Wednesday, 8 November 2017

One Man's Opinion: DRIVE by JAMES SALLIS

‘He looked back at the open door. Maybe that’s it, Driver thought. Maybe no one else is coming, maybe it’s over. Maybe, for now, three bodies are enough.’

We meet Driver in a mess of blood and bodies. What follows is the story of how he ended up in such a disaster in the first place and the journey he takes to try and stay out of trouble with the guys who are after him.

Arcing back and forwards between the past and present is a complicated business for most of us. Thankfully, Sallis lays it out in a way that feels simple and means the strands fit together as smoothly as most of the rides Driver takes the along the way.

We learn of Driver’s upbringing. The way he survived troubled waters to become a leading stunt driver and a getaway star for armed gangs.

Dabbling with the criminal underworld soon becomes so lucrative that his day job loses its appeal. It also leads him into a life-or-death predicament when he ends up holding a large amount of cash that he shouldn’t have and doesn’t particularly want.

The layers work really well with each other. They have an easy symbiosis that helps to deepen the interest and to make the protagonist more intriguing and sympathetic.

Driver, himself, is a fabulous character. He’s patient, talented, intelligent and loyal. He’s also ruthless and old-school and believes there should be honour among thieves.

Keeping him company is a super cast – mobsters, writers, family and the old doctor who is able to put Driver together when he needs it.  

Short chapters and tight prose keep the book cruising along. There’s conflict and tension in abundance. Backstory is a bonus rather than a millstone and the author has his usual poetic and profound moments as he creates phrases that can resonate and hit hard if you let them.

Thoroughly enjoyed Drive (US) and I recommend it whether you’ve seen the movie or not.  

Saturday, 4 November 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE KEEP by JENNIFER EGAN

Where to start? Normally the beginning. Where the hell is the beginning of this one? I’m still puzzling over the structure and the layers and they way the pieces fit together, but it’s a welcome challenge rather than a chore. It’s one of those novels that keeps you guessing and uneasily on your toes from start to finish and then beyond its grave, so to speak.

New Yorker, Danny, arrives at a European castle somewhere in the middle of nowhere. He’s travelling light in many ways, though his luggage includes a satellite dish so that he can keep in touch with what he considers to be the real world. The weight of his internal baggage is much heavier. He bears the scars of lost potential, broken relationships, of scrabbling through the social rules of the world and those created by his deep need to be loved. Though his new surroundings are like something from a fantasy, the bricks and history he is required to navigate are solid and concrete, more so than any text or blip on his social network radar.  

He’s been invited there by his cousin, Howie, for reasons that aren’t instantly clear.

Howie is rich and powerful. He intends to turn the castle into a pure space for people to exist, discover their inner selves and explore their imagination once they’re freed from the manipulation and bombardment of modern cultural stimulus. He has a wife and family and a team of supporting individuals working for me, including a menacing number two. Their biggest problem getting is the woman who lives in the keep, an old baroness from a long line of land-owning aristocrats. She has the ghost like properties of being able to change in the eyes of her beholder and she insists that she’ll never leave her home.

Danny begins to suspect that his role is to pacify the old lady and persuade her to leave. He also worries that Howie has darker intentions, given that he has every reason to want to mete out revenge for dark deeds of the past.

As this plot twists and turns, there’s a sudden shift. This story is contained within another. The story in which it is contained has an impact upon the lives of others. Just when you think you know where you are, the ground shifts and the view changes completely.

To elaborate would spoil the surprises, but each new angle carries its own tensions and thought-provoking material. What’s important is that each strand can both hold its own while being woven skilfully together as things development and that when they are brought together they increase in strength.

On a simple level, I enjoyed being drawn in to this. It’s thrilling and engaging and haunting. At times it is uncomfortable, at others perplexing.  

At the end of it all, I was left with lots of questions. The good kind. Those relating to identity, to the human condition, to the pitfalls of contemporary life. I wanted to understand why the transitions felt so seamless; how the depth of characters were so effectively mined; and what the hell I’d missed along the way. I don’t have answers, but I’d be more than happy to haggle over them in the comments section if you feel inclined.  

Most importantly of all, I’d recommend you read the book. The Keep (US) really is a keeper, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017


‘Being with you guys...’ he said. ‘I’ll never leave. You know that, don’t you?’
I nodded. I had taken the suitcases from his closet and hidden them under my bed.

Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name (US) is a gem of a book. It tells a complicated story in the simplest of ways.

Told in the present tense in a first person narrative, the novel explores the inner workings of Clarissa Iverton who has just discovered that her dead father had no biological connection to her. She tells of her unusual upbringing and of the significant details of her early life. It is often in the tiny incidents that the most profound impact has been made.

Clarissa sets off to find her real father, a journey that takes her to the extremes of northern Europe.

In Lapland she’s a complete outsider, but that’s nothing new to her – she’s been an outsider for her entire life.

What unfolds is a beautiful tale. The images constructed have the ability to take your breath away:

‘I lay on a bench inside the waiting area. I slept with my purse held close to me, like an infant. On a nearby bench, a woman slept with her baby held close to her, like a purse.’

And then there’s the poetic:

‘Above me, the moon was a comma in the sky, a conjunction between days.’

Given the nature of her travels, I found it difficult to understand how the author managed to make the situations so compelling. But she did. Chapter headings were enticing. Stories were left unresolved until later reflections. The resolution of each drama led to a new conflict or need in Clarissa. I wanted her to find everything she needed along the way and the drive of that, in itself, was crucial.

This one is spellbinding. I felt moved on many occasions and now I’m wondering if I should let my fourteen year old daughter into the secrets it holds (there is some adult material I’m not sure she’s ready for, but in all likelihood she probably is). I reckon if I can persuade her to go along, the power of the read will stick with her forever. If it goes to plan, I’ll hold it in reserve for my other kids when the time is right.  

One slight niggle for me is the final chapter. In some ways the ending didn’t seem to fit. In others, it was perfect and was everything I wanted it to be. Which is why this is perfect book group material – if you take it on, invite me along – I’d love to know how you found the climax.


Saturday, 23 September 2017


Anthony Neil Smith is a fine writer. I’m a fan, as you’ll know from previous reviews. The thing that I’ve come to expect from him is the unexpected. He doesn’t do things by halves and he likes to take you on wild journeys with great plots and mightily written characters. Castle Danger, a novel with gender on the agenda, is his latest and I found myself in even more unpredictable territory than ever as the chapters flew by.

The plot twists and turns more than most. Those changes are crucial to the drive of the story and I don’t want to spoil that by hinting at what’s going on. Suffice to say that nothing is what it seems and no one is quite who they appear to be when you first meet them.

To help me explain, here’s what the blurb says:

When a dead woman is fished out of Lake Superior, Manny Jahnke is there to discover the baffling truth: The "woman" in the ice is biologically a man. Before he can learn more, the corpse sinks back into the water, pulling Manny's partner along with it. Both disappear under the ice, never to be seen again. Now Manny has a missing victim, a new partner he likes even less than the old one, and a case no one wants solved. Or so it seems. Manny grows obsessed with the "woman on ice" whose secrets prove to be as vast as the Great Lake itself - and whose enemies turn out to be powerful enough to keep those secrets hidden. Only one thing is certain: if Manny survives, he'll never be the same man again.

Manny’s living in a kind of hell. He lost his girlfriend after an accident and he’s picked up some bad habits. He’s also questioning who he is and what he wants to be in the future.

He gets partnered with Joel, an ex Marine and a new cop with no experience of police work whatsoever. They’re an odd couple. They share little in common and don’t particularly like each other. The only thing in their favour is that they’re both desperate and that they have each other’s backs. It’s a good job, too, because just about the whole world is against them.

They set about investigating the woman on ice case and land themselves in a total mess where their colleagues block their way, there are political restraints and they end up feeling like the villains of the piece.

It’s a multi-tracked roller coaster. Explosive. Elusive. Funny. Frightening. And twisted.  

I’ve seen mention that this book is less bloody and extreme than some of Smith’s others. That may be the case, but there’s still plenty of violence for those who seek it out and the exploration of Manny and Joel plumbs depths that are dark and uncomfortable and are pretty darned challenging if you ask me.

What I enjoyed most about the story were the technique and the voice of Manny. The story is smashed into pieces and restructured in an order that allows tension and curiosity to build. Manny’s slick telling of events bridges the switches between time and place. It’s playful and direct and points out the tricks of the narrative just as the lights go on in a reader’s head (or at least in mine). I enjoyed the fact that I was being toyed with and was happy to go with the flow.

If that doesn’t tempt you, then there’s a final bonus at the end of the book. ANS gives an interview that reflects on aspects of the work.

In short, this one’s different. Different for Smith and probably different to most everybody else.

Friday, 8 September 2017

And Then There Were Three...


Two Edinburgh PhD students head to the Phoenix Festival to sell legal highs. When a friend discovers that their Horn-E pills are poison, he faces a race against the clock to make sure that nobody comes to any harm.

To complicate matters, the drugs were paid for with a loan from Edinburgh’s infamous Tony Fish. If they don’t have the cash to straighten their debt, there’ll be nowhere for them to hide.

Jesse Garon’s obsession with Elvis Presley may be as strong ever, but as his hormones kick in he’s finding he has more in common with Jake Bugg. Jesse’s hoping that a weekend at the Phoenix Festival to see his new hero might thaw his girlfriend’s mood and allow him to take their relationship to the next level. Failing that, the Horn-E pills they’re selling on the strip might be perfect for the job.

A tale of star-crossed love, tangled webs, gangsters, bloody men and a dog called Brandy.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE CON MAN by ED McBAIN

‘You want me to follow him?’ The cabbie watched Teddy nod, watched the door of Donaldson’s car slam shut, and then watched as the sedan pulled away from the kerb. The cabbie couldn’t resist the crack.
‘What happened, Lady?’ he asked. ‘That guy steal your voice?’

The Con Man (US) was my latest visit to the 87th. I felt at home, as I increasingly do in these books, and very much enjoyed the read.

Essentially, we get to watch some of the con men of the city go about their business. Some are in it for the short con. Some have far more sinister intentions, like the man responsible for the appearance of a floater in the river whose tattoo of a heart is about her only distinguishing feature.

Much as I liked the story, it’s far from being my favourite.

I was trying to work out why that might have been. The usual ingredients are here, after all.

My biggest issue with this one is the amount of authorial intrusion. For me it slipped from being part of the voice to getting in the way. I guess this is a difficult balance to find and others may take it as simply being McBain’s style. Whilst I understand that, it rubbed me up the wrong way on this occasion.

The cons were also disappointing. Knowing what was about to play out detracted from the stings and took away some of the romance I usually associate with the occupation.

A final niggle was Teddy Carella’s involvement in the case. I love the couple individually and as a pair, but having Teddy so directly in Steve’s work doesn't feel right. This may be more that she also became central to the Cop Hater case as it reached its climax than anything and it seems early for her to be right back in the thick of things.

Highlights for me centred around the tattoo parlour of Charlie Chen. It’s here and in her thoughts on getting some art work of her own that Teddy shines. There’s also some great description of the lab work and the murder cases are engaging as ever.

Would I recommend The Con Man? Course I would. It’s good stuff. Will I be pleased to move on the next novel in the series? I’m already looking forward to the read and have it cued up for a rainy day. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Dancing With Myself: AIDAN THORN Interviews AIDAN THORN

Dancing with myself: An interview with Aidan Thorn by Aidan Thorn

It’s a sunny afternoon in Southampton and Aidan Thorn has decided to turn up to this interview in his underpants - as chance would have it so have I. We’re sat in Aidan’s living room sharing a pint glass of water. The sun has just set on the August bank holiday weekend and Aidan’s far too old for what he got up to during the course of it, he’s a little tired and grouchy which matches my mood perfectly. Neither of us really wants to be here but it was the only free slot in the diary that we could both make work so here we are.

A month or so ago Aidan released a story collection called Tales from the Underbelly (US) and so I’m going to find out what that’s all about and maybe, if we’re both in the mood, I’ll ask him some other stuff about writing too.

For those few (cough) people that don’t know do you want to tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your writing background?

What do you want? I like football, tennis, music and films? That sort of thing?

No, tell us about you

There’s really not much to say. I’m a couple of months shy of my 38th birthday, born and raised in Southampton, England and I remain there to this day. In my younger days I had a few half hearted (and that’s probably over-egging the effort) attempts at putting bands together, I dropped out of University, got myself a real job and have been lucky enough to work for an organisation that put me back through Uni a couple of times and gave me a great career doing something I love.

That said, the creative part of me always felt like an itch that I needed to scratch and so in 2008 on my first holiday to the USA I started plotting out a book idea in my head. I’m a terrible traveller and when I’m in a different time zone I rarely sleep, I only had one book with me and it was shite. So, I got out of bed and started sketching out an idea for a novel on a hotel logo headed notepad. Elements of those scribblings did eventually see the light of day in the 2015 release of my first novella, When the Music’s Over – but only elements of it. Turns out writing a novel isn’t as easy as I thought it would be and I made a right old meal of it. I decided that by way of practice I’d write a few short stories and see how they went. Turns out it went OK, my first ever attempt was published by Byker Books in their Radgepacket series and then I had story after story published online and in collections and for a while I forgot about trying to write a novel. I was enjoying the near instant recognition and reaction to stories I was putting out through various channels. But eventually I did complete a novel, Last Request. It was a decent story, but the writing was clearly in need of a polish and I was unsuccessful in trying to get it published, so I kept plodding away with the short stories until I came across Number 13 Press who were publishing great novellas and so I dusted off Last Request, trimmed it to novella length, sorted out the clunky writing, changed the title and in Sept 2015 it was published as When the Music’s Over. It got a great reaction, I knew the story was decent and once it was polished up I knew it would do OK, and the reviews have proven that to be the case.

So you’ve never written a novel then?

Well I have, but I cut it back to make it a novella

That’s a no then

I suppose so

Short stories have become your thing really and that’s basically what Tales from the Underbelly is right, a short story collection?

Yes and no. It’s a collection of stories of varying length, from very short to novella length that are all linked by characters. The whole thing revolves around two rival gangland bosses, Tony Ricco and Jimmy O’Keefe, but it’s not so much about them as the people whose lives they touch. Some of these people interact with them willingly, some by horrible accent and some don’t even know that they’re involved with them but have to deal with the consequences of their presence in their lives.

So, it’s a short story collection then?

Depends on your perspective I suppose, would you call Pulp Fiction a short story collection?

Oh behave, you’re not seriously comparing your work to Pulp Fiction are you?

I’m not making any comment on the quality of the work here, more the format. In Pulp Fiction everything that happens does so around or because of the mysterious Kingpin figure of Marsellus Wallace, he’s not in all of the scenes, and not all of the characters or stories in that film are linked but the thread that holds it all together is Wallace. In Tales from the Underbelly it’s Ricco and O’Keefe’s enterprises that weave the thread between the scenes that unfold. For me Tales from the Underbelly is more like a collection of linked scenes and stories that tell a bigger story about a criminal underworld, than a simple short story collection. That said, each story stands alone, but if you read the whole thing you’ll hopefully find it more satisfying that a standard collection of tales lumped together to make a book.

You self-published this collection, seem a bit sure of yourself, who are you to say people will want to read what you put out?

That’s a fair question, but strictly speaking I didn’t self publish this. The stories in Tales from the Underbelly have all been published before in various collections and ezines. I just put them together into something that makes the whole thing link up. That said, a lot of people are self publishing these days and whilst there is some absolute shite out there some of the best work I’ve read in recent years has been self published. Sadly I haven’t had a lot of time to read this year but two of the best books I’ve read were self published, one by Robert Cowan (The Search for Ethan) and the other by Ryan Bracha (After Work Call). When I first got into writing I thought self publishing was bullshit but guys like Bracha and Cowan and many more have proven me wrong, it’s just a way of getting work that probably wouldn’t be picked up by mainstream publishers out for an audience that’s looking for something different from the run of the mill stuff you’ll see on the shelves and for me that can only be a good thing – as long as the quality is good.

Tales from the Underbelly is done now so what are you working on right now?

Right now, nothing. I haven’t really written an original word in 2017. It’s been a very strange year, I’ve been very busy in the real world and so writing has taken a back seat. I hope to get back to it again one day, but at the moment it’s just not happening for one reason and another. That said I do have another novella, Rival Sons that I finished on the last day of 2016 that I’m hoping to find a home for soon. I spent what spare time I had in the first half of 2017 tidying that up with edits and writing a synopsis getting it ready to send out to publishers – I’ve had a couple of nibbles on what I’ve sent out so far, so I have my fingers crossed that something might come of it, but I’m not holding my breath – never a good idea in this game.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Aidan now go and put some clothes on

Oh, you’re one to talk