Potted Reviews: Rust and Bone – Craig Davidson, American Death Songs – Jordan Harper, 18 Days – Allen Miles, The City and The City – China Miéville

A couple of heavily altered stories from Craig Davidson’s collection of shorts Rust and Bone were the basis of a recent film of the same name by French director Jacques Audiard. It was a good film, a strong film, but it lacked the humanity that makes the title story such a wonderful short tale. For a start, the protagonist in the film is a selfish prick with few redeeming features (he improves as the film progresses, though not that much), but in the story he’s a truly decent man who fights out of a sense of duty and honour (to say more would be to spoil things). It also contains some of the finest prose you’ll find in short fiction – beautifully written, perfectly modulated, and wonderfully paced. The other tales in the collection aren’t quite as perfect, but they’re still superbly written with three-dimensional protagonists who burn brightly long after the final word has been finished. Excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Had it not been for Rust and Bone, Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs would have been the best short story collection that I’d read this year. As things stand it runs Craig Davidson’s collection a very close second. The prose is less flashy, and the tales are less angst ridden, but, damn, Harper tells a mean story. There are some really superb shorts in this book, with some recurring characters and nice line in amorality. Also excellent, and also highly recommended.

In 18 Days, the protagonist Davy Sheridan has everything to live for: a beautiful wife, a steady job and his first child on the way. But when Davy’s wife dies in childbirth, he falls to pieces and goes on a long, self-destructive bender – the 18 days in question – that threatens his sanity, his relationships and even his life. Miles’ novella isn’t exactly what you would call a pleasure read, but if you have the constitution for it it is a good read. Miles’ prose is, for the most part, strong and direct and at its best when it keeps things simple. Sheridan’s innate selfishness makes him difficult to warm to, but Miles’ control of the story keeps you reading to the end. Recommended.

The City and The City by China Mieville works on the premise that two cities at the far end of eastern Europe share the same physical space yet have their own separate identities. They are separated by crosshatching and the residents’ skill in the art of unseeing each other. But they are also separated by the fear of Breach – the concept of a person from one city suddenly seeing or interacting those in the other city. Once Breach has occurred a shadowy organisation takes over and deals with it once and for all. It’ll take most readers a bit of time to get their heads around the concept. But once it sinks in I have no doubts that most of these readers will be hooked on a murder mystery that takes in the concept of identity, has faint digs at the society we live in (we often unsee the homeless or areas of vast deprivation when the need arises), and makes less veiled attacks at corporate interest (not that surprising considering Mieville’s well-documented socialist leanings), but is also a damn fine tale in its own right. It’s the kind of idea that Philip K Dick would have had a field day with in his 60s heyday, though Mieville is a far better prose stylist than Dick. Highly recommended

Advertisements

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 Big Rain by Paul D Brazill

Regular readers will know how much I enjoy the work of Paul D Brazill – a writer who seems to be on a one-man mission to make Brit Grit (and its various practitioners) known to the outside world. His writing (short work especially) is tight, controlled, inventive and his prose style just drips with atmosphere.

I’ve especially enjoyed the Luke Case tales (Red Esperanto, Death On A Hot Afternoon and The Kelly Affair). He’s a British hack with a nose for booze, women and trouble, nearly always combining the three to disastrous effect. He also has a drifter’s tendency to end up in different places when the going gets tough (which is always), meaning that each story plays out in a new European location. The previous stories were set in, chronologically, Warsaw, Madrid, and Granada. His latest, The Big Rain, is set in a rain-swept Toulouse and deals with the culmination of a story strand that was begun, and left open, in The Kelly Affair. I won’t bother to spoil the plot for those who haven’t read Kelly (or indeed the other tales), instead I’ll suggest that you buy all of them and read them in order. They’re well worth your time and money.

Like in the other stories, the elements and atmosphere rise off the page, so that you can almost smell the tear-gas and feel the rain on your skin and taste the booze at the back of your throat. Brazill is a neat prose-stylist, something that always appeals to a basic, meat-and-potatoes, word cruncher like myself (because it’s not something that I can pull off), but he also has the chops necessary to take a tight grip on the story early in the proceedings. He weaves together characters and strands introduced in the earlier books and crafts a fine tale that builds to a powerful resolution. The Big Rain, like the rest of the Case tales, comes highly recommended. Get it on yer Kindle, quick-smart!

Review: Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit by J David Osborne

J David Osborne has become a player in crime fiction circles over the last few months. From out of nowhere, it would seem. But, as is always the case with these things, the reality is rarely how it might first seem. True overnight success is rare – it usually involves years of struggle and masses of talent (Osborne certainly has that in abundance). His highly lauded crime novel Low Down Death Right Easy got itself on several best of year lists, which means the guy can write! And this might have been enough for most people, but Osborne has also started Broken River Books, a small independent press, whose novels include Peckerwood and The Least Of My Scars (both of which have received glowing reviews from yours truly), meaning his judgement is also spot-on.

Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit is published by Broken River, and is a collection of Osborne’s short fiction. Most of the stories have both feet firmly in surreal territory (Kafkaesque in some cases, and like hallucinatory American writer John Hawkes in others). Bleak black humour abounds, as do massive and radical disjunctures from traditional storytelling, in tales that effortlessly straddle the worlds of nightmare and reality. Whether it’s two corrupt Mexican police officers obsessed with dark magic in the title story, the nightmarish western Amends Due, West of Glorieta, or the strange and compelling tale of drug dealers, police and a man whose body is inhabited by a lot of very unwelcome guests in The Thick Fog Of The Alabaster Mountains, these tales meld body horror, grim violence, ethereal strangeness, altered realities and strange black humour. The tales glitter brightly in clipped, clear prose before burning away just as vividly like flies in a zapper. Other tales that made a strong impression were Imprinting and the superb Three Theories on The Murder of John Wily, which reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges in the way it was structured and written.

I haven’t read Osborne’s Low Down Death Right Easy yet, but it has just leaped into the top five of my To-Be-Read list. If it’s as assured and confident and fucked-up as the tales in this fine collection, then it’s going to be a damn fine read. Highly recommended.

Review: The Liberator by Paul D. Brazill

Paul D Brazill’s latest, The Liberator, is about Father Trent – a priest who doesn’t exactly believe in turning the other cheek unless it’s somebody else’s and he’s applied one of his fists to it first – and the search for his sister, who has been kidnapped by something ancient and evil.

Like the Roman Dalton and Luke Case yarns, this is a very snappy short that builds to reveal a bigger picture (or will over time). However, it is a self-contained story in its own right, and a very good one it is, too. It has plenty of action and incident and is vividly painted in Brazill’s rich and inimitable prose. His reputation has been built in short fiction, and it shows – he knows how to pace his short stuff perfectly, with the right balance of description to action and with suitably iconic and cool finales.

I’m already looking forward to the next adventure for Father Trent. Here’s hoping that it’s as punchy as his first.

Short story: The Accident

John sneered up from beneath the car and said: “Christ, Rog, did you do this intentionally?”

“What makes you say that?” Roger asked.

John shook his head and ducked back under. “Because this is the kind of fucked you can only get by going over a speed bump slowly or mounting a surface that’s too high,” he replied, his voice slightly muffled by the vehicle that covered him. “You’re a good driver, mate. So when I see this kind of damage I hafta ask.”

Roger sighed softly and shrugged. “A bit stupid of me.”

“Can say that again.”

Roger did a circuit of the jacked-up car, looking at the flat tires and the scratched-up bumpers. It didn’t look good from this angle. “Prognosis?”

John cleared his throat. “Back bumper’s hanging by metal threads. You’ve put a hole in the exhaust and that’s barely hanging, and you’ve somehow fucked three of the tires so they’re flat. And then you drove home on the things, so the rims are fucked along with the tires.”

“Can you fix it?”

John scoffed. “This is a garage job – I don’t have the tools or the time to fix it. Frankly I feel under-qualified just looking at it. And I’m only doing it as a favour to you.”

“Fair enough,” Roger said and did a second circuit of the car. He huffed constantly as he assayed the damage. “Went over one of those low roundabouts. Not low enough, I guess.”

“Don’t sound like you.”

“Thinking about other stuff.”

“Such as.”

“Trouble at home.”

John paused momentarily. “What?”

“It’s got worse.”

John poked his head out from under the car again. “Worse?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit,” John said, looking uncomfortable. “Owt I can do?”

“No more than you’ve done already.”

“Huh?”

“Can you fix marriages and cars?”

John went back beneath the car. “Marriages? Pfffff, can’t even fix my own.”

Roger paused. “Angela’s having an affair.”

“Really?”

He crouched and looked at the top of John’s head. “That’s why I pranged the car.”

John tilted his head so he could see Roger. “Shit, mate. Sorry,” he said and paused. “I guess something like that would make anybody lose control.”

“I didn’t lose control.”

“But, you said…”

“I said it was a bit stupid of me.”

John looked at something directly above him and tinkered with it. “Expensive way of venting steam,” he said, his voice stiff.

“I wasn’t venting steam.”

John angled his head back at Roger. “So you’ve inflicted all this damage for no reason?”

“No. I had a reason.”

John pulled at a piece of metal and threw it to one side. “Which was?”

Roger took a mobile phone from his pocket and prodded the screen. “I wanted you to look at the car.”

John paused. “I don’t understand.”

Roger got on his knees and crept towards the car. “This should explain it.”

John reached out from beneath the vehicle and Roger put the phone in his outstretched hand. He stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans.

John looked at the text, tried to speak but stuttered.

Roger looked at the jack. “Actually I wanted you beneath it.”

John screeched a rapid stream of words, reached out and hooked both hands around the foot of the car, trying to pull himself out. Roger kicked the jack away. The car seemed to hang in the air forever, and Roger worried for a split-second second it wasn’t going to fall at all. Then it dropped with violent finality. John squealed as the vehicle struck; bones cracked loudly, followed by a wheeze as the air rushed from his lungs. Two unmoving hands poked out from beneath the car body. The mobile lay on its back next to Roger’s right hand. The message on the screen read: I wanna see you, babe. Meet me tonight. The wife’s away. Make an excuse for Roger. John. Xxx

Roger squatted on his haunches for a view of the corpse. He saw a strip of bloodied hair in the light, but the rest was in shadow. It was good enough.

He smiled, stood and left the garage, closing the door on the way out.

Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

Over the last year or so I’ve heard a lot about Frank Bill. This collection of hard, violent shorts has been getting glowing reviews by critics whose word really means something – pretty much anybody with any kind of gravitas and reputation in the crime fiction world has been lining up to give it the severed thumbs up.

Frank Bill has been compared with Donald Ray Pollock, whose Knockemstiff was one one of my favourite reads of last year. Personally, I think the only thing they share is a working class/blue collar/rural backdrop to the stories – their writing styles and their temperaments seem very much different. On the basis of my reading of this collection, Pollock is by far the warmer, more empathetic writer, Bill’s world view seems colder, more detached (though not every story has this kind of distance). That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, because it isn’t. Bill is a fine writer and this is a very fine collection, but there’s a detachment to his prose that isn’t there in Pollock – at least, in my humble opinion.

I’ve just thought of another trait that they share. Both writers have characters that appear in more than one story, either in cameo or as main players, although Pollock never takes it as far as Bill. A fine example of this happens in CiSI’s first three stories: Hill Clan Cross, These Old Bones and All The Awful. These stories could have been released as a novelette in their own right. Each is a separate story, but together they form a three act structure. In the first story we get introduced to two very nasty local criminals who stop their sons from selling drugs to their rivals. In the second the father of the rivals, sells his granddaughter to the criminals to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. In the third the granddaughter escapes from the criminals’ farm and sets up a final showdown. In their own right each is a fine story, but taken together they work brilliantly. There are others in here that work just as well.

In a sense, the stories are served well by a bit of detachment. Bill’s world is a scary reflection of a small portion of Indiana – a world of methed-up killers, dog fighters, crazed war veterans, rapists, gang henchmen. Not a very nice mix. And there’s so much horrible shit going on in these pages that distancing the reader from it makes perfect sense. If you plunge the reader’s face in the shit for too long they are likely to become alienated by it, but a bit of detachment and distance acts as a buffer against the horrors. This distance is served well by Bill’s prose, which is a mixture of clipped sentences balanced with nicely nuanced metaphors and similes. And I don’t know of many writers who can do action the way Bill does action. It moves quickly, wastes no words, and is awash with bone shards and blood spray.

For those of you with the stomach for a relentless, but excellent, collection of grim tales then this comes highly recommended. Bill is definitely a talent to watch.