Thursday 19 December 2013


Before starting in on this treat of a book, I'm hoping to ask a favour. Yes, again (sorry).

My novella Smoke ('Grim, but really good' - Ian Rankin), ISBN - 9781908688293 and published by Blasted Heath, is now available for libraries via OverDrive. If you're a member of a library, would you please consider sparing 5 minutes or so of your time and requesting a copy (usually done online at your libraries site) so that they'll consider buying one? The reward for you is only a small glow of having helped out, but I'd really appreciate your kindness.

Big thanks on that.

Now to today's big read.

I’ve really enjoyed Darren Sant’s short fiction as it has a heart in the middle of all its sharp edges. I’d heard that The Bank Manager And The Bum was magical realism and that meant I didn’t really know what to expect from this one, even though I was looking forward to it. I think Bicycle Thieves was all I could picture in the genre.
What I found was that it is magic and it is realistic, so I guess that the tag was right.

A homeless man and his dog spend the night by a bank and take a kicking from a gang of thugs. It’s a serious beating and there’s some of that Darren Sant hardness in the description. Next day, along comes the bank manager,
Giles, to open up. He spots the damaged pair and calls for an ambulance. While doing this, he witnesses the curing of the dog as the bum of the title lays on his hands and emits a light, healing energy that does the job.
As the dog gets better, the bum’s condition gets worse; that’s part of the healer’s dilemma.

It turns out that Giles also has a problem. More of a catastrophe, really. He finds out his young son is dying and this causes a domestic crisis. As time goes on, the idea that the bum Giles had helped might be able to save his boy grows and takes root and, eventually, it’s the path Giles and his wife decide to take.

The slight problem for them is that there’s a gangster in the vicinity who also wants the bum’s healing powers and he’s prepared to go to any length to make sure he gets what he wants.

There’s a seedy underbelly that’s cut into, scalpel like, by Sant, but for me it’s the magic that wins.

How realistic does it feel? At the point when my first question arose, it was to do with the bank manager’s taste in music rather than the healing, which should say a lot about how well the whole thing is handled. As for that musical taste, it exposed more about my own musical snobbery and my speed at putting the guy into a pigeon hole because of his profession, more than anything else.

It being Christmas, I felt it was the perfect time to be reading this book. It has a festive joy to in, in spite of the difficult sections. I’d recommend that, if you’ve been thinking about this one, you take the plunge over the holidays ahead. It’ll be more than fitting.

I also have a thought for the author. I’d really love to see this story adapted for older children – same plot with less sinister action – as I think that would really work wonderfully and bring him a whole new audience. If it happens, I’ll be banging the drum.

Sunday 15 December 2013


After reading Lean On Pete a short while ago, I had to get another shot of Willy Vlautin.

This fix came with the title Northline and it got straight into my nervous system in the same way that happened with Pete.

Allison has a drink problem and that’s the least of her worries. She has a drink problem to help her to cope with the world (‘She’d calm down first. Calm down as much as the $17.70 in her wallet would let her, and then she’d decide where to go.’) and has picked up a boyfriend who really needs locking up. The boyfriend is a neo-nazi who has very faint shades of liberal sensibilities. He does speed, booze, violence and bully really well. Needless to say, he doesn’t do boyfriend so good. Sadly, his sperm works and Allison runs away to escape her life and her man and to face up to her pregnancy and her demons.

As she settles down in Reno, she meets some great people. There’s her new boss and the crowd at the diner at which she works. They treat her well and allow her to mess up from time-to-time. This is the Karma Allison deserves – she’s kind to folk and makes sure she does her good turns when she thinks nobody’s looking.

It’s a tremendous book. Full of power and emotion. I read it very quickly as it had me in its grip, but I did need to put it down at intervals to catch my breath and to avoid crying in public (seriously). The stories of Allison’s life are gently told, but relay the most brutal experiences and despair. It’s completely painful at points and very challenging, yet there’s always the tiny slither of hope that Vlautin manages to weave in through the work.

There are some wonderful conversations and images that demonstrate pain. Here’s a little interaction between Allison and a customer of hers:

‘ “I have the worst thoughts. I always thing I’m going to get run over by a bus or murdered. That I’ll get a terrible disease or go to jail forever. And the crazy thing is that when I think those thoughts, sometimes it makes me happy. I don’t know if happy is the right word. Maybe relieved. I don’t know. But she [my sister] doesn’t have thoughts like that.”

“I get thoughts like that. Everyone does. I think. Maybe it takes the pressure off. If something like that happened, then you’d be done. You wouldn’t have to try anymore.” ‘

Other than the alcohol, Alison has a number of other coping mechanisms. One of them’s self-harm. Another is the writing of letters to herself, which she immediately destroys. Another is to talk to Paul Newman.

Newman appears to her in the way that Bogart comes to Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam. He’s a friend, confidant and advisor. When this first happened in the book, I was taken aback, but was able to go with the flow. I did wonder about the need for him. Whether this tool worked for the story or not. As it went on and the appearances were explained, I was just glad he was there; it made complete sense.

Reading and recommending this book are other things that make sense. No doubt about it. Willy Vlautin’s a bright star in the sky. Long may he shine. He makes me feel like I've been through a mincer and come out in bits with a smile on my face.

Saturday 14 December 2013

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN - a year in older books

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a selection of my favourite reads of 2013 from the new and newish books I've enjoyed.

Today, I'm posting some of my favourite reads that includes books that were written a while ago, in some cases quite a while.

Among other things, I think is shows me that my habits have changed slightly. Turned back a little to where they might have been in the past. Over the previous 5 years I'd read little but crime fiction, and here there's been a little deviation. I didn't make a conscious decision to vary my diet, it just seemed to be a natural path to take. It's a path I've really loved being on and can't wait to see where I get to next.

OK. No particular order.

If you're like me, you may not have bothered to read this because you know the story from the screen or from the number of times you hear the book discussed. Not reading it is a mistake, I promise you that. It's only when working through the wonders of the story-telling that you can fully appreciate the genius here and the reasons for the story's longevity.

I thought I knew this one too. Again, it was a thrill to read the words on the page. There's such a lot to digest and think about and it's rather special.

Possibly the most unsettling book I've read. Very dark and visceral. Also incredibly told and the boys at the Factory have to be met. I'll be back.

Remember that Carry On line, 'I tried it once. I didn't like it'? I'm glad that's not who I am. I tried a Harry Crews. Didn't like it much. But people kept pointing me in his direction and I dived into Feast Of Snakes. Really brilliant stuff.

When I think of my favourite authors, I'm not sure William Boyd gets much of a look in. Thing is, he probably is one of my faves.  Brazzaville Beach tells of conflict within a scientific community as they study primates. There's a civil war, madness, sex and human despair and nothing is ever ordinary. 

I wanted to put in 2 SE Hinton's, but that would have taken up an extra slot. Profound, simple in the telling and a fantastic story. Gangs and growing up with a page-turning energy that's hard to beat. I loved the way the film (one that stamped itself hard into my psyche) took so many of the lines directly from the book, which meant I was never disappointed.

A man who has sworn that he won't speak until he's the champion cockfighter stays silent for a very long time. Gripping from the off. Fantastic.

For light relief, this is so funny it'll make you laugh out loud on a very regular basis. Number 8, I know, but it gave me so much pleasure.

Thursday 12 December 2013


I really enjoyed Corrosion. It’s a stylish novel that tells a number of stories that merge together to create a nightmarish tale.

As an opening, an Iraq veteran becomes stranded in a small American town when his car packs up on him. The veteran has a scarred face – totally scarred – and this has an impact upon all the interactions he has.
It’s not long before he gets mixed up with a classic femme fatale. He’s pretty switched on about the way he’s being treated, but goes along for the ride with a compulsive need for a woman he needs but barely likes. As this story picks up, the veteran gets himself in a whole barrel full of scalding hot water.

This story in itself would have probably satisfied my requirements from the book, but Bassoff doesn’t stop there. He takes us to another place. Another corner of the world where things are utterly dismal. 

A woman is dying in bed. Her husband has been experimenting for many years to find a cure for her. He has found the Christ Rat. The rat in which he can pin all his hopes. 

This couple has a son. He’s pretty much been forced to bring himself up, missing out on school and on social norms. As such, he’s forced to live in the margins, not just of society but within his own household. Accompanying him while he shifts from bad decisions to unfortunate events to the sick-bed of his mother makes very uncomfortable reading. Thank goodness for Constance, the waitress who offers a shaft of light in his dreams. 

Poor Constance.

For a while in the book, I was taken to the movie Angel Heart. The echoes that took me there were the war-vet who has only a loose grasp of his identity and whose credentials are brought into question as the story unfolds. An uneasy sense that the man isn’t all he thinks he is gives the book a strong and original edge. Unlike Angel Heart, there’s no need to shift into the realms of trickery and all of the connections are very plausible. There is a Lou Cifer of sorts, only in this case, the devil is merely a human being.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed here was the speech. There’s no punctuation for it and it takes a page or so to get used to. When I clicked with this, I really loved it. To my mind, it must have made the author work that little bit harder, but it was well worth it for the streamlining it offers and the hard edge it gives to the dialogue. It really does work very well indeed. 

Congratulations Jon Bassoff for an excellent debut. I’ll be looking out for more.

Thursday 5 December 2013


Talk of the town just now is Philomena, the movie. It tells the story of a woman who was a victim of one of the wicked manifestations of the Catholic Church. The film looks OK. I may see it one day, perhaps on DVD. However it plays out, I’m pretty sure it won’t be able to shine a prayer-candle to Ken Bruen’s The Magdalen Martyrs.
I loved Jack Taylor before arriving at this novel. It’s difficult not to. He articulates his inner workings with charm, humour and a good deal of learned profundity.
Here, he becomes involved in 2 cases. The first is to investigate a rather interesting woman who likes her drink and whose ex-husband suspects is guilty of murder. The second, a job from a killer whom he couldn’t turn down, is to track down an old lady with associations with the Magdalen Laundry.
The cases are hugely interesting in themselves and give the book its movement and superbly dimensioned characters.  Although that’s crucial to the plot, the main story is one of addiction – the effects of intoxicants, withdrawal, black-outs, extreme actions, hallucination, self-loathing, guilt, depression, the works.
Jack moves from the booze to pills to periods of abstinence.  As he plods through each phase, he sees his reflection the world and the people around him. He talks about his life and his failings in such an articulate and entertaining way that I doubt there can have been many better accounts of these extremes. Bruen would argue with this last statement and win because he knows far more than I – each chapter begins with a quote that has been selected perfectly to set a tone or underline a point.
Talking of quotes, here’s one of his own that I rather cared for:
“I can’t blame books for the chaos of my life, but they’ve always been there on the journey.”
This novel works wonderfully on so many levels. It’s a brilliant piece and one that only emphasises Bruen’s right to be accorded such a high status within the crime-writing world and the world of literature.

Friday 29 November 2013

Six Of The Best - 2013 in books

I know it seems early to be thinking about my favourite reads of the year, but I reckon it's better to have them listed now than in January. If they're up in time, they give the heads up for Christmas presents. 

The 6 here are magnificent. The Magnificent Six in fact - could take on, do you think?  They're also new or newish. I'll post another batch of older books that I've really loved.


In no particular order (and starting with a home run) ...

Steve Weddle's Country Hardball.  My review's here.

Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds. My review's here.

Ian Ayris' One Day In The Life Of Jason Dean. My review's here.

Sean Chercover's The Trinity Game. My review's here.

Josh Stallings' All The Wild Children. My review's here.

Heath Lowrance's City Of Heretics. My review's here.

And you know, if there were to be a Magnificent 7, I'd be sneaking in Willy Vlautin's Lean On Pete in there, too (my review's here).

I could have just gone for 7 in the first place, but the poor pun in the title wouldn't allow.

These books are brilliant. Great for you and great gifts. Go get.

Monday 25 November 2013

Steve Weddle’s Country Hardball is a tremendous collection of stories that intersect and overlap to form a major modern work. He really has put together something rather special here and I’d urge you to read it.

There’s so much to love about the book that it’s difficult to know where to start.

I’ll begin with the cover. That’s not the obvious place, but it does hint at what’s to come. It has the silhouette of a man walking down a lane that passes a small house and then disappears as if to nowhere. Above his head is a circle of sunlight that’s surrounded by oppressive and powerful looking dark clouds. It’s a strange balance of the static and the moving. A blend of hope within hopelessness and hopelessness within hope. And the house, solitary and small, could hold anything from a warm welcome to a sinister ending. In these ways, it gives a suggestion of what’s inside.

The stories themselves are beautifully balanced. They tend to play out major moments in people’s lives as seen through what might be everyday happenings or simple interactions. It’s that ability to focus upon the small and suggest enormity that really highlights the talent of the author.

Weddle has a wonderful sense of touch. The weight of the words is practically perfect and, like I imagine the battle of wits between a baseball pitcher and a hitter to be, the changes of pace and direction are gripping.

Should you read this, you’ll get the chance to walk a mile or two in another’s shoes. The shoes aren’t likely to be new or well-healed, but by the time you get to take them off, you’ll know you’ve been on a journey.

Weddle must have a wonderful ability to empathise with people because, more often than not, I felt I’d really inhabited someone’s life for a spell. Understood their woes, their fears, their dilemmas and their need to cope. Each tale did something to my breathing; as I reached the end, I’d find I was either deeply inhaling, exhaling or simply holding on to my breath like I didn’t want to let it go for a little while longer so that I could savour the last nuances of the page.

A review, any review, will struggle to do the book justice. I did try and pick out a few quotes here and there for a while in the hope that I’d be able to give a sense of what I’m trying to say. In the end, I was sticking so many markers in between pages that I couldn’t hold the thing up any more without losing them.

 Here are a couple of moments from The Thing With Feathers. A boy shoots a bird, injures it, and suddenly wants to take back the damage:

‘The bird fluttered at his touch, shifted along the ground, then settled under the boy’s hand,’

which sets him thinking about his mother:

‘He thought of lying in bed with his mother when she got the sadness,’

and then takes us to the time the bad news arrives:

‘One of the women looked and saw him and said she was sorry and everything was going to be all right and it would be fine and it would be okay. It’s bad now, but will be okay. It will be okay. But it wasn’t.’

There’s such a melancholy beauty to the sentences and phrases that I couldn’t help but be moved. That’s the way I felt throughout – moved and shaken and wanting more.

And then there was this:

‘On a good day I could get a Texas Rangers game [on the radio]. I didn’t much care for any of them, but if they were playing the New York Yankees, at least I’d have someone to root against. Sometimes it just works out better to root against something.’


Each of the stories was my favourite while I was reading it – I think they’re all that good. With a small amount of distance from it now, I loved the opener about a boy who’s had a family heirloom taken from him by bullies and think it really sets the tone perfectly. A story about parents whose child is trying out for the All Stars and who can’t afford for him to make the grade (maybe they could buy just one more lottery ticket a week – they’ll think of something) is really special.  The story of the store manager who remembers burying an elephant when the circus came to town while he tries to decide which of his employees to lay off is stunning. Not to mention the ex-military man who finds the girl who’s been missing for a while.

Important to me is the political flavour of the work; there’s no capital P to the word in this collection, but it is often an indictment of the poverty many have to suffer in these times.

Best thing I can do now is shuffle on and let you buy the book and read it for yourself. No doubt you’ll be as impressed by these tales as I have been.

If there’s justice, Country Hardball will be studied one day and still be talked about fifty years hence. Here’s hoping.

Thursday 21 November 2013


It’s difficult to read The Third Man without being constantly overpowered by images from the film, or at least that was the way I found it. The good thing about that is the quality of images the movie offers. 

Of course, the writing conjures up images of its own. My favourites here, the crazy workings of a sliced up Vienna and the inside of Harry Lime’s girlfriend’s flat.

Rollo Martins, pulp writer, turns up to meet his old friend Harry only to find he’s been killed in a car accident. Martins brushes against the police who have been after Lime for a while because of his racketeering and his slippery ways. To defend his friend and to put together some of the incongruities of the puzzle, Martins sets about his own investigation. While he forages for information, he finds that there was a third man at the scene of the accident who didn’t seem to have been part of the witness statements in court.

Martins is a really wonderful character. He’s flawed and loyal and can’t help the rush of emotions breaking through the facade of the stiff-upper-lip he might be supposed to have. His main Achilles is women, which has taken him from one incident in life to another and sees him nervous about being anywhere, lest a face from his romantic past shows up. “I’m just a bad writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.” It’s that kind of B-movie, hard-boiled quote that was the icing on the cake.

The story does have tension and builds rather well. Greene throws in moments of sublime genius here and there, yet this isn’t altogether top-notch writing. 

To my mind, the biggest issue is of the narrator. Sure, he’s unreliable and that’s not a problem per se. What is a struggle is to have to make a shift from fictional fact to pure fiction within a sentence. There was a little too much of this for me and the jumpiness just wore off some of the polish.

It’s a pleasing short read and I’d recommend it for the quality of some of the quotes, the atmosphere and the sense of place, possibly for a pleasing holiday read or one for when you’ve got a cold and are hibernating.