Wednesday, 10 September 2014

One Man's Opinion: DARE ME by MEGAN ABBOTT

What a brilliant book Dare Me is.

It tells the story of a cheerleading team that are taken over by a new coach who wants to do things a little differently to her predecessor. Among the first things Coach French does is to remove the role of captain from the all-powerful Beth. In doing so, she sets in motion a complex chain of events that will see the cheerleaders’ pyramid tumble like a house of cards in the wind.

Beth’s a dangerous young lady. She has the ability to find out anything she wants about anyone in her town and has the malice to use the information she’s gathered for her own ends. (“Beth with her clenched jaw, about to unsnap. It reminds me of something I learned once in biology: a crocodile’s teeth are constantly replaced. Their whole life, they never stop growing new teeth”).

It doesn’t take long for Beth to uncover something on Coach, her latest enemy. Coach is having an affair with a young recruiting soldier. Beth sets out to use her knowledge of the affair in a way that generals ply their cunning and tactical awareness on the battlefield.

Caught in between the sparring of Beth and Coach is the narrator, Addy. Addy hears things from both sides and it really messes with her head. This confusion is amplified hugely when Addy becomes trapped in the middle of a murder investigation where the two queens on the block play her like a pawn in a game of chess.

Addy’s a brilliant narrator. She articulates the deepest of her feelings with wonderful frankness. Her voice is almost poetic, being full of rhythms that serve to perfectly create and then echo the mood of a moment. The sentences have a wonderful quality to them. They seem fragile and delicate and reflect something of the way in which Addy perceives herself. It’s a wonder that from these building blocks, Megan Abbott has created a work that is full to the brim with menace and that such sentences have been placed together in such a way that the story is always riveting.

This novel works on so many levels. It delves into the lives of a cheerleading team and explores some of the dynamics, drive and relationships within the group in a fascinating way. If offers a window into a world of texting and social networking that plays on some of the worst fears I hold for my children. It peels off layers of teenage life to expose the translucent hopes and anxieties of the young. It’s a brilliant example of successful plotting and narration.

My only query about anything in the book, and it’s a tiny thing, is the use of a prologue. It’s a scene taken from the middle of the book and it does firmly establish the story’s compass as pointing towards the dark and sinister. To my mind, this wasn’t necessary as the power of the actual opening would have done the job perfectly for me.

Dare Me is written with such a strong narration, the present tense of which adds to the sense of rawness and sense of being exposed, that I fear the author must have needed a spell of therapy afterwards to recover from the trauma of the experience.

I’ll loop back to the beginning. Dare Me is a brilliant book that I believe with enrich any reader’s collection. Not to be missed.

Friday, 5 September 2014


You do know that you can pre-order a copy of Gerard Brennan’s new novel, Undercover: A Cormac Kelly Thriller don’t you? That it’s published by Blasted Heath and that it’s cheaper now at 89p / $1.41 than when it’s released at the end of this month?

Good. That’s OK then.

Of course, if you didn’t, you might want to know about some of his other books. Here’s one I really loved over the summer.

Welcome to the Octagon (Fight Card MMA) is a neat little addition to the Fight Card series. It opens with a fight between the narrator, Mickey, and Psycho Sid. It’s a brutal affair from the depths of the unlicensed and anything goes MMA.

Winning the fight should bring pleasure to Mickey, but instead it only brings him grief. He’s kicked out of his gym by Eddie Smith who has high hopes for his star fighter Barry ‘Boom Boom’ Boyd.

Mickey turns to a new manager who promises he can get him onto the BJJ wrestling cards. The thing about the new manager is that he’s as likely to pull a fast one as certainly as his name (Swifty) suggests.

He intends to lead Mickey up the garden path and takes the reader along for a real treat in the process.

Mickey’s a great character. He’s a down-to-earth hard man and a single parent. This latter state of affairs means that he’s obliged to keep his anger in check. Not easily done. He’s certainly a guy to root for in spite of his imperfections.

The fight scenes in the book are really well written and are gripping in more ways than one. The sequence of events feels wonderfully real and the outcome is perfectly played out.

It’s very entertaining and has a truly refreshing style. Now go get.  Both of them!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

One Man's Opinion: A WIND OF KNIVES by ED KURTZ

There’s a dark feel to this A Wind Of Knives right from the off. The opening offers a strong sense of the world being a tiny pinprick within huge universe, a pinprick where all human activity takes place.

Daniel’s been running a farm in Texas, with only the one ranch hand left as the remainder have either joined up to fight in the civil war or run away to avoid joining up. This hand is Steven Houpe and when we get to meet him, he’s hanging from a Juniper tree as a mutilated corpse. His crime? Sodomy. He’s a strange fruit, to be sure.

The book takes Daniel on his journey to find revenge. On the way he comes across outlaws and rangers, card games and killings, all of which give the story a strong sense of the spirit of the age.

The question as to why Daniel’s need to find revenge is so deep rooted was my main drive to turn the pages. There are also questions relating the involvement of the James brothers and why they have such strong reactions to Houpe’s death. All of these characters have very strong motives  and are prepared to go an awfully long way to find satisfaction.

I really enjoyed this novella. The description is vivid, the sense of detail strong and it has many of the accoutrements that one might expect to find in a Western. The characters have real depth and their potential actions know no boundaries. Best of all for me is 
Daniel’s view of the world, from an internal and external point of view.

When Ed Kurtz deals the cards, he certainly hands out a couple of aces.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Schools are open for business again. I’m back in the classroom and my children are about to begin their routines again.

I’ve had a lovely summer. Among other things, trips to Italy, Ireland and Preston offered a broad range of experience and allowed a good deal of reading time. I’ll have a string of reviews to post when I find my blogging legs again.

There’s been a good deal happening of late.

All Due Respect announced a string of exciting publications for the months ahead and it’s well worth checking out their announcement here. Just to add a little more sweetness to their news, you can still get a free copy of All Due Respect Issue 2 for your kindle. I suspect it’s the last day on this one, so don’t delay.

I’m also chuffed to see that Kate Horsley’s novel which is a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s called The Monster’s Wife and I’m expecting find that it’s utterly brilliant. If nothing else, go over and check out the cover. It’s certainly original and I’m still undecided about whether I love or hate the thing.

I managed to read a couple of Gerard Brennan’s titles while I was away. They’re both great reads. It’s great to see that he now has a new one published by the amazing Blasted Heath that’s available for pre-order (I’ve booked my copy). It’s called Undercover: A Cormac Kelly Thriller and you can get yours by following the link. While you’re there, check out another Blasted Heath pre-order from Anonymous-9, a follow up to the excellent Hard Bite called Bite Harder.
As if that wasn't enough, you can also get a free kindle copy of Anthony Neil Smith's 'All The Young Warriors', a real 5 star book that always seems to be topical these days.

Last but not least, you can get yourself a free copy of Beat On The Brat (and other stories) today if you so wish.

And so to the review. My thoughts on The Iron Will Of Shoeshine Cats by Hesh Kestin.

Russell Newhouse is a clever student of literature who earns a little cash working for the Brooklyn Jewish Men’s Society back in 1963. It’s a quiet, occasional job that suits him just fine. Quiet, that is, until the day the gangster Shushan ‘Shoeshine’ Cats enters the hall one day.

Here’s how Russell describes Cats:

‘The figure...was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when the doctor tries to give an injection the needle bends...If you cut off his fists he would go after you with the stumps of his arms; cut off his legs and he would wriggle like a snake and bite into your femoral artery until you died and he drowned in the blood. Even the Italian gangsters stayed away.’

Cats is an amazing character. He’s a mobster with a huge heart and a sharp tongue. He lifts Russell (Russy) from his life and takes him into his own world for the period of Cats’ wife’s funeral and beyond.

From that point, Russy tells the story of a short period of time into which an enormous amount is packed.

There's the complicated and fragile eco-system of the various territories of the time. He falls for Cats’ sister, big time. He takes a kicking from some overly-protective Irish brothers. He’s seen as Shoeshine’s protégé and thus becomes the centre of attention for the police and the FBI. There are stories about Korea and there’s plenty of politics, including a line that works right through the assassination of JFK. Before long, Russy’s leading the mob and is appearing on the front-pages of the newspapers.

It’s a dense tale and there were times that it took a little effort to stick with it for me, particularly the sections related to literature – these guys are so well-read it’s humbling.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

For me the real strength is in the sharp description and the acidic, quick-fire wit that’s in evidence throughout. It really focuses things and gives a wonderful sense of the people involved, the time and the place. As Russy’s world becomes more absurd, the plot twists around him like a python and it’s not clear until the end just why he’s been chosen for his role or whether he can emerge from all of this unscathed.

A very satisfying and entertaining read.



Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Voices Of Battle-Scarred America from The Edinburgh International Book Festival
I was lucky enough to get to see a great event at the Edinburgh Book Festival last night.

Willy Vlautin has become a massive favourite of mine of late and as soon as I saw him in the programme, I booked my ticket. He was appearing with Michael Pitre, someone I’d no idea about. The event was entitled Voices Of Battle-Scarred America and that just added to the expectation. The host was to be another new name for me, musician James Yorkston.

The organisers deserve some credit for their combining of these two authors. Vlautin and Pitre share much in common, not least in the themes of their novels which seem to overlap while covering different ranges of territory. They’re both highly engaging, extremely likable and clearly have a talent for telling stories. I think it’s also likely that they’re both measured in their use violence in their work – it’s there and it’s brutal, but because it’s only occasional it has extra power and emotion to it. I say ‘also likely’ because I’ve not read either of the main books being discussed.

Fives And Twenty-Fives is only just out and I’ll definitely be buying a copy. The Free, Vlautin’s latest, I’m saving because I want his voice around when I start writing my next novel; for some reason his work makes me want to be tell stories more than any other I’ve come across and he also has such an easy way with words that he somehow lubricates my thinking and my typing fingers.

Pitre was a marine who served in Iraq. He spoke with sincerity and passion about his experiences in the war and since then as a writer. The guy has a superb tone and depth and he had me riveted to his words. The passage he read out focused on ex-servicemen struggling with life in an ordinary bar. It was visceral while being full of a subtlety which allowed a small incident to tell a huge story.
Vlautin was completely brilliant. He has stories coming out of his ears. The Oregon lilt to his voice is utterly charming and his piecing together of tales to form a larger, wonderful tapestry is quite something to behold. The section he read was about a man on the rocks buying doughnuts and it spoke volumes about life. Vlautin described the snippet as ‘a day in the life of a life on the brink’. Perfect. I also loved his philosophy regarding people. That we shouldn’t be so judgemental about folk because we have no idea about the amount of weight they’re carrying around on their backs and in their hearts. I hope a little of that rubs off on me.
The pair complimented each other extremely well. They had enough respect for and knowledge about each-other’s writing that they were able to ask excellent questions that offered revealing answers. They're prepared to talk about an all-too-often neglected subject in regard to war vets and I hope their work opens up some interesting conversations about it.

A little nod to Mr Yorkston, too. It took a while for him to settle and he maybe spoke a little too much at the off, but he soon found the right balance. He’d clearly read the books and had understood them well. By the end he was handling things like an old pro – maybe better than an old pro – and his own gentle humour was a real bonus and helped get the best out of the writers I’m pretty sure.

I don’t get to author events as much as I used to, but this was a reminder of why I should get myself back into gear and check out more. There’s nothing quite like it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

One Man's Opinion: CALIFORNIA by RAY BANKS

‘I’m a man with a goal, and I will reach that goal no matter what.’

Shug has learned well. His years with a Jarvis-Cocker-lookalike therapist during his stay in Saughton Prison have given him something to aim for. A goal. California.

He’s virtually a reformed character now he’s been released. We learn that early doors as he treats the old man whose car he’s hijacked calmly and without resorting immediately to violence. The car he’s nicking is going to take him home, back to his ex-girlfriend’s Falkirk home where his stash is hidden and into the territory of the two men with whom he robbed a post office and weren’t caught  – these are two men who Shug would like to have a word with, a quiet and rational word if they’re up for it.  

California’ is a thing of beauty. A real pocket rocket. The story has energy from the off, driven by the sense of purpose in the main character. Shug’s history comes to light as events move the plot forwards and this keeps the momentum up all the way through. What I feel is particularly special is the way Shug is painted so sympathetically, in spite of his volatile emotions and unpleasant past. When he reaches the points when he has to make decisions that are make-or-break (will there be serious consequences or damage limitation?) the emotional pull is huge. If you’re like me, you’ll be screaming internally and at different points, ‘DO IT’ and ‘DON’T DO IT’ in the hope that Shug’s able to get the message somehow.

I loved it and think it’s likely that you will too.

A flawless gem.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Dancing With Myself: WILLIAM BOYLE interviews WILLIAM BOYLE

This one, I want to introduce.

I've read a number of great books in 2014. Some real belters. Even so, there's one that stands out clearly as my favourite and that's GRAVESEND by William Boyle who's about to interview himself here. The novel has an immense power that I'd urge you to experience. The prose is special, the characters wildly alive and their circumstances tragic. It's full of surprises and the kind of romance that Tom Waites can create when he sings about the broken.

I'd like to thank William for doing me the honour of appearing here and also thank my friend Rory Costello for sharing his knowledge and recommending the book in the first place.

Here goes. Kings William the Sixth and Seventh:

Just don’t tell me about Brooklyn, okay? I don’t give a shit about Brooklyn. Everyone’s from goddamn Brooklyn. Don’t start this thing that way.
I won’t talk about it.

Don’t tell me about the south either. I don’t give a shit how the fuck you wound up in Oxford.
Okay, man.
How’d you get into crime fiction?
Stephen Frears’ version of The Grifters came out when I was in the sixth grade. I saw it and loved it and asked for the book for my birthday. My mother bought it for me because she never said no to a book. I remember riding in the car to Florida with her and my stepdad and reading the novelization of The Last Boy Scout I’d picked up somewhere along the way – I loved Shane Black and I hadn’t seen the movie yet, I had to wait for it to come out on video. I also found Elmore Leonard in the library around then – I was obsessed with Reservoir Dogs and Tarantino kept talking about what a huge influence Leonard was, so I read Killshot and a few others. And then I picked up The Black Dahlia in a bookstore one day in eighth grade. I hadn’t heard anything about Ellroy – it just looked good to me. By high school, I was into Cain and Chandler and I was watching movies like Detour.   
What’s your first memory?
I had a 106 fever and I was in a tub in the Victory Memorial Hospital ER. I guess I was three. My father was standing in the doorway. He’d come over from Staten Island. He was wearing a cap and his softball jacket. I was burning up. I didn’t know what death was so I wasn’t afraid. 
What was on your walls when you were a kid?
A poster of Alyssa Milano in a Devils jersey and framed Lenny Dykstra baseball cards. Later, a picture of Cagney in Public Enemy and a True Romance poster.
What movie have you watched the most in your life?
Tie. Pump Up the Volume came out when I was sixth grade. I rented it from my local video store the next year and dubbed it using my mother’s VCR and my grandmother’s VCR – I watched that movie probably four or five times a week for the next few years. I was in love with Samantha Mathis as Nora Diniro. When True Romance came out, I did the same thing. And then late in high school it was Leaving Las Vegas. Well, I guess Leaving Las Vegas doesn’t count because I always skipped the rape part and I usually didn’t watch the end. I just liked it when he got to Las Vegas and they were drinking all the time and kind of falling in love. What a goddamn dream!  
What are your favorite things right now?
Louie. The recent two-part episode, “In the Woods,” is the best TV I’ve ever seen. Megan Abbott’s The Fever. Willy Vlautin’s The Free and Colfax by his new band The Delines. Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There. I just reread Jim Harrison’s Farmer – man, what a book. Dave Newman’s Two Small Birds. Michael Haneke’s Amour. Mad Men. The Rock*A*Teens. That Harry Dean Stanton documentary. Ace Atkins’s Quinn Colson books. Adventure Time and every word that Jack Pendarvis writes. This song about my hero Jason Molina by Strand of Oaks. These photos by Arthur Tress of children’s dreams. John Brandon’s Further Joy. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. Tom Spanbauer’s I Loved You More.   
You like a lot of stuff. What are some things that you hate?
I hate thinking that my grandparents won’t be around one day. I hate bad pizza. I hate going to the beach in the summer. I hate mopping. I don’t hate birds but I’m pretty scared of them – I think they can take over whenever they want.     
What’s the drunkest you’ve ever been?
It involved MD 20/20 and an axe. I was on a ladder in the middle of a strange street. The night smelled like puke. The moon had disappeared.  
Where did GRAVESEND come from?
It was born in blood and brokenness. It came screaming from me like a punk song.
Do you ever think about how you’d like to die?
When my wife and I are ninety, I’d like for us to leave a note for our children and drive somewhere very cold where we can freeze together hugging under a tree. I’d like to listen to a good song while I’m freezing to death, something by Shane MacGowan. I’d like to stay frozen until the world explodes.