Wednesday 30 January 2013


The Outsiders (US) and Rumblefish are films which I really loved and which came at a rather an impressionable age for me – late teens and hungry for life and cultural experience. 

I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to go and read the books, but I didn’t.  I suppose I’ve always been more likely to see a film based upon a book I’ve read than the other way around. 

The good news for me with this read is that the images I held from the film didn’t haunt my reading at all, the book doing all the work on that score.

The Outsiders is a great title.  It has roots in the way I felt when I saw the film and, strangely, the way I feel about myself now.

It’s the story of gangs polarised by economic and social divides told from the point of view of one of the poorer kids (ie Ponyboy the Greaser).

Ponyboy’s a great character.  He’s immersed in the culture of the gang and its codes, yet he’s open-minded enough to be able to rise above it and see the bigger picture.  As he eventually discovers, everyone has it tough in some way or another.

Through a logical progression of experiences, Ponyboy finds himself in the hands of the Socs (the rich gang), hands which force his head underwater at a fountain until his friend saves him by killing the aggressor.

Ponyboy and Johnny (the knifer) go on the run and there follows an exploration of their values and the vulnerability of their situation in life.

I won’t go any further regarding the plot.  All I’d like to say is that it opens up beautifully and even when it closes down it still leaves space for thought and reflection.

You’ll probably know that the author was only a teenager herself when she wrote the book.  Sometimes it shows through and I wonder if I made any allowances for that fact.  I think the book’s also written for a young audience of readers ready to explore the world and who want to suck up life’s experience – I also wonder if I made allowances on that score.

I think that, in the end, it’s such a great read that I did forgive it for any flaws or cracks in the way it’s written.  It does force me to ask a lot of questions about writing, too. 

There are passages in The Outsiders that I’d want to be editing or changing or taking out and there are rules broken here that I try to stick to in my own work.  And then again, who the hell am I to be suggesting changes to this modern classic?  The best thing to do with this book is too leave it exactly as it is.

SE Hinton has done something very right in this tale.  I was completely engrossed to the point of me stir-frying vegetables with one hand and holding the book in the other because I didn’t have it in me to stop reading when I should have.

I found myself fully engaged emotionally and loved the characters and the setting.  There’s often a tension as the story moves forward that means that getting to the next page or next chapter is essential.  There are questions that are asked and left hanging, there’s style and cool, there’s the exploration of what it means to be part of friendship groups and of why teenage boys sometimes do the things they do (even more impressive in a sense that the author wasn’t one herself).

Above all, it’s the voice of the book that is utterly captivation.  It’s consistent and full of wonder and bewilderment as a teenager’s might be. 

When I was half way through the book, I was so happy in my reading that I went to the computer and ordered a copy of Rumble Fish.  By the end, I’d placed an order for That Was Then, This Is Now.  I think that says a lot about the way I feel about the Outsiders, as it does that I can’t wait for those books to arrive through the post.

A fabulous read.

Sunday 27 January 2013


While most books take years to germinate, it’s probably the case that most authors get their inspiration for a story from one particular experience.

That was certainly the case with my debut novel Ghost Money (US), a gritty crime story set in Cambodia in the nineteen nineties.

It was August 1996, and I was working in the country for several months as a wire service reporter.

Cambodia was a big story at the time. The Khmer Rouge, who had butchered and starved approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.

A couple of weeks before I had arrived Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister in the charnel house the Khmer Rouge called Democratic Kampuchea, announced he’d split from the movement and wanted to negotiate with the Coalition Government for amnesty.

He said he’d grown sick of fighting and wanted to end the war. A more significant influence were reports Khmer Rouge hardliners under Pol Pot had discovered Sary was skimming proceeds from gem mining and logging operations along the Thai border, and were about to move against him.

Unknown to most foreign observers, the Khmer Rouge has been splintering internally for years. Partly this was the result of relentless government military operations. More decisive were internal tensions over the movement’s direction and how best to divide the spoils from the money earning ventures.

Whatever the case, both sides of Cambodia’s dysfunctional coalition government courted Sary and his not inconsiderable military clout for their own ends. Sary, meanwhile, used his position to stay one step ahead of a prison cell. It was a bizarre, increasingly acrimonious game of cat and mouse. Meanwhile, Sary’s actions had resulted in a spate of defections by Khmer Rouge across the country.

For local and foreign journalists, this meant taking part in a series of visits to various provinces organized by both parties in an effort show off the Khmer Rouge defecting to their side. The first of these was organized by the Cambodian People’s Party, the dominant Coalition partner, in control of the country during the eighties.

We were told to assemble early one morning at Phnom Penh’s airport, next to a huge Russian helicopter the army used for supply runs. We waited in the baking sun for hours until the Russian pilots, notorious drinkers, turned up. As predicted, they were unsteady on their feet after the previous night’s vodka binge.

We flew for hours over an endless expanse of dense, arriving in a small village. A collection of old men and young boys, many missing limbs, stood in ragged formation in a clearing in the village. Nearby, lay a collection of ancient, rusty machine guns and rifles. Hardly the well armed, battled hardened veterans we were told to expect.

After a series of speeches we all piled back into the helicopter, along with several dozen heavily armed Cambodian men of unknown allegiance. The helicopter took, then veered towards the ground and felt like it was going to crash, but pulled up at the last minute.

Within minutes the chopper had flown into a tropical storm. The journalists clung to whatever they could as the craft was buffeted by rain and wind. At one point it landed in a small clearing that had been hacked out of incredibly dense jungle and our heavily armed guests disembarked, then continued our journey.

This experience encapsulated a number of lessons about working as a journalist in Cambodia I tired to inject into Ghost Money.

It was wise never to believe outright anything you were told.

It was hard to get to the bottom of a story.

A lot of weird stuff went on in Cambodia and still does. If you’re honest, as a foreigner, you really don’t know shit.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this situation profoundly influenced how I researched and wrote my book, Ghost Money.

I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes. In early 2008, my partner and I quit our jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two year old. I freelanced as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and finished the first draft of my manuscript.

Ghost Money is a crime story, but it’s also about the politics of Cambodia the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choice they make, what they have to do to survive.

Using the skeleton of a plot I’d developed in the mid-nineties, the basic story of Ghost Money, a private investigator searching for a lost businessman amidst the chaos of the Khmer Rouge split, came quickly. My main character, an Australian Vietnamese ex-cop recovering from his career implosion in Bangkok took a bit longer to develop.
Even harder was trying to infuse the book with the sense of uncertainty, confusion and at times, plain fear, that sometimes characterised my time as a journalist in the Cambodia, but which is the every day reality for most Cambodians.
What does it mean for the story and characters when your crime fiction is set in a country where corruption and extreme violence are regular features of everyday life and the term ‘criminal’ is often simply a label applied by the local elite to anyone who tries to assert their rights? For that matter, what does it mean when elements of the state itself that is the major criminal actor?

How successful have I been? That’s for the reader to judge.

Andrew Nette is a writer, film buff and pulp scholar based in Melbourne, Australia. He is one of the editors at CrimeFactory. His short fiction has appeared in a number of on-line and print publications. Ghost Money, is released through Snubnose Press. He blogs at





Tuesday 22 January 2013


Chuck Wendig writes like a tornado might – brutal force and energy with the power to create havoc with the merest change of direction.
Having just finished his novel ‘Blackbirds’ (US), I feel like I’ve passed through the storm, or even like I’ve been passed through the eye of a needle (and at 13 stone, that’s not an image that should be possible).  I’m glad to be at the other side now, but I’d happily jump right back in there for seconds.
Mr Wendig clearly knows his craft.  His work is full of baited hooks that look so wonderful that they’re impossible to resist.  This achieves the effect of making the act of removing oneself from the pages something that’s very difficult.
Better still, he’s come up with an amazing premise – a girl who has the ability to see a person’s death, something that comes to her through the simple act of touching skin.  I guess that in itself that might not work, but throw in the fact that the she’s as much a victim of fate as the subject of her visions and it becomes much more complex.  Thankfully Mr Wendig doesn’t leave this situation alone and gently picks at it until he’s explored it completely.
The seer is called Miriam.  She’s a tough, rugged chick who lives on the road and feels she’s doing well if she gets to sleep in a motel.

Miriam’s all prepared for difficult situations, as she should be.  In her bag, as well as her all-important diary, she carries a can of pepper spray, a butterfly knife, another can of pepper spray and a hand grenade.  Most of these she’ll use at one point or another.
She’s using her power as a seer to take advantage of those who will die soon.  It’s a clever twist that makes a lot of sense.
Things go to pot, or more to pot, when she meets a trucker and discovers that she’ll be there for his last moments and that his last moments will be with a murderous, bald man who seems keen to stab out his eyes.  This seed is planted at the beginning of the book and will return as an ending, something that’s clear early doors, yet there has to be a twist and it’s worth the journey to find out exactly what that’s going to be.
I’m not sure I can think of a book that has so many unique and poetic images.  There’s a phrase on every page, in every paragraph almost, that is so beautifully turned and appropriate that it’s as if Mr Wendig has a genius form of Tourette’s Syndrome.  It’s amazing the way they inhabit the page and more amazing that they’re entirely appropriate.  These are not darlings that need to be killed by the writer because, in a sense, they’re like a skeleton throughout the story and they are part of the rhythm of this life.  Even more impressive, the book feels like it’s been written in one swoop as though the words have poured from the author without being engineered. 
I wouldn’t really like to be pinned down as to the genre of this novel.  There’s the central fantasy element, an on-the-road story with a buddy movie element, there’s crime, layers of horror, comedy, poetry and philosophy.  These all co-exist with ease.  Thing is, and I think I mean this, it must be one of the quirkiest romances that’s ever been written.
Yes, I reckon Mr Wendig’s really a sweet honey with a heart of gold down there under all the warts and false-trails, a little like the character of Miriam herself.
Regardless of which genre it might be, this is a book that’s worth its weight in gold – witness the oily slicks of the rainbows reflected in the blackbirds’ wings, I urge you.  The brilliant cover is matched and then some by the words inside, I promise. 
A slight aside, I'd pick up the paperback if I were you; the cover really is something you'll want to have on your shelves. 
I’ve emerged through this side of the storm, have been completely emotionally engaged throughout, and here I sit too nervous to put down my umbrella as I know this tale will follow me around for a good while yet.


Sunday 13 January 2013


I’m going to keep this one simple.

It’s the middle of January and, unless something happens to completely alter the law of averages, this is going to be among my top 5 reads of the year.  I can’t imagine enjoying many more as much as I did this.

Heath Lowrance has written some great pieces of late and I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him.  Even so, City Of Heretics is my favourite to date.

The story is tremendous.

It has an arc that is perfectly formed and a pace that is always natural and never forced, like the author has allowed it to flow naturally.

Crowe comes out of prison and ends up in Memphis to settle some old scores.  He’s hard as nails and he’s absolutely ruthless.  He gets involved with the new gang-leader in town, a series of murders, a heroin addicted cop, a mean detective called Wills, his ex-girlfriend, a gang of church members with an Old-Testament view of the world and a freak show posse who’d make anyone’s hair curl up and try and worm itself back into the scalp it came from.

The characters are tremendous, right down to the bit part players.

The setting is mouth-wateringly described.  Try this on for size:

“There was a sitting room immediately to the right, filled with the kind of overstuffed furniture that no one sits in and a Grandfather clock that ticked away the seconds of life with all the compassion of a killer.”

The action moments are perfectly weighted; I wanted to skip through them to find out who was going to end up OK, but the detail was too impressive allow me to do that.

The roots of this are definitely in the best of the noir heritage and Mr Lowrance has clearly read and absorbed many things that allow him to use subtlety as an art form.

The plot fits together like a tightly fitting jigsaw. 

There’s an ending to blow the reader away, too.

I loved it.  Loved it because it was so easy to read.  Loved it for the simplicity of the development.  Loved it for the pure pleasure it gave off right from the beginning.

It is one of those books that don’t come around so often, a novel that brings joy and pleasure because of the way it’s been written.

Brooding, fresh, dark, eventful, full of suspense and tension and nigh on perfect.

A must.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Goodreads and a Good Suit

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Mr Suit

by Nigel Bird

Giveaway ends January 15, 2013.

See the giveaway details

at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Thursday 3 January 2013


Happy New Year to you all.
I've not made many resolutions, but I've decided upon one course of action as a writer.  I'm going to spend much less of my time trying to tell folk about me and my work and I'm going to focus more upon the act of writing stories.  It seems like an obvious thing, but I look forward to the change of direction. 
Should you find me wandering too far from this path, please remind me of what I just said.
The irony of this is that I have a giveaway of 10 copies of Mr Suit over at Goodreads.  This is only for UK residents as I can't really afford the extra mile on the postage.  If you're interested, follow the link.
And now to the main event.  A book review of a very good book.  I hope to be focussing more on this side of books, too.
Here goes:
A young woman is awoken in the home of her recently departed mother by a couple of teenage boys who seem to have a bone to pick with her.  Though it soon becomes clear that they are picking the wrong bone, the woman finds herself in grave danger and makes her bid for freedom.  Sadly for her, she doesn’t make it and the boys lose control as they stamp out all of her facial features.

DS Alex Morrow is sent along to investigate.  What the reader picks up from the early encounters with Morrow is that she’s from a complicated working-class family, that she’s no fan of her superiors and that she’s pregnant with twins.  She also cares about her new victim and has to fight with the men around her to get to see this as the murder of an innocent rather than simply another paid-by-the-hour job.

The story unfolds wonderfully.

The teenage boy killers attend a private, very exclusive Scottish school.  Thomas and Squeak are soon separated when Thomas leaves for home after his rich and infamous father has committed suicide.  Lars Anderson has been losing the money of many in the recent financial crash, a crash that impacts upon many in this novel.

Morrow encounters an old friend in the form of Kay, the cleaner who once worked for the victim and her mother and continues to clean for other families in the area.  This opens the doors to a range of complications which make rather uncomfortable reading in a pleasure/pain sort of way.  It's a relationship and a set of consequences that I particularly enjoyed following.

The resolution of the story is for you to find out.  All I’ll say is that it winds up with a growing sense of the need for justice and an accelerated desire to reach the end and find out what that might be.  There was no let down when I finally got there, just a perfectly formed moment that I genuinely hadn’t expected, one that passes comment on a world that so often doesn’t seem fair.

It is a police procedural, but it has a huge amount to offer beyond that.  The stories seem to me to be about people and the way they are affected by crime as much as they seem to be about the serving of justice, after all justice as offered by the legal system will rarely have the power to redress the injustices of our society.

Mina has a great empathy with her characters.  Seems to really see the subtle ways in which they interpret the world and are formed by their experiences of it.  Can paint detailed pictures of the lives of her characters by sketching in minor details that are striking in way they expose the inner workings of the people in this book.

She also explores identity in a number of ways.  No one is as they seem, each person has a life beneath the veneer of their stereotypes or the first impressions they create.  Class, religion, personal flaws, successes and tragedies are all brought to the surface in a book that refuses to leave human beings as two-dimensional items.

It’s a very engaging read that’s written with real skill and feeling and I’ll definitely be reading more of Mina’s work in the future.  Very good indeed.