Tuesday 22 December 2015

Dancing With Myself: DAVID JAGGERS interviews DAVID JAGGERS

What was the impetus for writing this collection of short stories?
For the last couple of years, I have been toying with the idea for a collection of stories that could be read as stand-alone fiction, but were interconnected in a way that reveals a whole narrative world. Down in the Devil Hole (US) is my attempt at that.

How would you describe the kind of characters that populate this collection?
Well, these folks are rural southerners and rough around the edges for sure. Some could be considered white trash criminals, but I would like to think that there are some honest, salt of the earth types sprinkled in for good measure.

What message if any would you hope the reader takes away from this work?
Provided that it is written well enough to pull the reader in and get them involved, I would hope that they find their own meaning. My own take away is that there is darkness just under the surface in any town or burg you travel through, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find some twisted shit.

What is your writing process like?
Imagine a medieval torture device…no just kidding, I don’t put myself under much pressure to write. When the ideas come, I put them down in a rough form and polish from there. If they don’t come, I do something else for a while. I’m a lazy writer I guess. When I do get a viable idea, I would say I spend the most amount of time trying to find the voice for the piece. Once that is established, the rest is pretty straight forward. Finding the tone and voice is the hardest part for me.

Why write crime fiction?
I am fascinated with the concept of choice and how it affects our lives. Through crime fiction, I can explore how bad choices lead to catastrophic consequences in people’s lives. I can watch a poor bastard come unraveled and spiral into self-destruction from the comfort of my desk chair. That kind of thing is fun to me. I’m a sick puppy.

Who are your literary heroes?
There are so many. The top two would be Jim Thompson for his ability to craft cold blooded killers out of seemingly ordinary people, and Elmore Leonard because his dialogue leaps off the page. There is a long list of indie writers who inform and inspire my work and I won’t take the time to list them all here, but a few standouts would be Todd Robinson for his use of humor, that guy is funny. Angel Colon for his unique, colorful characters and Paul Brazill for the pacing and witty banter he injects into his dialogue. Again there are so many, and I find it very exciting that the genre has so many talented voices that are still up and coming and ready to take it to the next level.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Faves of Fifteen (Overseas)

Last week I put together a short list of my favourite UK reads this year. You can find them over here if you’re interested.

Now it’s time to turn my attention to the overseas picks. As it happens, they’re all American. I did journey to Canada, Sweden and France, but those reads didn’t make my cut. What I think it shows me is that I need to broaden my choice of material next year and see where that takes me.

I noticed something else about my reading habits in 2015. I’m becoming a lot less patient with books I’m not enjoying. A substantial number of stories were cast aside for one reason or another. I mention this only to highlight how good the books below are. Not only did I make it to the end, I also loved them.

Anyway, in no particular order, I’d like to draw your attention to the following in case you’re hoping to add a little more quality to your To Be Read pile.

First off, Worm (US) by Anthony Neil Smith.

My thoughts back in February?

‘This isn’t a novel that shines a torch on the wonders of humanity. Rather it looks down into the chaos of life and the extremities of existence and refuses to shirk away from the darker crevices. Smith pushes the characters hard and their flaws are ruthlessly exposed. 

He [Smith] deals with a huge scope and a complex plot and yet always keeps control. The dialogue is well delivered and the book is densely populated by brilliant phrases that speak volumes in few words. Add to that the constant surge of the characters and the story-line (even the back story moves forwards) and there’s one page-turning novel that will satisfy the appetite of many a crime reader.’  

It’s excellent stuff, believe me. Just don’t pick it up if you’re a timid soul.

Next, Redbone (US) by Matt Philips.

It’s not Redbone’s day. A series of events force him to look at the world in a different way. There are a multitude of injustices to deal with and he’s the man who’s going to step up to the plate (on the cover you can see that baseball bat in his hand as he does so).

What makes this book work so well for me is the way Redbone accepts his situation. He knows what he has to do and why and that’s enough for him. He’s been a victim long enough and it’s time to take a stand. Even when those close to him try to warn him off his course and even when the world finally seems to give him a break, he sticks to it all the way and make sure he works things through to the very end. What he has to do is too important to think of himself only – it’s not just those who’ve offended him that he’s taking on, it’s the whole system.

Prodigal Sons (US) by Mike Miner is something special. It has a dreamlike feel in parts. The world often becomes translucent as Miner paints it for us.

‘I’d cite the finale as a mark of the author’s quality. So many of the possible endings that I’d predicted would have been a poor fit and I was worried that Miner had painted himself into a corner by creating such a wonderful story in the build up. I should have had more confidence. What happens at the close is sublime. The consequences are more profound than I’d imagined and I was moved to the point of tears by its gentle power.

Miner also pulled off my favourite opening chapter of the year in the book Hurt Hawks in case you want to check that one out.

The Free (US) is another gem from Willy Vlautin and it will remind all of you here in the UK that we should all be grateful for our National Health Service.

‘I read it in small bites because I wanted to savour each section and as I came to the end, didn't really want to finish. It's a complex tale that builds up through the telling of a number of simple stories.

I was also delighted by my visits to visit some older books.

I read a couple by Ed McBain, both of them featuring the Deaf Man (US). They’re terrific and McBain is on the list for next year.

That Was Then, This Is Now by SE Hinton also knocked me for six. I’m not in the habit of re-reading books, but this is one I was happy to return to and will pull it down from my shelf again one day if I can. 

Tuesday 8 December 2015


‘Nostalgia's not what it used to be.’
Paul D Brazill has a new release from Number Thirteen Press. The author and publisher have some things in common:  they have both become a feature of my reading; they’re both engaging and enjoyable; and they both exist in the darker shades of the literary palette.
In the opening chapter of Kill Me Quick (US), Mark Hammond is a bass player. By the end of it, his playing days are over on account of his hand being smashed by thugs.
He returns to his home in Seatown, a place in decline that comes to life at night with its seedy monster of a club scene that’s populated by grotesques. 
Mark indulges himself to excess and tries his best to drink the bars dry. As you might imagine, it’s not long before he’s tangled up in murder and mayhem. He discovers the body of the leader of a local biker gang and things spiral out of control.
The story winds tight as Hammond’s life unravels. There are encounters with mobsters, drug-dealers, bikers, lap-dancers, right-wing nutters and an annoying American tourist to enjoy. Brazill uses his trademark wordplay and humour to add extra layers to the experience and manages to draw out laughs from the most uncomfortable situations.  
There’s also a vast soundtrack to accompany the tale. If I were to select a song to sum up this novella, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll would be my pick and, if they’re elements you enjoy in your noir, this is the book for you. 
I'm going to get in early with my suggestion for the sequel. I see an alcoholic doctor repairing Hammond and maybe knocking off a few old-folk for their money. I propose the title Kill Me Quack. I hope that tickles Mr B's fancy.
Another thing writer and publisher have in common, by the way, is that they're both worthy of your support. Both have pulled more than their fair share of the load withing the crime-writing community. This one will be released on the 13th, but is available now for pre-order for the enticing cost of 99p ($1.50 in the US). Why not give them the Christmas treat they deserve and send this one on it's way up the charts? It's a win-win.
Terrific fun.  

Friday 20 November 2015

Back In The Saddle

I started writing something new yesterday. I say new, it’s actually an old short story of mine that I’m turning into a longer work. The point is that I’m back in the saddle. That makes me happy.

I finished my last novel almost two months ago and needed to take a break. It’s something I do after completing anything. That’s partly because I need to and partly to let the old characters disappear into the distance to leave room for the next plots and participants to circulate and breathe.

As usual, the first few weeks were a treat. No early mornings. More time to do the housework and extra space for the children. Extra-long walks by the sea and the luxury of reading during the day. After that, though, the pleasure turned into the seeds of melancholy. If I leave the writing for too long it builds into a fear of what’s coming next. A worry that I’ll not be able to fill another page with any words that make sense.

It’s a bit like returning to teaching after a break, especially the summer holiday. The worry is that I’ve forgotten how to do it. That maybe the children have changed or my experience and knowledge has disappeared. It hasn’t happened yet, though as I get older the number of new initiatives I’m not fully engaged with grows and laps around my head as if ready to drown me. The main thing is that I keep turning up at the start of each new term and I’m still working with children some twenty five years since I qualified.

A month or so away from story-writing and doubt takes over in a similar way. Is the idea I’ve got worth taking forward and investing so much time into? Can I shape a vague plan into a work that moves from one moment to another? From one chapter to the next? Are the characters going to become real again? These questions loom large and I find myself losing the courage to face them. With every passing day the discomfort grows. Then the time comes when a decision has to be made. For me, that came yesterday. It was a yes. I’m going to give it a go because I need to.

In terms of the questions asked only days earlier, I’m not sure what the answers will be. I don’t know if it will work out. Whether the characters will come alive. If anyone will ever want to read it. What I do know is that I’m back in the saddle and, looking down from the height that offers, the world suddenly seems a much less daunting place.

Thursday 19 November 2015


“When he wasn’t on a losing streak and moody, he was a great guy.”

When Josh Stallings brings out something new, it’s an exciting event. It’s like the interesting shaped parcel under the Christmas tree – you can’t wait to open it and have no idea what’s going to be inside.

What’s inside Young Americans (US) is a fun tale about a heist set in the middle of the 1970s. Not that it’s a straightforward story with predictable characters – it’s anything but.

Sam is a young woman who was taught to crack safes at an early age by her father. She gets involved in a drugs deal that goes wrong and is held accountable for the mess. The only way she can make amends and keep herself alive is to rob a nightclub that happens to be owned by a member of the mob.

In spite of the close attention of the local cop, she collects together members of her old crew, her brother and a few new flamboyant and varied players to help her out on the job.

There’s a tense build up to the heist and an even more dramatic escape.

Suffice to say things don’t go well and Sam and her family find themselves in a position where everybody literally wants a piece or two of them.

Bubbling under this are intertwined relationships of different kinds that are built on strong loyalties. This means none of the ways forward are simple.

The setting is really special. It would be great to get into that time machine and zoom back to the era and the location. There are drugs and sparkles and almost anything goes. Stallings does a good job of bringing that disco world to life and opens each chapter with a cool and apt quote to get things rolling.

For my taste the book is a little heavy on dialogue, but that is often redeemed by the use of an extensive range of monumental slang and similes that only a really cool-as-hell dude would be able to find.

This one’s for the crime reader who likes material to be multi-faceted and to stray beyond the boundaries of the main action.

Nice work.

Wednesday 18 November 2015


Nigel, along with his brother Geoff, used to edit a magazine called the Rue Bella in the early noughties, and one reason I know is because I was featured in it – twice. They published poets like Brian Patten, Benjamin Zephaniah, Ruth Padel and Michael Horovitz – and me. I still can’t believe, looking back, that I managed to get to be in such esteemed company, but that’s the thing: Despite attracting some of the biggest names to their magazine, Nigel and Geoff were always very open to and supportive of writers who were complete unknowns but who maybe showed some kind of promise, and I have to say it was a definite shot in the arm for me at the time and really kept me going.

And though it’s taken me a while, having kept on going, here I am, thirteen years later, with my first book, an 80 page tome that contains two of the poems originally published in the Rue Bella – ‘My Bad Side’ from volume seven and ‘Security Camera’ from volume nine.
The book – entitled Being With Me Will HelpYou Learn – is out this month via Listen Softly London Press and can be pre-ordered here

Altogether there are 56 pieces – both poetry and flash-fiction – that have been published in all kinds of literary mags, from august journals such as Envoi, Fire and Iota to cool zines like the Illustrated Ape, Rising and PUSH.

And when I think about it, the Rue Bella really was a combination of the two: definitely an ‘august journal’ but cool as well – the best of both worlds, in fact – and though all good things come to an end, as the Rue Bella did in 2003, it definitely isn’t forgotten. I have all nine of the volumes at home – six to nine I bought at the time and one to five I bought from Amazon – and recently, as I leafed through them and stopped at various points to read poems, I was impressed with how uniformly excellent they were, always well-written and profound but accessible too, and it was interesting to see names of poets who would have been unknown at the time but have gone on to build substantial reputations – Ben Myers, for instance, being one very notable example. I’m sure the Rue Bella has been acknowledged many times in various poets’ books already – and in this way lives on – but now, at last, after all these years, it appears on the acknowledgment page of mine, and I’d like to thank Nigel and Geoff for that shot in the arm their both august and cool journal gave to me at the time that kept me going and helped no end to bring me to this point.          

Thomas McColl

Friday 13 November 2015

Dancing with Myself JUDY PENZ SHELUK interviews JUDY PENZ SHELUK

Before the main event, a little something to get the juices flowing. Luca Veste's debut novel, DEAD GONE is available for free today if you don't already have it. You should snap it up as soon as you see this.

And now, the main event. A big welcome to Judy Penz Sheluk. If you have any questions, pop them in the comments. Here goes. Enjoy the dance...

Well, first off, I’m not a very good dancer. Think of Elaine on Seinfeld and you’ve got the general idea, but I’m practicing in case I ever get an invite onto the Ellen DeGeneres Show. (Hey, you put an idea out in the universe…) Anyway, with that in mind, I’m going to ask myself the sort of questions Ellen might ask:

How did you come up with the premise for The Hanged Man’s Noose?

I always start every story with a “What if this happened?” The Hanged Man’s Noose (US, CAN) tells the story of Toronto journalist Emily Garland, who is sent on assignment to the small town of Lount’s Landing. Her objective is to cover the story of a proposed mega-box store on the town’s Main Street. Emily quickly learns that not all the local business owners are on board and some, to their great misfortune, are more vocal than most. Murder and mayhem ensue.

I’ve seen firsthand how development can divide a community. I simply took that premise, asked myself “What If?” and took it one step—okay, a few steps—further.

How much of Emily is based on you and your life?

Emily is a freelance writer/journalist. I’ve been a freelance writer and editor since 2003, so we have that in common, though I’ve yet to be offered a lucrative assignment. Emily is a runner, and I’ve plodded my way along a few marathons, half marathons, and 10k’s over the past fifteen years. Emily is a bacon-eating vegetarian. I’m not a diehard vegetarian, though I do try to eat mostly vegetarian. That said, I’ve never quite been able to give up bacon. As for her age, Emily is thirty-two—and I used to be.

Where does the title come from?

The Hanged Man’s Noose is the name of the local pub on the town’s Main Street. The town of Lount’s Landing is fictional, but it is named after Samuel Lount, a real life Canadian politician who was hanged for treason in the nineteenth century. The bar’s owner is a bit of a history nut.

You categorize The Hanged Man’s Noose as an “amateur sleuth mystery with an edge.” What do you mean by that?

When people think of amateur sleuth mysteries, they often think of the traditional cozy, the sort of book where there’s a white picket fence and a cat on the cover. The Hanged Man’s Noose shares some cozy traits—the protagonist and her sidekick are amateur sleuths, in this case a journalist and an antiques shop owner, there’s minimal bad language, and the violence takes place off screen. But there are no cats, crafts or cookie recipes, no ghosts to help solve the crime, and the plot is a bit twisty. So I came up with the label “an amateur sleuth with an edge.” I even created a Goodreads Listopia category for it. Maybe the term will go viral!

What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?

A few years ago, author Greg Fallis was my instructor for Mystery II in the Fiction Writing certificate program at Gotham Writers Workshop. He critiqued a short story I had written and commented: “Remember, to your characters, this isn’t a story.” I’ve never forgotten that advice.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

Definitely my own advice, which was, “You can always write a book later.” It would be many years before later came.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Join an association that ties into the genre you write. I personally belong to Sisters in Crime (International/Toronto/Guppies), Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Each of these organizations has offered me opportunities, information, resources, and most of all, the friendship and support of like-minded individuals. Membership really does have its privileges.

Your blog is a sounding board for new and established writers, and you speak candidly about the publishing process. What do you hope readers take away from your posts?

Ideally, my blog offers other writers equal measures of reality, inspiration, advice, and above all, hope. Writing is a lonely pursuit. There’s plenty of rejection. It’s important to know we aren’t alone. I also interview other authors to learn more about their work and their experiences so my readers are offered more than just one perspective. In the new year, I’ll also be interviewing some publishers.

Do you have anything else to add?

Hmmm. Well, it would be great if folks wanted to read The Hanged Man’s Noose. I’d also love to invite anyone interested in the writing life to sign up for my blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com. It’s a weekly blog, I never sell or share emails, and you can unsubscribe at any time. What’s to lose?

Judy’s not much on leaving her office, but she is a bit of a social media butterfly. Find her on:

Triberr (you might want to follow or join her tribe, The Writing Journey)

Thursday 12 November 2015


Hats off to the organisers of Book Week Scotland. There are some really brilliant events this year and most of them are free. Thanks to the Scottish Book Trust, to the various library services and anyone else involved for coming up with a wide-ranging and interesting set of authors. 

This morning I picked up my tickets for the very tasty looking Urban Noir Showcase in Haddington on 24th November at 7:00pm. It features Stuart Neville, Arne Dahl and Eva Dolan. It's a stellar line-up and I'm really looking forward to hearing what they have to say. If you're in the area and have any doubts about the quality of this one, the library has stocked up on books by the trio and there's plenty of time to do some research. 

If you're keen to take the evening further, for just £6 you can get extend things by going along to a local hotel for a coffee and a chat with the writers. I'm not sure I'm able to go there yet, or whether I might just be a little too shy, but it's a bargain without any shadow of a doubt. 

Another of my picks would be one of the Ed James in conversation with Len Wanner sessions. It promises to be a very informative and interesting event and it's on twice if that helps with diary dates. Ed James is the author of the hugely successful Scott Cullen series and Len Wanner has written the guide to all things related to Scottish crime fiction, Tartan Noir and published by Freight Books

Ann Cleeves and Lin Anderson add weight to the lineup of the week and if you're a mum or a gran who likes to write, Dunbar's very own Hannah Lavery has a workshop you might well be interested in down at North Berwick.

You can find more details of these events and other gems at this link.  

Another outstanding time can be had in the company of Douglas Lindsay as he discusses The Legend Of Barney Thomson. Barney is the hairdresser at the centre of a series of books published by Blasted Heath and the movie The Legend Of Barney Thomson was the opener at the Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this year. This one's at Edinburgh's Central Library at 7:00pm on Friday 27th November. More details of that here

More icing on the cake comes in the form of a screening of Get Carter at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, on this occasion introduced by Ian Rankin. What a great pairing that is. 

Basically, it's a week you should take part in if you're able. I'm only skimming the surface with these picks and have probably missed off a whole load of crackers (more research required by me). You can indulge yourself in many different ways, no matter what your taste in books. Make sure you check it out. The whole thing's on Facebook, so if you can access that there are no excuses. 


Wednesday 11 November 2015


Charlie Marz and Other Stories (The Unpublished Works of Elmore Leonard) (US) is an enjoyable read with some very tasty pieces to feast upon. Nearly all of them are slow-burners of sorts, with plenty of dialogue and description to give a sense of meandering to the tales. In many of the cases, the slow-burn built up to a blaze and left me entirely satisfied and wanting more. In a few, there’s less power and depth and the kick just wasn’t really there.

There’s a lot of variety on show and the way the author generates work in such a range of settings is impressive.

Favourite for me is The Italian Cut, a simple story on the surface about a woman’s new hairstyle and a husband who doesn’t want to like it. Leonard manages to tell whole life-stories in a very short space and does so with real dexterity.

In his visits to the old west, I prefer the musings of a teenage cowboy in The Line Rider to the more predictable Charlie Martz stories.

Other gems include a visit to communist jungle camps and the messy revenge of the opener.

Recommended if you’re happy to be hypnotised and lured into your fiction rather than being snapped out of your thoughts with a slap in the face.

Wednesday 4 November 2015


“The Socs were trying to look poor. They wore old jeans and shirts with the shirttails out, just like the greasers always had because they couldn’t afford anything else. I’ll tell you one thing, though: what with fringed leather vests and Levis with classy-store labels in them, those kids were spending as much money to look poor as they used to to look rich.”

I’d been saving That Was Then, This Is Now to read on a rainy day. Not a day when it rained on the outside, but when I needed a lift. I finally opened the cover last weekend on a train journey down to see my dad. Returning to the place where I did my own growing up made it an appropriate choice and it was definitely the right one. Truth be told, I reckon any day’s a good day for reading a book by SE Hinton.

Bryon and Mark have lived together since Mark’s parents killed each other. They’ve become like brothers. They get a buzz from girls, pool hustling, joyriding and fighting. The world is ripe with possibility and yet limited by their social status and environment. We get to know them at a time when things are changing. Nothing is quite the way it was. Everything seems more serious and many of the activities that were fun for them once have become dull. At the same time as life becomes rich and thrilling, the cracks appear everywhere.

Tough things happen. Their part of town is brutal. Without going into huge detail, the book managed to capture hard and mean moments in a very satisfying way. Each episode grabs the senses and forces you to pay attention.

I can’t put my finger on why exactly I found this read to be so moving and absorbing, especially when it’s aimed at young-adults and when the prose is so straightforward.
It might be that it does such an excellent job of capturing a moment of change, a watershed between one life and another. To me, it doesn’t just speak of the movement from teenager to young adulthood, but holds a mirror up to all the times in life when skins are shed. It carries the weight of nostalgia, a hint of resignation and an unsteady optimism for things to come.

It could also be that the strength of the characters and their relationships are a key to this novel’s power. The first person narration brings and intensity of feeling that works superbly. What Hinton does for me is to reach inside. She allows me to feel something more than empathy. It’s almost as though she’s creating a new identity for me as I read. A new history. That depth is not even pinned down to one person, but to all the central figures in the story.

The tone and structure also work with ease. The voice is reflective and yet in the moment. All the life and times that are building up come with a warning early on that they won’t last forever. Something’s going to shake their world to the core and that tension slowly burns from beginning to end while we await the final nail in the coffin to be smacked home.

Hinton writes in a very simple way. The sentences are never complex and the language is often plain. That said, she creates distilled phrases that deliver an emotional punch incredibly well (‘Nothing can wear you out like caring about people.’). These moments are the jewels in the crown for me, the points at which she tells it all with a slight action or subtle reference. 

All in all, this was just the treat I’d been hoping for. It’s the kind of book that I hope rubs off somewhere in my own writing style and if I ever get to put out a novel that’s half as good as this, I’ll be a very happy man.  


Thursday 22 October 2015


 “The juices were beginning to flow, and nowhere did they flow as exuberantly as in the 87th, where life and death sometimes got a little bit confused and where the flowing juices were all too often a bright red.”

The more books I read about the 87th Precinct, the more I find myself enjoying them.

This was my second Deaf Man story. The fact that I’m going in the wrong order makes not a bit of difference.

Let’s Hear It For The Deaf Man (US) has a similar structure to Eight Black Horses. There’s the totally engaging plotting of the Deaf Man himself, a strand relating to a series of cat-burglaries that have taken place on the same block over a short space of time and there’s been the crucifixion of an unidentified man.

Each of the strands is compelling. They’re written in ways that build up elements of tension and heighten curiosity. They also allow further exploration into the lives of the main detectives and their partners. In this one, Detective Kling is totally bowled over by Augusta Blair (‘He had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life.’), one of the victims of a break-in to her apartment where the burglar has left a kitten by way of identifying himself.  

This one covers lots of bases. It’s got something for the fan of the whodunit, for those who like their crime brutal, for anyone who enjoys dark humour, for readers who enjoy the perfectly formed quip and for people who appreciate well-rounded characters who give more than two dimensions.

Super stuff and I look forward to the next one.

If you’ve got any solid tips on your own particular faves, I’d love to hear them – there are so many to choose from. Maybe I should just go for book one and take it from there.   

Wednesday 21 October 2015


A question to start with.

These days I don’t have the patience to read books that I’m not getting along with. I may discard as many as a quarter of the books I begin because I’m not enjoying them enough. I guess that means that if I take the time to review something, it’s going to be a fairly positive reflection. It’s not that I love all the books I start, it’s more that I only finish the ones that grab me.

Last week I began Mignon by James M Cain. He’s written some of my favourite pieces and so I know he’s a complete talent. The thing with Mignon is that I don’t buy it from the off. I can’t accept the lead character throwing over his life for this sultry beauty. I’m not even entirely sure what the post civil war racket is all about. It bugged the hell out of me. I’d rather sit down to watch the Minions movies in a triple-bill (that actually sounds like fun) than finish the Cain book. That said, I’m worried I might be missing out on a gem if I don’t keep going. Which is my question. Will my life be improved if I take this back down from the shelf or do you think it’s better off left where it is? Any thoughts welcome.

And now to a book I took a lot of delight in completing, The Girls of Bunker Pines (US) by Garnett Elliott.  

‘He looked about as worried as a houseplant.’

Jack Laramie lives in a horse box and carries around his grandfather’s gun as a companion. He stumbles into Joe Crews at a prayer meeting. Crews is an alcoholic veteran of the Korean War and he’s been invited to sell an investment into bomb-proof underground shelters to ex-servicemen. Laramie immediately smells a rat and sees the long con that Crews has been sucked into.

What lures the detective into digging deeper into the con is the need he feels to protect a fellow survivor. We learn more about Laramie’s wartime experience as a gunner in a US bomber and as a prisoner of war in sections of the story that are neatly woven into the tale.

It’s not long before the heavies behind the Bunker Pines operation are uncovered and they’re not people to be messed with. Unfortunately, Laramie can’t help himself.

This story is really well handled. The hard edges of the action are complimented by subtle layers of sentiment and bags of atmosphere. Most impressive is the depth of character created within a fairly short space.

This one’s for fans of detective fiction, particularly those who hanker after work from a golden age. A really strong novella.  

Sunday 18 October 2015


“You’re from an age before online banking and living off credit. You can track Benny down the old-fashioned way. And once you get the money back, you can do him the old-fashioned way as well.”

WhenThe Music’s Over (US) is a tale set in Birmingham’s gangland. It has good guys turning bad, bad guys staying bad and an ex-enforcer who comes out of retirement and isn’t sure which way to turn.

Harry Weir is a nasty piece of work. He’s a drug dealer who has become mean and complacent. He’s also the son of one of the bosses of Birmingham’s biggest crime syndicate. He meets his end at the hands of Benny Gower at the story's opening. Benny then steals from his bosses before doing a good job of covering his tracks with a move to Southampton.

Enter Wynn McDonald. Wynn’s an old-time crook with a big reputation. He is called up by gangsters Castle and Weir to track down Harry’s killer and to locate the cash that has disappeared. Wynn would be happy to stay away from his old business, but his ties are strong and his loyalties clear. As he investigates Benny, however, his feelings begin to change. No one has a bad word to say about Benny Gower and everyone seems to be rooting for the guy.

Wynn’s good at his job and soon has leads on Benny. The only thing he’s not sure of is how he’s going to clean up the situation at hand. A glimpse into Benny’s past life as a rock star and new information about the real reason his band never made the big time only serve to muddy the waters as Wynn becomes increasingly torn between doing the right thing and staying true to his past.

The ingredients of the story work well the ending is very satisfying. The characters are well-drawn and the setting is nicely created. To my mind, keeping the focus in the moment and tightening the prose a little could have added even more to the power and pace the work generates.

Overall, a fun and rewarding visit into dark territories. Definitely one for the list for fans of things Brit Grit.    

Wednesday 7 October 2015

One Man's Opinion: HURT HAWKS by MIKE MINER

“Saddam wasn’t a Bond villain. He was a thug in a white suit. He didn’t want to blow up the world. Just to pick its pockets.”

Chris Rogers is a war veteran. He sits in his wheelchair waiting for someone to come. When that someone arrives, he’s going to kill him.

This opening to Hurt Hawks (US) is full of power. It shows off many of Miner’s outstanding qualities. The guy seems to have sixth and seventh senses. He is able to perceive the world through the physical being of his characters and the shadows they create. This ability offers a dimension to his work that is rare. The prose becomes poetic at times and he mingles a dream-like quality to concrete events. In this way, he gets deep under the skin and paints a world of many layers in a way that I really enjoy.   

What follows in this tale is a world of war, survival and revenge. People do what they have to do in response to loyalties and codes that aren’t always in their own best interest. In many of the situations created it would be so much easier to walk away. For Captain Patrick Donovan and his crew, this option isn’t even on the table. They are set on paying back Chris Rogers and his family for services rendered and they’ll stop at nothing until all debts are paid.

The main thread of the story, that of the war vets coming together to fight new battles on home soil, is gripping. Outcomes are never predictable. Surprises are thrown in from many unseen angles.  I loved it. If there’s any issue with the book for me, it is that I was so hooked into this central plot that tearing me away from it to open doors to the back-story proved problematic. The past is an essential aspect of the work, yet I might have preferred a more direct telling. It’s a minor issue, though, and wouldn’t prevent me from heartily recommending this as a read.

Miner has produced some amazing fiction to date. I suspect that there is plenty still to come and I, for one, intend to be there to watch this talent unfold.


Wednesday 30 September 2015


If you’re able to get access, check out this small article on Flash Fiction (Smoke-Long Stories) at BBC Radio 4’s Open Book. It includes a tasty piece by Ian Rankin and some thoughts on the origin of the Hemingway six word tale

And now to Post Office (US).  

“I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face, combed my hair. If I could only comb that face, I thought, but I can’t.”

It can be really interesting re-reading books that made an impact in youth. There’s a different perspective offered and the book's that little bit older.

Post Office was a real treat to read, but carried a lot less of the sense of romance to it this time around. Whereas I might have wanted to be like Chinaski at one time in life, the prospect of living from bottle to bottle, woman to woman and race to race seems a much less attractive one these days. On reflection, I guess that I can say I gave my early ambition my best shot. I can no longer gamble because of my addiction and had to give up the booze and the rest when my children came along. As for the women thing, I guess that a messy and turbulent phase finally settled when I straightened out. And that’s another story that I’m not going to share anywhere.

The book is an interesting work, with some really strong prose. In many ways, it feels like a gathering of short stories that come together to form a novel of sorts. This brings advantages and disadvantages.

On the negative side, there’s rarely the energy at the end of one chapter of Chinaski’s life to give it enough momentum to catapult a reader into the next.

As a positive, the strength with which Bukowski puts into nailing a moment, phrase or rounding-off is huge. Pieces often finish with hammer blows that express a huge amount in the smallest of spaces.

The story is very simple. A man takes a job with the post office. It’s a tough life. He needs drink. Likes sex. Dislikes authority. Enjoys a gamble. He has tough bosses and difficult rounds. Each episode is told in a matter-of-fact way. Even the most extraordinary events are told plainly. There’s the sense of rhythm of the run-of-the-mill and a feeling that this life is anything but.

Well worth checking out if you’ve not been there before. If you like it, when you’re done make sure you read some of Bukowski’s poems. That’s where he really excels. 

Wednesday 9 September 2015


Maigret Afraid is an interesting work for fans of the series.

The plot itself is fairly standard. He rolls into town, there have been murders and there are more to come. Maigret takes a back seat and watches everything, from the process of the law to the main suspects and eventually does put all the pieces together in the way we have come to expect.

Included is a fairly heavy dose of class analysis and our detective provides an excellent filter through which to see the world as is always the case. The subtle and the obvious are all pointed out as he wanders between the homes of the rich and poor and the roles of the women are of particular interest.

What I found to be more engaging than the plot was Maigret’s personal reflection. He’s returning from a course where the young pups have made him feel his age. He also happens to be staying with an old university friend who is the town’s Examining Magistrate. By watching his friend, he draws parallels with his own life. We get to see into the distant past and into the very real present of a man who really just wants to go home.

Worth reading for any crime fiction fans, but especially so for admirers of Maigret who like to collect nuggets about his personal life and history. 

Sunday 6 September 2015


It’s slightly odd reading a book about characters who are so known in their television incarnations. I found it hard to separate the Morse and Lewis of the page from their counterparts on the screen. I did, eventually, become engrossed enough in the plot that I barely noticed the issue.

The Dead of Jericho (US) has a somewhat implausible opening. Morse happens to chase up and old acquaintance on the day she is found hanged in her kitchen. When the case is finally presented to him, he’s already been dabbling to try and find out what happened. From that point on, this became a solid police procedural.

Morse and Lewis form a great partnership and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses until the case is solved.

Another death thickens the plot and the ring of suspects are used nicely so that each of them remains as a spinning plate in the process until the last possible moment.

Parallels to a Greek tragedy are played out and just at the point where this becomes a too silly the plot veers off in another direction.

Dexter doesn’t hammer home the final nail in the coffin until the last pages where everything is wrapped up neatly with all the skill of a master craftsman.

I enjoyed the read more than I expected. Some of the references and quotes were way over my head and did impede the flow at times.   Even so, I would happily read another in the series, especially as holiday entertainment. I will, however, look forward to further TV episodes of Lewis and Endeavour with some enthusiasm. 

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Viv Albertine With Ian Rankin: Words and Music Memoirs of a Punk Rocker

The Edinburgh International Book Festival always comes at the wrong time of year for me as it starts as the schools go back and I have to put on my teacher’s hat again.

I still make a point of making sure I get the programme early so that I can choose one outstanding event. In recent years I’ve been privileged to see Willy Vlautin, Katie Kitamura and Megan Abbott for example, so you can see I pick rather well and have impeccable taste.

This year, Ian Rankin has had the honour of being a guest selector and he’s chosen a cracking bunch of people to talk to. When I saw he’d chosen Viv Albertine among those names, I was on the phone buying my tickets. Having been to the event on Sunday evening with a very good friend of mine, I can tell you I wasn’t at all disappointed by my choice.

Ian Rankin does a brilliant job in conversation. I’ve seen him a few times in this role and have been really impressed by his manner. Unlike many in the facilitator role he clearly feels he has nothing to prove. He knows his subject material and he applies insightful and open questions at the right moment to keep things flowing. He gives his guests the opportunity to talk and elaborate without constant interruption and that’s a big bonus in my eyes. It’s a big skill that he has and is one that is too often under-rated in my eyes.

Given this was a music event this was also right up Mr Rankin’s street. Not only does he know his history, he’s lived it. Great, then, to hear some of his own anecdotes thrown into the mix in a very light-handed way and adding colour to the evening.

 And Viv Albertine.

What to say?

The first thing I’m going to mention is the very last thing that I expect I’m supposed to say, namely that she was utterly stunning. Not just the way she looked, but the impact she had when walking on. Her book is entitled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (US). It’s also called Clothes, Music, Boys if you want the Tesco-friendly cover.
She began with a reading from the book. It was an engaging and funny account of her first gig with The Slits on the Clash’s White Riot tour, chosen especially as it took place in Edinburgh. What images came forth in that burst of words. It screamed punk rock and energy and possibility.

The thing is Viv Albertine was in an all-girl band at a time when that just didn’t happen. She and her tribe were so wild-looking that there had to be negotiations with the hotel to make them honour their booking and then only on the condition that the girls didn’t leave their rooms and stayed out of sight. Don Letts had to call ahead to all the rest of the hotels booked to make sure that they knew exactly who and what was heading their way.

Viv was around at the time of an explosion. She had little stories about Mick Jones, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Thunders and Vivienne Westwood that made my hair curl (check out my picture – that’s some feat). These people carry the status of being legends, so it was great to hear her talk about them in such a natural way. Best of all, they didn’t become her story. She wasn’t great to listen to because of who she knew but because she has a hugely creative spirit and happens to have known a lot of amazing folk along the way.

There was some talk about the famous album cover and a rather lovely quip – ‘It was saying to the boys, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’- fantastic.

A lot of the focus was upon the roles and expectations of women back in the mid-seventies and since then. It’s incredible to reflect upon that and to see how many things have changed. To my mind, it’s important to revisit and remember such times and there’s unlikely to be a more rewarding way of doing so than by taking a read of her book. It’s not that I agreed with all of the statements made about then or now, but I admired the sense of personal perspective that was offered and it gave me a lot to think about.

Side Two of the conversation moved on to explore the world post-Slits. It’s been an interesting journey.

There was another reading. It started about sex and ended up with cancer. As she finished, instead of the usual applause there was silence. It spoke volumes about the power and the frankness of her description.  

We touched upon aerobics teaching and film-making and then moved on to a mention of her picking up her guitar again as she turned fifty. She knew she didn’t intend to take it up seriously, but she did know that if she played she knew something would happen. A creative energy within her would be unlocked and she would set off on another journey of making and shaking. More writing was mentioned. A book. A novel perhaps. Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

That unlocking of energy is something I understand. There are many catalysts out there and I reckon it’s our responsibility to go out, find and experience them. What an important reminder of something fundamental to life and the creative process that stems from living it. That alone was worth the price of entry.

After the event my friend and I went to the signing tent for a while. I had nothing to sign and didn’t fancy queuing. What I did want was to keep the evening with me for a little longer.  

I never did see The Slits play live, but at least on this occasion I can say I was there.

Totally brilliant.  

Tuesday 25 August 2015


Several years on from reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I found The Girl Who Played With Fire (US) on the shelves of the home we rented for our holiday.

If memory serves, that first book really bamboozled me. I couldn’t believe that a novel told with such frequent (and long) tangents and huge slices of back-story and explanation could have been as entertaining as it was.

In many ways, I feel the same about the sequel. Blomkvist and Salander are now estranged. Salander has cut off all contact with him and escaped to travel the world.

Much of the opening section focuses upon her time in Grenada. She’s hooked on mathematics problems and is curious about a strange couple who are staying in her hotel. It’s an engaging start, but doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the book. 

Things solidify when she returns to Sweden and hooks up with ex-girlfriend Miriam Wu.

Millennium has taken on a new project courtesy of a free-lance journalist. His article and book are going to blow the lid off the sex-trade and will uncover the exploitation of prostitutes by many of the pillars of polite society.

The prospect of the revelations stirs a hornets’ nest (something tells me this might also happen in the third book) and a lot of mess hits a lot of fans.

Salander finds herself as the main suspect in a terrible crime and the only people who want to protect her are ex-employer Armanski, a retired boxer and Blomkvist.

In spite of the repetitive reflection and those huge chunks of unnecessary material, it’s nail-biting stuff. I reckon it works so well because it’s important to me that Blomkvist and Salander remain safe no matter what. It’s impossible not to root for them, even when belief in their abilities and personalities is stretched a very long way.

Unlike with the first book, I was a little dissatisfied with the ending. Whereas book one felt self-contained, this one seemed totally aimed at luring the reading to book three. That hook may well work for me, too, but might just take me several years to get around to completing the trilogy. Who knows? I might even get to read The Girl In The Spider’s Web before I retire, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll buy myself a copy – it will be a matter of staying in the right place on my hols.

Fire is seriously addictive. It’s also nourishing, fast-paced, flabby and occasionally irritatingly implausible.