Bird and The Pogues
27 London Calling by Tony Black and The Clash
26 Misery by Stephen King and The Beatles
25 007 by Ian Fleming and Desmond Dekker
24 The Blue Room by Georges Simenon and The Boo Radleys
23 Fire In The Blood by Ed James and Niney
22 Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth and Humphrey Littleton
21 Puppet On A Chain by Alistair MacLean and Echo And The Bunnymen
Thursday, 18 December 2014
The next installment...
40 Cheapskates by Charlie Stella and The Clash
39 The Guns Of Navarone by Alistair McLean and The Skatalites
38 Silence by Jan Costin Wagner and Simon and Garfunkel
37 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe and The Velvet Underground and Nico
36 The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McInty and Tom Waits
35 Bloody Valentine by James Patterson and My Bloody Valentine
34 Portobello by Ruth Rendell and Jen And The Gents
33 Lazy Bones by Mark Billingham and Green Day
32 Time Bomb by Jonathan Kellerman and Rancid
31 Cherry Bomb by J. A. Konrath and The Runaways
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
The Festive Fifty is an institution, there's no doubt about it. A celebration of good things. I'm doing a little twist on it this year and listing 50 book titles that happen to share a song title. It's mainly for my own entertainment, but if it brings any cheer your way, I'd be delighted.
Thanks for coming.
Here, in absolutely no sensible order are the entries 50 - 41:
50 The Guns Of Brixton by Paul D Brazill and The Clash
49 California by Ray Banks and The Dead Kennedies
48 The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin and The Cure
47 Frank Sinatra In A Blender by Matthew McBride and Frank Sinatra
46 In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes and New Order
45 Let It Ride by John McFetridge and Ryan Adams
44 The Dead Beat by Doug Johnstone and Deadbeat
43 Message In A Bottle by Kath Middleton and The Police
42 Watching The Detectives by Deborah Locke and Elvis Costello
41 The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
More tunes and books from this old-timer tomorrow.
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
“It was never the politics with me. Never. It was the being part.” – Michael O’Connor
In Down Among The Dead (UK and US) Michael O’Connor is an old man living on the Kilburn High Road. There are too many steps to his flat and he drinks too many pints to keep himself healthy. His life is now as empty as his fridge and he fills his days with visits to the pub, the bookies and to Mrs Quinn who lives across the way.
The thing is Michael O’Connor has a past. He’s been a soldier for the IRA and has been involved in events that are bound to catch up with him. His problem is that the events that have destroyed his life also happen to be the only things that define his existence. It’s no wonder, then, that he goes shooting his mouth off after a few drinks every once in a while.
Steve Finbow has done a brilliant job with this story. He flicks back and forth between 2008 in Kilburn and 1988 in Gibraltar where he’s on one final job for his boss. The settings in each case are extremely vivid. There’s plenty of detail and each has a constant feeling of menace as the separate story-lines converge to sharply pointed endings.
O’Connor himself tells the story. While he’s clearly kissed the Blarney Stone, he also knows how to tell a tale without wasting a word. This is sharp and bold writing that is populated punchy dialogue and crisply drawn characters. It’s a wonderful voice that is at once sympathetic and pathetic and it’s one that’s very easy to spend time with.
For those of you who are around my age and above, the story of the murder of three unarmed IRA suspects will be brought to mind. The past has a way of haunting us in real life as if it was all just a fiction. This particular fiction is a treat to be part and entirely avoids any of the potential pitfalls of dealing with such material.
In the post script, it mentions that Finbow is currently writing something new. I’m delighted to hear it and I’ll definitely be there to check it out when it’s published. I'm reminded that I have an earlier book of his on my kindle called Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press) which has just joined my must-read pile.
Very highly recommended.
Down Among The Dead is now available for pre-order.
Saturday, 29 November 2014
A quick mention from me that Southisders is still on offer until the end of the month. That's only a couple of days. It's still at 99p/99c if you're up for a little bit of Elvis, Home Alone and Blue Christmas.
And now to Tussinland. Either just buy it or read the review and then buy it. Here are my quickly scribbled thoughts.
And now to Tussinland. Either just buy it or read the review and then buy it. Here are my quickly scribbled thoughts.
‘I’m a crazy Bosnian rape orphan and I’m out of control.’ – Logan
Tussinland is Paul’s favourite place. It’s a world that’s created when he’s downed a bottle of his favourite expectorant, a rosy world of good feelings and happiness, or at least a break from the normal humdrum of his existence.
He’s not got a good deal going for him, but that doesn’t make him a bad man. This is extremely important to the book because, as the central character in a world where he’s surrounded by the devious and the broken, he’s someone it becomes impossible not to root for.
Paul’s problems are many. He has to live at home with his promiscuous mother for a start. He’s lost his family and his teaching job. He’s overweight, is addicted to sugary cereal (which he eats by the packet) and has more friends on the TV than anywhere else. These are only minor issues when compared to the main one, namely that he’s the chief suspect in the investigation into the murder of his ex-wife and her new partner.
The thing is, the reader knows that he’s innocent from the off. We see it happen at the beginning, Paul’s niece, Miranda, and her boyfriend, Logan, film the killing and then run away with an enormous stash of heroin.
Paul is then painted into a corner. As well as the police, the man who needs to get his hands on the drugs is after him as are his Christian fundamentalist relatives who need the cash.
This isn’t just any old story about troubled people who live difficult lives, it’s a very well-written and thrilling adventure where the twists and turns make for a very emotional and ejoyable ride.
What I liked most about this novel is the way the characters were developed along the way. They grow into fully drawn people and while it happened my sympathies had to adjust. It’s something that’s hard to pull off and also gives the novel a hugely satisfying depth.
There are a lot of great reviews out there for this book and it’s been extremely well-received. I was a little worried that it would let me down.
I needn’t have worried. It certainly lives up to its growing reputation and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes to be entertained while they read their crime fiction.
A small word of warning, this one’s very specific and graphic at points. If you’re easily offended, this may not be for you.
Thursday, 27 November 2014
In Breaking Point, Brian is struggling to come to terms with his brother’s death. His girlfriend is pregnant and is unsure about him as a father. The local dope dealer spends too much time smoking his own gear and hopes that his dreams of opening a Kung Fu school will help him pay of his debts to his supplier. Owen is just a bitter man seeking revenge for the ear Brian shot off.
These ingredients are perfect to create a romp in a quiet Northern Irish village. Each element of the story collides with the other to provide a novella with bags of dangerous energy.
Gerard Brennan handles his players really well and his plotting-foot is always hard down on the accelerator as he drives the story forward. The inevitable violence is brutal and graphic when it happens. It also carries some rather unusual elements that only a slightly twisted mind could create.
Above all, I enjoyed the humour of Brennan’s novella. He uses a lot of comedy and it percolates through character, conversation and situation. It’s an addition to the punchy story that adds a lot to its entertainment factor.
This one’s perfect for shaking up one’s reading diet and adding some fun to life.
It is a sequel, but you really don’t need to read the prequel [The Point] first. I would, however, urge you to do so at some point as I feel it’s a slightly stronger piece.
The Point novellas are great reads and I’ll definitely be going back for more if there’s a further addition.
Sunday, 23 November 2014
“Carella had learned early on in the game that if you wanted to survive as a cop, you either took nothing at all or you took everything that wasn’t nailed down. Accept a cup of coffee on the arm from the guy who ran the local diner? Fine. Then also take a bribe from the neighbourhood fence who was running a tag sale on stolen goods every Sunday morning. A slightly dishonest cop was the same thing as a slightly pregnant woman.”
I came across a copy of Ice by Ed McBain on the table of books being sold off by my library. The name’s familiar and the cover interesting, so I figured it was a chance worth taking. I didn’t pay much and the book was worth that at least.
I’m in two minds about it. There are some wonderful aspects to the novel and there are some unappealing ones, too.
It opens strongly with the murder of a young dancer as she returns home in the snow. The key to the killing in terms of the investigation is that the weapon was also used in the shooting of a small-time drugs dealer named Paco Lopez.
There’s a leap from here into a police station, the 87th Precinct. There’s a heavily pregnant prostitute, a cell full of vocal drunks and a cast of police officers as long as the law’s arm. I thought immediately of Hill Street Blues in terms of the feel of the station. What is much more difficult to settle into on the page as opposed to on the screen is the chopping and changing from one place to another. McBain flicks between one point-of-view to another without warning. I found that to be disconcerting and it had me re-reading at several points to catch the change.
This shifting from one head to another carries on throughout the book. I did get used to it, but never really was entirely convinced by the style. It’s not a matter of weaving together separate strands of a story, but it’s more of a scatter-gun approach.
There are also big changes of pace to cope with. The case of the murders itself is totally engaging, the back-stories and tangents often less so.
Throw in a heavy line in dialogue tags and there's a lot to block the arteries of this one.
Throw in a heavy line in dialogue tags and there's a lot to block the arteries of this one.
In contrast to that, there are some big pluses. The characters of the main detectives are well drawn, particularly that of Carella.
There are also some great crooks. Brother Anthony and the razor slashing Emma are rather special and might well be right up there in the all-time-baddies Hall Of Fame.
Throw in some great lines and a pretty engaging investigation and, in the end, I’m glad I passed that library table.
I enjoyed my visit to the 87th Precinct and I’m sure I’ll go there again, only not in any great hurry.
Thursday, 20 November 2014
In about half an hour, I’m going to be tuning in to BBC Radio 4 to listen to my brother’s latest production. This one’s likely to be a cracker, not least because Geoff made it. It’s on Jack London and that, somehow, brings things full circle for me. You’ll be able to listen to the programme, London Calling, if you have access to BBC iPlayer right here.
Jack London’s a special character. I’ll not take that any further. You either know that or you’ll find out by listening. He’s important to me because of White Fang. That was the book that probably hooked me in to fiction more than any other in my formative years at primary school. It left its mark on me to the point where I had to write my own book about dog-fighting, which I did. Smoke was the result. It goes without saying that London did it better and that many others have done too, but it does explain something about my inspiration for that particular novella.
It’s also slightly eerie for me that Tobias Wolff (I’m sure there was no pun intended) will be part of it. I saw Mr Wolff (again, no pun) when he came to London to publicise his latest at the time, In Pharaoh’s Army. I’ve looked up the book and see that it came out in 1995 – how time flies – and have a signed copy on my shelf in front of me.
Why all this seems more significant just now relates to the recent release of my own latest novel, Southsiders. I’m very proud that it’s been published by Blasted Heath and am even happier with the content as I believe it could me by finest work to date.
The roots of Southsiders go right back to Geoff once more.
Our links together in the world of books and writing go back many years. Geoff’s a talented man who has a Masters in literature to top off his first class degree. He’s forged ahead down many paths in his time and has always made a success of what he’s done. One of the things that we did together was create The Rue Bella magazine back in 1998. It was a great publication that grew and improved right until its end in 2003. The magazine served two purposes to me. Firstly, it allowed me to feel like I was doing the right thing for once; that working with writers, putting out their work and writing my own material was what I was born to. Secondly, it meant that Geoff and I had a joint project that helped keep us together even though there were many physical miles between us.
When The Rue Bella finally ended (we just couldn’t afford to keep losing money on it – who buys poetry these days, huh?) there was a definite void in my life. I filled it by writing. I’m not sure Geoff had the same void, but he had children to look after by then so we were heading in different directions.
That sense of us moving apart has never really shifted. It’s probably just a natural process in life and I have to get used to that. I can’t blame Geoff, either. It can’t be easy having an older brother who has mental health problems that go far deeper than depression and who stumbles from one manic crisis to another as if blindfolded. It can’t have been easy.
Anyway, back to Southsiders.
Three or four years ago, I had an idea that might help us to close some of the gap between us. I thought that we should do some collaborative writing. I had a selfish motive here and an unselfish one. I wanted to bring us together, but I also wanted Geoff to work on his fiction. If he chose to focus upon it, he’d be far better at writing than I, no doubt about it.
We intended to work on two projects, one his idea and one mine. We’d write a chapter of each and pass it over for the next chapter to be written like a tag team.
Geoff had been working with war-veterans for a programme on BBC 5 Live (I think). He had the idea or writing about the return of a soldier from the war from his daughter’s perspective. The guy had a metal plate in his head and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride for his family.
My idea was that a young lad would be left alone at home because his parents had chosen to go their separate ways on the same day without telling each other. The kid was to be into Elvis Presley and was going to have one hell of an adventure.
Neither project came to anything. The gap was just too big.
Whatever was getting in the way was also blocking our writing and we just couldn’t agree in the directions either piece should take.
The momentum slowed and eventually the stories ground to a halt.
Thankfully, though, nothing in writing is entirely wasted.
I picked up the threads to Southsiders again earlier this year. It was easy to write – the voice caught me from the off. It bears no resemblance to the original joint effort, bar the idea and Elvis. It’s turned into what I’d describe as a dark version of Home Alone.
In the end, today’s programme seems to bring things to full circle.
Lots of things coming together and tied up with a silky bow.
Looking at it, we’ve both gone along with paths we chose.
I write. I have to. It’s just a huge part of what I do.
Geoff, well he makes just about the finest radio programmes that
the BBC put out. Literature is usually at the centre of his work, though he touches on all creative areas in his work.
I guess that’s just the way it is. It turned out pretty well in the end.
If you’re not convinced by any of this, have a listen in to the programme. As I come to the end of this, it’s 9 minutes away. I can’t wait.
(for more on Southsiders, check out my interview at Crime Fiction Lover from earlier this week)
Also, please note and be very excited about the new Ray Banks, Angels Of The North which is now available for pre-order.
(for more on Southsiders, check out my interview at Crime Fiction Lover from earlier this week)
Also, please note and be very excited about the new Ray Banks, Angels Of The North which is now available for pre-order.
Saturday, 15 November 2014
“A general rule to follow is the more clutter that can be eliminated, the clearer the picture will become.”
There are two really enjoyable stories here to be enjoyed, each of them substantial pieces and both narrated by a tie-pin.
The tie pin is Archie, a super-intelligent computer who talks to his boss Julius Katz through an earpiece. In this book, we first meet Archie down at the dog track. He’s worked out the most likely finishing positions of the dogs and is trying to persuade Katz to place a bet. Katz is having none of it. Instead, he takes a punt that is led by human intuition and wins.
This causes Archie a problem. You see, Archie is determined to solve a case before his sleuth owner and with the Trifecta safely pocketed he won’t need to take on any work for a good while. Archie’s solution is a simple one; to reveal to his owner the location of a hugely expensive case of wine. Katz is a lover of fine things and can’t resist this addition to his cellar.
He takes on the case for a couple of sisters who are worried that their brother is bleeding their dementia-suffering mother dry.
The case is investigated in a rather old-fashioned way, which is ironic given the hugely advanced technology that’s in use. There are amusing complications with the police to complicate matters and there’s the complication of a new romantic interest.
Katz studies the evidence and Archie competes with him until it all comes together in a familiar form, all the suspects in the room at once and the police being on hand to arrest the culprit at the big reveal.
It’s a similar structure in the second story, only this time Archie’s been internet dating and has landed himself in the seat of being the main suspect in a murder case. Of course, we know Archie can’t have done it as he’s only a tie-pin computer, but the situation does leave Katz in a rather difficult position. Archie even suggests he changes his voice into that of a Southern belle only Katz will have none of it.
In the end there’s the familiar gathering of suspects and police and, once again, Katz gets things solved.
I think that Zeltserman’s done something really clever here. He’s taken a well-trodden path and then gone on a major and rather original detour.
This pair of stories acts as an appetiser for some Julius Katz novels. I found them to be very entertaining and I’ll definitely get to meet them in longer form at some point. Well worth a read.
I bought this book as Julius Katz Mysteries must have moved on since that time, because I can’t find it any longer. In its place is a book called The Julius Katz Collection. It has both the stories I mention and another five besides (including the wonderfully titled Julius Katz and the Case Of A Sliced Ham). It was worth the entry money just for the pair I read, so I guess this is a real bargain.
Thursday, 13 November 2014
A new publisher really needs to hit the ground running with their first book. With Of Blondes And Bullets by Michael Young, Number Thirteen Press certainly manage that. So does the central character as it happens, mainly because he’s running for his life.
The novella opens in a locked room. There’s been a lot of violence and pain. Those inside are desperate to get out before their captor returns.
“Just for the hell of it, knowing that it was hopeless and that nothing was going to give, but just for the hell of it anyway, the big man tried one last time. He threw his shoulder against the heavy iron door, putting as much weight into it as his injuries would allow.”
They need to get out and will risk everything to do so, only there’s no key and there are no windows. The desperation is palpable, the climax chilling.
We switch then to another scene. A man (Frank) on a beach spots a flash in the sea. Recognising it as human being, he dives in without a thought and brings them in. It’s a woman. A beautiful and dangerous woman called Kathy. He takes her home to his girlfriend’s place – she’s away working, so anything goes. Kathy showers and gets dressed and brings a whole new energy into Frank’s flat and dull existence. Seeing her wrapped in a towel seems to show him exactly what he’s missing from his life. Kathy insists she needs to get to an address across town. With nothing better to do (“For the first time in an age, he knew that he would do something.”) Frank takes her there. Shortly afterwards, Frank encounters a gang of heavyweight thugs who clearly want to take Kathy from him. Frank manages to give them the slip and heads for home once again. Kathy runs and Frank does the first sensible thing of the day and calls the police to report what has happened.
If only that were the end of it.
Frank’s life is about to be turned upside down.
The heavies are back. They want Kathy. Frank’s battered to within an inch of his life before he can tell them that he doesn’t even know the woman. Not that it really matters. These guys aren’t the kind to believe anything that isn’t backed up by money or force.
Frank’s problems turn from bad to worse as he fights against all the odds to keep himself alive and to find out what’s going on.
What follows is an adrenaline-fuelled tale in which nothing can be taken for granted.
It’s a chase within a chase. The action is breathless and the violence brutal. There are guns and knives and fists galore. It’s not clear who’ll be coming out of things alive until the final words and this keeps the tension high till the end.
I don’t think it’s without flaws. I lost my way a couple of times and wanted a smoother momentum in places, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nevertheless. It’s edgy and disconcerting. There’s a sense of being in another time and place and yet of also being in familiar territory. It’s good, old-fashioned noir presented in a fresh way.
I’d judge this book by its cover if I were you. It speaks volumes about what lies within. I suggest you step inside and find out for yourself if you think you’ve got what it takes.
A very strong start to what promises to be a very exciting enterprise.
Wednesday, 12 November 2014
“It’s sodding Heroin Galore.”
We had a two minute silence in school yesterday. Unfortunately, when it started I was in the middle of a timed dyslexia assessment and had to let it run. We still managed a little silence, though, especially because our bells ended up being five minutes apart.
When I got home after a long evening of meeting parents, I needed something to help me unwind. Spurred on by my moments of reflection, I found something entitled The Somme In Seven Poems.
It’s a really powerful cocktail of wonderful poetry and beautiful animation that is well worth a visit. It only lasts about ten minutes and if you have access to BBC’s iPlayer, I’d urge you to go along.
The poets demonstrate one of the wonders of the form, the ability to generate huge emotion and energy in a very short space of time.
On a tangent, I’d recently been flicking through my Kindle and stumbled upon a book by Stuart MacBride called Partners In Crime: Two Logan And Steel Stories (Bad Heir Day and Stramash). It may be a mouthful of a title, but MacBride shows off his own skills when working within a short space to tell a couple of fantastic stories.
The first is set over Christmas. It involves a fishy missing person case. When links to a local loan-shark are established, it appears that there’s every chance that a murder’s been committed. To make matters worse, Steel has been left a huge amount of money by a criminal she loathes on the condition that she swallows her pride and delivers a glowing eulogy at the funeral service. It’s moody, dark and wickedly funny. It’s also attention-grabbing as an investigation.
The second deals with a gathering of criminal minds on the Island of Jura. Some of the criminals are even supposed to be dead. DI Steel has happened upon them while over there with her girlfriend and Steel’s keen to keep the surveillance a secret from her partner to avoid trouble. To help her she calls upon Logan McRae and he’s anything but happy to arrive on the island in the middle of a patch of miserable weather. It turns out that Steel has stumbled upon a shipwreck with a cargo of heroin and the criminals have gathered to recover it and go their separate ways. It begins with a moody tension, cracks on with a heavy dose of wit and ends in a climax in which MacBride throws in practically everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink. It’s a very entertaining piece.
All in all, this is a very satisfying read that will brighten any day.
As a bonus, there’s a preview of a novel at the back. As far as I was concerned, I’d read enough to know that I’ll be back for more sometime soon.
Thursday, 6 November 2014
Ray Spalding's had enough of his wife, Paula. He's left his home in Edinburgh's Southside and headed for Belfast. It's safer there.
Unknown to Ray, Paula's also had enough of him. She's not going back home. Not now, not ever.
Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can't tell anyone or he'll be taken into care.
As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad's 1950s record collection.
Southsiders is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain's capital cities.
Now available from Amazon via the following links and at a low release price until the end of November:
US UK Can De Fr Es Jp It Br Au In
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
A big day here at the Birdhouse. My novel SOUTHSIDERS has just been released by the wonderful Blasted Heath. If you’re at all interested, why not pop on over and take a look? I’ll write a little more about the book over the next few days, no doubt.
Now to my latest read, Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt.
“It’s no wonder her husband had a heart attack. If I was married to her, I’d eat nothing but butter and pray the good Lord made it nice and quick.”
Tom London owns the biggest restaurant in Lake Castor. He’s married to an influential woman and dotes on his son (in his own particular way). The only fly in his ointment is an ex-wife who wants to get her child back. She’s a problem who needs dealing with.
Enter Calvin Cantrell.
Jack hires Calvin to kill his ex. He hands over a wad of cash (slightly short, of course) and Calvin sets of on to take the first steps of a journey he’s always wanted to take.
His secret desire is to become a serial killer. He’s studied the methods and histories of all of the big names in the field and wants to join them. It will give him a role in life and will bring him the notoriety he’s been craving all these years.
To help him along, Calvin decides to take on a sidekick, Phillip Krandall. Krandall’s big regret in life is that he didn’t carry out a killing spree at his high school on the day he took his bag full of weapons into class. The only reason he didn’t do it was that Calvin intervened. When Calvin calls at Krandall’s trailer, there’s only ever going to be one outcome and the pair set off to Texas to do eliminate Jack London’s ex.
What follows is for you to find out.
I can tell you that Jack’s ex-wife isn’t the failure she’s been described as and that things don’t go as the would-be killers intend. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out how it plays out and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the way you expect.
The book’s divided into three sections. The first focuses on Calvin, the second on Jack and the third on Calvin’s wife, Rhonda. This allows the story to develop in different ways. There are back-stories to enjoy, there are the foundations to the plot and there is the narrative thread of our new serial-killer. All the way through, the settings are well-described and there’s a strong desire to discover how things will eventually play out. It’s dark and sleazy, but it’s also very entertaining. There’s a subtle humour about the situation and the characters and a decent comic edge to the dialogue.
To my mind, it’s the opening section that works the best. Getting to know Cantrell and the surrounding cast of characters is a real treat and it’s here where I felt the dramatic tension worked best. Pruitt does a great job of nailing things down, all the time avoiding the obvious. Just when I thought I knew where I was going, the plot would twist or turn in a new direction and give me something else to ponder. The other aspect of the opening which I think worked well was the way it was possible to find room to root for some of those involved, even though they’re a dismal collection of specimens – for me, that became less easy as the story played out.
It’s surprising that this is a debut novel given the quality of the work. Pruitt is definitely one to watch and I’ll be keeping a look out for his work in the future, not that I’d ever like to turn my back on the guy (just in case).
Wednesday, 29 October 2014
“This is what I learned about a story at Mammoth Studios: A likeable and sympathetic hero, one who affords a good measure of viewer-identification, and around whom the story revolves, is faced with the necessity of solving a serious and urgent problem which affects his vital interests. The hero makes an effort to solve his problem, but this only succeeds in making matters worse. (This is me all right). The hero’s efforts all lead to a series of increasingly harder complications. Each new complication is related to the original problem. (This isn’t me, or is it?) Anyway, there is an integrated series of complications which build up in intensity until a definite point or crisis is reached. It is here that the reader cannot possibly understand how the hero can possibly succeed. But now the hero makes one last and heroic attempt to resolve his difficulties, and in every case it must be his own individual efforts that solve the dilemma (s). Under no circumstances can he accept any form of outside aid to make things easier for him.”
It’s a long quote, I know, but a great dissection of a type of story-writing. This comes from the narrator of our story, a successful car salesman called Richard Hudson.
The opening has Hudson watching a used Los Angeles car lot that he intends to buy. He analyses the pros and cons of the place with ruthless application and proceeds with his purchase for the business. It’s a classy, beautifully written beginning that really sucked me in completely. Like the quote above says, we have our sympathetic hero with whom we can identify.
From there, we’re transported into an analysis of the art of story-telling in the film world. It’s a little unsettling, but it’s not long before the thread of the narrative is resumed.
Essentially we have a tale being told in flashback. It’s a great way of grabbing attention and sows the seeds of tension because we know we’re heading for some kind of fall.
Hudson moves back in with his eccentric mother and family. He spends a lot of time with his step-father, a genius of cinema who has lost his way. As they hang around together, Hudson realises that he needs something to fill the emptiness of his life and the creation of a film seems to be the obvious thing for him to do. He has an amazing knowledge of cinema and his step-father allows him an insight that many script-writers might die for.
The creation of the film and the obsession of the writer are gripping. There are many occasions when I wanted to leap in and offer advice - after all, I know already that things aren’t set to end well.
A huge amount of the book is absolutely brilliant.
What lets it down a little is Hudson’s determination to do things his own way. He wants to do something that is out of the ordinary and he can’t bear the interference of the man at the top who wants control of the piece. His obsession turns into a kind of madness and in this madness lies his downfall. The problem for me here is that the book also works to its own calamity of an ending and for me Hudson had become so despicable that I didn’t care a hoot for him anymore. He was no longer my slightly flawed hero, but had turned himself into the villain of the piece. While I’m sure that was deliberate, there was something about it that felt a little disappointing. Maybe if I’d realised earlier what a toe-rag the man was (and there were plenty of serious clues, believe me), I might have read in a different way.
Willeford certainly tells an incredible story with great flair and skill. The voice and the whole situation are brilliantly done. Because of that, I’m slightly disappointed in myself for not loving the entirety of the book to pieces. This one’s definitely worth a read and I’m sure will ignite a whole batch of questions for you as a reader.
I’d love to hear a few opinions on this. Please feel free to share.
Saturday, 25 October 2014
There are lots of William Boyd’s trademark themes in Ordinary Thunderstorms and the sentences are as dense as ever.
Adam Kindred’s life is turned upside-down on the day he takes an interview for a prestigious post at Imperial College in his field of climatology. He bumps into a doctor who works in the field of medical research and when the doctor leaves behind a set of scientific documents relating Kindred does the right thing and does his best to return them.
The next time Kindred sees the doctor, it’s in his apartment and he happens to be wearing a knife in the middle of his chest. Kindred removes the knife with fatal consequences and leaves the building, knowing that the file he’s carrying holds some great significance.
There’s a Thirty-Nine Steps feel to this section and it’s expertly handled.
The feel soon turns to something akin to Robinson Crusoe when Kindred is forced into hiding and chooses a small triangle of land on the banks of the Thames at Chelsea. From this triangle, he sets out on a new mission to survive the elements as well as to avoid the police who are looking for him and the murderers who want him dealt with.
At this point the book changes pace and becomes a slowly unfolding adventure.
We visit a grim building estate, a fancy boardroom, the boat that is home to policewoman Rita Nashe and the brilliantly constructed Church Of John Christ. Each strand of the story is superbly written to form a substantial whole.
Boyd seems to have so many ideas to explore that the book is jam-packed with interesting and original tangents. What this meant for me was that I felt the pace became a lot slower than I wanted, particularly when things were heading to their close.
I cared enough and was curious enough about the characters to have a strong desire to find out their fates. On the final straight, however, I’d have been happier with more of a sprint finish than a help-me-get-to-the-finish-line struggle. I’d almost lost my appetite by the climax, which is a shame.
A big fan of Mr Boyd’s books, I did enjoy this. Unlike the other books of his I’ve read, this one wasn’t quite a triumph.
Thursday, 23 October 2014
Freddy Otash is in purgatory. To earn a ticket out he needs to tell all. What follows is a list of sleazy Hollywood tales behind Otash’s Confidential magazine. As well as encounters with the stars, Otash also meets up with James Ellroy to pass on his life story.
The whole thing seems to have its tongue firmly in its cheek. Though there are some nice moments and a sprinkling of stunning phrases, there isn’t really a strong centre. It spins from low life act to exposé like a machine gun turret gone wild and because of this it never really finds traction.
There’s also a very deliberate and slightly irritating alliteration that I could have done without entirely.
It may well be that I missed the point of all this. That the book has a meaning or a subtext that I’ve not been able to grasp. For that reason, I’d suggest you read a range of reviews. That way, you might catch the opinions of someone who has the inside line on the jokes and references.
Not really for me.
Friday, 10 October 2014
Kate Horsley is clearly a brave lady. She’s taken on a master work and written a sequel. In doing so, she’s produced a novel of class and beauty that’s worthy of its recent nomination as Scottish Book Of The Year in the Saltire Literary Awards.
Imagine, if you will, a small Scottish island at around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. It has a tiny population who are bound to the land and the sea for everything. Along comes the strange visitor from Europe and everything starts to change.
“Who’d have thought in our modern day, to see the plagues of Egypt washed up onto our shores?”
Nature seems restless. Strange things have been washed up on the beach. Dolphins lay dead and smiling on the rocks. Livestock around the island is found ripped apart. Napoleon’s ships are moored nearby. It seems that God is angry and the people of Hoy gather in the church to pray and to swap tales.
It’s not long before folk turn their attention to the mysterious Victor Frankenstein, who is living and working up at the big house, and to May and Oona who are working there for him.
Oona is our guide and she’s a fabulously complex character. She has a rare strength and determination about her and yet has a physical frailty that softens and yet heightens these traits. She shows a tremendous loyalty to her best friend, May, who is about to leave her to marry a twin from the village. It’s this loyalty to May that initially draws Oona in to the life of Frankenstein. It’s a mysterious world that she enters and the complex layers are peeled slowly and tantalisingly away as we get to discover this new world through Oona’s eyes.
The world of the big house is a stark contrast to the superstitious, God-fearing community who talk of the bible, the selkies and the Finman. It’s a practical, scientific place full of caged birds, home-made contraptions and experiments aimed at discovering something of the nature of death and exploring the possibilities of resurrection.
It’s a stroke of genius to tell the story from Oona’s perspective. It works to the book’s advantage at every turn.
What is so stunning about the book for me is the use of language. The work flows from one gem of a sentence to another. The dialogue captures something of a sense of period, is clean and never stilted in the way that some attempts at historical fiction can be. The shadows and sense of darkness are embedded into the work with great subtlety and the images are often so perfectly honed that they really can take the breath away.
The characters, and I’ll include the island of Hoy here, are wonderful. Their differences are exploited superbly when things start to go wrong and the status quo cracks like dry bones.
On top of all that, the novel is incredibly gripping. The tension builds and the sense of the sinister grows in the way of any great page-turner.
I found The Monster’s Wife to be a terrific read. It’s a stunning work and I hope you’ll take the time to check it out.
If you happen to be in a book group, I’d suggest you make this your next recommendation. You’ll get so many hours of discussion and so many pats on the back from the other members for the idea that you really won’t regret it.
A classic in the making.
Thursday, 9 October 2014
Doubleback is a soft-boiled detective novel that mixes gentle encounters with urgent action scenes to provide a well-rounded story.
Georgia Davis is sucked into a kidnapping case involving a young girl and overcomes her reluctance to investigate when a number of fatal accidents have more than a whiff of the sinister about them. As she probes, she collects the pieces of the puzzle she is looking to solve, each of them being bigger than the one before. She covers a whole range of dark goings on including those in the world of computers, banking, pirate security forces, drugs and immigration. That’s a lot of territory, but each step makes sense and the complexities of the issues are well-explained where necessary.
It’s a pleasing read with a satisfying ending and Georgia and her supporting cast were a pleasure to get to know.
Friday, 3 October 2014
“The more you walk this road, the longer the road seems to be.”
I’m not entirely sure how George Pelecanos does it. Drama City is yet another example of the man’s brilliance. He tells a huge number of stories all at once by weaving together the lives of the main players with those of the supporting cast and still manages to drive forward a central theme that never lets on about where it’s going until things reach their climax.
Lorenzo Brown is a dog man. It’s where he’s ended up after a spell in prison for working drugs with his friend Nigel. Lorenzo has locked the demons of his past away and he’s determined to stay clean and live a straightforward life. As a dog man, he trawls through the city’s difficult spots and encounters a cast of unsavoury situations. In contrast to the animals he works with, his own dog is well-cared for. In this brief description of his pet, Pelecanos manages to hint at the violence of the environment and let us know about the dog all in a oner:
“Jasmine’s coat was cream coloured, with tan and brown shotgunned across the fur.”
Lorenzo has a probation officer, Rachel Lopez, and she (like me) is rooting for him all the way.
Lopez invests a good deal into each of the offenders she works with, believing in the possible. Unfortunately, she’s fighting demons of her own. Like Lorenzo, her job leads her into many difficult and dangerous places and her ways of coping are easily understandable.
For me, the power of Drama City lies in the strength of the characters. From an early stage I felt a strong desire to see them come through their own personal battles unscathed. Once that desire had been established, Pelacanos began to play with the inhabitants of the book like a mischievous god, throwing them to the lions piece by piece and forcing me to watch as the situations played out.
Pelecanos also manages to summarise the profound using very simple brushstrokes and is able to impart huge amounts of information through the tiniest of things (take, for example, the provenance of a matchbook).
Drama City is a hugely satisfying read. The only way I could recommend it more highly would be to stand on something very tall. Be warned, it’s not for those of a nervous disposition.
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
"Do the unexpected.”
At the opening of Incident On And Off A Mountain Road, a car is driving too fast around a bend and takes out an old Buick. Ellen stops to check for survivors. She finds blood on the seat and then is attacked by a deranged character wielding a knife.
What follows is a chase that sees Ellen doing her best to get away.
Thankfully, she’s been hooked up with a trainer in survival techniques and his voice pops into her head every-so-often to help her stay clear of the lunatic with the blade.
As Ellen wanders further into unknown territory, she discovers that her attacker is even more loopy than she could ever have imagined.
The tension builds fairly well for a short piece and the horror elements work nicely.
It’s not my favourite Lansdale by a long shot, but it’s an interesting enough read. It also happens to include one of the most horrific weapons I’ve come across and a nice twist at the end to tie things all together.