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: Black Gum by J David Osborne

Having read a couple of Osborne’s previous works (Low Down Death Right Easy and Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit), and having found them both rather impressive, I’ve had my eye on Black Gum for some time. And I’m glad to tell you it didn’t disappoint.

Originally, I think Osborne pegged the project as a direct sequel to Low Down, in that Danny Ames (one of the main characters in that novel) plays a major part in the proceedings. But somewhere along the way the project seems to have changed and become something else, something different. Ames only appears in the last third of the book, in a small, though significant, cameo, and the book itself feels different in tone and texture to its predecessor. The narrator is a bit of a man-child who lives with an old friend after the failure of his marriage. They deal drugs, have parties, and hang out with the friend’s strange cousin, Shane; and generally they just exist in a vacuum where life is the stuff that happens to other people.

Whereas Low Down felt like a surreal crime drama, Black Gum feels more like a naturalistic drama with an element of crime running through it. The moments of weirdness that punctuate Osborne’s LDDRE are mostly missing here – consisting instead of minor details weaved into the main text (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end of book). It is also a very short work – more novella than novel – but that intensifies rather than diminishes the book’s impact.

Black Gum has a Carver-esque clarity to it, insofar as its simple, well-written, pared-back prose gets on with telling the story without the need for posturing and posing. What little action there is done without grandstanding; instead, it has more in common with the blink-and-you’ll miss them moments of real life. I liked that Danny Ames’ one-and-only appearance here is done without any real violence (he appears, the characters realise resistance is futile and do what they’re told).

If you’re looking for balls-to-the-wall crime action you won’t find it here, but what you will find is quality, character-based fiction with criminality weaved through it. Black Gum comes highly recommended.

Review: The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis

Hello there, dear readers. Sorry I’ve been away for so long. It feels like it’s been ages.

I’ve been quiet for a while, partly because I’ve been writing frantically to get a decent first draft of The Glasgow Grin together, but here I am – back again and ready to plough through my backlog of reviews.

The Long Lost Dog of It is the debut novel by Michael Kazepis, a writer who I hadn’t heard of previously. It’s published by Broken River Books, who are fast becoming one of my favourite indie publishing houses, and is available as both an ebook and a paperback.

It’s set in Athens during one of the anti-austerity protests that brought the city to a halt in 2011. The narrative focuses on the lives of a vagrant who used to be a police officer, a young lesbian couple who are having serious relationship difficulties, and a hitman who has returned home for his father’s funeral. They have nothing in common with the exception of a violent incident that occurs in the latter half of the tale – an incident that impacts on their lives in ways both major and minor.

TLLDOI is quite an original spin on the ensemble cast novel. Usually, these kind of ensemble cast novels are linked by an event that happens at the beginning or first half of the tale, and the characters’ tales develop out of this event. TLLDOI turns this on its head and deals with what happens to these people before the main event. It unfolds at an unhurried pace, taking its time, revelling in the details – the sights, sounds and smells of Athens – and lets the characters breathe a bit before finally tightening its grip on the story.

TLLDOI is superbly written. Kazepis has a poet’s eye for a descriptive turn of phrase. He doesn’t ladle on the metaphors, nor does he waste words in getting to the point. He builds his characters well and brings them to life with some choice dialogue and dramatic moments. Of course, some characters are stronger than others. Maniotis, the hitman, is incredibly strong, as is Varia, the vagrant, and some of the supporting characters like Karras and Mesrine are just as fully realised. The tale of Junesong and Pallas, the lesbian couple, although strong, didn’t hold my attention as well as the other stories, partly because the main focus of the narrative, involving Maniotis, would have worked just as well if they weren’t in it. Still, that’s a minor caveat.

And it also has one of the best action sequences I’ve read in several years. A gunfight between two of the characters that escalates into a wider conflict with the police and ties most of the characters together in one way or another. I doubt very much that I’ll read a more stunning setpiece this year.

TLLDOI is a very confident debut by a writer with real promise. It’s another hit for J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books, and it comes highly recommended.

Review: Low Down Death Right Easy by J David Osborne

J David Osborne’s Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit was a fine collection of strange stories from a young writer with obvious talent, both in his ideas and prose, and automatically sent his second novel (Low Down Death Right Easy) to the top end of my To-Read list.

It concerns two main stories that are only ever really linked by small things – paths briefly crossed, unpleasant finds, decisions made. Danny Ames is a thug who when he’s not getting money out of people who cross his path with his fierce partner Beck works as a bouncer at a nightclub. Then there’s Sepp and Arlo Clancy. Arlo is a straight arrow married, with hints of a wilder past, facing the daily horrors of serving the general public (and their stupid demands), while his younger brother Sepp is an ex-con on parole trying to make ends meet. Arlo and Sepp’s already fractious relationship is tested even further when the two men are fishing for catfish in a local river they find a severed head. Meanwhile, Ames is on the lookout for his brother, who wanted to be a teacher but has gone off-the-rails and can no longer be found anywhere. Add a dash of noir to this brew, and let’s just say things don’t really end well for everyone.

Osborne’s novel takes the standard tropes of noir – missing brothers, shady criminals, run-down bars, criminal heists – and makes something new and strange out of them. The prose has a ultra-lean, neutral feel to it, with naturalistic dialogue, which gives more weight to the moments of oddness that pepper the narrative (Danny’s habit of spitting teeth after indulging in moments of violence, Arlo’s nightmares about the severed head, the strange albino who frequents Arlo’s local bar). It’s a real work of quality, although I did have one caveat that occasionally jarred me out of the story. The lean nature of the prose leaves readers to fill in the gaps, but sometimes it goes too lean – at least, in my humble opinion. During odd moments, I felt forced to re-read lines because Osborne had seemingly written around the action, leaving only the aftermath. This might have been the writer’s intention, but it jarred for me – though others might not have any issue with this at all. However, this was my only caveat with an otherwise impressive and compelling novel. I’m already looking forward to his next one – Black Gum Godless Heathen – as this one comes highly recommended.

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 Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones

William Colton Hughes is one of those successful serial killers – you know, the ones you never hear about. He has been set up in an apartment block by a crime boss to deal with problem individuals that cross the boss’ path. The victims are duped into Hughes’ apartment and it is left up to the killer to deal with the rest. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. So when the victims stop arriving all of a sudden, Hughes begins to fret and worry that he’s been abandoned by his benefactor. Taken by itself, this is bad enough, but when a woman starts messing with his mind – sending messages, messing with neighbouring apartments, teasing him with potential victims – he starts to reminisce and revisit the events that brought him to his current status. Then he starts working on ways to get the woman into his apartment, where he can really go to work on her.

The Least Of My Scars is one of the launch publications from J. David Osborne’s Broken River Books (along with Jedidiah Ayres’ Peckerwood and XXX Shamus, among others) and as such has a sense of mission statement about it: Crime fiction in the loosest sense only, discarding the hoariest cliches, twisting the ones that remain. At least, that’s the sense I get from TLoMS and based on the first few chapters of Peckerwood, which I am currently reading.

I generally don’t go for serial killer fiction, mostly because I find it boring (although there are exceptions to this rule). The same old tropes: hyper-intelligent killer taunts cops with his method, cop/s with issues (substance abuse, divorce etc.) find some sort of salvation/redemption in the hunt for killer, and blah, blah, blah. So when a writer comes up with a novel way to present serial killers in fiction, twisting the old narrative tropes on their head, it always ends up being a pleasure to read.

And so it is with Scars.

The novel takes us deep in Hughes’ deranged head – the obsessive compulsive routines, the detailed kill and disposal method, the way he has turned the neighbouring apartments (all owned by his benefactor) into one larger lair – and gives the reader a compelling view of a deeply unpleasant individual. The prose is spare and skeletal, giving enough for the reader to go on in terms of descriptive detail but leaving the rest for the reader to fill in themselves (good old imagination – Jones gives us far less blood and guts than you might think), which considering the nature of Hughes’ crimes is a good thing. What detail Jones does bring mostly concerns Hughes’ phobias and compulsions, his hankering after new victims, and the slow-release of information in the time-honoured tradition of the unreliable narrator. He also builds the tension nicely, which made me turn the pages (or swipe my finger across my Kindle) faster and faster until the chaotic and violent climax.

Scars is a fine, nightmarish novel that – if you have the disposition for it – is a genuine page-turner, as well as being an inventive addition to a genre that has been in dire need of invention for a very long time. Highly recommended.