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: 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.