Saturday, 20 May 2023

One Man's Opinion: CUDDY by BENJAMIN MYERS

Just over twenty years ago, my wife and I took on St Cuthbert's Way. Though time fades the memories, they're still there. I left my book of short stories in Melrose Youth Hostel where we kicked things off with a short bus ride. We got lost on the way to Wooler Youth Hostel and added quite a few miles onto the journey. When we arrived at Lindisfarne the tide was in and the walk was over. Our legs were so done that we struggled to get to our accommodation, a lovely pub run by an ex-miner and Sunderland fan (hence the establishment name, The Black Cat- now defunct). The marrow competition was over. We watched some crap on the TV. Slept the deep sleep of the exhausted. It was a good trip. 

Since then we've been back to the island many times. Never as pilgrims, I hasten to add, but as lovers of the space and beauty of the surroundings. My favourites have been when walking along the Pilgrim's Way marked out by poles in the sand, accompanied by the wind, the birds and the barks of the seals. If you haven't been and you're in the area, try it out.  

My fondness for the area was part of the reason for me wanting to read Cuddy. Other reasons? He was born in Dunbar which has been my home town for twenty years. And the author, Benjamin Myers, is a wonderful story teller and poet who deserves every bit of his recent success.

I didn't always find Cuddy straightforward and do think it's the kind of novel that requires the reader to make an effort. 

It's like a sandwich. On second thoughts, it's more like a layer cake with it's several tales and sections stacked up and sometimes interweaving. In some ways, I'd have preferred the sandwich as my favourite sections were the beginning and end. 

Books 2 and 3 weren't my cup of tea. I don't know why, exactly. I simply got stuck in the prose and drifted away. 

Which leaves Books 1 and 4. 

Book 1 tells the story of the holy men carrying around Cuddy's coffin to keep him safe from invading marauders. The style is meandering, introspective and beautiful and has the pace of the wandering monks. They're searching for the place to bury the bones and are waiting for a sign. The observations are lovely. The monks themselves are as frail as any group of humans stuck together. There are conversations between the dead Cuddy and the monks' cook and herbalist, Ediva, who also chats freely with the mysterious and delicate Owl Eyes. I found this hypnotic, moving and a joy. 

Even in Book 1, however, there are sections I didn't care for. There are breaks that offer snippets of research in quote form. They show contradictions and curious slices of information, but I could have done without it. Perhaps this is what the publishers mean when they say it's experimental (given the wealth of writing out there, that's some claim, though this certainly doesn't conform to contemporary publishing norms within the mainstream). There are also sections that become increasingly diminutive to the point where my aging eyes could no longer read the text and I wasn't interested enough to get my magnifying glass (perhaps this is the experimental approach). I'm sure there was a point, I just didn't get it. 

Book 4 is terrific, with no caveats. A frail youngster, living with his dying mother and with a personality that makes people want to take him under his wing, owl-eyed and with a particular intelligence, deals with growing up while taking on work in Durham cathedral. I'd have read it by itself as a stand-alone, though what has gone before adds further richness. It also adds the icing the that layer cake I mentioned. 

A game of more than two halves that opens with brilliance and ends with power. 

I loved

quite a lot of it

i really did

Saturday, 13 May 2023

MR SUIT Running Free

Mr Suit gets an outing today. Free for two days over at Amazon if you have access to Kindle. 

Liza is at the end of her tether. The only way she can see out of her situation is to turn to her husband's ex-boss, the gangster Mr Suit.

In doing so, she sets in motion a chain of events that will keep the reader on the edge of their seat from beginning to end.

The latest in the series of tremendous work from the author of DIRTY OLD TOWN (AND OTHER STORIES); IN LOCO PARENTIS; and SMOKE who is also the co-editor of volumes 1 and 2 of PULP INK.

'The prose is tight rope taut and the plotting first class. The central character of Liza is well drawn and the drip feed of her commentary about Archie’s feelings is brilliantly done. Mr Suit is suitably odious without straying in to cliché...‘Mr Suit’ is a tense and thrilling novella which deserves a place on your bookshelf.'

'I can whole-heartedly recommend this one.' Heath Lowrance (City Of Heretics)

'At the risk of setting expectations too high let me say that it's something along the lines of Elmore Leonard meets James M. Cain by way of a Guy Ritchie movie.' Devil Monkey (Amazon review)

Friday, 12 May 2023



For me, the title is reminiscent of one of my old favourites, Nag Nag Nag by Caberet Voltaire. If that means something to you, you should definitely be checking out Blah Blah Blah, the new tunes from Long Hat Pins. If it doesn't, you should also definitely be checking out Blah Blah Blah, the new tunes for Long Hat Pins. 

It's available for a free listen over at Band Camp here

Not all books can make the best seller lists. Not all books that make the best seller lists are good books. Not all books that don't make the best seller lists are bad books. Some of the books that aren't on the best seller lists are excellent books. Some of the music you've never heard is excellent music. And who the hell defines good or bad, anyway? The beholder, methinks. You might love this or hate it, the only way to find out is to check it out. 

Friday, 5 May 2023

Meanwhile, Down In the Shallows...


The Shallows is free today and this weekend if you fancy a distraction from the coronation. 

Here's what Ian Ayris said:

The Shallows is equally, an excellent piece. It displays Bird's usual quality of prose - tight, yet always poetic - a very hard trick to pull off. I read the whole book in less than two days. In those two gripping days, I was thrust into the fast disintegrating world of Brad and Molly Heap, and their son, Shem, as they, a normal family, do everything they can to stay one step ahead of their pursuers - the Navy, the Police, a gang of drug and people smugglers, and most pernicious of all, their own conscience. These are normal people in a tough situation, through no real fault of their own, fleeing for their lives. And I was with them every step of the way.

3.9 out of 5
3.9 out of 5
245 global ratings
5 star 
4 star 
3 star 
2 star 
1 star 

And if you need more than one book to keep you busy, how about this box set from the talented Eric Beetner. The complete Lars and Shane box set is available today for only 99p/99c, which is very cool indeed. 

Saturday, 29 April 2023


It's been a while since I've read anything by Lawrence Block. Long enough to forget just how brilliant he is as a writer. 

The Girl With The Long Green Heart (US) is a grifter novel that is perfectly pitched. One of those reads when you carry a terrible feeling that everything is going to go wrong. You worry that you might be right about that and then you worry that you might be wrong. No matter which way you see it playing out, it doesn't seem like anyone's going to come out of it undamaged and, because you're rooting for the protagonist, a lot of nervous energy is generated. 

Johnny is that protagonist. He's pulled jobs alone and in teams and has served hard time as a consequence. He's decided to go straight, managing a bowling alley while he saves his pennies to buy a nearby hotel and takes classes to ensure that when he does buy it he knows how to make it work. 

Doug Rance has created the perfect scam. It will give him a wedge to return to the tables at Vegas. If he can persuade Johnny to get on board, then Johnny can own that hotel without all the years of squirreling away nickels and dimes. 

Doug plays Johnny. Johnny feels the strings being pulled, but he's all too happy to be drawn in. The pair then carry on with the con, each holding back from the other while setting up the deal. 

Their target is Wallace Gunderman. He's a rich landowner who has been stung before. That sting still hurts and it makes him the perfect mark- not only does he want to make money, he's also doing it for pride. 

His secretary is key to the deal. Evvie's the one who gave Rance the idea in the first place. As well as being central to the trickery, she's also got it all. She also just happens to be the girl with the long green heart. She's beautiful, clever and a natural when it comes to acting out her role, and she smoulders like any of the best on-screen femme-fatales. It's not long before you start wondering if she's not too good to be true. Perhaps she is, perhaps she isn't. And maybe she's somewhere in between. She's the reason for the queasy feeling and for any scorch marks you might find in your copy. 

It's a great story because in so many ways the reader is the mark. Block is twisting our minds all the time. He's manipulating our emotions and our logic and it's such a page turner that we don't have the time to sit back and try to make sense of it. 

Having ramped things up from the start, the novel does take a breather just before the denouement. It's a time to pause for breath and to revisit the theories that have been hatching all over the place. There is important information here, but if I have a slight criticism of the book this would be it. When I'm hurtling towards and ending, I really don't want the brakes to go on, I want to fly through that windshield with my eyes open. 

The ending itself was as unexpected as it was expected. Enough pieces have been collected along the way to get it half right. The rest of them come flying at you all at once and it's Johnny who takes over to lay them into position with fantastic skill and ease.

This one has a real hard-boiled flavour. The voice is perfect. The descriptions are minimal but nailed. The quips are sharp and the similes original and full of an acerbic humour that I really enjoyed. 

I may have felt like a mark from the off, but I certainly didn't feel short changed. Just the opposite. Another Hard Case Crime cracker to add to my list and my thirst for Lawrence Block is back.    

Very good indeed.        

Sunday, 16 April 2023


A hurricane hits Florida. While there's tragedy everywhere, there are pockets of unusual thinking and strange behaviour. A one-eyed man of the wild is hoping the storm will be the biggest on record. A man on honeymoon would rather take film of the victims than spend time with his new wife. A skull-juggler feels the need to search for the exotic animals he's recently inherited. Another couple come together to exploit the devastation for financial gain. 

It does feel a bit like Hiaasen has created these sets of characters, thrown them into a blended and poured out the resulting cocktail onto the page, yet the various plots converge in a way that suggests there's been a lot more planning than that. 

Essentially this is bonkers. Crazy things happen everywhere. There's kidnapping, fraud, crucifixion, death by lion, swamp sex, an electric collar, a dart gun and a deranged monkey camera thief to name a but a few.  

There are lots of quotes on the sleeve about how hilarious the end result is. 'Howlingly funny', for example. 'Violently pleasurable'. 'Perhaps the funniest important writer in America'. For me, not really big on satire, it was none of the above though I smiled quite a bit and enjoyed quite a number of the situations and lines. No out loud laughs, just the odd warm moment. 

Among my favourite moments, the mention in the plot of Paradise Palms. This happens to be a most excellent place to visit for anyone travelling to Edinburgh (food, music, vibe et al). It has a record label and shop, so you can find some cool tunes while you eat, drink and be merry. 

Stormy Weather? Fair company for a journey, entertaining if you can find the right head space and a surprisingly pacey read for a big book.  

Thursday, 13 April 2023

One Man's Opinion: FOR KICKS by DICK FRANCIS

It's my own fault, really. A week in France and I had my Ed McBain for the flight over, followed by a substantial looking Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) for which I had high hopes (The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay being a big favourite of mine). 

It turned out that I developed an aversion for the Chabon very quickly. I'm not sure what it was, but I was disorientated early on and couldn't recover. My younger self would have ploughed on regardless, but my old mind wouldn't let me (not enough years left and too many books). 

When it came to finding an alternative, the amount of reading material in English that I could lay my hands on was extremely limited. The only book that caught my eye was For Kicks by Dick Francis. 

An alternative was to give Hemingway's Le Vieil Homme Et La Mer a go. The problem with that is my lack of proficiency in French (something of an understatement). Though Hemingway's use of language is so clean and lean that I can gain the gist of what's going on much of the time, to do it properly would take far too much use of a dictionary or Google Translate to make it satisfying.    

For Kicks won out on account of the simplicity of the process of reading and it gave me plenty to think about. 

It's an older novel. Published in January 1965 just after I was born, like me it's pretty dated stuff. Not that it's without charm. 

The Earl of October drives into the life of Australian Daniel Roke with a slightly implausible offer. October is seeking out someone who understands horses to investigate curious goings on in the English National Hunt scene. Eleven horses with little hope have finished first and none have shown any signs of being doped. It's a scandal that could ruin the sport and October is too big a fan to let that happen. He's tried before, hiring a journalist who died in a car accident at the point where he may have been gaining headway with his investigation. Now he's desperate enough to pay Roke a huge sum of money on account of a chance conversation in a nearby town. It's all rather quaint and comforting. 

Roke, bored by a life where he is responsible for the upbringing of his younger siblings, jumps at the chance. So what if he'll have to slum it with some rough types around the training yards of the UK? He can fit in by growing an pair of sideburns, donning a leather jacket and twisting his Aussie twang into a cockney patter. 

There's lots of over explanation and the characters are like a bunch of hammy actors trying to make their way in am-dram. Occasionally there are hints of sex and glimpses of naked women or their undergarments that seem to be aimed at appealing to the 1960s male and helping to shift a few extra copies. The observations of class structure are stereotyped, the action is slow and the dialogue overlong. There are twists and turns along the way and as the story comes to a close the danger hinted at in the opening chapter is finally realised. 

Which doesn't sound like a great set of ingredients and makes me wonder why I was willing to carry on with this when Telegraph Avenue was added so quickly to the DNF pile. 

I think that has to be because of the plot. Underneath all the faults, the intrigue is sown early on. The world of horse racing and gambling is perfect for a crooked tale. And Roke himself, though he may go on a bit, carries himself with dignity and charm throughout.

If it were a horse, For Kicks would be a bit of a plodder. It might win a couple of long races on soft ground when stamina was of a premium, especially if the handicapper shaved off ten thousand words or thereabouts. Even so, it was fun to read on account of its subject matter and the underlying concept of the mystery. 

Worth the effort and passed the time.