Thursday, 7 June 2018

One Man's Opinion: WAIT UNTIL SPRING BANDINI by JOHN FANTE



Arturo Bandini is doomed. He’s doomed for so many reasons that it would be painful to list them all. Suffice to say he’s living in extreme poverty, his father is a brute, the love of his life looks down on him from a great height and he’s stricken by the religious fervour of his mother.

Wait Until Spring Bandini (US)offers a series of glimpses into the Bandini household. There’s not a great deal of fun to be had. Mrs Bandini is constantly begging the local storekeeper to sell her essentials on the slate. The cold is intense. Head of house, Svevo, is about to disappear. Winter is a hell to survive, what with Christmas being the property of the rich and the hard weather bringing to a close all sports. What else is there for a child to do but dream and get into trouble? And Arturo does plenty of both.

It’s a tough read in many ways. The downturns in fortune are endless and each carries more weight than the one that went before. No sooner is Arturo finding a glimmer of hope to cling to than the world cuts him down to his knees. The grinding down of the family is relentless. Resistance seems futile. The book’s as dark as the December nights it describes.

If that’s all correct, then what on earth would anyone want to read the damned book for?

Among all of the terrible happenings are moments of beauty. There are passages of sublime description. The internal workings cut deep and are vivid in their bleakness. There are crazy laugh-out-loud moments and descriptions of life that expose the motivations of the central characters in a way that is brutal and yet somehow tender.

The vignettes offered are each gripping in their own way. Mealtimes. The stealing of money to visit the cinema. The classroom. The storekeeper’s miserly spirit. The mother’s intense faith and inevitable depression. The romantic Christmas gift. The Christmas banquet. The new shoes. The brotherly scraps. The rich lover. The examinations of that it is to be an Italian in America.

These stories cling together to form a book that’s well worth a read. It’s almost a collection of short fiction, each tale carrying its own driving force which, when combined, creates an overall narrative that is difficult to resist.

I can’t say this was unputdownable. I put my copy away many times. The intensity could become too much and a rest and a little reflection allowed me to prepare for the next challenging instalment.

I enjoyed the world I inhabited when I was there and found lots of the passages to be delicious. That said, I’m going to lock the book away in a strong box to make sure its ghosts can’t seep out into my world and contaminate the things I hold dear.

Friday, 18 May 2018

One Man's Opinion: SUNK COSTS by PRESTON LANG


Here’s another great read from All Due Respect books.
Their latest, Sunk Costs (US), tells the tale of a young drifter who arrives into town and picks up a ride with from an attractive woman. Things are a little too good to be true and an explosive turn leads Dan into making a deal. All he has to do is to find a key in the office where the lady used to work.
Sounds simple enough, only it really isn’t.
There’s another woman, Kate, after that same key. Kate works in the office and realises that there may be riches to be had if they can get hold of it.
The situation spirals out of control as the prize continually and tantalisingly slips out of reach at every turn.
Dan’s street-smarts and con-artistry are put to the test as the danger level rises enough to swamp him.
Tightly written, punchy and engaging from the start, this is a low-life adventure that you won’t want to miss.
Thoroughly entertaining. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

BATTLEFIELDS

It’s quiet without you.


Tidy, now you’ve gone.

There’s too much space.

Enough room to swing that cat of yours.



Stillness drips from walls

pooling into seas of silent nothing.

Ghosts tease me into searching shadows

and all the you-sized spaces.

The bathroom’s free, the chairs all mine

and I can surf the TV with reckless abandon.

I write BLISS in the steamy mirror

and rub it out before the final S is drawn.



Tomorrow I’ll blast out talk shows,

sprinkle crumbs on the carpet

and pile clothes in random places.

I’ll leave the cap off the toothpaste,

forget to flush the toilet

and miss the bin with every shot.

My shoes will live separate lives at the back door

while bikes stand rusting in the rain.



Until you return,

I will fill this world with chaos

eat with my fingers and leave the lights on

so you can find the way home.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

One Man's Opinion: LADY KILLER by ED MCBAIN



Meyer thought he would die in a way unbefitting a heroic cop. He would die of heat prostration, and the obits would simply say COP FLOPS. Or perhaps, if the news was headlined in Variety, SOPPY COP DROPS.

‘How do you like this Variety headline announcing my death by heat prostration?’ he said to Carella as they entered another hockshop. ‘Soppy Cop Drops.’

‘That’s pretty good,’ Carella said. ‘How about mine?’

‘In Variety?’

‘Sure.’

‘Let me hear it.’

‘SOPPY WOP COP DROPS.’

Lady Killer has a sense of urgency from the off. A young boy delivers a letter to the police desk.

‘I will kill The Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?’

The words are made from letters clipped from newspaper. It could be a hoax. The detectives of the 87th can’t afford to treat it that way and have to give it their full attention. If the letter is telling the truth, they have a day to solve the case. And so the pressure begins.

As is often the case in the series, the weather in the city is extreme. The tarmac on the roads is melting and people are desperate to find some relief from the heat. McBain does his usual wonderful job creating the picture and the temperature features as strongly as the characters themselves and would be enough to get the reader to open a window even in the winter months.

The plot sees an investigation in which no stone is unturned. The lab examines the letter. The paper on which it is made is identified and tracked down. This takes the amorous Cotton Hawes to a bookshop in which he manages to fall in love. Boys dressed like the delivery boy are collected from street corners. Artist’s impressions are drawn. Every effort is made to identify anyone known as Lady and this takes us from saunas to La Via De Putas to the showy apartment of a musical star. No lead is strong enough and the detectives become anxious about the ticking clock.

In the midst of their frustration, we meet the author of the threat. He’s watching the detectives through a pair of binoculars that will later give the team more clues to go on. We discover that the threat is no idle one and that the motivation behind the letter is to give the police a chance to stop him from committing the serious crime he has planned. He’s going to leave a trail of clues that he feels should be easy to solve. Unfortunately, the detectives struggle to get onto his warped wavelength.   

The pace starts well and builds nicely to the exhilarating climax and another really classy read.

A couple of things stand out to me in this one. The first is that there is only the one crime being investigated. That’s unusual in my experience to date. It’s often the weaving of different cases that helps to keep the books moving forward with the suspense I enjoy. It also means that the books usually have a range of tones and flavours that provide excellent contrast and variety to appreciate.

Lady Killer doesn’t suffer at all for having only a single investigation underway. There’s still a great range of characters to get to know and with Cotton Hawes at the fore, we have another opportunity to get inside his head.

If there’s a downside to this one, it’s a minor one. There’s something about the ending that left me a tad disappointed. It was nothing I can’t get over, yet it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. I’d happily take opinions on that to see if you can persuade me otherwise. Let me know if you have the time. And is there anyone else out there who thinks the title may be referring more to Hawes that anyone else? If there is, same goes.  

Even with that minor point, it’s still a five-star read to my mind and I already have the next one lined up for when I need a reading lift.  

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Toe Six Press

Toe Six



Things go in cycles. Come at you in waves. Here's something new that'll sweep you off your feet. Authors and readers, you should really check this out. 

I'm only here to make the introductions. 

Something's afoot. Meet Toe Six Press

Saturday, 7 April 2018

One Man's Opinion: MANHATTAN BEACH by JENNIFER EGAN


Manhattan Beach

‘She’d never been good at banter; it was like a skipping rope whose rhythm she couldn’t master enough to jump in with confidence.’

When I read The Keep by Jennifer Egan, I was so engaged with the textures and structures that I knew I’d be visiting her books again. Given that The Keep was never fully within my grasp in terms of understanding the whole, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from Manhattan Beach.

It’s a very different book. More conventional in many ways, but no less gripping for that.

The central character is Anna. We meet her as a young girl as she visits a Gatsbyesque gangster with her father. The father/daughter relationship is clearly a very special and rather fragile one, the links between father and gangster are new and tentative. Though the early encounters with each of these people is fascinating and beautifully described, it took me a while to get to the pace and cadence of the story.  Sentences took me by surprise and the variation in points of view had me struggling to fully acclimatise. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying things. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was, perhaps, more that I found the landscape disorientating until I found my feet.  

Once I’d come to know Anna’s family (a mother who has given up on her dancing career and on many other aspects of her life in order to become a carer; Anna’s severely disabled sister who rarely speaks but steals many of the scenes in which she appears; her bagman of a father; and her errant aunt who makes a living from the men she connects with) everything settled down. Like Anna, who will later find great insight from fumbling around in the darkness of the underwater world, I was able to find my way through the twists and turns with delight and navigate land and sea as if a natural.

The flesh on the bones of the story is rich and delicious. It offers great insights into a world at a different time. There’s a war on. Many of New York’s men have gone to fight and many of those remaining are about to leave. Women are finding new roles as necessity gives birth to invention without eliminating prejudice or changing attitudes. Similarly with race, equality is available only in small, practically invisible measures. There are barriers everywhere for Anna to overcome, but she’s strong and wise and determined.

As well as an insight into wartime New York, we get a great view into life in the Merchant Navy. As Anna’s aunt mentions, the sailors involved count among the overlooked heroes and from the stories we get to witness, any stripes they earned cannot be begrudged.

The gangland element of this tale is mysterious and fascinating. Dexter Styles is our eyepiece. He has risen through the ranks of the mob and married into power and society until he is on the verge of being completely legitimate. He has an uncanny way of understanding people and situations. He sees the world with clarity and certainty. He’s an adorable bad guy. His grip on the world only begins to loosen as a grown-up Anna re-enters his orbit.   

Overall, this one’s a real joy. I didn’t want it to finish and when I was inside I was totally submerged in Egan’s creation. I felt like I was there and could cut loose from reality and drift like a raft upon the ocean at any point in time simply by opening the pages at my bookmark and sailing on.

Is this the perfect read? Of course not. There are flaws. Where the scenes on the shipyards, of the diving and of life at sea appear to be deeply researched (all explanations being deftly handled), the world of the gangster seems to be less understood and I think I’d have liked a more solid grounding here. The early stages do take some orientation. There are a number of coincidences in terms of the plot that are a little too convenient if you want to split hairs.

As far as I’m concerned, any imperfections are easily overlooked. Jennifer Egan’s style is superb whether she’s working with large or fine brushes. It’s her insight into her characters that ultimately wins out. Her ability to describe the impossible or unreachable with poetic similes or slices of magic is wonderful. Her trump card, I reckon, is her ability to throw her human creations into the world and then be able to describe every one of their reactions. This ability to empathise to such depth within fiction is a rare thing. She may even have to wear a protective suit to get right down to those levels. I felt it most when she was dealing with loss, a recurring theme throughout the novel. That’s when the delicate touch can be most keenly felt. And now I’ve come to the journey’s end, I’m experiencing my own sense of loss. But, never mind:

‘It was all still there, everything he’d left behind. It’s vanishing had only been a trick.’

Absolutely loved this read. Go and escape.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Southsiders: The Collected Jesse Garon Novels

SOUTHSIDERS

Four novels, four terrific tales. Follow the adventures of the young Jesse Garon as he struggles to survive after being left home alone.

From Amazon US, UK, Australia, Canada and Germany 

and more widely available here.