My Top Reads of 2015

2015 has been a good year in some respects, though less so in others. However, what it has marked has been a considerable improvement in both my book sales and my experience as a writer. It’s also the first year that I’m following up a novel that has had a fair degree of success (for me, at least), The Glasgow Grin, with sales in the thousands.

This means that I’ve got to up my game in 2016.

Most of this year has involved a redraft of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Billingham Forum (the next Stanton tale), to ensure that it is as good as possible. Sadly, this takes time. It’s been in gestation for over three years – an incredibly long time for a 75,000 word novel that reads like an Elmore Leonard tale being screamed from the gallows by a maniacally cackling psychopath.

Which is quite a long-winded way of saying that I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked this year. Writing got in the way. But the stuff I did read was mostly excellent, and choosing my final five was very difficult. The ones that made it on the list resonated with me more deeply for some reason (a piece of description, an ending, a plot twist or revelation, or just a lingering image or attitude). But everything on this list (including the notables) is well worth your time.

This list isn’t in any particular order:

1) Angels of the North by Ray Banks
This is stone cold brilliance from Brit Grit’s premier exponent. It reads with the propulsive force of a kitchen-sink James Ellroy, yet handles its relationships with far more sensitivity than the great American author can manage. It targets both Thatcher’s legacy and by implication the social experiment currently being conducted on Britain’s poor by David Cameron – yet not in a way that shout its politics overtly. When the dust settles, this is a novel about people, outsiders in one way or another, who don’t quite fit the system no matter how hard they try. Glorious stuff. And I can’t wait to read what Banks comes up with next.

2) The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Like Angels this has a tinge of Ellroy about it; but whereas Banks’ masterwork borrows the three character structure and the sense of historical significance from Ellroy, Winslow’s novel has the epic scope and dense structure of American Tabloid and the terse, laconic sentences that punctuate Ellroy’s best work. Yet it is entirely its own beast. Powerful, superbly plotted, characterised by a huge cast all with their own foibles and failings, and a story that has  the gravitational pull of a black hole. Despite the length, no matter how squalid things get, you find yourself coming back for more of this tale set during the defining years of America’s war on drugs. Brilliant.

3) After Hours by Edwin Torres
This brilliant novel was the basis for the Brian De Palma/Al Pacino classic Carlito’s Way. The novel is a bit more complex and better plotted than the film, which cuts out much of Dave Kleinfeld’s story in favour of focusing on Pacino. The first-person narrative voice of Carlito Brigante is superbly realised and, you can almost imagine Pacino speaking the lines, which makes things even better, it meshes well with the third-person sections that feature the Kleinfelds and other major characters. Although it follows a similar arc to the film, there are enough changes to keep the novel from feeling stale when compared with the movie (and vice-versa). If you can get hold of it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

4) Black Gum by J. David Osborne
Black Gum is one of those novels (like Angels, and Power) that has stayed with me long after finishing it. With pared-back Carver-esque clarity, it gets on with telling a story that never postures or strikes a false pose. The moments of weirdness that punctuated Osborne’s Low Down Death Right Easy are weaved into the text more coherently here (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end). And it feels all the better for it. Also, the few moments of criminal action or violence contained in the story have the blink-and-you’ll miss them qualities of real life – its all about the aftermath. Danny Ames (one of the main characters in Low Down) gets a fleeting cameo here. And what I liked about Ames’ moment was that his actions are all about implied violence (his threat is known, and understood, and the main characters react accordingly). This is quality, character-based fiction with criminality and a vein of glittering weirdness weaved through it. Highly recommended.

5) Zulu by Caryl Férey
This book was one of those moments when I decided to take a risk and get something by an author I’d never heard based on nothing but the back cover blurb that pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. It concerns murder, designer drugs, white power/apartheid conspiracies, and the general corruption of a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. It’s a very violent, fast-moving tale with more twists than fusilli, is superbly plotted, and is gripping from first page to last. Highly recommended.

Other highly notable reads:
The Guns of Brixton by Paul Brazill, The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, Ben Turner is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha, Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker and Jigsaw Youth by Tiffany Scandal. All of these are top-notch reads that are well worth your time.

Disappointment of the year:
Perfidia by James Ellroy
I could go into minute detail about what doesn’t work in this book (the first quarter is an interminable slog, Dudley Smith should always be a supporting character, Kay Lake’s diary reads exactly like it was written by James Ellroy), but I won’t. I’ll simply add that I had expectations for it that weren’t met (which is my problem, not the author’s), but also many of Ellroy’s flaws seemed to be magnified by the expansive scale of the novel. It isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a good one, either.

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My Top Ten Reads of 2014

Damn! Has the year really gone that quickly?

It only seems like yesterday that I was making plans for how I wanted my year to go, and here I am at the end of it. The Glasgow Grin still hasn’t made an appearance – never have I put so much work into a writing project – as it expanded from a relatively short 50,000 word novel into a pretty complex 105,000+ monster that is still being edited as I write this. But it’s a much better tale because of the changes – at least, in my humble opinion. Such was the nature of the project that I didn’t read and review as many novels as I had initially wanted to in 2014.

Occasionally, weeks went by without me reading a single word of prose – mostly because I wasn’t able to spare brain capacity from redrafting and editing The Glasgow Grin project. Alas, I just don’t have that big a brain!

Still, when I did get the chance to read, I devoured stuff. And this year has been marked by its sheer quality. There have been very few duffers (I only stopped reading two books this year, which is a first), and even though I didn’t read as much as I would have liked I’ve read some great work.

Right, enough waffle. On with the list, which is in no particular order.

1) Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Last year, Ayres’ superb novella Fierce Bitches made my list. It was a beautifully written tale with a density and ambition that promised great things to come. Peckerwood, published by the superb Broken River Books, is the first fulfilment of that promise. Written in a more straightforward pared-back style than Bitches, this Jim Thompson-esque tale of corruption in a small town came with some wonderful characters, great dialogue, and fine set-pieces. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you grab a copy straight away.

2) Corrosion by Jon Bassoff
Bassoff’s twisted and deliciously evil slice of psycho-noir revelled in its squalid small town atmosphere, numerous unreliable and unstable narrators. Well written, with a keen eye for the right piece of detail to make a description come alive or a piece of dialogue sing. A truly impressive piece of work.

3) The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson
This dark, kinky and violent piece of noir about a zen bank robber chasing his wife and partner in crime was a real surprise. I read a couple of reviews before picking it up, but they didn’t really prepare me for such a gut-punch of a thriller that packs more into its 100+ pages than many thrillers of three times the length. If you have the stomach for some of the brutality, you probably won’t find many more exciting thrillers around.

4) The Bitch by Les Edgerton
This tale of blackmail and a robbery that goes very, very wrong was easily one of the best I read in 2014. It piles incident on top of incident, almost to the point where a lesser writer might tip it over into parody, but Les Edgerton never lets this happen. Through a combination of excellent writing and controlled plotting, Edgerton turns this into a quite excellent noir thrill-machine of a novel. Excellent stuff.

5) Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson
It’s the title story, about an ageing bare-knuckle fighter, that’s the real killer in this collection (a fine tale, written in some of the most beautifully rendered prose I’ve read in a short story), but it’s a strong collection filled with several superb short stories.

6) Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Ah, what would one of these lists be without one of Roger Smith’s black-hearted, fast-paced tales on it? Not the same, that’s for sure! This ultra-violent thriller has several story strands that interleave beautifully. And, as ever with Smith, it has a brilliant and vile villain. Why Roger Smith isn’t a more successful writer is one of the big mysteries? He writes superbly, can plot with the best of them, and paints a picture of South Africa that grows scarier with each novel. When dog-shit writers like James Patterson sell millions for ghost-written tales, you have to wonder why Smith, a far superior writer with real story-telling chops, doesn’t sell anywhere near those kinds of numbers.

7) The City And The City by China Mieville
My first experience of this British science fiction author was a highly positive one. It’s a detective thriller set in two eastern European cities that share the same geographical space. The inhabitants of the city have differing languages, customs and architectural styles, and deal with each other’s existence through a combination of architectural cross-hatching and ‘unseeing’. It sounds like more of a ‘mindfuck’ than it actually is, and is a well-written thriller that seamlessly combines philosophical elements and satirical digs at big business and national identity. Superb stuff.

8) Paul Carter is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha
Bracha’s alternative version of modern-day Britain makes for an ugly place, but also for a damn fine satirical thriller that skewers the kind of UKIP-style politics that currently blights our nation, along with nice digs at social network justice and its own brand of replacement swearing.

9) The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis
This original take on the the ensemble novel has its flaws, but it has stayed with me in a way that no other book has this year. It has some fine moments, plus far and away the best action setpiece I read this year (between two hitmen that starts in an apartment block and eventually expands out into a wider conflict with the police). It also has some wonderful prose.

10) American Death Songs by Jordan Harper
A fine collection of hard-edged short stories that really put its steel toe-capped boots into its characters’ guts. Harper is a damn fine writer of short tales. Great collection.

I read a lot of good stuff this year and there were many other notable and highly enjoyable works by writers such Paul D. Brazill, J. David Osborne, Keith Nixon, and Josh Stallings among many others.

Here’s hoping 2015 throws up as many gems.

Merry Christmas, folks, and a Happy New Year.

My Top 6 Reads of 2013

It’s that time of year, where I look back on the past twelve months and give my unwanted opinion about the books that I read (these weren’t necessarily books that were released in 2013 – just that I read them this year).

2013 was a good year, in my humble opinion. Some writers confirmed their talents, others built upon already lofty reputations, and a whole host of new writers (new to me, at least) surprised me from nowhere. I read very few duffers – those that I did pick up never got reviewed (in fact, I read rather a lot that didn’t get reviewed because I simply didn’t have the time) – and I tore through a lot of the good, the fine, and the merely not bad. It was going to be five, but James Sallis snuck in at the very last minute (literally as I started finishing the first draft of this piece).

Oh, and these are in no particular order, before you ask:

Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

One of the first things I read this year was also one of the best. A heady brew of noir that mixed more than a dash of Cormac McCarthy with a harsh slug of Jim Thompson. Set in and around the fictional Mexican town of Politoburg, although it’s more hell-on-earth than town, Fierce Bitches concerns the lives, deaths and unpleasant fates of pimps, prostitutes and gringos who solely populate this place. Although only a novella in length, it packs more meat and linguistic denseness between its covers than most writers manage in entire careers.

The Cal Inness quartet by Ray Banks
The tale of ex-con and amateur sleuth Cal Inness could have been awash with cliches in the wrong hands, but Ray Banks probably wouldn’t know a cliche if it punched him in the face. It tells Inness’ story in four brilliantly written tales that leave the reader pummelled, moved, saddened, horrified and breathless, often within the space of a few pages. At least two of them could have made this list individually, but I decided to take the series as a whole. And what a series! One of the most stunning series of PI novels that I have read. If you haven’t already experienced it I envy you. You get to read it for the first time!

The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith
Last year Smith almost made my top five with the excellent All The Young Warriors but was squeezed out at the last by Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. This time there’s no squeeze, unless we’re talking about about the sheer fucking death grip of a narrative that Smith fashions for this non-stop, thrill ride through a prison hell-hole. Featuring Billy Lafitte, the corrupt police officer gone very, very bad, who also figures in Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, if this pulse-quickener doesn’t make you a Lafitte fan then you’re probably never going to be one.

Sacrifices by Roger Smith
Every year one of Roger’s books makes my list. In 2011 Dust Devils was my favourite read. Last year Capture made the top 5. And this year, Sacrifices his superb thriller about a toxic family unit and the damage that one miscarriage of justice has on a number of lives. It is gripping and Smith has pulled off the nifty trick of keeping you reading despite the fact that the cast has barely a sympathetic character among them.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride
McBride’s tale of a PI who decides to help himself to the loot from a bank robbery that has gone wrong is a delight. Along with a couple of low-life cohorts, he decides to find the money himself, which sees him and his co-conspirators run afoul of a couple of particularly nasty criminals. A lot of blood gets spilled along the way and Frank Sinatra does indeed end up in a blender! FSIAB (as it shall be known henceforth) is a superbly written comic crime novel with a great protagonist and a pace that just doesn’t quit. In fact, all the characters are sharply etched, there are laughs-a-plenty to be found, and Valentine’s relationship with Frank Sinatra is a delight. I loved every second of it, and am eagerly looking forward to McBride’s next novel. Highly recommended.

Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know how disappointed I was with The Killer Is Dying (which was almost great, but ultimately the execution was off) and Driven (which I re-read recently – and is worse than I remembered), but I still think Sallis is one of the great talents of modern crime fiction. However, after two disappointments, I was somewhat worried that this would be a third misfire. But fortunately it didn’t remotely disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s Sallis’ best work. It isn’t really crime fiction, although it deals with the aftermath of a crime. What it deals with are people, and what James Sallis has given us, with Jenny, his protagonist, is one of the best female characters to come along in fiction for years. By turns mellow, forgiving, kind, damaged, rootless, and utterly human, Jenny lights up the pages and when the story is finally over you start to miss her completely. And if you miss out on this novel/novella (it’s a narrow volume) you will be doing yourself a disservice. It should be on a lot more top five/ten lists. Highly recommended.

Other notable writers who entertained me considerably this year with their books and only just missed out on the list were Paul D Brazill with Gumshoe, Frank Bill with Crimes in Southern Indiana and Keith Nixon with The Fix. If you read this list and fancy grabbing one of these books, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Have a great festive season folks and happy reading.

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!