Wednesday, 25 May 2016

One Man's Opinion: THREE LITTLE PIGS by APOSTOLOS DOXIADIS


Three Little Pigs (US) is a story that wraps itself around a wonderful premise. An Italian family in early twentieth century New York is cursed when the father kills the son of Tonio Lupo, The Scourge Of Brooklyn. Lupo sets in motion a maledizione which means that the sons of the killer will all die when they are forty-two years old (the same age as Lupo’s only child). To do this, he takes his most promising assassin and retires him from the mob, guaranteeing him a fortune when the murders have taken place. It’s a long-term plan, but the loyalties and codes of the Sicilian underworld ensure that it’s almost certain to take place.

The three Frank brothers set off to make their way into the world. The first is industrious and determined. After his heroics during World War One, he returns home and rises to the top of the business world. He is driven by the hope that becoming rich will be enough to save him from the curse. The second brother is discovered by Hollywood and sets of to make his way in the movies. It’s his hope that fame will protect him from Lupo’s maledizione. The third is a waster. He knows nothing of the truth of his own father’s story and sets about living life to the full while riding on brother number one’s coat tails.

Peppe Teranova is the man charged with carrying out the contract. He’s the owner of a pizza restaurant and sets about bringing up his own children into the world, all the while keeping his eyes open for news of the Frank boys and making sure he knows exactly where he will find them when the time comes.

There’s an awful lot to like about this book.  Through these four characters, we get to see the growth of a nation. Each tale is told independently other than at the points of necessary crossover. The insights and flavours of mafia life as offered by the narrator are romantically recreated and a joy to read. There’s an element of tension to the whole thing as we move towards the first of the forty-second birthdays and the book races away at times.

Thought I really enjoyed this one, I do have some minor gripes. It suffers from some heavy-handed use of punctuation, particularly early on when the style is emerging. This interrupts the flow and slows down the energy and pace when it should be at its quickest.  The good news is that the work is strong enough to carry this and it did eventually become almost invisible.

There’s also something of an issue with the final third of the piece. After being engrossed for much of what had gone before, I found the journey to the end to be more sluggish than I would have liked. There’s a lot of introspection and excessive attention to detail and explanation that I didn’t really need - I bought everything that was thrown my way. There’s also a new element to the whole piece regarding the reflections of the narrator. This is hinted at early on and is a welcome addition, I just wish it had been sharper so that my lasting impression of Three Little Pigs could have been as glowing as the rest of the story deserves.

Don’t let the previous couple of paragraphs put you off. I’d recommend you give it a go, especially if you like epic tales or mafia lore. I loved much of it. It’s a huge piece and has the weight and feel of a novel that might pull in a prize or two in the future. Apostolos Doxiadis is clearly a master story-teller and is likely to present the world with some choice tales for us to look forward to.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

One Man's Opinion: IS IT HER? by JONATHAN HILL and KATH MIDDLETON



I like the concept behind Is It Her? (US) Two fine writers interpreting the art work of the cover to produce a pair of novellas that complement each other in terms when read together.

There are similarities, as you might expect. Each has a wartime theme and each deals with a reunification of sorts after the world has been ripped apart by violence.

The opener, by Jonathan Hill is a taught, tense piece that explores the lives of four people whose lives are interlinked as they sit playing cards. Two of the men are going off to fight the next day. The situation brings out issues for everyone as they try to come to terms with what’s about to happen. The emotional weight of it bears down on them all and soon the cracks in their world begin to appear and then to widen.

This story has the feel of an edgy piece of theatre to it. The confines of the setting and the sharply drawn lines kept me in mind of a play where the claustrophobia is palpable and the tale is told as much through the actions of the characters as their words.  

Kath Middleton paints with broader brushes. Her story is told in two parts, each from the perspective of pre-war sweethearts as they struggle with the events that wartime brings. The arc of each story is huge and Middleton has done a good job of condensing the tale into a novella. There are tasters of what it was like to live through a war from the battlegrounds of the air and on the home-front and neither side had it easy.  


Each piece works perfectly well in its own right. The fact that they come together adds value to each and I reckon there’s more mileage in projects such as this for these authors in the future. 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

One Man's Opinion: URBAN DECAY by AIDAN THORN


Urban Decay (US) is an entertaining collection of stories based around a community on its knees that’s unlikely to be getting up any time soon.

There’s a nice variety here, both in terms of length and material. They range from vignettes that hit the spot all the way up to a novelette that allows for more fleshing out of plot and character. The situations shift from boxing rings, council estates, bars, gyms, fly-tipping spots, abandoned shops and street corners. 
  
Thorn is rather skilled at introducing twists where they’re unexpected. A story moves in one direction and then dashes off at a right angle. This element means you can never be sure where you’ll be taken and that you’ll find satisfaction when you come to the end of the road.  

I like the way this collection is layered. There are cold and brutal truths played out on these pages, there’s humour and tension and there are genuine sentimental moments that will either warm the heart or are likely to make you feel grateful for what you’ve got.

Hard to pick a favourite, but I might go with the opener, Loathe Thy Neighbour. It sets things up perfectly. A hard man returns home to find his mum is upset with recent happenings in her neighbourhood. The old sense of community is being eradicated and someone needs to step in and restore some balance. In this case, the arms of justice go further than you might foresee. Great stuff.

Well worth checking out.   

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Dancing With Myself: ROSS GRESHAM interviews ROSS GRESHAM


In your wildest dreams, what effect would you want your book to have on your reader?

My dad was a college professor. He taught a “Cops and Robbers” course, and one of his students was Charlie Stella, who has gone on to become a successful crime writer. I remember once—I must have been about thirteen—waiting for my dad at his office, and I read one of Charlie’s manuscripts that was lying around in the stacks of paper on the floor. It was just a typescript, and I read a chapter at random.

It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was New York City in the late seventies. The young guys were going to a bar for older women who wanted to pick up younger men. In these pages our guy goes home with one of the women, gets a blowjob from her. Then when she’s in the bathroom, prepping for more, he steals her purse and runs off. His friends are waiting in the street with their car. She sees him going and they shout at each other from window to street.

Everything was new to me. Not just the obvious stuff. The whole world. The value system of the book.

Almost all art has the same easy messages. I read a lot of books and by age thirteen I knew what these messages were: Mean people are mean. Good deeds are good—and you’ll be rewarded for them; or you won’t be rewarded and isn’t that tragic? But Charlie’s book wasn’t operating on any system I recognized.

This sensation is hardly worth talking about. Whenever I talk about it with someone, they nod and recommend some book about a psychopath who trades bonds by day and murders coeds by night. So I must be doing a bad job of describing what I mean.

I doubt Charlie even remembers the scene. Sometimes art hits you at just the right time.

You teach literature. Crime novels—literature—what’s the difference?

Not much except that genre books push at reality a little bit more. There’s a different contract between book and reader. The reader’s part of the contract is that they don’t complain when in real life this alcoholic detective would have been fired and sued out of existence, or when this gun battle at the Space Needle doesn’t cause the city to lock down. The reader picked up a crime novel, and that was part of the deal.

Other than that, literature has the same traits as genre fiction. Every Pulitzer Prize book is a romance, or a mystery, or a historical novel. There are not that many different stories to tell. But more serious literature may hold back on some of the easier flavors. Hamlet is a crime novel, but Shakespeare screwed it up by making his detective too sophisticated. His detective solves the case right away and spends all his time wondering whether the case was even worth solving. Who would want to read that?

Influences?

I don’t make a study of crime books. I’ll read anything that falls into my hands. I read everything by Charlie Stella. I read everything by Kate Atkinson. I’ve read and re-read the series by James McClure and Reginald Hill. Every Christmas a friend gives me a shoebox of paperbacks that he’s picked up over the course of the year, in used-book stores. I read them all. I have a few days off after Christmas and I read them all. Often I couldn’t tell you the title of the book I’m holding, or who wrote it.

Isn’t that your dream as a writer? That an old dog-eared copy of your book gets put in a shoebox with a ribbon around it? A stranger is lying on his couch, exhausted by Christmas morning, dips in…..

Bio:


Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and is fiction editor for the journal War, Literature, and the Arts.

Amazon author page:


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

One Man's Opinion: SQUEEZE by CHRIS RHATIGAN



Lionel Kaspar’s first love is gambling. His second and third are booze and cigarettes. I’m not sure he has a fourth. His work at the public health department is easy enough for him to tolerate, but the pay’s poor and he needs cash to support loves one, two and three. The opportunity arises for him to take on a position as a journalist with a local newspaper. It doesn’t matter that he has no qualifications for the job, because he has no scruples either and just makes them up.

It isn’t long before he’s making up other things either. Front page stories, for example.

Pretty soon, he’s the rising star of the press and is enjoying the freedom his new lifestyle allows. The money’s great and he even starts to appreciate some of the skills in the craft of sniffing out stories and writing news. The problem is, he’s greedy and the money isn’t enough. When the idea of blackmailing people with what he knows occurs to him, it looks as though he’s hit on the magic formula that will give him everything he needs.

Noses are quickly put out of joint. He rattles the cage of one hack in particular and before long Kaspar’s new life is in serious danger of being flushed down the tubes. Now that he’s tasted the sweet smell of relative success, he’s not prepared to let it go without a fight.

Squeeze (US) is a brilliant story. The central character is a terrific creation. He’s cynical, cold and sleazy, but he’s also extremely entertaining and sharp and easy to hang around with. Rhatigan injects an uneasy tension at each turn and ratchets up the pressure steadily all the way to the final crisis.

I love the way this tale is hewn from the ordinary and that the author exploits the flaws in everyday people to drive things forward rather than simply throwing the kitchen sink at the plot. The whole piece is gripping and yet nicely understated from start to finish.


I have no hesitation in recommending Squeeze. It’s exactly the kind of book I want on my kindle.  A definite ace in the hole. 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

One Man's Opinion: BEING WITH ME WILL HELP YOU LEARN by THOMAS McCOLL


Thomas McColl’s collection, BeingWith Me Will Help You Learn (US) from Listen Softly London, offers a varied and entertaining spread of poems that suggest he’s a keen observer of city life and human interaction.

There are stories and moments and ideas painted with a range of brushstrokes, all the way from the broad to the ultra-thin. Often they take a springboard from the concrete and leave on a tangent into the abstract and the absurd, which allows for some fine word-play and fun interpretation.

Many of the pieces strike a fine rhythm, which suggests that they not only read well but might be enjoyed even more when heard in performance.

Humour is often brought into play. It allows for a lot of fun, but also shines a light on prickly issues and less savoury snapshots. Lurking within this body of work are political shouts and calls for change, as well as a solid defence of poets and their oft overlooked value to the world.

The variety on offer means that there sure to be something for everyone. Even those who don’t normally turn to poetry will likely find this to be an accessible and pleasing journey.

Here’s a snapshot in case you’re still teetering at the threshold:

The Chalk Fairy

Each night I traipse
the streets of London,
drawing chalk lines
round homeless people
sleeping rough.

I’ve found
that, even in the early hours
of Christmas Day,
there’s no shortage of bodies
to draw my outlines round:
London’s one big crime scene

every single day of the year.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

One Man's Opinion: TORN AND FRAYED by DAVID CRANMER


Jack Laramie drives his horse-box home into Texas. His welcome at a diner is far from warm and there are fireworks from the off.

As Jack dusts himself down, he encounters Mr Othmer. Othmer is an old rancher who has seen it all. During the great depression, he learned that it’s no fun being down at the bottom of the pile and this has taught him to be humble and generous. He takes Jack on as a hired hand and the drifter detective allows himself to settle down for a spell.

Dynamics change when Mr Othmer’s daughter is threatened and protection money is demanded. In the small town where they live, there’s only one hood big enough to do such a thing and this hood has previous history with Mr Othmer. Jack decides to intervene in this personal battle and is soon sucked into a vortex of family secrets and manipulation. He also finds himself in trouble with a bunch of hard men with no moral scruples whatsoever.  

Torn And Frayed (US) continues the series very nicely indeed. The glimpses into American history are nicely woven into the thread and the spirit of Cash Laramie is ever-present and always welcome.

Gritty, moody and atmospheric with bursts of action punctuating the tale. Here’s looking forward to book 8.