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.

Twelve Mad Men – Ryan Bracha interviewed

When the outrageously talented self-published author Ryan Bracha (Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet) contacted me about being part of a wild anthology idea that he had regarding twelve mad men in an institution I jumped at the idea. It was an exciting project involving a lot of seriously talented writers (Paul Brazill, Keith Nixon, Gerrard Brennan, Les Edgerton, just a few of those participating) – how could I not get involved? The concept involved 12 tales featuring fictionalised versions of each author around which Bracha would construct a bridging tale before tying the strands together at the very end. Kind of like one of those anthology horror movies from the 70s, but much better. I’d be bloody mad if I shirked this opportunity (especially as I’d never submitted a story to a collection before).

And now Twelve Mad Men is finally finished and out there – adding some serious craaaaazy to Amazon’s website. I interviewed Ryan about the project and what brought it about etc. Have a gander at how it went.

How did you come up with the concept for Twelve Mad Men?
It came to me one night when I was a bit tipsy and spouting off at fellow writer and friend Mark Wilson about how, as indie writers, we’ve got a better opportunity than ever before to experiment with our work. It was all about how there are so many writers out there trying to rip off what’s worked on a massive scale in the past (Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett etc.) and trying to grab a quick buck rather than use the creativity and imagination they were gifted with to do something awesome. Mark tends to feel the brunt of the ideas factory that is my brain. I come up with several ideas every week to try to do something original, most will be completely ridiculous and fall by the wayside, but some of them grow legs and I can run with them. This one was one of the latter. I wanted to put a bunch of wildly different, but equally talented writers in one place, and see what they did when given the exact same brief. I wanted to challenge myself to think on my feet, so the improvisation aspect jumped into the picture. The narrative theme just gave each writer the scope to be as ridiculous, violent, intense or comedic as they wanted to be.

How do you feel about the finished product?
I’m extremely happy with it. All eleven of the men I invited to contribute surpassed my wildest expectations, and gave me some phenomenal material to work with. The finished product is a seriously good signifier of the talent currently writing and publishing today.
Did the fact that you were improvising the tale that linked the stories cause any problems?
Not as many as I thought it might. Getting the stories submitted in the staggered manner that I did gave me the opportunity to really think about how I was going to introduce a character, and how I might leave that character be, taking what I needed to push the main plot on. Sometimes I did get carried away and went off on a tangent, but rather than delete and rewrite, I’d just go further back and drop some clues in about what was to come. I enjoyed the process immensely, truth be told. The challenge excited me.
Do you prefer anthologies with an overall unifying theme?
Yes and no. If it’s an individual writer’s collection then I like it to be a broad spectrum of what they can do with words, a whole range of themes, characters and styles. If it’s a multi-author piece of work, then yes. I like to see different takes on the same theme. I always loved those projects at school where everybody got one word, and had to write a piece of fiction with that word as the title. It shows how diverse we are as thinkers.
Do you hope to start a trend with this collection?
Definitely. I devised and implemented the idea according to a set of rules that I’ve termed The Rule of Twelve Manifesto 2014. It’s a series of guidelines for getting it written and published. I stole the general basis of rules from the Lars Von Trier spearheaded cinematic movement, Dogme 95, where the story would be the driving force, with no effects, or music to drive emotion. I wanted the writers involved to come up with something reasonably quick and without retrospective editing to get the essence of them as creative types. I would hope that somebody else might take the ball and run with it, and come up with their own Twelve project but if they don’t then that’s fine. The process isn’t for everyone. I’ll just continue to do them myself.
What are your future writing plans?
Before the writing I intend to kick off my new imprint Abrachadabra Books which will embody my approach to the writing game, and submissions will open once I get the first book out. I’m in talks with one of the Mad Men about putting his new one out. That’s a secret, though!
As far as my own work I have the second novel in The Dead Man Trilogy (The first of which is Paul Carter is a Dead Man) to finish hopefully for a January release, then I’m going to do another Twelve project, which will have some of the same names involved as this one, with some fresh blood in there too. On top of that I’m going to work on some shorts to go into a new collection. But the best laid plans and all that. Ask me next week and I might be planning a novel written entirely on cash that’s currently in circulation. Until Wilson talks me out of it!

Twelve Mad Men is out now. All proceeds go to Teenage Cancer Trust, so there’s really no excuse for you not to buy it here.

Review: The Fix by Keith Nixon

Set in 2007, a year before the financial crash, The Fix is about investment banker and everyman Josh Dedman. He’s having a pretty bad time of things. He’s framed and fired after £20 million goes missing from the bank where he works. His miserable and unpleasant girlfriend pretty much hates his guts, when she isn’t cheating on him. He’s unwillingly befriended by an irritating bloke on a train and even more unwillingly befriended by a foul-smelling Russian tramp who claims to be ex-KGB

When the man who framed Josh (and just happens to be his boss) is murdered he finds that he’s the chief suspect. And that’s when things really start to get unpleasant…

I knew that I was going to like The Fix on page one when it started with I am fucked. Anybody who can start a story like that is always going to get my attention. Nixon throws the reader straight into the action and keeps them there for the duration of the story. He takes a fairly complicated plot and spins it out nice and smooth, so the reader doesn’t lose their way. He alternates the sad-sack first person narration of Dedman with third person viewpoints of several other characters, all written in terse, funny, effective prose. The pace is fast with little fat to chew through to get to the meat of the story. The main thing though is the characters. And Nixon does good characters.

Dedman makes a convincing everyman, but the supporting cast are just as clearly defined: whether it’s Josh’s nasty, spiteful girlfriend Claire, his vile American boss, Hershey, or his friend Jack, whose bravado masks a few secrets. And of course Konstantin Boryakov and Mr Lamb, who definitely qualify as my favourite characters and light up the tale whenever they appear.

The Fix is a very good tale, well told. It gets the right balance of laughs and thrills and comes highly recommended from this particular reviewer.

So long, Elmore

Elmore Leonard died today.

This was the man who, in 1986, when I was fourteen, broke my crime fiction cherry with LaBrava. Joe, the ex-secret service agent, Jean, the faded movie star, the Miami backdrop – I loved every second and devoured it in one sitting.

I was late for school the next day due to that damn book, because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading it. And although my tardiness resulted in the threat of detention I couldn’t really hold it against the writer – he’d given me far too much enjoyment. In fact, I enjoyed LaBrava so much that I bought another four second-hand Elmore Leonard’s the next week – $wag, Stick, Glitz and Cat Chaser – and devoured every one of them.

Over the years I read more Elmore Leonard, a lot more, but kind of took his books for granted, too. They were always a pleasure to read (even the lesser ones), but for some reason, I would go long periods without reading him again. And for the life of me, I’m not sure why, because every time I did there would be the many pleasures of superb dialogue, sparely drawn yet fully rendered characters, controlled storytelling, and a great sense of humour (even when things got grim).

But it’s impossible to take him for granted any more because he’s gone and there’ll be no more trawls through the underworld with blue-collar crims and cops, all of who possessed the kind of patter that made you want to share a beer with them.

And that’s damn shame. My thoughts go out to his family.

So, I’m going to dig out an old copy of LaBrava, turn off the TV, sit back, listen to Maurice Zola spout off about Joe LaBrava’s photographs and let the story take hold.

So long, Elmore.

Review: Sacrifices by Roger Smith

Anybody who has read my ramblings, moans and reviews for long enough knows that I’ve got a major literary jones for Roger Smith. Dust Devils was one of my favourite reads of 2011 and Capture was in my list for 2012 (and Ishmael Toffee wasn’t far off being on that list, either). He has the storytelling chops of 70s-era Elmore Leonard but with a more violent, despairing view of the world, and with less humour (although, it isn’t that Smith can’t do humour, it’s just that when it does appear it has the shadow of the gallows over it).

Within a few pages of the beginning of Sacrifices, wealthy South African couple Michael and Beverley Lane witness their steroid-addicted Rugby-playing son murdering a young woman with a dumbbell. Beverley conspires to cover up the crime by blaming it on their housekeeper’s Meth-addict son, Lynnie. Although Michael is horrified by both the murder and the cover-up he is too weak and cowardly to do anything about it. The authorities arrest the housekeeper’s son and throw him in Pollsmoor prison (which truly sounds like one of the worst hell-holes on Earth). Lynnie contacts his sister, Louise, and tells her that he’s innocent. But he is murdered before she gets the opportunity to really look into it, which also leads to their mother dying from a heart attack. It is at this point that Louise vows revenge on Lane and his family.

Gradually, Michael pulls away from his venal wife and sociopathic son and enters into a relationship with a young assistant at a bookshop he owns, and for a while he is happy, but this is changed when another murder throws his world into disarray and allows Louise back into his life. Eventually, she uses Michael’s own weak nature against him to bring about a bloody and powerful showdown.

Sacrifices is a novel that veers away from the big villains (Inja Mazibuko and Vernon Saul) that dominated Dust Devils and Capture. Here the villains are the strangers who are tied to us by blood and marriage. The villains are the lies that people tell to save those closest to them.

It’s a novel populated by the weak, the venal, the sociopathic, the angry, and the depraved. The few decent characters in the novel are destroyed one way or another and there are few acts of kindness to penetrate the darkness that shrouds the story. In some senses, a novel this dark should almost be too much for a reader to bear, it just shouldn’t work, but there’s a lightness of touch, a subtlety to Smith’s writing, that makes it compulsive reading. Smith plots his tale with a master’s hand, ensnaring the reader, drawing them in, despite the darkness, and enhances his growing reputation as one of the best thriller writers around. I loved every second of it. And it joins Fierce Bitches and The Baddest Ass on my list of faves this year.

In fact, from now on, I’ve decided to have a spot in my yearly top ten reads that I’m going to donate to Roger Smith. It’s up to him whether he wants to fill it or not.

Potted reviews: World War Z by Max Brooks, Savages by Don Winslow, Gumshoe by Paul D. Brazill

World War Z, which I read earlier in the summer, is a superbly constructed ‘oral history’ of the Zombie War. It builds via long monologues the beginning, middle and aftermath of the war for the future of earth against the undead hordes. Along the way it uses the zombie apocalypse to satirically skewer Big Government’s inability to get organised in the face of big problems, the divisive nature of humankind, distrust, big business corruption, military inflexibility, and other societal problems. Occasionally, some of the voices can sound a bit similar, but this is a minor complaint when the book is so beautifully constructed and insightful. By the way, the film has barely nothing to do with the book other than sharing the same title. Read the book first. Highly recommended.

I’ll admit that I nearly put Savages down in the first ten pages, partly because the use of acronyms was driving me fucking crazy. But once I settled into it, and the acronyms, and etymology stuff, were toned down, I grew to love the story of Chon and Ben and O and their clashes with the Mexican Baja Cartel over their Marijuana business. The style, which reminded me of a up-to-date rendering of Ellroy’s prose, was perfect for this fast-paced story of cross and double-cross and clashes on the California/Mexico border. Highly recommended.

Set in the fictional northern locale of Seatown, which has its basis in the very real town of Hartlepool, Gumshoe is the story of serial failure Peter Ord, who decides in his infinite drunken wisdom to become a private investigator, and an enjoyable one at that, with plenty of booze, birds, some funny cases, and a brilliant sidekick-cum-best mate, Bryn Laden. Like all of Mr Brazill’s work it is very nicely written with a smart, sharp voice and a neat line in poetic similes. It can be polished off in an afternoon or evening’s reading and is well worth the cost of the download to your Kindle. Highly recommended.

Review: The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith

Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero from Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, is now in prison after the massacre at the end of the second novel. Considered as a traitor and a dirty cop by other inmates and guards alike, he is public enemy number one – the one prisoner that the others want to kill. Trouble for them is, he’s gone from being a villain with a conscience to a stone cold bad ass and every assassination attempt has ended badly. But Billy’s nemesis, Agent Rome, and his new assistant, Coleen, have arranged what they think is a sure-fire assassination attempt with a seriously corrupt prison guard and his underlings in cooperation with a vicious prisoner, Ri’Chess, who rules the roost in one of the wings. But the problem is that the day of the hit is the day that Billy’s ex-mother in law brings his son to the prison to see his father. Inevitably the hit goes wrong and double- and triple-crosses abound, the guards come to realise that Ri’Chess is using the hit for his own ends, and Colleen and Billy end up fighting to get the man’s family out of the prison alive.

Last year Anthony Neil Smith’s excellent thriller All The Young Warriors just missed out on my top five of the year (by the narrowest of margins), but there was part of me that suspected that Smith’s next book was going to be the big one. And guess what? This is the one, the wildest ride that Smith has done. As dark and cold as its prison setting when the power goes down, it contains moments of extreme nastiness and some extremely vicious and self-serving characters. It heaps misery on top of misery (rape, torture, many murders in various forms) and turns the prison into a charnel house. Smith makes some very bold choices in terms of the plot development and offers little in the way of redemption. It’s easily the finest prison riot novel I have read since Tim Willock’s brilliant Green River Rising, and is without doubt the finest book that Smith has written and, along with Jedidiah Ayre’s Fierce Bitches, is installed as my finest read of 2013 (though not quite sure which one I prefer at the moment). Highly recommended.