Wednesday 30 April 2014

‘No one ever rages against the dying of the light.’ Billy Blackmore

Martha struggles with life. Her depression is a factor in all she does, so it seems rather fitting that, when she turns up for her first day at work at The Standard, she’s given a stand-in post covering the obituaries (the dead beat of the title). There’s not a great deal to learn and what she needs to know will be passed on by V, a confident American woman wrestler who happens to know just about all the ropes and all the ins and outs of the people who work at the paper.

As chance would have it, Martha happens to be on the desk when the actual obit writer calls in. It’s no ordinary call, however. In fact it’s so far out of the ordinary that it’s literally mind-blowing. The man at the other end of the line is calling in his suicide. The gun goes off and the call ends.

It’s in Martha’s blood to go and see if there’s anything she can do for the victim and also to follow a story, so she flies out of the office with one Billy Blackmore (of ‘Hit And Run’) to find out what the hell’s going on. To explain further, her investigative genes come from her journalist father, himself a recent suicide who took his life by jumping from North Bridge above Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.

At first glance, the mess that greets the pair in the obit writer’s home suggests little, but Martha can’t leave it alone.

What follows is the uncovering of the remarkable story of her family history, the darkness of which explains just why it’s been kept a secret for so long.

It would be difficult to talk about the plot without giving away key information, so I’ll pass on that.

What I can do is run down some of the aspects of it to explain why I enjoyed the read so much.

The present-day story is told from the point-of-view of Martha. It’s a treat to get to know her and to get to see some of the labyrinth of her mind. She has spirit and energy in spades. Her teenage angst and rebellion have just the right weight. Her patterns of thinking in terms of her depression are well handled and her inability to fully control her urges makes her a joy to get to know.

The pace of the story builds perfectly. The author gives out the pieces of the jigsaw at perfect moments, and even when most of them have been collected, the appetite created to understand the ‘why?’ and the ‘how?’ mean that the desire to get the full picture is constantly heightened. This full picture is only fully revealed right at the end, which means it’s a wild snowball ride all the way to the final pages.

All of the characters are extremely well drawn, including those who are only minor.

Alongside Martha’s adventure, there’s another very enjoyable strand to the book. Johnstone cleverly indicates the change of period to 1991 through the use of gig tickets, including to some rather amazing events that actually took place in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the time. This story tells the story of Martha’s mum, Elaine, and gives the explanation of the events that are unfolding and unravelling in the present day. This is told with strong insight and, for anyone who was ever into live music and enjoyed the indie-scene, this other dimension will provide a real treat.

Among other things, this change in time periods shows some of the huge contrast between the technologies of then and now (‘In a time before her [Martha]...when news was printed on paper. As foreign to her as the Stone Age.’). It also allows for some exploration of the generation gap, the young ones looking at their parents as older, more sedentary beings rather than as people who once had their own formative years and may well have out-rebelled and out-done their children into the bargain.

This is intelligent, gripping, thoughtful fiction that demonstrates how a thriller can be so much more than a clinical dot-to-dot. Not only will have you racing to the end, it’ll give you plenty of food for thought along the way.

I was very fortunate indeed to be sent a review copy of ‘The Dead Beat’, because having loved the novel ‘Hit And Run’ I’d have been buying a copy on the day of release. If you haven’t been quite so lucky, I’d urge you to get yourself one and give yourself a mighty fine read. Soon as.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Grease Is The Word

by Chad Eagleton 
Picture it. It’s my 21st birthday. My buddies have brought me to the only strip club in a Midwest College town. To keep from drunkenly spending too much, it’s early in the night, barely dark. The club is subdued. Inside is all empty tables, dim light and low bass throb. Slightly buzzed on my second overpriced shot, I’m sitting on pervert row, brandishing a dollar in my right hand and trying to look cool. A pretty dark haired girl turns on her stacked heels, locks eyes, and shimmies over toward me. When she’s close she drops to her hands and knees, then stalks like a panther closing in on its prey.

My buddies hoot.

Close now, she leans in closer as if for a kiss. Her lips detour at the last minute, her face barely brushes against mine. I can smell the perfume in her hair and feel her warm breath in my ear. Then she pulls back suddenly, holds my eyes for a moment, and plants both her hands on my shoulders. Her body sweeps in, breasts pressed against either side of my face. She pushes herself upward. Her chest makes contact. The two handfuls of Royal Crown pomade I had used to sculpt my pompadour makes a loud squelching sound as she glides over my hair likes she’s on a Slip ‘N Slide.

In utter revulsion, she pushes me back in the chair. A look of disgust contorts her pretty face. In one quick motion, she stands. The spotlight hits the Royal Crown sheen on her chest and it’s blinding and more brilliant than any of the lights on stage. She dagger-eyes me and dances away without even taking her dollar.

The pompadour is long since gone. A victim of genetics, not a change in taste. I still dig rockabilly music and the 1950s. That love fuels the Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats anthology. Now, just like the stripper didn’t much care for what I wore in my hair, I understand that at first hearing not everyone is going to be interested in stories about guys in leather jackets, biker gangs, or dangerous girls in letterman sweaters. But this isn’t just a fetishism of the past, a kitschy alternative to fedoras and jazz music, or trading in one set of dated slang for a another set of date slang. Hoods opens with an introduction from the late Mick Farren, a legend of the UK underground and counterculture, and features brand new and hard-hitting fiction from some of the most popular names in crime fiction: Eric Beetner, Matthew Funk, Christopher Grant, Heath Lowrance, David James Keaton, Nik Korpon, and Thomas Pluck. Yes, there are pompadours and back pocket combs with pomade caked and pooled along their spines, but there’s heart and there’s truth in spades. There always is when you’re writing about the individual confronting the consumer culture, when you’re talking about hoods, hot rods, and hellcats.

So, I hope you give it a chance.

Oh, and don't mind the grease.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Home Invasion is a real gem of a book. It tells the story of 4 generations of a family that find it hard to play straight.

We first meet Billie, a girl who is struggling along with her over-bearing mother (Kay) and new on the scene step-father (Mickey). Kay does her best to be a good mother and a good wife, two things that don’t fit together the way she works it. Amid all the chaos of the home, the writer sums it all up perfectly in one simple act, the devouring of one of the fish of another in the aquarium display:

“Damn,” Mickey said, almost to himself. “The guy at the store said they could cohabit.”

That’s a theme that will continue. With the best of intention, none of the Batch family can quite manage to live with anyone else, at least not in a traditional way.

Kay may have set the chain of grifting off, by sending back goods to stores and firms in order to be paid back with bulk packages by way of apology, but it was only with the best of intentions. Given these beginnings, it’s no wonder that after a disastrous attempt by Billie to get to know her real father, she becomes hooked to a man (Dennis) who is always on the make. It’s also completely logical that the children of Billie and Dennis are practically left to bring themselves up. There’s a wonderful description of Dennis and his slippery ways that speaks volumes. It describes a rare day out:

‘One time Dennis even spent the entire day with them, shooting off rockets in a nearby park with the other scouts and their dads. Dennis even talked to the other fathers, laughing like it was all he ever wanted to do. Like he knew how to be a regular dad. Like he was the most regular dad of all. All the other dads congregated around them that day; Dennis was good at fooling everyone.’

In the end, we get to see one of those kids, Charlie, slowly come to terms with the world. He takes to spending time in the houses and apartments of others and enjoying the peace he finds there. He enjoys the art on the walls and the books on the shelves. Most of all, I suspect, he just likes to be in a place that works as a home.

The plot that is built around these characters is a treat, but I’m not going to spoil that for you. Abbott describes things beautifully. There’s a really strong sense of period and also a wonderfully handled subtlety to the changes brought by time. As each of the Batches faces difficulty, there’s always a sense of tension that centres upon the way things might play out. For me there was also a real warmth about all the family members, even when the twists and turns of their decisions and their actions seem dark and cold. Best of all, there’s a wonderfully gentle humour that keeps things bright no matter how hopeless things seem.

The end result is a delight. It deals with some serious and traumatic events in the lives of a folk who have always found themselves holding on to the dirty end of the stick, yet manages to visit these difficult places and situations in a way that is always palatable.

In truth, I was expecting more of a traditional crime novel. What I got was actually much better than that – a well-polished view of the flip-side of the American dream where the crime provides the backdrop for the telling of a wonderful story.

Friday 18 April 2014


Gravesend is a stunning read. It takes an area of Brooklyn and makes it a central character in a novel that ignites the attention from the off.

The story swirls around an incident from years earlier like a whirlpool of water preparing to disappear down the plughole. The incident in question is the killing of a young, gay man (Duncan) who was lured down to the beach for some action by a gang of thugs and bullies.

Daniel’s death has touched so many lives. Most importantly it has wrecked his brother, Conway, and shattered his father.

Things come to a head when Ray Boy, the leader of the thugs, is released from prison. This forces Conway’s hand as Conway has been planning to kill Ray Boy from the off. The only problem is the Ray Boy that Conway meets isn’t the one he hates. In a cruel twist, Ray Boy’s tattoos tell Conway of his enlightenment and this changes everything. In some ways, Ray Boy’s change also had a big impact on me as a reader, the villain coming as close to being a hero as anyone else in the book. This dynamic simply adds to the energy and the tension of the read.

Conway’s on the skids. He takes a day off to lick wounds and drink himself safe. He considers his failures: ‘It wasn’t even noon. On a Monday. Pretty much every self-respecting person was out in the world working. Hauling trash, conducting trains, butchering meat, fighting fires, teaching, doing construction, whatever. And here they were. Fucked. People to pity. Not even noon on a fucking Monday. No wonder the Irish girl gave them that Spaghetti Western death stare.’

Ray Boy’s change isn’t lost on his nephew, Eugene, now a feisty teenager who wants to claim a reputation like his uncle’s as his own. Eugene is devastated by the changes in the man who has returned from prison and sets up a plan that might just bring the old Ray Boy back.

There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the things Eugene hates about life. On the surface, this may seem a little negative, but it’s full of contrasting shades that it gives an incredibly detailed sense of who he is – by focusing on the darkness, it draws attention to the light and to just about everything else. It’s a fantastic piece of prose.

Allessandra is another of Gravesend’s lost souls. She’s back to live with her father after missing her mother’s last days. She’s been out in LA and is struggling to find her way in an area of town that lacks the sophistication she’s become used to. Allessandra was one of Conway’s crushes back in the day and she also happens to develop a thing for Ray Boy and his good looking, easy action. There’s a short passage that I loved in which Allesandra considers giving in to the booze. In doing so, she describes some the people of her town: ‘Drink every day at The Wrong Number. Say to hell with work. Become one of these neighbourhood ghosts, old alkies in wrinkled black clothes that just skeleton around on feet like broken shopping cart wheels. When it got real bad, she could just dig in trash bins for bottles like the old Chinese, haul them down to Waldbaum’s for drinking money, live in this house until her father died and they took it away from her and then she could go to a home, the one over on Cropsey, where she’d wear Salvation Army clothes and lose her hair and teeth in the sink. An actress? Forget it. Once maybe, in another city, another time. Just wispy bones and yellowing skin now. The old boozer that kids throw rocks at for kicks.’

The characters in the story are perfectly linked. They live in a world where ‘everything’s some kind of sad’ and do their best to stay afloat. Thing is, we know from the off that there isn’t room for everyone on the raft and that someone’s going to go under, we just don’t know who’s going to end up where.

I really loved this book. By focussing on the one area and the people brought together by the one incident, Boyle manages to talk about the whole of the human condition. There are beautifully constructed descriptions, not least when dealing with the introspections of the characters. Boyle allows the reader to get inside the minds of all who inhabit the tale and this is wonderfully handled. The stark writing style allows for a ‘warts and all’ description of a gritty environment as well as a poetic sense of the wonder and fragility of the world.

Top marks at every level. A must read from a real heavyweight.

Wednesday 16 April 2014


Brooklyn Follies is told by an older man, Nathan, whose cancer is in remission and who has decided to return to his Brooklyn home to see out his final years. While there, he sets out on the writing down of the follies of his life in order to pass the time.

The follies have led him to where he is, a lonely man who has managed to lose his family in one way or another; carelessness, boredom and chance have all played their part in this.

 Life changes when he bumps into his nephew, Tom, in a bookstore. Tom is an ex-academic who has worked his way through taxi driving to find his new home. Philosophically, Tom wants to withdraw from the human world so that he can live life in a pure form as inspired by some of his literary heroes. It’s an idea that Nathan can understand and they spend time together discussing their love of ideas and literature and to work out where they should be heading.

They’re joined in this by Tom’s boss who turns out to be an art-fraudster and an ex-convict who has been living with a new identity to protect his interests.

The plot thickens when various other family members join the story, especially when Tom’s niece arrives to live with them having escaped her mother and step-father and sworn herself to silence.

The plot thickens and becomes more complex as the lives of the group are woven together. The resolutions are pleasing and satisfying and the book closes with a positive tone that offers a pleasing glow and a sense that there needs to be a little reflection done just at the point when all seemed done.

This is unlike most of the work I’ve read by Mr Auster. There’s a slightly different feel to the work than I’m used to and it took me a while to find my way. Often that difference relates to the tone and this is largely due to the voice of the character who tells the story. Some of the themes seemed familiar and there are definite trademarks in here. What I missed in the work, though, was the sense of rhythm and tone that I’ve tended to enjoy in his books as if the poetry and flare had been cut away. Follies has a lighter tone and seems to swim in shallower waters. It’s like an artist who works in fine detail has put down the small brushes for a while and decided that broad strokes can be just as powerful as tools.

I liked the story. Enjoyed the ups and downs of the lives as they bounce off each other and through their journeys.

If I understood the book, I’d say there’s something wonderful in its conclusions. There’s an acknowledgement of the hopelessness and futility of existence at its heart because that’s where we all are – doomed to die and to be forgotten. There’s also a delight in the breaking away from this truth in order to live. It’s not in the withdrawing from the world that one can find enrichment and happiness (or even failure and unhappiness), but it’s in the taking of decisions, the mistakes that are made, the people we grow close to and the warmth of those interactions that help us build our own epitaphs. It suggests a level playing field of sorts where acts of greatness are to be found everywhere. That we are all heroes at some point in life and at some time or other and this needs to be celebrated and understood to help make the most of our time here, for ourselves and those around us.

Auster tells a story of Kafka in the last year of his life as he tries to help a girl to overcome her distress at losing her favourite doll. To help her, he creates a story that allows her to come to terms with the loss, ‘for as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists’. My take on this relates to that need to work on our own lives to hide away from that painful truth. That in the building of relationships and patterns we are creating stories of our own and that these stories are our salvation.

Even though I felt this novel lacked a little seasoning in some way – a little salt or pepper, perhaps - I did really enjoy it. Well worth a read and the time it will take to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

How To Approach An Author Event in the style of Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland

Last Friday night, I was fortunate enough to get to see Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland chatting together at the New York Public Library. I’d heard that a Palahniuk event is rarely uneventful and I was pretty curious about the way things might play out. Having attended hundreds of author events over the years, I can safely say that this one stood out for its difference and its energy and it’s got me wondering about the whole format of such things.

I’d had my ticket for a good while and it had offered me a point of focus for my holiday in Brooklyn.

The afternoon was spent down on the boardwalk along Brighton Beach and Coney Island. It had been a long time since I’d been there – not far short of 20 years – and things have changed. It’s like everything’s been polished and dusted and the old and brittle has been replaced by the new and shiny. It still gave me an almighty buzz to be there, wandering past the handball games and the chess tables, then under the French Connection railway lines above Brighton Beach Avenue for a tour of Russia. It was made all the more vibrant for me because I was in the middle of reading the amazing book, recommended by my good friend Rory Costello, Gravesend, set not too very far from where I was and frequently featured in the novel. I’ll be explaining why Gravesend is a book that shouldn’t be missed when time allows.

I took the Q train up to Central Park and wandered through the sea of human traffic, mainly against the tide. At 42nd Street, I took a left and enjoyed a break from the masses. There was Bryant Park, where I’d left it in the rain all those years before, just after the big screen had told King Kong’s story. Right next to it, my destination, the New York Library’s main building. It has a beautiful facade, all that white stone and Greek pillars. It also has a beautiful inside.

I took my seat in a wonderful auditorium, under an enormous dome and its modern soft-lighting. A man came on to explain what we were to do with the beach balls, sharpies and glow-sticks that were at every seat and I waited. The idea was that if anyone had a question, it should be written on one of the balls.

Just before the main feature, the director of the live events explained that the idea behind the author appearances is that they should make a ‘heavy institution dance’ and that the line-up for my evening was likely to make it levitate. He was partly right.

The event parted company with the traditional right from the off.

All of the balls, with questions or not, were to be thrown into the centre of the audience by those on the outside and to the outside by those at the centre. With the lights off, several hundred balls with their pink and yellow luminosity and their weighty words filled the air and bounced off each other as if involved in some mighty science demonstration. When they settled, we did it again.

The next things to fly in the air were bags of sweets, health and safety be damned. Chuck and Doug threw them out with different degrees of skill. I’d say Chuck, swinging easily inside his body had maybe been practising whereas Doug C may not have.

The drawback to the sweets was that the first question was screened out by the sound of hundreds of wrappers being opened, but I don’t think we missed much and the chocolate tasted good.

After a series of questions, the ball thing happened again. At random, people with balls (not meaning courage or testicles) read out the questions in their possessions. The good thing about this method was that the questioner wasn’t hogging a microphone and showing off as much of their knowledge as possible within their moment of fame.

There also happened to be a reward for the people who asked a question. It was a rubber arm that looked like it had been severed from a body just below the elbow. And it was signed by Chuck. They were thrown expertly and a surprising number of them were caught, always to a sincere round of applause.

There was another twist in the event that I hadn’t come across before. There was a reading of Doug’s new book, something I’d been looking forward to. When the time came, I was surprised that the author didn’t move – he didn’t stand, pick up a book or open his mouth. Instead, the reading was played into the room and voiced by an English actor. Doug sat there smiling and it created the impression that we were reading his mind somehow, that he was projecting his thoughts to us while twitching his eyebrows and tapping the pads of his fingers together. I’d not seen this happen before and look forward to the next time.

To round off a happy evening of interesting ideas and insights, the signed arms that were left in the boxes were thrown into the crowd.

I was taken aback as I’d spend that last quarter-hour of the event planning my theft of one of them so that I had almost every eventuality (bar arrest) covered.

One of the arms came close. I stood up a little too enthusiastically and missed the thing. Something about the act of determination embarrassed me and I sat down again and stayed that way. When one went straight for the woman in front of me and slightly to my right, I was disappointed that Chuck’s throw hadn’t been just a single degree different. Thankfully, the lady was rubbish at catching and batted it straight into my lap. I grabbed it round the wrist, as if it might be ready to escape, and held firm. The thought that I should give it to the lady who couldn’t catch filled me and I suppressed it with all the energy I could muster. I had a touch of guilt; I also had a new arm.

So it was that I found myself under the beautiful ceiling of Grand Central Station carrying a bloody limb. It was a glorious moment and I stood and enjoyed it for a few minutes before disappearing underground to take the 4.

As events go, this was completely different. I felt like I’d had all the discussion and shared wisdom that I could have hoped for and a taste for a new approach to author appearances that I would like to experience again.

Of course, this won’t be the first or the most energetic literary appearance ever, but it sure was different. I’d like to know what I’ve been missing. Let me know what you’ve seen so that I can work out my routine for when the NYPL send me my invitation to appear. I’m thinking water pistols, short-story-writing-through-participation and clothes swapping. Ideas on a postcard or in the comments.