Friday, 29 November 2013

Six Of The Best - 2013 in books

I know it seems early to be thinking about my favourite reads of the year, but I reckon it's better to have them listed now than in January. If they're up in time, they give the heads up for Christmas presents. 

The 6 here are magnificent. The Magnificent Six in fact - could take on, do you think?  They're also new or newish. I'll post another batch of older books that I've really loved.


In no particular order (and starting with a home run) ...

Steve Weddle's Country Hardball.  My review's here.

Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds. My review's here.

Ian Ayris' One Day In The Life Of Jason Dean. My review's here.

Sean Chercover's The Trinity Game. My review's here.

Josh Stallings' All The Wild Children. My review's here.

Heath Lowrance's City Of Heretics. My review's here.

And you know, if there were to be a Magnificent 7, I'd be sneaking in Willy Vlautin's Lean On Pete in there, too (my review's here).

I could have just gone for 7 in the first place, but the poor pun in the title wouldn't allow.

These books are brilliant. Great for you and great gifts. Go get.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Steve Weddle’s Country Hardball is a tremendous collection of stories that intersect and overlap to form a major modern work. He really has put together something rather special here and I’d urge you to read it.

There’s so much to love about the book that it’s difficult to know where to start.

I’ll begin with the cover. That’s not the obvious place, but it does hint at what’s to come. It has the silhouette of a man walking down a lane that passes a small house and then disappears as if to nowhere. Above his head is a circle of sunlight that’s surrounded by oppressive and powerful looking dark clouds. It’s a strange balance of the static and the moving. A blend of hope within hopelessness and hopelessness within hope. And the house, solitary and small, could hold anything from a warm welcome to a sinister ending. In these ways, it gives a suggestion of what’s inside.

The stories themselves are beautifully balanced. They tend to play out major moments in people’s lives as seen through what might be everyday happenings or simple interactions. It’s that ability to focus upon the small and suggest enormity that really highlights the talent of the author.

Weddle has a wonderful sense of touch. The weight of the words is practically perfect and, like I imagine the battle of wits between a baseball pitcher and a hitter to be, the changes of pace and direction are gripping.

Should you read this, you’ll get the chance to walk a mile or two in another’s shoes. The shoes aren’t likely to be new or well-healed, but by the time you get to take them off, you’ll know you’ve been on a journey.

Weddle must have a wonderful ability to empathise with people because, more often than not, I felt I’d really inhabited someone’s life for a spell. Understood their woes, their fears, their dilemmas and their need to cope. Each tale did something to my breathing; as I reached the end, I’d find I was either deeply inhaling, exhaling or simply holding on to my breath like I didn’t want to let it go for a little while longer so that I could savour the last nuances of the page.

A review, any review, will struggle to do the book justice. I did try and pick out a few quotes here and there for a while in the hope that I’d be able to give a sense of what I’m trying to say. In the end, I was sticking so many markers in between pages that I couldn’t hold the thing up any more without losing them.

 Here are a couple of moments from The Thing With Feathers. A boy shoots a bird, injures it, and suddenly wants to take back the damage:

‘The bird fluttered at his touch, shifted along the ground, then settled under the boy’s hand,’

which sets him thinking about his mother:

‘He thought of lying in bed with his mother when she got the sadness,’

and then takes us to the time the bad news arrives:

‘One of the women looked and saw him and said she was sorry and everything was going to be all right and it would be fine and it would be okay. It’s bad now, but will be okay. It will be okay. But it wasn’t.’

There’s such a melancholy beauty to the sentences and phrases that I couldn’t help but be moved. That’s the way I felt throughout – moved and shaken and wanting more.

And then there was this:

‘On a good day I could get a Texas Rangers game [on the radio]. I didn’t much care for any of them, but if they were playing the New York Yankees, at least I’d have someone to root against. Sometimes it just works out better to root against something.’


Each of the stories was my favourite while I was reading it – I think they’re all that good. With a small amount of distance from it now, I loved the opener about a boy who’s had a family heirloom taken from him by bullies and think it really sets the tone perfectly. A story about parents whose child is trying out for the All Stars and who can’t afford for him to make the grade (maybe they could buy just one more lottery ticket a week – they’ll think of something) is really special.  The story of the store manager who remembers burying an elephant when the circus came to town while he tries to decide which of his employees to lay off is stunning. Not to mention the ex-military man who finds the girl who’s been missing for a while.

Important to me is the political flavour of the work; there’s no capital P to the word in this collection, but it is often an indictment of the poverty many have to suffer in these times.

Best thing I can do now is shuffle on and let you buy the book and read it for yourself. No doubt you’ll be as impressed by these tales as I have been.

If there’s justice, Country Hardball will be studied one day and still be talked about fifty years hence. Here’s hoping.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


It’s difficult to read The Third Man without being constantly overpowered by images from the film, or at least that was the way I found it. The good thing about that is the quality of images the movie offers. 

Of course, the writing conjures up images of its own. My favourites here, the crazy workings of a sliced up Vienna and the inside of Harry Lime’s girlfriend’s flat.

Rollo Martins, pulp writer, turns up to meet his old friend Harry only to find he’s been killed in a car accident. Martins brushes against the police who have been after Lime for a while because of his racketeering and his slippery ways. To defend his friend and to put together some of the incongruities of the puzzle, Martins sets about his own investigation. While he forages for information, he finds that there was a third man at the scene of the accident who didn’t seem to have been part of the witness statements in court.

Martins is a really wonderful character. He’s flawed and loyal and can’t help the rush of emotions breaking through the facade of the stiff-upper-lip he might be supposed to have. His main Achilles is women, which has taken him from one incident in life to another and sees him nervous about being anywhere, lest a face from his romantic past shows up. “I’m just a bad writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.” It’s that kind of B-movie, hard-boiled quote that was the icing on the cake.

The story does have tension and builds rather well. Greene throws in moments of sublime genius here and there, yet this isn’t altogether top-notch writing. 

To my mind, the biggest issue is of the narrator. Sure, he’s unreliable and that’s not a problem per se. What is a struggle is to have to make a shift from fictional fact to pure fiction within a sentence. There was a little too much of this for me and the jumpiness just wore off some of the polish.

It’s a pleasing short read and I’d recommend it for the quality of some of the quotes, the atmosphere and the sense of place, possibly for a pleasing holiday read or one for when you’ve got a cold and are hibernating.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Lawrence Block books are always worth reading. He’s a talented guy. One way to evidence that is to point out how he can vary his style depending on his project. He’s got Scudder, all lean and mean PI, he’s got Keller the Hitman, there’s Bernie Rhodenbarr the break-in specialist,  he’s got his one off’s, his erotic work and his thoughts on writing and all of those I’ve read have brought me a good deal of pleasure.

The books have slightly different paces to fit the style.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a slightly gentler character than those mentioned above. The books he’s in are more conversational and meandering than, say, Scudder’s stories.

Bernie’s a great guy. A bookseller of the old-school variety. In ‘Spoons’, he’s very much aware of the changes in the world of the old bookstore and the way technology has shifted the goalposts so far that he’s practically an endangered species.  It’s fun to hear his ideas on the modern world and there’s something about the way he talks about his main profession that made me want to go and browse for something second hand.

He gets involved in a few burglaries where a client of his has put in orders for material that’s in private hands. The setting up of the crimes and the carrying out of them are well told and we get to see the craftsman working at his second job of breaking-and-entering.

The plot is thickened when his old friend, policeman Ray, comes along to ask his advice on a possible murder. What Ray requires is a burglar’s eyes and an insight so that the mystery of the death of an old lady in question might be solved.

From this point on the story becomes a Whodunit?, though there are lots of other elements to Bernie’s life to keep hold of the interest in other ways – his relationships with the women and his ongoing friendship with his poodle-parlour lunch-mate Carolyn.

As I’ve read others in this series, I found that reading this latest addition was a bit like catching up with an old friend. It didn’t take long for me to find my feet as Mr Block did a great job of bringing me up to speed in a way that was helpful and not too over-egged (a series shouldn’t need so much back-story as to alienate old readers, but needs to offer enough of a canvas to allow new ones need to be able to get a sense of who the character has been in the past – this is done rather well here).

There’s an old-fashioned feel to the way the story pans out and I could feel the influence of Agatha Christie in the way the plot came together and eventually played out.

 What slightly drags down my rating is the depth to which aspects of the information relating to history and collecting are explored. The facts are interesting and unusual, but they cross the limit in terms of interrupting the plot for too long, at least to my taste. I think Mr Block might also feel this; he practically says so:

‘If you already know all this, skip ahead...I’m just summing up here, but my feelings won’t be hurt if you choose not to read every precious word.’

That one issue aside, I did enjoy this trip to New York to meet up with Bernie anew and I hope I’ll get to pop over again at some point in the not-too-distant future.

I was fortunate enough to be sent a review copy of Spoons, but the book will be available on general release on Christmas Day - what a nice present for you or for someone you care about who likes good fiction. Pre-ordering is available...

Saturday, 9 November 2013


My eldest child will often describe wonderful things in life as ‘epic’. In that context, Blade Of Dishonor (US) certainly is. It’s also something of an epic in its own right.

OK, it’s not a poem, but the scale and the nature of the adventures of the main characters fits the bill.

It all starts when an ex-cage fighting soldier returns to his home town. He left to join the army as an alternative to going to prison after ruining the sporting future of the town’s main cop and, needless to say, the cop’s got it in for him from the off. Compounding the old gripe is the spark that ignites between Reeves and the cop’s on-off girlfriend Tara.

Reeves turns in to live with his Grandfather, Butch. Butch is an ex-soldier himself and runs an army surplus store in town. Butch’s prize possession is a Samurai sword that he reaches to when recalling his own wartime adventures back in WW2 and remembering his comrades. On top of it all, he’s made a promise to keep the sword safe and to Butch a promise on this scale means he’d put his life in the way of anyone coming to get it.

Someone comes. A Japanese business man wanting to buy the store and all of its contents. In the end, Butch has to agree, but not before selling the sword on to Reeves that day and therefore exempting it from the deal.

When it’s discovered that the sword is missing, all hell breaks loose.

At this point, the story breaks into a number of strands and they all come together beautifully.

My favourite element is Butch and the story of his life in Europe and Japan. It’s slickly written and has a real flavour of authenticity. During this story, a romance is also told and the true meaning of the sword is revealed.

It’s no wonder that there are conflicts over it given its gravity. And it’d no wonder that the good guys don’t want the baddies, the shadow clans, to get it. It’s a national treasure.

The sense of energy and adventure is maintained throughout and the story fills out perfectly as all the pieces are put into place.

What you get is lots of stories in one. There are the love stories that bind characters together. There are family loyalties and newly-formed friendships that have deep meaning to those involved. There’s honour running through from start to finish. You get fight scenes that are written as if the author was write their in the combat. You get Ninjas and Samurai and warriors and tough-as-hell men and women. There are the feuds on local and national scales. You come across Black Dragons and sexy waitresses. There are chases and exotic weapons and prisons and Dirty-Dozen type rogue platoons. There’s humour that plays on language difference and on characters coping with the darkest of situations. There’s also the nutty wisdom of monks and life-weary characters who manage to phrase a saying like Basho-minus-the-structure.

I imagined this as a number of things – a film; a comic; a graphic novel – but am pleased that I got to read it first in its novel form.

One note of caution. I read this buy getting hold of the first instalment just to get a taste. When I finished it, it was so exciting and at such a point that I simply had to carry on. My tip would be to go for the whole thing and save yourself a little effort and a little cash as once you’re in, you’ll be in for the duration.



Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Bloodline (US)  is a really well put together novel. It works extremely well as a police-procedural, offers an excellent opportunity to explore Tom Thorne as a detective and in his personal life through the range of interactions he has with the people around him and has strong elements of a thriller about it as the book races to its conclusion.

Thorne is working a new case and it’s not long before he finds a link between it and another one up in the Midlands. The obvious piece the murders hold in common is a section of an X-ray photograph. When enough bodies turn up, it becomes clear that there’s another link, that to the now-dead serial-killer Raymond Garvey.

Once the fuller picture has been noted, there’s a race against the clock. The bloodline of the title makes clear the identities of all the future victims. These people need protecting from the new killer; problem is, not all of them can be located and not all of them want to be put into protective custody.

Amidst all of this, Thorne is attempting to cope with his partner’s miscarriage and the flood of emotions that he’s damming up from the rest of the world.

The book is written from a number of points of view, including from that of the killer. This allows for a deep insight to the crimes and to the police-chase and is handled extremely well to maintain a strong pace all the way through, even in situations that are static.

Thorne’s a superb creation. He’s a very human, multi-faceted guy. As a DI, he’s able to see the methods of the past and present merging and evolving and uses his updated, old-school approach to good effect. He has a hard edge to his rough diamond as well as a liquid-centre of kindness that leaks out when the occasional cracks appear on the surface. The soft-side makes him extremely likeable, the hard one very interesting indeed.

There’s also a superb supporting cast in Bloodline, made up of fully-rounded characters who each offer something to Thorne and to the plot.

The central premise is a strong and highly plausible one and Billingham doesn’t let this down at any point.

An excellent and highly engaging read.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Volume 1, Volume 2, Contrast and Brilliance

Having work published in an anthology is always a big thrill. I love to be part of collections because of their collective nature. It's like rubbing shoulders with giants and those who are still growing and being reminded that you're not alone out there in the world. Not the only one creating stories in my head and writing them down for people to share.
I've been very lucky this week to appear in two excellent collections.
The first, the rather well-named Off the KUF (US), is a collection of short fiction.
KUF stands for Kindle Users Forum, a UK based group of readers, publishers, authors and the curious. They've allowed me to hang around with them and coped with my foibles without any of the sharpness that can sometimes occur on the internet.  They've stuck with me when I've over promoted and allowed me to develop (sadly, other places have had less patience for the unbalanced). Best of all, they've helped me out on occasion - helping with editing, spotting mistakes, making suggestions, writing reviews and giving me the encouragement which I (and maybe all of us) really need from time-to-time.
It's only just out and I've only just bought my copy, so it's a little early for me to comment. I can tell you that the list of names is rather exciting and that the talent on offer is pretty impressive. Given it's cheap price, I suggest you take a punt and believe you'll come away being glad you took me up on that advice.
Here's a nice opportunity for me to say thanks to the forum and to those who have worked hard to get this together.
And there's another bit of good anthology news for me.

The 5-2 Crime Poetry Weekly (US) is also here. This is Volume Two and I'm delighted to say that I have a poem in it.
Crime writing and poetry are two things I'm really keen on so this fuses things beautifully. There's a lot of variation and plenty in there for you whether you're a poetry fan or just someone who likes to see creativity with language and imagery used in unusual and thought-provoking ways.
I'm hoping that people will support this so that the editor and publisher can get something back for their work. Having put out poetry in a number of ways over the years, I know how difficult a thing it is to sell. 

If you're not sure, but are curious, why not pop over and click the sample button. That way you can see whether it's to your taste or not. If you're a reader of a writer, I think poetry can only hone your skills and so I'm hoping you'll go along.
I'm particularly grateful to Gerald So and to David Wailing for their time and talent on these projects. Seeing that written, these guys sure do have interesting names.
Anyway, I'm glad to be there and hope you might spread the word if you become a fan of the books.
With thanks.