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.

Review: Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker

Fin McPhail is having a difficult time out in Amsterdam. He’s getting over the break-up of his marriage (and a resulting case of sexual dysfunction) by throwing himself into his job as a marketing specialist for Cloudburn Whisky. The problem is, after a bright start, his ideas about local folklore aren’t really selling any more, his US boss is looking to fire him. He’s given the weekend to come up with ideas to save his job. Things get even worse when a particularly brutal treatment for his impotence by a ‘sex therapist’ results in him accidentally knocking a prostitute on conscious and running away in fear. The problem is compounded by the fact he accidentally leaves his phone in the brothel, and is soon contacted by a ‘psycho pimp’, which makes the weekend of his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s stag do that much more difficult. Things inevitably go awry, and Fin has to try and save his job, rescue the groom, and deal with his problems in any way he can.

Not knowing Neil Cocker, other than through his blog, or his previous short works, I started Amsterdam Rampant armed only with a few reviews (some of them by other Brit Grit authors). I expected it to be Irvine Welsh-lite (several Amazon reviews pegged it as such), but it really isn’t. The dialogue has some Scottish phonetics, but they are  scaled back from the kind of verbal pyrotechnics Welsh is renowned for (maybe that’s why some readers made the comparison). Certainly, the shenanigans the stags get up to are relatively tame in comparison with what Welsh writes, and Cocker seems more concerned with relationships than his compatriot (Welsh, for all his strengths, is a much more adroit writer of set-pieces than he is at documenting human frailties and partnership difficulties). Fin McPhail (Mcfailure to some of his friends) is a fine character and narrator, and there’s compassion and yearning in his voice. He also has a good eye for Amsterdam’s details and nice descriptive skills in his scene-setting, plus a solid sense of how to pace his narrative. It does all get wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, almost with a big bow on it, but that’s a minor caveat (and probably just a case of me being finicky), because this is an entertaining and very well written novel. Highly recommended.