Potted Reviews 1 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Switched by Ryan Bracha

It’s been a while since I’ve written any reviews so I might be a touch ring rusty. But I’ve got a backlog to get through, so here goes.

First up is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which won last year’s Booker Prize. History takes an assassination attempt on Bob Marley as it’s starting point and weaves a massive tale of corruption, politics, power, murder, and Jamaica. It encompasses a huge array of characters, some of whom change identities at certain points in the story. When this book is at its best it is superb but, at its worst, it’s a slog. However, the good massively outweighs the bad. Some have compared this to Ellroy (which is why I picked it up in the first place), but it’s nothing of the sort. Character is secondary to plot in Ellroy’s work, whereas James’ novel is all character – the plot is loose, and certain parts of it don’t gel well at all. James’ characters all have clear and defined voices, whereas Post LA Quartet Ellroy has one voice: the Demon Dog. What the two writers do share is an ambitious historical narrative vision that fuses real life events with detailed fiction, along with a tendency to take their characters on a seamy, seedy journey. In this case, James weaves a fictional history of modern day Jamaica out of the attempted murder of Bob Marley. It’s ambitious, superbly written, and often addictive. But, in places, it’s also a baggy, slow slog of a read that is in drastic need of an edit. For all its faults this is still a superb piece of work.

Regular readers will know how highly I rate Ryan Bracha. I loved Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, and Paul Carter is a Dead Man, and Ben Turner is a Dead Man. He has style, inventiveness, and wit to burn. Well, The Switched takes the wit and invention contained in those tales and ramps it up. In this novel, five unrelated people get switched into different bodies in a weird one-off event. Gradually, violent circumstances and strong personalities bring them together for a brutal final act. The Switched is great fun (as long as you’ve got a strong stomach). It’s as different from the Dead Man trilogy as it is from the universe of Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet, but the novel shares the sharp, cutting satirical edge and the tendency towards experimental prose and structure. The reasons for the switch are never made clear (it’s possible that Bracha will reveal the reason in later books), so the focus is on the personalities. Bracha’s characters are pretty much all unlikeable with the exception of Charlie/Jake, but good writing ensures that they go through exciting transformations (and I’m not just referring to the switch itself but dealing with gender and gender fluidity), and the story is compelling enough to keep you reading to the end.

Ryan Bracha is fast building up an interesting, diverse, and impressive body of work. He seems to push himself from book to book – unwilling to settle for one genre or style of writing – and his back catalog is all the better for it. The Switched is another strong addition to this collection and comes highly recommended.

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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 of Ben Turner Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Some months on from the events of Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, things have changed drastically in New Britain. The slow-burning rebellion that Carter started culminates in a short, bloody war with the Scottish separatists and makes life difficult for Robert Lodge and his repressive regime. For a start, a group of lawyers, led by the beautiful but unhinged Nat Sweeney, are killing crews for both revenge and fun – stating that they’re working for Paul Carter, when they are in fact flying solo; then Ben Turner is also doing the same thing. Turner is despatched by Carter and the leader of the Scots, Davie Craig, to stop Sweeney and her group by killing them. Turner, being the somewhat rebellious individual that he is, ignores his orders and instead forms an uneasy alliance with Sweeney in order to kick off a bigger revolution. But in doing so he is messing with the well-laid plans of Garner, Robert Lodge’s former right-hand man, leading to folks being sent from Scotland (including Carter) to stop Turner from messing things up for Craig, leading to a chaotic and bloody finale.

Ryan Bracha’s Paul Carter was one of my favourite books of last year. It had invention and wit in spades, as well as a propulsive storyline and great characters. Now that the element of surprise that Paul Carter created has gone, it all comes down to storytelling for the sequel. And it doesn’t disappoint, because Bracha takes that foundation and builds on it, with a plot that involves a lot flashbacks and double- and triple-crosses. The narrative steams ahead in a way that even the first book couldn’t quite manage. Ben Turner is a very good read with plenty of wit, a lively cast of characters, good writing, and a keen eye for subverting audience expectations. Highly recommended, but if you haven’t read Paul Carter yet then it is best to start with that because it is also damn fine read.

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.

Twelve Mad Men – Ryan Bracha interviewed

When the outrageously talented self-published author Ryan Bracha (Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet) contacted me about being part of a wild anthology idea that he had regarding twelve mad men in an institution I jumped at the idea. It was an exciting project involving a lot of seriously talented writers (Paul Brazill, Keith Nixon, Gerrard Brennan, Les Edgerton, just a few of those participating) – how could I not get involved? The concept involved 12 tales featuring fictionalised versions of each author around which Bracha would construct a bridging tale before tying the strands together at the very end. Kind of like one of those anthology horror movies from the 70s, but much better. I’d be bloody mad if I shirked this opportunity (especially as I’d never submitted a story to a collection before).

And now Twelve Mad Men is finally finished and out there – adding some serious craaaaazy to Amazon’s website. I interviewed Ryan about the project and what brought it about etc. Have a gander at how it went.

How did you come up with the concept for Twelve Mad Men?
It came to me one night when I was a bit tipsy and spouting off at fellow writer and friend Mark Wilson about how, as indie writers, we’ve got a better opportunity than ever before to experiment with our work. It was all about how there are so many writers out there trying to rip off what’s worked on a massive scale in the past (Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett etc.) and trying to grab a quick buck rather than use the creativity and imagination they were gifted with to do something awesome. Mark tends to feel the brunt of the ideas factory that is my brain. I come up with several ideas every week to try to do something original, most will be completely ridiculous and fall by the wayside, but some of them grow legs and I can run with them. This one was one of the latter. I wanted to put a bunch of wildly different, but equally talented writers in one place, and see what they did when given the exact same brief. I wanted to challenge myself to think on my feet, so the improvisation aspect jumped into the picture. The narrative theme just gave each writer the scope to be as ridiculous, violent, intense or comedic as they wanted to be.

How do you feel about the finished product?
I’m extremely happy with it. All eleven of the men I invited to contribute surpassed my wildest expectations, and gave me some phenomenal material to work with. The finished product is a seriously good signifier of the talent currently writing and publishing today.
Did the fact that you were improvising the tale that linked the stories cause any problems?
Not as many as I thought it might. Getting the stories submitted in the staggered manner that I did gave me the opportunity to really think about how I was going to introduce a character, and how I might leave that character be, taking what I needed to push the main plot on. Sometimes I did get carried away and went off on a tangent, but rather than delete and rewrite, I’d just go further back and drop some clues in about what was to come. I enjoyed the process immensely, truth be told. The challenge excited me.
Do you prefer anthologies with an overall unifying theme?
Yes and no. If it’s an individual writer’s collection then I like it to be a broad spectrum of what they can do with words, a whole range of themes, characters and styles. If it’s a multi-author piece of work, then yes. I like to see different takes on the same theme. I always loved those projects at school where everybody got one word, and had to write a piece of fiction with that word as the title. It shows how diverse we are as thinkers.
Do you hope to start a trend with this collection?
Definitely. I devised and implemented the idea according to a set of rules that I’ve termed The Rule of Twelve Manifesto 2014. It’s a series of guidelines for getting it written and published. I stole the general basis of rules from the Lars Von Trier spearheaded cinematic movement, Dogme 95, where the story would be the driving force, with no effects, or music to drive emotion. I wanted the writers involved to come up with something reasonably quick and without retrospective editing to get the essence of them as creative types. I would hope that somebody else might take the ball and run with it, and come up with their own Twelve project but if they don’t then that’s fine. The process isn’t for everyone. I’ll just continue to do them myself.
What are your future writing plans?
Before the writing I intend to kick off my new imprint Abrachadabra Books which will embody my approach to the writing game, and submissions will open once I get the first book out. I’m in talks with one of the Mad Men about putting his new one out. That’s a secret, though!
As far as my own work I have the second novel in The Dead Man Trilogy (The first of which is Paul Carter is a Dead Man) to finish hopefully for a January release, then I’m going to do another Twelve project, which will have some of the same names involved as this one, with some fresh blood in there too. On top of that I’m going to work on some shorts to go into a new collection. But the best laid plans and all that. Ask me next week and I might be planning a novel written entirely on cash that’s currently in circulation. Until Wilson talks me out of it!

Twelve Mad Men is out now. All proceeds go to Teenage Cancer Trust, so there’s really no excuse for you not to buy it here.

Half-term report

At the end of last year, I set myself an annual target that was intended to ‘steady the ship’ after disappointing sales in 2013. I sold a lot less than I did in 2012, and there were signs that this trend might continue. A Kindle freebie at the end of the year did poorly, and I feared that 2014 would be a worse wipe-out than 2013 had been.

I set my target as a new high water mark; designed to be considerably higher than 2013’s total and only slightly higher than my sales in 2012. I believed it to be a realistic and achievable figure, so long as I worked hard at marketing my books. I even made it one of my writer’s resolutions.

Of course, I had a specific reason for setting my target: It was to determine whether or not I remained a self-publisher.

If I reached my target, I would continue as a self-publisher; and if I didn’t, I would start working towards ending my self-publishing adventure. The options were to write something a bit more mainstream, with an eye towards getting an agent, or to give it all up completely.

I didn’t really want to think about the second option, but I knew that if I got dejected enough, and ended things, I could at least say that I tried and failed.

January wasn’t a great month – I did okay in the US, but in the UK I was already down on the average I needed to ensure that I hit my target. In February, I released The Curious Case of the Missing Moolah, and had my (until then) best ever sales month. Then at the end of the month, I decided to make The Hunters permanently free on Amazon via their price matching function.

It was a calculated decision. The Hunters had been out for a couple of years, and sales were okay, but I still hadn’t finished the direct sequel to that book. That made it the right candidate as a freebie – to get people salivating for The Glasgow Grin, once it finally makes an appearance, and to possibly shift copies of my other Stanton brothers books. As it turns out, making it permanently free has been the best decision that I’ve made as a self-publisher. In March I shifted several thousand copies of The Hunters, which had a real knock-on for my sales. That month I smashed February’s sales record to pieces, and April sales were almost as strong (falling short by only nine copies). I also reached my annual sales target towards the end of the month. May has seen a drastic drop in free downloads, but sales – although down – have been solid, which means that everything I do now just makes 2015’s target a little larger and more ambitious.

So, that’s me happy – at least regarding sales.

The Glasgow Grin is still dragging on a bit, through a combination of slow writing, a lot of freelance work, and a desire to make sure I get the story right. Another couple of Stanton stories (a novella of about 30k words and a long story of around 10k words) that I’ve been writing concurrently are also going very slowly. My muse just isn’t firing on all cylinders at the moment, but I’m not worried – it’ll return. Some other stories that I have percolating in my head, or in various stages of completion, are currently stalled. At this point in time, TGG and a story that I’m writing for Ryan Bracha’s anthology 12 Mad Men are my main priorities. All other writing work – including book reviews – will have to come a distant second, for now.

Right, I suppose I better get back to it. The Stanton brothers, Mark Kandinsky, and Eddie Miles are waiting for me out in the woods, and they’re getting very, very impatient…

Review: Paul Carter Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Regular readers will know that I was pretty taken with Ryan Bracha’s Strangers Are Just Friends You Haven’t Killed Yet last year. It was enjoyable, ambitious, well-written and tried to do things a little bit differently.

Well, now he’s back with his latest Paul Carter Is A Dead Man. It’s a singular take on the dystopian nightmare tale – think more Big Brother in the Endemol definition rather than the Orwellian one. It’s set in the present day but in a reimagined Britain, which has closed off its borders to the rest of the world after an explosion in 2009 that kills more than 400 of its citizens (including three generations of heirs to the throne). Law enforcement as it was no longer exists. Power (of a sort) is now in the hands of the British people, and criminals are placed in online public courts for twenty four hours, to be judged. The sentence for most crimes, and in most cases, is death, although if not enough votes are gathered the defendant is released unharmed.

As the story starts, Paul Carter is on the run for murdering an internet troll who was ruining his reputation. By the end of the evening he has killed another man (one of the crews – hired thugs recruited as police under the new regime), and his status as Public Enemy No 1. is secured. The one person he can turn to in his hour of need, his cousin Danny, refuses to give him shelter so he goes on the run again, which brings him into contact with Katie, a pretty girl with terrible breath, who has been made homeless by the changes in British society (although homelessness is somewhat different in the new Britain). She takes him back to where she is living with her friend Shane, also homeless. When Carter’s cousin is unfairly arrested, the man decides to do something about it – setting in motion events that will send shockwaves through the hopelessly corrupt system. It will also prove a test of the kind of man Carter is – failing will cost him and those he holds dear their lives…

Paul Carter is a Dead Man is a well written alternative future dystopia. It is also an effective satire of modern day Britain – a place where people are often judged by the kangaroo court of public opinion on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other smaller social media networks, where rumours, innuendo and ignorance are often paraded as facts and then shared like viruses from wall-to-wall and retweeted by tens of thousands, where more members of the public vote for singers in public talent competitions than they do for their political leaders. Bracha sets up the base story of Carter, and his transition from wanted murderer to freedom fighter, nicely and then branches out into vignettes that deal with modern day Britain. Although they are well written, I felt that on occasion these vignettes detracted my attention away from Carter’s story. Bracha had expertly built and sustained tension that is then slackened when the tale slows down to take a detour. Part of me wondered if Bracha might have been better served by dovetailing these elements into the story somehow (but, then again, these may pay off later, as Paul Carter is the first of a trilogy). However, this is a minor caveat because the main story and the main characters are so damn compelling and the vignettes are never very long.

Paul Carter is a major step-up from Strangers (which was no slouch, I might add) in terms of the leanness and meanness of the writing. It has more focus, is snappier and punchier, and assembles the main story quickly and neatly. Also, the use of wordplay to remove the swearing from the tale is a brilliant move – more sensitive readers really have no reason to complain about bad language. Bracha also performs the neat trick of making a murderer sympathetic, likeable and a compelling enough a personality to bring the reader and other characters under his spell. This is not easy to accomplish, so kudos has to go to the writer for doing it so damn well. The other thing he does superbly is the final third of the tale, where Carter has to make choices, deal with them, and plan his way out of a very tricky situation. Should Bracha ever turn his attention to writing something a little less ambitious, like a straight-up crime thriller, it would probably be a storming tale. Although, I think the ambition of his writing is partly what makes him the author he is (a damn good one).

I heartily recommend Paul Carter is a Dead Man to readers everywhere. It’s an entertaining story that also works as an alternative future dystopia and as a satire of  modern day Britain.