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.

My Top 6 Reads of 2013

It’s that time of year, where I look back on the past twelve months and give my unwanted opinion about the books that I read (these weren’t necessarily books that were released in 2013 – just that I read them this year).

2013 was a good year, in my humble opinion. Some writers confirmed their talents, others built upon already lofty reputations, and a whole host of new writers (new to me, at least) surprised me from nowhere. I read very few duffers – those that I did pick up never got reviewed (in fact, I read rather a lot that didn’t get reviewed because I simply didn’t have the time) – and I tore through a lot of the good, the fine, and the merely not bad. It was going to be five, but James Sallis snuck in at the very last minute (literally as I started finishing the first draft of this piece).

Oh, and these are in no particular order, before you ask:

Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

One of the first things I read this year was also one of the best. A heady brew of noir that mixed more than a dash of Cormac McCarthy with a harsh slug of Jim Thompson. Set in and around the fictional Mexican town of Politoburg, although it’s more hell-on-earth than town, Fierce Bitches concerns the lives, deaths and unpleasant fates of pimps, prostitutes and gringos who solely populate this place. Although only a novella in length, it packs more meat and linguistic denseness between its covers than most writers manage in entire careers.

The Cal Inness quartet by Ray Banks
The tale of ex-con and amateur sleuth Cal Inness could have been awash with cliches in the wrong hands, but Ray Banks probably wouldn’t know a cliche if it punched him in the face. It tells Inness’ story in four brilliantly written tales that leave the reader pummelled, moved, saddened, horrified and breathless, often within the space of a few pages. At least two of them could have made this list individually, but I decided to take the series as a whole. And what a series! One of the most stunning series of PI novels that I have read. If you haven’t already experienced it I envy you. You get to read it for the first time!

The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith
Last year Smith almost made my top five with the excellent All The Young Warriors but was squeezed out at the last by Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. This time there’s no squeeze, unless we’re talking about about the sheer fucking death grip of a narrative that Smith fashions for this non-stop, thrill ride through a prison hell-hole. Featuring Billy Lafitte, the corrupt police officer gone very, very bad, who also figures in Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, if this pulse-quickener doesn’t make you a Lafitte fan then you’re probably never going to be one.

Sacrifices by Roger Smith
Every year one of Roger’s books makes my list. In 2011 Dust Devils was my favourite read. Last year Capture made the top 5. And this year, Sacrifices his superb thriller about a toxic family unit and the damage that one miscarriage of justice has on a number of lives. It is gripping and Smith has pulled off the nifty trick of keeping you reading despite the fact that the cast has barely a sympathetic character among them.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew J McBride
McBride’s tale of a PI who decides to help himself to the loot from a bank robbery that has gone wrong is a delight. Along with a couple of low-life cohorts, he decides to find the money himself, which sees him and his co-conspirators run afoul of a couple of particularly nasty criminals. A lot of blood gets spilled along the way and Frank Sinatra does indeed end up in a blender! FSIAB (as it shall be known henceforth) is a superbly written comic crime novel with a great protagonist and a pace that just doesn’t quit. In fact, all the characters are sharply etched, there are laughs-a-plenty to be found, and Valentine’s relationship with Frank Sinatra is a delight. I loved every second of it, and am eagerly looking forward to McBride’s next novel. Highly recommended.

Others Of My Kind by James Sallis
Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know how disappointed I was with The Killer Is Dying (which was almost great, but ultimately the execution was off) and Driven (which I re-read recently – and is worse than I remembered), but I still think Sallis is one of the great talents of modern crime fiction. However, after two disappointments, I was somewhat worried that this would be a third misfire. But fortunately it didn’t remotely disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s Sallis’ best work. It isn’t really crime fiction, although it deals with the aftermath of a crime. What it deals with are people, and what James Sallis has given us, with Jenny, his protagonist, is one of the best female characters to come along in fiction for years. By turns mellow, forgiving, kind, damaged, rootless, and utterly human, Jenny lights up the pages and when the story is finally over you start to miss her completely. And if you miss out on this novel/novella (it’s a narrow volume) you will be doing yourself a disservice. It should be on a lot more top five/ten lists. Highly recommended.

Other notable writers who entertained me considerably this year with their books and only just missed out on the list were Paul D Brazill with Gumshoe, Frank Bill with Crimes in Southern Indiana and Keith Nixon with The Fix. If you read this list and fancy grabbing one of these books, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Have a great festive season folks and happy reading.

Why has noir made a comeback?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. What is it about noir and hardboiled fiction that makes it so popular for modern day readers? After all, a happy noir ending is as rare as hen’s teeth and, although leavened with moments of humour, noir leaves its characters floundering in a Godawful mess that gets deeper and darker the harder they try to dig themselves out. Why would people actively seek out stuff like this when the world around them is so bloody dark, anyway?

We live in a world where banks are given a government licence to steal our money, safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever actually be done about it, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for these transgressions aided by a crony political elite. We live in a world where governments spy without any constraints or accountability on our emails, phone calls, text messages and internet usage in the name of democracy and safety, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. We live in a world where the top one per cent will get richer to the detriment of the rest of society, and yet somehow manage make it seem like it’s the poor that are bleeding us all dry. We live in a world that allows corporations to control ever more of our daily lives (through political lobbying, weak and greedy politicians, and financial influence, among other things), allowing them to plunder resources, destroy the natural world and, in some cases, murder people, in their quest for ever more wealth. We live in the kind of world that celebrates fame over talent, youth over experience, beauty over almost everything. In short, we live in a world whose value system is irretrievably damaged, a world that is fucked.

I partly think it is because the world is so bad that noir has made a return to the mass-market. There’s something of the car crash about noir fiction; the way it shoves our faces into the piss and shit and viscera of this world. And if you drive a car for long enough you’ll know that there’s nothing we humans like more than rubbernecking at car accidents. Because as bad as things seem for us in the real world its nice to take a trip to places that are so much worse than ours, visiting characters whose lives are much more messed up than ours will hopefully ever be. What’s better than taking a trip to small towns where characters live out their lives of quiet desperation right up to the moment when they kick against the system and get really destroyed? I’ll tell you what’s better – that moment when you put the book down, breathless, thanking your lucky stars it’s them and not you.

Noir always seems to rear its head when times are bad. During the depression and post-depression years, during the cold war years and McCarthy’s witch hunts, during other recent periods of financial hardship. Look at Brit noir, for instance, which really started to come into its own when the swinging sixties turned ugly and faded into the early seventies, and the country was crippled by the unions, the three day week, and systemic corruption spread like cancer. Writers like Ted Lewis peeled back the skin of this ugly Britain and showed readers the rot that lay beneath. There was something appealing about somebody like Lewis saying: “Yes, your life is shit, but d’you wanna see something really ugly? Then read this.” Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags and the peerless GBH pressed the noses of British readers into the filth and showed them lives that were far worse than their own, lives lived in squalid bedsits and B&Bs, lives lived in pornography, the sex industry, and other criminal endeavours, lives lived in prison cells or on the run, and lives lived so close to the edge that sometimes the balance is lost and they tip over the edge.

Of course, the ugliness of everyday life isn’t the only reasons for noir’s cyclical resurgence. Technology plays a big part, too. Affordable mass-market paperbacks and magazines propelled the earlier days of noir, back in the days when these things were truly affordable. And today’s noir and hardboiled fiction is propelled by the internet (e-zines etc.), relatively affordable e-readers, cheap or free ebooks, and improvements in printing technology that have enabled high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks. Today’s technological advances have allowed new small-press publishers to set up high-quality outfits with smaller outlays and overheads than Big Publishing can manage, which means they’re more inclined to take risks with material that might upset readers due to being too dark, or violent, or full of rage, or any number of other transgressions that can trouble those who might prefer ‘cosier’ stories: Blasted Heath, New Pulp Press, Snubnose Press, and Caffeine Nights are just some of the pioneers of this new trend. These folks are pushing real boundaries, taking real risks, and are putting out some cracking fiction that would never have been seen if Big Publishing was still controlling things.

There are currently a lot of Neo-Noir titans pushing boundaries that would make even the likes of Jim Thompson blush. Writers like Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Ray Banks, Roger Smith, Anthony Neil Smith, Paul D Brazill, Tom Piccirilli, Heath Lowrance, Les Edgerton, Jedidiah Ayres, Megan Abbott, Nigel Bird, Josh Stallings, Ian Ayris, to name but a few, produce wild rides, break taboos, take real risks, and tell cracking tales with aplomb. If you haven’t read them yet, you should, they’ll really shake you up.

I hope that this new popularity for noir fiction doesn’t go the way of previous boom times. In the past, its popularity has been cyclical, and ended when times have got better…

Buuuut, the modern world’s a shithole, and things are probably only going to get worse from here on in (economically, socially, ecologically), so long may these noir writers and others like them reign.

Let a little darkness into your life.

Review: The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith

Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero from Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, is now in prison after the massacre at the end of the second novel. Considered as a traitor and a dirty cop by other inmates and guards alike, he is public enemy number one – the one prisoner that the others want to kill. Trouble for them is, he’s gone from being a villain with a conscience to a stone cold bad ass and every assassination attempt has ended badly. But Billy’s nemesis, Agent Rome, and his new assistant, Coleen, have arranged what they think is a sure-fire assassination attempt with a seriously corrupt prison guard and his underlings in cooperation with a vicious prisoner, Ri’Chess, who rules the roost in one of the wings. But the problem is that the day of the hit is the day that Billy’s ex-mother in law brings his son to the prison to see his father. Inevitably the hit goes wrong and double- and triple-crosses abound, the guards come to realise that Ri’Chess is using the hit for his own ends, and Colleen and Billy end up fighting to get the man’s family out of the prison alive.

Last year Anthony Neil Smith’s excellent thriller All The Young Warriors just missed out on my top five of the year (by the narrowest of margins), but there was part of me that suspected that Smith’s next book was going to be the big one. And guess what? This is the one, the wildest ride that Smith has done. As dark and cold as its prison setting when the power goes down, it contains moments of extreme nastiness and some extremely vicious and self-serving characters. It heaps misery on top of misery (rape, torture, many murders in various forms) and turns the prison into a charnel house. Smith makes some very bold choices in terms of the plot development and offers little in the way of redemption. It’s easily the finest prison riot novel I have read since Tim Willock’s brilliant Green River Rising, and is without doubt the finest book that Smith has written and, along with Jedidiah Ayre’s Fierce Bitches, is installed as my finest read of 2013 (though not quite sure which one I prefer at the moment). Highly recommended.

Review: Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres

Anybody who read my recent review of Ayres’ collection A F*ckload of Shorts will know I thought highly of it. And rumblings on the crime fiction grapevine suggested that his latest, Fierce Bitches, was a cracker. Reviews were exceptional right across the board. So I made sure to grab a paperback copy the moment it became available.

Fierce Bitches involves a small town, or more a collection of buildings really, called Politoburg, in the middle of nowhere in Mexico that belongs to Harlan Polito, a crime boss. The population of this town consists of Mexican whores (the Marias), gringos who work for Polito (sent out-of-the-way, to be called on when the boss needs them), and Ramon who runs the place by keeping gringos in line – making sure they don’t hurt the girls, keeping them supplied with booze, drugs etc, and breaking heads when needs be. Everything runs smoothly, or as smoothly as a town that consists of criminals can, until a robbery of a delivery occurs, leaving people dead and Ramon severely injured. In the aftermath of the robbery one of the Marias escapes with a nameless gringo and suddenly everything goes to hell…

It’s hard to know how to classify Fierce Bitches. It’s not strictly crime fiction, although crimes obviously occur during it (lots of them, in fact), I suppose you could call it noir, it’s certainly bleak enough, but even that doesn’t seem quite appropriate. It has many elements in the mix, but the best way to describe it would be as a cross between the hellish El Rey finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway and the biblical fury of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. One thing is for certain, it has an ambition that most modern noir novels will probably never come close to emulating. For a start, the use of language is certainly superior to many writers currently working in this field. Second-person narration is notoriously difficult to get right but Ayres absolutely nails it here. Also, the fractured timeline mode of storytelling is another skill that’s not easy to nail, but again Ayres manages it with aplomb. It’s an exceptional bit of writing that, despite only being novella length, feels much weightier than its page count and has certainly marked Ayres as someone who will probably rise to the top of the current crop of crime/noir writers sooner rather than later. I can see this being in my top ten or top five or whatever the fuck it ends up being at the end of the year.

Review: A F*ckload of Shorts by Jedidiah Ayres

Jedidiah Ayres is unknown to me, which is one of the reasons I picked this collection. 2013 is going to be a year where everything I read on Kindle will be new crime stuff (new to me, at least). And all my paperbacks will be literary fiction I’ve not read before. But I digress. This isn’t about me, it’s about Jedediah Ayres and A F*ckload of Shorts.

I’ve seen Ayres mentioned on Twitter a few times and also on a few blogs I read, and all the mentions have been positive. That and the fact that it was published by the excellent Snubnose Press was enough to make me pick up this collection of shorts. And I’m glad I did because for the most part I really enjoyed it.

Ayres’ stories tend towards the grim and mostly reside in crime fiction territory, although there are a few exceptions to this. The humour is sick and twisted, which is a good thing, and his imagination throws up some very dark shit. At its best (the linked stories Mahogany & Monogamy and Fuckload of Scotch Tape; Hoosier Daddy, The Whole Buffalo and Viscosity) it works incredibly well, mixing extreme black comedy with noir tropes to create something fresh and new – not something that’s easy on the well-trodden noir path. Overall it’s a really strong collection, but I have to add that The Adversary, despite being well written, felt too long and I found myself skipping and speed reading through it, but that’s just me – you might love it.

This collection comes highly recommended.