Thursday, 23 March 2023

One Man's Opinion: DOLL by ED McBAIN


 

I'm sure that in one of my more recent 87th Precinct reviews, I mentioned that I was distressed by the increasing bitterness and hard-heartedness of Bert Kling. In Doll, it's got to the point where Lieutenant Byrnes has had enough of Kling's style of policing; he's a bad apple and the mood and performance of the precinct is suffering because of him. 

Steve Carella, being the impressive human being he is, intervenes and persuades his boss to let him take Kling under his wing. One last chance, if you like. 

The case they take on is of the brutal murder of a beautiful model while her daughter was sitting in the next room overhearing it all. The murder is slow and violent, an almost literal death by a thousand cuts and we get to experience every slice through McBain's vivid description. 

When they find the little girl, she's clutching her doll. As typical with an 87th, this may be the doll of the title, but there's another surprising one that will be revealed later on in the plot. 

Kling and Carella go off together and, true to form, Kling makes a hash of it. Not even Carella can maintain a professional approach with Kling in tow, so he cuts him loose. Heated and frank words are exchanged as the two separate, words that will haunt Kling as the story develops. 

Now he's alone and has the space to think, Carella continues the investigation and solves the case. 

Normally, this would be the end of the book, but here it's only a new beginning. 

There's a major twist in this one. A huge turn of events that really did stop me breathing for a few moments. The shock almost had me crying out, but I was on a train to Newcastle, so I supressed it and stopped reading for a while as the development sank in. 

Thankfully, with a little bit of thought and application of my own reader skills, it all fell into place and it was only a few pages later that I knew I could continue without feeling sick, not that the book gets any less exciting. There are still events and sharp corners to turn that keep the pace of the story quick and the intensity of the white-knuckle ride high. 

Doll will stand out as a favourite of the series when I finally get to the end, I'm pretty sure of that. Everything about it works and I was especially pleased to get a sense that maybe Kling is on the way to recovery. 

When I finished, a particular episode of Starsky And Hutch came to mind (one I saw over forty years ago, I imagine). If you read it or have done so, I wonder if it will be/was the same for you. I'd be interested to hear. 

Anyway, this book is tops and I'm going in for more by heading straight for Eighty Million Eyes. 

Awesome.

And for another opinion, check out the HARK podcast.   

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

One Man's Opinion: RAZORBLADE TEARS by S.A. COSBY

 



Having recently been blown away by Cosby's Blacktop Wasteland, I was really excited about getting stuck into Razorblade Tears. Perhaps because I was looking forward to this so much, I left it feeling slightly disappointed. That's not to say it wasn't a decent read, it just didn't quite measure up to my expectations. 

The premise is an excellent one. A gay couple have been murdered and their fathers are both struggling to come to terms with the way they handled their sons' sexuality. Their relationships were strained and the damage was significant, which leaves both Buddy Lee and Ike full of guilt and a sense of failure. 

Buddy Lee wants to do something about it, Ike is more concerned about maintaining his business. In the end, Buddy Lee persuades Ike that they need to go after the killers and seek their own kind of justice. It's handy that both have done spells in prison and are used to handling themselves in all kinds of situations. More helpful that Ike is about to release his alter-ego, Riot, on the world. 

In order to track down the killers, they have to get past several stumbling blocks: the LGBTQ+ community is reluctant to pass on information to either the authorities or to any outsiders; there's a biker gang called Rare Breed that is involved in protecting the man behind the murders; their main lead is a lady called Tangerine who has gone into hiding in order to save her own skin; and they don't seem to like each other very much. 

The journey of Ike and Buddy Lee is like many a 'buddy' story. They share one goal and their journey will be tough, but they're going to come to depend upon each other and, somewhere along the line, liking each other will creep in around the edges. They're a good team and bring the best and worst out of each other. Most importantly, they're able to work towards completing their quest by knocking down one of those stumbling blocks at a time. 

All was going well until I began to disengage from around the half-way point. In some ways, this is because the action scenes took over. Much as they were well put together, the older I get, the less I want to read long sections of brutality. There's a sense of inevitability about the outcomes of each set piece and also about the ending. I don't think I was invested enough in the characters or felt they had enough to lose.

I also struggled to a lesser extent with the similes here. Unlike in Blacktop Wasteland, where they're sharp and apt, here they lacked a cutting edge. It's a small point, but an important one. Perhaps it suggests that Cosby's improvement is significant and if that upward curve is maintained, All The Sinners Bleed is going to be an absolute peach. 

Not really for me, then, but if you're a lover of revenge novels or action stories, this may be right up your street. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

One Man's Opinion: THE GALLOWS POLE by BENJAMIN MYERS

King David Hartley leads a band of Yorkshire menfolk in the dangerous act of clipping (cutting away at legitimate coins and using those clippings to forge new money). It's not something the authorities can allow and men are sent to close down the operation. The Gallows Pole tells us of the history from the point of view of coiner and crown in a way that's gripping from the off.  

Cards on the table, I'm a Lancastreen bastid at my core, those early roots strong and impossible to cut through. In spite of that, Jorvikshyre is a special place for me. I spent many happy days and nights visiting my brother when he lived in Hebden Bridge and my in-laws live in Holmfirth where the hills and vales are something to behold. 

Perhaps that's why the wonderful descriptions of the landscapes in this book struck me immediately, though I suspect anyone who has spent any time soaking up nature will be bowled over by the poetic musings and the vivid pictures painted in these words. I'm also certain that anyone who hasn't been exposed to the landscapes of the county will be desperate to get out there and soak up the wonder that is to be found there. 

The sense of time and place is one of the reasons that this is a stunning novel, but there are many of those and it's difficult to know where to start. Essentially, I don't think I can do it justice and probably don't have the breadth of reading experience or knowledge to offer a coherent review, but I'm going to have a go at picking out some of the things that stood out to me. 

Symmetry, reflection and cycles. They feel important. There's the way the seasons roll by and the endless power of nature. The clippers versus the representatives of the crown. The threads that tie generations together. The contrasts of rich and poor. The blurred lines of right and wrong. The passions of the loyal and the traitorous. The circle of the story that begins and ends seamlessly. And sometimes in the structure itself. Early on, for example, there's a hypnotic section that sees the men of the valley arriving for a meeting called up at the Hartley home. Four pages describe their journeys and characters, four pages that are a joy to behold. Later in the book, we have a similar list at a similar gathering, only this time it's the wealthy and the powerful who are coming together. It's a treat to behold.  

To have symmetry and reflection you need a centre point. Here the fulcrum is a time of change. The industrial revolution is growing and the old ways will never be the same. Land will be owned and torn up to allow for profit and then to more profit whatever the cost. It allows us to sympathise with the coiners, no matter how hardened and raw their lives, not least because their wealth is shared with the people of the area in a way that it never will be by the owners of mills and factories. 

Then there's the poetry of it all. 

King David's reflections are inserted regularly in his own voice. It's an old language and dialect that is direct and raw and echoes the toughness of the protagonist and his way of life. There's a little adjustment required to adapt to the words, but it's worth it because of the impact each of the entries brings. To my mind, there's a similarity here with A Clockwork Orange where the dexterity with sound and syllable is captivating. Here and in the rest of the novel, alliteration, rhyme, cadence and onomatopoeia work together to elevate the content and nail emotions, thoughts, tensions and descriptions. Think bastidly dastidly, to coin a phrase. 

And the alchemy. 

Central to the events, though not often to the fore, is the hooded figure of the forger. A man of mystery who is made up of shadows and visions. I know that the TV adaptation of the book is to come out soon. For me, the perfect casting for the alchemist would be Myers himself. Surely anyone who can string words together to create such a wonderful book as this has magic in his fingertips and in his soul. If any more proof was needed, then creating a work where the outcome of the story is never in doubt from the start, yet manages to conjures up tension that had this reader hanging on every development, is a remarkable achievement in itself.                  

I'm no expert, but if there's any justice (and I'm not sure whether The Gallows Pole shows us that there is or there isn't), this book is one of those that will outlive the author and be talked about for generations to come. A classic, if you will. A classic and an absolute belter.  

Congratulations due to Bluemoose Books for taking this on and for producing one of the finest covers ever. 

ps not a book for the fainthearted

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

One Man's Opinion: BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S A COSBY

 


Blacktop Wasteland, a book I can’t recommend highly enough.

SA Cosby is a magician of sorts. An alchemist. He has taken the elements required to create a wonderful story and smelted them back together into a tale that is even greater than the sum of its parts, in a similar way that Bug is able to strip down a car and fill it with secrets in order to make it durable enough and fast enough for whatever terrain is required.

Bug’s a genius. He drives cars better than anyone, with the possible exception of his estranged father. He’s inherited his father’s car, the Duster, and takes it out every now and again to make money in illegal races in which man and machine fuse into one in a way that brings just the right amount of driving excitement for this reader.

Problem for Bug is that circumstances have lined up to form the perfect storm where he needs more cash than he can get hold of. In order to pay mounting bills, he needs to raise the jeopardy. When a heist team that needs a driver gets in touch, it’s a job he can’t afford to turn down and the consequences of that will shake his life and the lives of those who are close to him like the meanest of earthquakes.

It works so well for a lot of reasons, not least because Bug is such a brilliant character. We want it to go well, but know it can’t. Every victory has a loss and sometimes it’s bits of himself that will be eroded. He’s damned if he does and if he doesn’t and isn’t that the core of a great noir story?

I don’t want to say anything else. Sure, I’m late to the party and you’ve probably already been there. If you haven’t, the advice is simple: get some.  

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

One Man's Opinion: THE WHEELMAN by DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI

 


What a firecracker. DS lights the fuse at the beginning and it explodes immediately. Then it explodes repeatedly until the final flame flickers and dies. Fast-paced, rollicking and highly entertaining. 

The wheelman aspect is done and dusted within a matter of pages. Planning, heist and outcome come hard and fast. The money from the bank is deposited into the boot of a car at a long-stay car park and the trio of criminals anticipate returning when things cool down. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the plan doesn't come off. Our protagonist, Lennon, knocked out as they get away, becomes conscious at the point when he's about to be shoved down a pipe into the foundations of a huge building project that are soon to be filled with wet cement. 

Lennon doesn't fancy ending up calcified, fights back and finds himself naked in an unfamiliar city with an broken body and more questions than an Advanced Higher paper.

From then on the plot cuts between the key players in the scene. Lennon's nearest and dearest appears to be trying to save him. The Russian mob aren't happy at who Lennon has killed during his escape. The Italian mob have a gripe with the Russians and with Lennon and are about as fickle as politicians. 

There's a lot of blood spilled as things develop and players exit stage unexpectedly on a regular basis. 

DS revels in reveals. He hits with jabs from left and right when you're not expecting them and delivers the odd low blow. Wherever the punches come from, they come hard and it takes a moment for the world to come back into focus.

Tons of fun, then. Recommended for when you need pure escapism.   

Thursday, 23 February 2023

GETAWAY DRIVERS

My latest reads have been about getaway drivers. 

Truth be told, I'm no lover of cars, especially modern ones. I don't recognise makes and models on the whole, but I do enjoy many of the shapes and lines of yesteryear. I don't particularly enjoy driving and the older I get the more that is the case, especially at night time. Nor am I a fan of car chases on screen- slick handbrake turns, tight manoeuvres, near misses and super stunts become boring for me when they go on for too long and just get in the way of the things I care about. 

That said, books and films about drivers can be utterly gripping. It's certainly the case for SA Cosby's Blacktop Wasteland and Duane Swierczynski's The Wheelman. The two books couldn't be further apart in their composition, but they are equally compelling and terrifically satisfying. 

Cosby's read has the right amount of car information for me and never becomes bogged down in detail because every mechanical aspect is totally credible and is explained just enough. Swierczynski jettisons the car early doors and the remaining lunacy of the proceedings are driven by the complex plot rather than by a steering wheel. One is rooted in character, the other in bamboozling action. Both hit the spot. 

Reviews to follow, but if you have any top driving stories to recommend, I'd be grateful.  

 

Thursday, 2 February 2023

One Man's Opinion: 4 3 2 1 by PAUL AUSTER

 


‘a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man…’

Does a book have to permeate every part of your being to be life changing? I’m not sure it does, especially after reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. I think this one has been life-changing for me for reasons I’ll outline and in ways that possibly only this novel could have managed.

I’ve been in a reading slump for a good while, managing only to complete books over long periods of time and without being totally drawn in. Worse, I’ve been in a writing slump and this has been the cause of plenty of anguish. And worse still, I’ve been in a general slump that was beginning to seem never-ending. And here is Mr Auster, reaching out from somewhere and making things better like some mind-bending magician or higher being.

How did he do it? I’m not entirely sure. There’s the fact that the book contains so many of his familiar paths: modern US history; satisfying lists; newspaper reports; basketball; baseball; New York; book stores; the music of chance; lines that make you stop to re-read them more than once; rebellion; philosophy; wordplay and connection; Paris; rebellion; a delight in the history of prose and poetry; and writing. Each of these suggests echoes of previous work. The comfort of that is something difficult to measure. For me, taking me back to my twenties and the days when I first fell in love with his writing was a real treat.

My reading slump must surely now be over. 900 pages within a month is something I wouldn’t have been able to face until this one. I set myself the goal and managed it. It was a challenge at times, but I made it to the end and I’m delighted I did. Surely that means I now have the discipline and the desire to take on more (I have SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland in the wings, so I’m pretty sure that the journey of joy will continue).

My writing slump was already coming to an end. The idea was in place and I was ready to start. What 4,3,2,1 has reminded me of is that the ability to write and create stories is an amazing thing to have. I’m back at the keyboard and have a chapter in the bag. I’ll never match Mr Auster for quality, nor will I match countless others, but I can knock out a decent novel and want this next piece to be the best I’ve managed yet.

And if one of the essences of this book is distilled, everything has the potential to be life-changing, each decision and action opening new doors and directions that lead to other doors and directions and so on.

4,3,2,1 is about Ferguson. Or 4 different versions of Ferguson. From the same beginning, each of the four lives out a life that is a consequence of different things happening. The stories work in sequence. People who die in one chapter are still living in another. Things that have been jettisoned by one Ferguson are embrace by another. Good things happen to all of them and so do terrible things. His sexuality may not be the same. Those around him change, depending on their own altered circumstances. Throughout it all, we see each Ferguson growing up and taking a voyage of self-discovery. The backdrop of the civil rights movement and anti-war movements are prominent and each individual’s interaction with each is fundamental to who they become.

The author managed to keep me on track most of the time. When fumbling to recall what had happened to whom, a key aspect of their life would remind me where I was. In truth, I’m not sure how important it was that the separation was maintained, for as much as each Ferguson was different, in other ways they were interchangeable (there’s only so much bending that one set of genes can tolerate).

I’m sure this is a profound novel. One that will have deep thinkers wallowing in material for an age. Being of little brain, I’m just happy I read it and that the food for thought I was able digest was nourishing and tasty.

For the most part, I loved the book. On occasion, I had to slog through pages when my attention wavered. I had to overcome some early doubts about my engagement when it occurred to me that it didn’t matter what was happening to Ferguson at any point because it would soon by thrown up in the air to come out differently at the next stop. Those moments aside, I was rooting for each of them all the way to their ends.

A little quote to finish, one I appreciated and that all writers out there are likely to have experienced at one time or another:

‘There were reviews. For the first time in his life, he was bussed and slapped in public, thirteen times over the next four months by his reckoning, long, medium and short reviews in newspapers, magazines, and literary quarterlies, five satisfying French kisses, a friendly pat on the back, three punches to the face, one knee to the balls, one execution by firing squad and two shrugs. Ferguson was both a genius and an idiot, both a wonder boy and a supercilious oaf, both the best thing that had happened this year and the worst thing that had happened this year, both brimming with talent and utterly devoid of it…try as he did to ignore both the good and the bad that were said about him, Ferguson had to admit that the stings went on stinging long after the kisses had worn off…Fuck it, he said to himself, as he filed away the reviews in the bottom drawer of his desk. If and when he ever published another book, he would stop up his ears with candle wax, cover his eyes with a blindfold, strap his body to the mast of a ship, and then ride out the storm until the Sirens could no longer touch him.’

Oh how those shrugs must have hurt.

Friday, 20 January 2023

One Man's Opinion: ALL MY SONS by ARTHUR MILLER


I don't think I've read more than one play since I was at school. Back then, it would have been Shakespeare and I would have found the references that I didn't understand and the language to be major barriers to enjoyment. Everything had to be explained and I just didn't get it. To me it was always much better watching his work brought to life on stage, which allows my mind to access it a little more.

The play I read in between times was Sweetheart by Nick Grosso and it had the advantage that I'd already seen it at the Royal Court. Very good indeed, both on stage and on the page. 

All My Sons was a lovely surprise. I soon forgot that I was only reading dialogue and found and easy rhythm, mostly because the play lures you in and keeps building the pace and the drama. 

It's a three act piece, each set in the same place, that being the family home of the Kellers. They're in a variety of messes and they all become untangled and further tangled in a short space of time. 

Joe Keller is an old man who made it big during WW2 by profiting for the need to arm his nation. When issues with the goods he was supplying were raised after a number of planes fell from the sky, Joe and his partner were accused of killing the pilots. Joe got off and his partner took the rap. It's a precarious situation as those in the town aren't entirely convinced that justice has been done. 

Joe's son, Chris Keller, has his heart set on marrying the daughter of Joe's now imprisoned father. A further complication is that she was once the sweetheart of Chris's brother who was a pilot that went missing in action during the war. The tension here is that Chris's mother has never acknowledged the possible death of her son and expects him to come home any day.

Enter George, son of the imprisoned partner and brother of Chris's prospective fiancĂ©e. George has just visited his father and has had an epiphany what is about to rock the family’s not too steady ship to the point where something will have to give.

Just outlining the story explains too some extent the complexity of the piece. There are lots of strands and they’re perfectly weaved together. We’re asked to consider a variety of issues as the plot unfolds and the play becomes more uncomfortable as layers are either peeled off or added.

My only reservation, me being a creature of novels rather than scripts, is the way so much is packed into such a short space of time. It feels unlikely that all of these strands would ever come together, but I guess that’s due to the confines of staging a play and the limitations that might bring. Even so, like adjusting to the format, this is easy to overlook and I found myself racing to the end and, even though it should have been predictable, I didn’t see it coming.

Having reached the final page, I was left with a feeling that I’d been here before. Memory not being my strongpoint, I checked it out and see that it’s also a noir movie which there’s every chance I would have watched at some point and may well watch again if I can find a way to do so.

It’s not a long read, but it’s a rewarding one nevertheless.

The good news for me is that it comes as part of a double-header and I’m looking forward to checking out A View From The Bridge very soon.  

 


Tuesday, 10 January 2023

One Man's Opinion: TEX by S E HINTON



 'I'd seen a muscle in his jaw jump, and I knew I'd hurt him. If felt good. It was the first time I realised hurting somebody could feel really good.'

Life so often with my favourite reads, it'd difficult to put my finger on why I enjoyed Tex so much.

While it's not quite up there with the absolute classics of The Outsiders, That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish, it shares many of their qualities and themes. 

The key relationship in the book is between Tex and his older brother, Mason, a basketball hopeful and an ambivalent school idol. Mason, who looks after the family finances, has had to sell Tex's horse to keep their lives afloat. Unfortunately, the horse is Tex's closest friend. It's when he's riding that he is at his most free and for Mason to get rid of Negrito is akin to him severing one of Tex's limbs (or possibly two or three). This sets the scene wonderfully and nails the love-hate relationship between the two from the off. 

What follows is Tex finding his feet. There's a wonderful naivity about him at first, a very simple way of being and appreciating the world and a sense that he's going to be among those who stay in their rural location as opposed to being one of those who is desperate to leave. 

As he finds love, gets into increasingly problematic scrapes at school, falls in and out with his best friend, attempts to rebuild his relationship with his father through a lens of blind faith and becomes innocently enmeshed with a drug dealer, his naivety is bashed and scraped to such an extent that he is forced to toughen up quickly. 

Though I was engaged from the start and loved the characters and their situations, the journey through life for Tex seems less smooth and organic when compared to the protagonists of the books that came before. In spite of this, the love of the characters and general involvement was just as potent and the ability Hinton has to punch to the gut with the use of words and spaces is just the way I'd hoped. 

Terrific work and one to check out.