Thursday, 20 November 2014

London Calling (the squaring of a circle)



LONDON CALLING 

In about half an hour, I’m going to be tuning in to BBC Radio 4 to listen to my brother’s latest production. This one’s likely to be a cracker, not least because Geoff made it. It’s on Jack London and that, somehow, brings things full circle for me. You’ll be able to listen to the programme, London Calling, if you have access to BBC iPlayer right here.

Jack London’s a special character. I’ll not take that any further. You either know that or you’ll find out by listening. He’s important to me because of White Fang. That was the book that probably hooked me in to fiction more than any other in my formative years at primary school. It left its mark on me to the point where I had to write my own book about dog-fighting, which I did. Smoke was the result. It goes without saying that London did it better and that many others have done too, but it does explain something about my inspiration for that particular novella.

It’s also slightly eerie for me that Tobias Wolff (I’m sure there was no pun intended) will be part of it. I saw Mr Wolff (again, no pun) when he came to London to publicise his latest at the time, In Pharaoh’s Army. I’ve looked up the book and see that it came out in 1995 – how time flies – and have a signed copy on my shelf in front of me.

Why all this seems more significant just now relates to the recent release of my own latest novel, Southsiders. I’m very proud that it’s been published by Blasted Heath and am even happier with the content as I believe it could me by finest work to date.

The roots of Southsiders go right back to Geoff once more.
Our links together in the world of books and writing go back many years. Geoff’s a talented man who has a Masters in literature to top off his first class degree. He’s forged ahead down many paths in his time and has always made a success of what he’s done. One of the things that we did together was create The Rue Bella magazine back in 1998. It was a great publication that grew and improved right until its end in 2003. The magazine served two purposes to me. Firstly, it allowed me to feel like I was doing the right thing for once; that working with writers, putting out their work and writing my own material was what I was born to. Secondly, it meant that Geoff and I had a joint project that helped keep us together even though there were many physical miles between us.

When The Rue Bella finally ended (we just couldn’t afford to keep losing money on it – who buys poetry these days, huh?) there was a definite void in my life. I filled it by writing. I’m not sure Geoff had the same void, but he had children to look after by then so we were heading in different directions.

That sense of us moving apart has never really shifted. It’s probably just a natural process in life and I have to get used to that. I can’t blame Geoff, either. It can’t be easy having an older brother who has mental health problems that go far deeper than depression and who stumbles from one manic crisis to another as if blindfolded. It can’t have been easy.

Anyway, back to Southsiders.  

Three or four years ago, I had an idea that might help us to close some of the gap between us. I thought that we should do some collaborative writing. I had a selfish motive here and an unselfish one. I wanted to bring us together, but I also wanted Geoff to work on his fiction. If he chose to focus upon it, he’d be far better at writing than I, no doubt about it. 

We intended to work on two projects, one his idea and one mine. We’d write a chapter of each and pass it over for the next chapter to be written like a tag team.

Geoff had been working with war-veterans for a programme on BBC 5 Live (I think). He had the idea or writing about the return of a soldier from the war from his daughter’s perspective. The guy had a metal plate in his head and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride for his family.

My idea was that a young lad would be left alone at home because his parents had chosen to go their separate ways on the same day without telling each other. The kid was to be into Elvis Presley and was going to have one hell of an adventure.

Neither project came to anything. The gap was just too big. 
Whatever was getting in the way was also blocking our writing and we just couldn’t agree in the directions either piece should take. 
The momentum slowed and eventually the stories ground to a halt.

Thankfully, though, nothing in writing is entirely wasted.
I picked up the threads to Southsiders again earlier this year. It was easy to write – the voice caught me from the off. It bears no resemblance to the original joint effort, bar the idea and Elvis. It’s turned into what I’d describe as a dark version of Home Alone.

In the end, today’s programme seems to bring things to full circle. 
Lots of things coming together and tied up with a silky bow.

Looking at it, we’ve both gone along with paths we chose.

I write. I have to. It’s just a huge part of what I do.

Geoff, well he makes just about the finest radio programmes that 
the BBC put out. Literature is usually at the centre of his work, though he touches on all creative areas in his work.

I guess that’s just the way it is. It turned out pretty well in the end.


If you’re not convinced by any of this, have a listen in to the programme. As I come to the end of this, it’s 9 minutes away. I can’t wait. 

(for more on Southsiders, check out my interview at Crime Fiction Lover from earlier this week)

Also, please note and be very excited about the new Ray Banks, Angels Of The North which is now available for pre-order.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

One Man's Opinion: JULIUS KATZ by DAVE ZELTSERMAN



A general rule to follow is the more clutter that can be eliminated, the clearer the picture will become.”

There are two really enjoyable stories here to be enjoyed, each of them substantial pieces and both narrated by a tie-pin.

The tie pin is Archie, a super-intelligent computer who talks to his boss Julius Katz through an earpiece. In this book, we first meet Archie down at the dog track. He’s worked out the most likely finishing positions of the dogs and is trying to persuade Katz to place a bet. Katz is having none of it. Instead, he takes a punt that is led by human intuition and wins.

This causes Archie a problem. You see, Archie is determined to solve a case before his sleuth owner and with the Trifecta safely pocketed he won’t need to take on any work for a good while. Archie’s solution is a simple one; to reveal to his owner the location of a hugely expensive case of wine. Katz is a lover of fine things and can’t resist this addition to his cellar.

He takes on the case for a couple of sisters who are worried that their brother is bleeding their dementia-suffering mother dry.

The case is investigated in a rather old-fashioned way, which is ironic given the hugely advanced technology that’s in use. There are amusing complications with the police to complicate matters and there’s the complication of a new romantic interest.

Katz studies the evidence and Archie competes with him until it all comes together in a familiar form, all the suspects in the room at once and the police being on hand to arrest the culprit at the big reveal.

It’s a similar structure in the second story, only this time Archie’s been internet dating and has landed himself in the seat of being the main suspect in a murder case. Of course, we know Archie can’t have done it as he’s only a tie-pin computer, but the situation does leave Katz in a rather difficult position. Archie even suggests he changes his voice into that of a Southern belle only Katz will have none of it.

In the end there’s the familiar gathering of suspects and police and, once again, Katz gets things solved.

I think that Zeltserman’s done something really clever here. He’s taken a well-trodden path and then gone on a major and rather original detour.

This pair of stories acts as an appetiser for some Julius Katz novels. I found them to be very entertaining and I’ll definitely get to meet them in longer form at some point. Well worth a read.


I bought this book as Julius Katz Mysteries must have moved on since that time, because I can’t find it any longer. In its place is a book called The Julius Katz Collection. It has both the stories I mention and another five besides (including the wonderfully titled Julius Katz and the Case Of A Sliced Ham). It was worth the entry money just for the pair I read, so I guess this is a real bargain.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

One Man's Opinion: OF BLONDES AND BULLETS by MICHAEL YOUNG


A new publisher really needs to hit the ground running with their first book. With Of Blondes And Bullets by Michael Young, Number Thirteen Press certainly manage that. So does the central character as it happens, mainly because he’s running for his life.

The novella opens in a locked room. There’s been a lot of violence and pain. Those inside are desperate to get out before their captor returns.

“Just for the hell of it, knowing that it was hopeless and that nothing was going to give, but just for the hell of it anyway, the big man tried one last time. He threw his shoulder against the heavy iron door, putting as much weight into it as his injuries would allow.”

They need to get out and will risk everything to do so, only there’s no key and there are no windows. The desperation is palpable, the climax chilling.

We switch then to another scene. A man (Frank) on a beach spots a flash in the sea. Recognising it as human being, he dives in without a thought and brings them in. It’s a woman. A beautiful and dangerous woman called Kathy.  He takes her home to his girlfriend’s place – she’s away working, so anything goes. Kathy showers and gets dressed and brings a whole new energy into Frank’s flat and dull existence. Seeing her wrapped in a towel seems to show him exactly what he’s missing from his life. Kathy insists she needs to get to an address across town. With nothing better to do (“For the first time in an age, he knew that he would do something.”) Frank takes her there. Shortly afterwards, Frank encounters a gang of heavyweight thugs who clearly want to take Kathy from him. Frank manages to give them the slip and heads for home once again. Kathy runs and Frank does the first sensible thing of the day and calls the police to report what has happened.

If only that were the end of it.

Frank’s life is about to be turned upside down.

The heavies are back. They want Kathy. Frank’s battered to within an inch of his life before he can tell them that he doesn’t even know the woman. Not that it really matters. These guys aren’t the kind to believe anything that isn’t backed up by money or force.

Frank’s problems turn from bad to worse as he fights against all the odds to keep himself alive and to find out what’s going on.

What follows is an adrenaline-fuelled tale in which nothing can be taken for granted.

It’s a chase within a chase. The action is breathless and the violence brutal. There are guns and knives and fists galore. It’s not clear who’ll be coming out of things alive until the final words and this keeps the tension high till the end.

I don’t think it’s without flaws. I lost my way a couple of times and wanted a smoother momentum in places, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nevertheless. It’s edgy and disconcerting. There’s a sense of being in another time and place and yet of also being in familiar territory. It’s good, old-fashioned noir presented in a fresh way.

I’d judge this book by its cover if I were you. It speaks volumes about what lies within. I suggest you step inside and find out for yourself if you think you’ve got what it takes.


A very strong start to what promises to be a very exciting enterprise. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

One Man's Opinion: PARTNERS IN CRIME by STUART MACBRIDE


“It’s sodding Heroin Galore.”

We had a two minute silence in school yesterday. Unfortunately, when it started I was in the middle of a timed dyslexia assessment and had to let it run. We still managed a little silence, though, especially because our bells ended up being five minutes apart.

When I got home after a long evening of meeting parents, I needed something to help me unwind. Spurred on by my moments of reflection, I found something entitled The Somme In Seven Poems
It’s a really powerful cocktail of wonderful poetry and beautiful animation that is well worth a visit. It only lasts about ten minutes and if you have access to BBC’s iPlayer, I’d urge you to go along. 
The poets demonstrate one of the wonders of the form, the ability to generate huge emotion and energy in a very short space of time.

On a tangent, I’d recently been flicking through my Kindle and stumbled upon a book by Stuart MacBride called Partners In Crime: Two Logan And Steel Stories (Bad Heir Day and Stramash). It may be a mouthful of a title, but MacBride shows off his own skills when working within a short space to tell a couple of fantastic stories.

The first is set over Christmas. It involves a fishy missing person case. When links to a local loan-shark are established, it appears that there’s every chance that a murder’s been committed. To make matters worse, Steel has been left a huge amount of money by a criminal she loathes on the condition that she swallows her pride and delivers a glowing eulogy at the funeral service. It’s moody, dark and wickedly funny. It’s also attention-grabbing as an investigation.

The second deals with a gathering of criminal minds on the Island of Jura. Some of the criminals are even supposed to be dead. DI Steel has happened upon them while over there with her girlfriend and Steel’s keen to keep the surveillance a secret from her partner to avoid trouble. To help her she calls upon Logan McRae and he’s anything but happy to arrive on the island in the middle of a patch of miserable weather. It turns out that Steel has stumbled upon a shipwreck with a cargo of heroin and the criminals have gathered to recover it and go their separate ways. It begins with a moody tension, cracks on with a heavy dose of wit and ends in a climax in which MacBride throws in practically everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink. It’s a very entertaining piece.

All in all, this is a very satisfying read that will brighten any day.


As a bonus, there’s a preview of a novel at the back. As far as I was concerned, I’d read enough to know that I’ll be back for more sometime soon.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

SOUTHSIDERS


Ray Spalding's had enough of his wife, Paula. He's left his home in Edinburgh's Southside and headed for Belfast. It's safer there.

Unknown to Ray, Paula's also had enough of him. She's not going back home. Not now, not ever.
Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can't tell anyone or he'll be taken into care.

As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad's 1950s record collection.

Southsiders is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain's capital cities.

Now available from Amazon via the following links:

US  UK  Can  De  Fr   Es   Jp  It  Br  Au  In

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

One Man's Opinion: DIRTBAGS by ERYK PRUITT


A big day here at the Birdhouse. My novel SOUTHSIDERS has just been released by the wonderful Blasted Heath. If you’re at all interested, why not pop on over and take a look? I’ll write a little more about the book over the next few days, no doubt.

Now to my latest read, Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt.

“It’s no wonder her husband had a heart attack. If I was married to her, I’d eat nothing but butter and pray the good Lord made it nice and quick.”

Tom London owns the biggest restaurant in Lake Castor. He’s married to an influential woman and dotes on his son (in his own particular way). The only fly in his ointment is an ex-wife who wants to get her child back. She’s a problem who needs dealing with.

Enter Calvin Cantrell.

Jack hires Calvin to kill his ex. He hands over a wad of cash (slightly short, of course) and Calvin sets of on to take the first steps of a journey he’s always wanted to take.

His secret desire is to become a serial killer. He’s studied the methods and histories of all of the big names in the field and wants to join them. It will give him a role in life and will bring him the notoriety he’s been craving all these years.

To help him along, Calvin decides to take on a sidekick, Phillip Krandall. Krandall’s big regret in life is that he didn’t carry out a killing spree at his high school on the day he took his bag full of weapons into class. The only reason he didn’t do it was that Calvin intervened. When Calvin calls at Krandall’s trailer, there’s only ever going to be one outcome and the pair set off to Texas to do eliminate Jack London’s ex.
What follows is for you to find out.

I can tell you that Jack’s ex-wife isn’t the failure she’s been described as and that things don’t go as the would-be killers intend. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out how it plays out and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the way you expect.

The book’s divided into three sections. The first focuses on Calvin, the second on Jack and the third on Calvin’s wife, Rhonda. This allows the story to develop in different ways. There are back-stories to enjoy, there are the foundations to the plot and there is the narrative thread of our new serial-killer. All the way through, the settings are well-described and there’s a strong desire to discover how things will eventually play out. It’s dark and sleazy, but it’s also very entertaining. There’s a subtle humour about the situation and the characters and a decent comic edge to the dialogue.

To my mind, it’s the opening section that works the best. Getting to know Cantrell and the surrounding cast of characters is a real treat and it’s here where I felt the dramatic tension worked best. Pruitt does a great job of nailing things down, all the time avoiding the obvious. Just when I thought I knew where I was going, the plot would twist or turn in a new direction and give me something else to ponder. The other aspect of the opening which I think worked well was the way it was possible to find room to root for some of those involved, even though they’re a dismal collection of specimens – for me, that became less easy as the story played out.


It’s surprising that this is a debut novel given the quality of the work. Pruitt is definitely one to watch and I’ll be keeping a look out for his work in the future, not that I’d ever like to turn my back on the guy (just in case).  

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

One Man's Opinion: THE WOMAN CHASER by CHARLES WILLEFORD


“This is what I learned about a story at Mammoth Studios: A likeable and sympathetic hero, one who affords a good measure of viewer-identification, and around whom the story revolves, is faced with the necessity of solving a serious and urgent problem which affects his vital interests. The hero makes an effort to solve his problem, but this only succeeds in making matters worse. (This is me all right). The hero’s efforts all lead to a series of increasingly harder complications. Each new complication is related to the original problem. (This isn’t me, or is it?) Anyway, there is an integrated series of complications which build up in intensity until a definite point or crisis is reached. It is here that the reader cannot possibly understand how the hero can possibly succeed. But now the hero makes one last and heroic attempt to resolve his difficulties, and in every case it must be his own individual efforts that solve the dilemma (s). Under no circumstances can he accept any form of outside aid to make things easier for him.”

It’s a long quote, I know, but a great dissection of a type of story-writing. This comes from the narrator of our story, a successful car salesman called Richard Hudson.

The opening has Hudson watching a used Los Angeles car lot that he intends to buy. He analyses the pros and cons of the place with ruthless application and proceeds with his purchase for the business. It’s a classy, beautifully written beginning that really sucked me in completely. Like the quote above says, we have our sympathetic hero with whom we can identify.

From there, we’re transported into an analysis of the art of story-telling in the film world. It’s a little unsettling, but it’s not long before the thread of the narrative is resumed.
Essentially we have a tale being told in flashback. It’s a great way of grabbing attention and sows the seeds of tension because we know we’re heading for some kind of fall.

Hudson moves back in with his eccentric mother and family. He spends a lot of time with his step-father, a genius of cinema who has lost his way. As they hang around together, Hudson realises that he needs something to fill the emptiness of his life and the creation of a film seems to be the obvious thing for him to do. He has an amazing knowledge of cinema and his step-father allows him an insight that many script-writers might die for.

The creation of the film and the obsession of the writer are gripping. There are many occasions when I wanted to leap in and offer advice - after all, I know already that things aren’t set to end well.
A huge amount of the book is absolutely brilliant.

What lets it down a little is Hudson’s determination to do things his own way. He wants to do something that is out of the ordinary and he can’t bear the interference of the man at the top who wants control of the piece. His obsession turns into a kind of madness and in this madness lies his downfall. The problem for me here is that the book also works to its own calamity of an ending and for me Hudson had become so despicable that I didn’t care a hoot for him anymore. He was no longer my slightly flawed hero, but had turned himself into the villain of the piece. While I’m sure that was deliberate, there was something about it that felt a little disappointing. Maybe if I’d realised earlier what a toe-rag the man was (and there were plenty of serious clues, believe me), I might have read in a different way.

Willeford certainly tells an incredible story with great flair and skill. The voice and the whole situation are brilliantly done. Because of that, I’m slightly disappointed in myself for not loving the entirety of the book to pieces. This one’s definitely worth a read and I’m sure will ignite a whole batch of questions for you as a reader.


I’d love to hear a few opinions on this. Please feel free to share.