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: Angels of the North by Ray Banks

Set in the Derwent Hall estate in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher’s social experiment with selling off public utilities to the highest bidder, selling council houses to willing tenants, and turning Britain into a service based economy was at its height, Angels of The North deals with three men who turn vigilante when their estate is threatened by a squat filled with drug dealers and junkies. When Joe, a former soldier and heroin user, is informed by Gavin, a local cabbie, about the violent assault of estate resident Brian at the hands of the dealers, he decides that he can kill two birds with one stone: he can drive the dealers off the estate and also get his hands on a free supply of H. He does this by roping in the initially reluctant Gav – who has delusions of grandeur and wants to run the cab firm he works for – and the even more reluctant Brian – an intelligent but unemployed man cursed with a deceitful ex-wife and unpleasant teenage daughter – and gets them to help him raid the squat; although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s doing it to steal heroin. Everything goes as wrong as can be expected, but it instils Gav with more determination to do something about the drug dealers.

With the help of aggressive driver Phil, Gav organises the drivers to burn down the squat. Then things change: Gav forces his unwell boss to hand over the cab firm, and turns the cab firm into a sort of Guardian Angels of Tyneside (though Phil is taking this further than agreed by beating dealers and taking their money); Joe, meanwhile, is now a full-blown heroin addict who despises his wife, his child, his live-at-home father, and himself most of all; and Brian is an alcoholic cleaner at the Metrocenter indoor shopping estate.

From here the fortunes of the men see-saw from highs to lows and back again, as their ambitions and foibles ultimately lead to a tragic and violent final third.

Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate Ray Banks. His storytelling abilities are first-rate, his prose is clean and fat-free and his ear for the patterns of regional British dialogue is probably the best around. The Cal Innes novels and Wolf Tickets are superb reads, but Angels of the North is something else entirely. It feels like Banks is channeling his inner James Ellroy. From the well implemented historical setting, to the distinctive three protagonist structure that the ‘Demon Dog’ made his own, right through to Puma Cabs, which seems to be a play on American Tabloid’s Tiger Kabs, Angels gives the impression of a writer wanting to expand his horizons into territory that Ellroy knows well. And like the best of Ellroy, Angels is really quite brilliant.

Three flawed, not particularly likeable, but very well-drawn protagonists propel the reader through a character driven tale. Unlike James Ellroy, Banks isn’t interested in Byzantine plotting (although the way he weaves a corrupt police officer through the story suggests that he could have gone in that direction if he so wished), he tells the story through the decisions (wise and unwise) that his characters make. Through a combination of hubris and poorly made decisions the three characters reach fates that seem entirely natural (no matter how tragic).

The writing is scalpel sharp and cuts through the characters’ lives with regularity. The dialogue resonates with authenticity and a few choice Eighties expressions that I’d almost forgotten. Angels works as an outright character drama piece and also as an exposé of what Thatcher’s policies did to the north. This novel establishes Banks as Brit Grit’s premier exponent. I might read a better novel this year, but it’s going to have to be a once in a blue moon work of brilliance to top this beauty. Highly recommended. If you don’t download this on Kindle you’re denying yourself something very special.