Wednesday, 7 October 2015

One Man's Opinion: HURT HAWKS by MIKE MINER

“Saddam wasn’t a Bond villain. He was a thug in a white suit. He didn’t want to blow up the world. Just to pick its pockets.”

Chris Rogers is a war veteran. He sits in his wheelchair waiting for someone to come. When that someone arrives, he’s going to kill him.

This opening to Hurt Hawks (US) is full of power. It shows off many of Miner’s outstanding qualities. The guy seems to have sixth and seventh senses. He is able to perceive the world through the physical being of his characters and the shadows they create. This ability offers a dimension to his work that is rare. The prose becomes poetic at times and he mingles a dream-like quality to concrete events. In this way, he gets deep under the skin and paints a world of many layers in a way that I really enjoy.   

What follows in this tale is a world of war, survival and revenge. People do what they have to do in response to loyalties and codes that aren’t always in their own best interest. In many of the situations created it would be so much easier to walk away. For Captain Patrick Donovan and his crew, this option isn’t even on the table. They are set on paying back Chris Rogers and his family for services rendered and they’ll stop at nothing until all debts are paid.

The main thread of the story, that of the war vets coming together to fight new battles on home soil, is gripping. Outcomes are never predictable. Surprises are thrown in from many unseen angles.  I loved it. If there’s any issue with the book for me, it is that I was so hooked into this central plot that tearing me away from it to open doors to the back-story proved problematic. The past is an essential aspect of the work, yet I might have preferred a more direct telling. It’s a minor issue, though, and wouldn’t prevent me from heartily recommending this as a read.

Miner has produced some amazing fiction to date. I suspect that there is plenty still to come and I, for one, intend to be there to watch this talent unfold.


Wednesday, 30 September 2015


If you’re able to get access, check out this small article on Flash Fiction (Smoke-Long Stories) at BBC Radio 4’s Open Book. It includes a tasty piece by Ian Rankin and some thoughts on the origin of the Hemingway six word tale

And now to Post Office (US).  

“I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face, combed my hair. If I could only comb that face, I thought, but I can’t.”

It can be really interesting re-reading books that made an impact in youth. There’s a different perspective offered and the book's that little bit older.

Post Office was a real treat to read, but carried a lot less of the sense of romance to it this time around. Whereas I might have wanted to be like Chinaski at one time in life, the prospect of living from bottle to bottle, woman to woman and race to race seems a much less attractive one these days. On reflection, I guess that I can say I gave my early ambition my best shot. I can no longer gamble because of my addiction and had to give up the booze and the rest when my children came along. As for the women thing, I guess that a messy and turbulent phase finally settled when I straightened out. And that’s another story that I’m not going to share anywhere.

The book is an interesting work, with some really strong prose. In many ways, it feels like a gathering of short stories that come together to form a novel of sorts. This brings advantages and disadvantages.

On the negative side, there’s rarely the energy at the end of one chapter of Chinaski’s life to give it enough momentum to catapult a reader into the next.

As a positive, the strength with which Bukowski puts into nailing a moment, phrase or rounding-off is huge. Pieces often finish with hammer blows that express a huge amount in the smallest of spaces.

The story is very simple. A man takes a job with the post office. It’s a tough life. He needs drink. Likes sex. Dislikes authority. Enjoys a gamble. He has tough bosses and difficult rounds. Each episode is told in a matter-of-fact way. Even the most extraordinary events are told plainly. There’s the sense of rhythm of the run-of-the-mill and a feeling that this life is anything but.

Well worth checking out if you’ve not been there before. If you like it, when you’re done make sure you read some of Bukowski’s poems. That’s where he really excels. 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Maigret Afraid is an interesting work for fans of the series.

The plot itself is fairly standard. He rolls into town, there have been murders and there are more to come. Maigret takes a back seat and watches everything, from the process of the law to the main suspects and eventually does put all the pieces together in the way we have come to expect.

Included is a fairly heavy dose of class analysis and our detective provides an excellent filter through which to see the world as is always the case. The subtle and the obvious are all pointed out as he wanders between the homes of the rich and poor and the roles of the women are of particular interest.

What I found to be more engaging than the plot was Maigret’s personal reflection. He’s returning from a course where the young pups have made him feel his age. He also happens to be staying with an old university friend who is the town’s Examining Magistrate. By watching his friend, he draws parallels with his own life. We get to see into the distant past and into the very real present of a man who really just wants to go home.

Worth reading for any crime fiction fans, but especially so for admirers of Maigret who like to collect nuggets about his personal life and history. 

Sunday, 6 September 2015


It’s slightly odd reading a book about characters who are so known in their television incarnations. I found it hard to separate the Morse and Lewis of the page from their counterparts on the screen. I did, eventually, become engrossed enough in the plot that I barely noticed the issue.

The Dead of Jericho (US) has a somewhat implausible opening. Morse happens to chase up and old acquaintance on the day she is found hanged in her kitchen. When the case is finally presented to him, he’s already been dabbling to try and find out what happened. From that point on, this became a solid police procedural.

Morse and Lewis form a great partnership and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses until the case is solved.

Another death thickens the plot and the ring of suspects are used nicely so that each of them remains as a spinning plate in the process until the last possible moment.

Parallels to a Greek tragedy are played out and just at the point where this becomes a too silly the plot veers off in another direction.

Dexter doesn’t hammer home the final nail in the coffin until the last pages where everything is wrapped up neatly with all the skill of a master craftsman.

I enjoyed the read more than I expected. Some of the references and quotes were way over my head and did impede the flow at times.   Even so, I would happily read another in the series, especially as holiday entertainment. I will, however, look forward to further TV episodes of Lewis and Endeavour with some enthusiasm. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Viv Albertine With Ian Rankin: Words and Music Memoirs of a Punk Rocker

The Edinburgh International Book Festival always comes at the wrong time of year for me as it starts as the schools go back and I have to put on my teacher’s hat again.

I still make a point of making sure I get the programme early so that I can choose one outstanding event. In recent years I’ve been privileged to see Willy Vlautin, Katie Kitamura and Megan Abbott for example, so you can see I pick rather well and have impeccable taste.

This year, Ian Rankin has had the honour of being a guest selector and he’s chosen a cracking bunch of people to talk to. When I saw he’d chosen Viv Albertine among those names, I was on the phone buying my tickets. Having been to the event on Sunday evening with a very good friend of mine, I can tell you I wasn’t at all disappointed by my choice.

Ian Rankin does a brilliant job in conversation. I’ve seen him a few times in this role and have been really impressed by his manner. Unlike many in the facilitator role he clearly feels he has nothing to prove. He knows his subject material and he applies insightful and open questions at the right moment to keep things flowing. He gives his guests the opportunity to talk and elaborate without constant interruption and that’s a big bonus in my eyes. It’s a big skill that he has and is one that is too often under-rated in my eyes.

Given this was a music event this was also right up Mr Rankin’s street. Not only does he know his history, he’s lived it. Great, then, to hear some of his own anecdotes thrown into the mix in a very light-handed way and adding colour to the evening.

 And Viv Albertine.

What to say?

The first thing I’m going to mention is the very last thing that I expect I’m supposed to say, namely that she was utterly stunning. Not just the way she looked, but the impact she had when walking on. Her book is entitled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (US). It’s also called Clothes, Music, Boys if you want the Tesco-friendly cover.
She began with a reading from the book. It was an engaging and funny account of her first gig with The Slits on the Clash’s White Riot tour, chosen especially as it took place in Edinburgh. What images came forth in that burst of words. It screamed punk rock and energy and possibility.

The thing is Viv Albertine was in an all-girl band at a time when that just didn’t happen. She and her tribe were so wild-looking that there had to be negotiations with the hotel to make them honour their booking and then only on the condition that the girls didn’t leave their rooms and stayed out of sight. Don Letts had to call ahead to all the rest of the hotels booked to make sure that they knew exactly who and what was heading their way.

Viv was around at the time of an explosion. She had little stories about Mick Jones, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Thunders and Vivienne Westwood that made my hair curl (check out my picture – that’s some feat). These people carry the status of being legends, so it was great to hear her talk about them in such a natural way. Best of all, they didn’t become her story. She wasn’t great to listen to because of who she knew but because she has a hugely creative spirit and happens to have known a lot of amazing folk along the way.

There was some talk about the famous album cover and a rather lovely quip – ‘It was saying to the boys, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’- fantastic.

A lot of the focus was upon the roles and expectations of women back in the mid-seventies and since then. It’s incredible to reflect upon that and to see how many things have changed. To my mind, it’s important to revisit and remember such times and there’s unlikely to be a more rewarding way of doing so than by taking a read of her book. It’s not that I agreed with all of the statements made about then or now, but I admired the sense of personal perspective that was offered and it gave me a lot to think about.

Side Two of the conversation moved on to explore the world post-Slits. It’s been an interesting journey.

There was another reading. It started about sex and ended up with cancer. As she finished, instead of the usual applause there was silence. It spoke volumes about the power and the frankness of her description.  

We touched upon aerobics teaching and film-making and then moved on to a mention of her picking up her guitar again as she turned fifty. She knew she didn’t intend to take it up seriously, but she did know that if she played she knew something would happen. A creative energy within her would be unlocked and she would set off on another journey of making and shaking. More writing was mentioned. A book. A novel perhaps. Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

That unlocking of energy is something I understand. There are many catalysts out there and I reckon it’s our responsibility to go out, find and experience them. What an important reminder of something fundamental to life and the creative process that stems from living it. That alone was worth the price of entry.

After the event my friend and I went to the signing tent for a while. I had nothing to sign and didn’t fancy queuing. What I did want was to keep the evening with me for a little longer.  

I never did see The Slits play live, but at least on this occasion I can say I was there.

Totally brilliant.  

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


Several years on from reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo I found The Girl Who Played With Fire (US) on the shelves of the home we rented for our holiday.

If memory serves, that first book really bamboozled me. I couldn’t believe that a novel told with such frequent (and long) tangents and huge slices of back-story and explanation could have been as entertaining as it was.

In many ways, I feel the same about the sequel. Blomkvist and Salander are now estranged. Salander has cut off all contact with him and escaped to travel the world.

Much of the opening section focuses upon her time in Grenada. She’s hooked on mathematics problems and is curious about a strange couple who are staying in her hotel. It’s an engaging start, but doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the book. 

Things solidify when she returns to Sweden and hooks up with ex-girlfriend Miriam Wu.

Millennium has taken on a new project courtesy of a free-lance journalist. His article and book are going to blow the lid off the sex-trade and will uncover the exploitation of prostitutes by many of the pillars of polite society.

The prospect of the revelations stirs a hornets’ nest (something tells me this might also happen in the third book) and a lot of mess hits a lot of fans.

Salander finds herself as the main suspect in a terrible crime and the only people who want to protect her are ex-employer Armanski, a retired boxer and Blomkvist.

In spite of the repetitive reflection and those huge chunks of unnecessary material, it’s nail-biting stuff. I reckon it works so well because it’s important to me that Blomkvist and Salander remain safe no matter what. It’s impossible not to root for them, even when belief in their abilities and personalities is stretched a very long way.

Unlike with the first book, I was a little dissatisfied with the ending. Whereas book one felt self-contained, this one seemed totally aimed at luring the reading to book three. That hook may well work for me, too, but might just take me several years to get around to completing the trilogy. Who knows? I might even get to read The Girl In The Spider’s Web before I retire, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll buy myself a copy – it will be a matter of staying in the right place on my hols.

Fire is seriously addictive. It’s also nourishing, fast-paced, flabby and occasionally irritatingly implausible.

Saturday, 22 August 2015


‘He’d cut His throat with the knife. He’d nearly chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn’t object, so I lit a Silk Cut.’

The opening to Morvern Callar (US) is very strong. Every action and thought is noted. Each character has a special name. The buzz and the vividness almost creates the illusion that she’s speaking in a different language, like she’s just read A Clockwork Orange and is taking bites from it. Her boyfriend, He/Him/His, has killed himself in their flat and Callar reacts by doing nothing about it. She opens her Christmas presents, smokes a lot of Silk Cut and goes off to work in her local supermarket. There’s a hint that what follows will be something profound. A tale of disconnection and alienation in the age of the rave. Given the powerful reviews, I suspect that the profundity is there, it’s just that I didn’t really grasp it. Perhaps it was a little too cold and raw in places for my taste.

There are wild encounters and travels as Callar takes a journey that seems to be part nihilism and part self-destruct. She’s on the road. She lives a life-and-a-half. Her interactions with the people she meets and her surroundings are interesting and her life is packed full of experiences. What a cracking woman she is.

I found sections really engrossing and beautifully written and I think that the book has many parts that make the book worthwhile taking on. For me, however, I felt that the whole was less than those parts. Then again, I might just be an old man who’s  arrived to the part about twenty years too late.