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.

Review: Corrosion by Jon Bassoff

Occasionally a writer comes along and gives a performance that makes me sit back and really think about what I’ve just read. Jon Bassoff is one such writer, and Corrosion is one such performance. It’s as black and dense as freshly distilled tar and just about as bleak as noir gets. Redemption, and hope, is in short supply.

Before reading Corrosion, my previous awareness of Bassoff was strictly through his work as the founder of the crime fiction publisher New Pulp Press. However, the fact that it has modern masters like Heath Lowrance, Matthew McBride and Roger Smith on its roster acted as a recommendation for Bassoff’s work. But after finishing Corrosion, I immediately downloaded The Disassembled Man, which Bassoff wrote under the pseudonym Nate Flexer. I hope it’s as good and dark as this one.

The story begins with Joseph Downs, a loner and Iraq war veteran who has been horribly burnt by an IED, getting stuck in a small Colorado town when his car breaks down. While in a bar he intervenes in an argument between a woman and her husband, an incident that leads to violence, and soon enough finds himself ensnared by the woman, who finally asks him to take care of her brutal husband once and for all. He tries to get her to go an alternate route, by going with him to a little shack he knows in the mountains. Things do not go as planned…

Then the narrative skips back in time, into the head of Benton Faulk, a 16 year old boy whose mother is dying. His insane father tries to save her by concocting a cure in his makeshift lab, despite knowing very little about science or medicine. Being in such an environment leaves Faulk somewhat disturbed, which means his obsession with a local waitress, and a shack in the mountains, leads to a suitably tragic finale before he skips town and runs into Downs…

The final character, who appears as a kind of epilogue to the tales of Downs and Faulk, is the masked Reverend Wells, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who has little time for sins and sinners.

Corrosion is dark fare, filled with sudden acts of violence, desperation, insanity (of all kinds), loneliness, and empty of redemption. Nobody is ever what they seem in Bassoff’s world, and unreliable narrators abound. Corrosion takes the Jim Thompson-esque narrator concept, stretches it to breaking point and then gleefully stomps the broken pieces into the small-town dirt. It’s a well-written, tense tale, that performs the neat trick of making you empathise with and understand some awful characters – the kind of people you would cross the road to avoid in real-life. It’s not an easy trick to do, which makes what Bassoff has achieved all the more impressive. Corrosion won’t leave you feeling good about yourself after you’ve read it, but it will grip you tightly, and it will stay in the memory for a long time after you’ve finished the last line. Highly recommended.