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.     

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


‘Adem had come for a girl, and she was a girl worth staying for, regardless of how her soft face had been turned into a horror story of scars, holes and crust. He would have given his life for what was behind her wire-rimmed glasses and London-educated English. He should have, rather than running away from her. This time she would realize that.’

I really enjoyed Anthony Neil Smith’s ‘All The Young Warriors’. It was an amazing story told with power and craft and I was entirely satisfied by its outcome.

I was a little surprised to hear there was to be a sequel, in part because ATYW worked so very well and also because it finished rather conclusively. Even so, I liked the opener enough to give ‘Once A Warrior’ an airing and I’m delighted that I did.

Stepping into the sequel is a little bit like moving up a level in a video game. Everything is familiar, yet it’s a little more complicated and attacks the senses at a faster rate. Because there’s more going on, the reader and author have to be sharper and more alert and reaching the end is all the more satisfying because of that.

Adem’s on his way back to find his Somali love in order to find forgiveness and to make amends. She’s there somewhere and he believes he can find her if only he can follow his instincts and apply all of his passion. In order to do so, he’s had to resurrect his Mr Mohammed character and needs to travel to the Middle East under the guise of being on a pilgrimage.

Adem’s father (Mustafa Bahdoon), meanwhile, has left his job in order to return to the Southside Killaz, a gang he founded way back when in Minneapolis. Needless to say, the current gang-leader isn’t too happy about the idea and it’s not long before there’s a new war on the streets as things fly out of control. All this just to rescue a girl who has been stolen for the sex trade and to hold up his end of the family honour.

In each strand of the story, things become complicated. Neither father nor son can trust anyone completely as all allegiances seem invisible and untrustworthy. Working out who to side with goes way beyond using gut instinct and experience as both of them are stranded way out of their depth.

What is to be admired about this novel is the way Smith has expanded the territory so broadly. He’s introduced the CIA, has the complexity of gang relationships and rivalries, is delving deeper into his protagonists’ culture and religion than before and brings in a higher level of terrorism and manipulation than previously. That these various pieces can co-exist so cleverly and plausibly is a testament to the hard-centred core of the book and the way the motives and drives of the characters are so consistent and understandable. It also helps that the book is always driving forward and has a real sense of energy and tension that rarely lets up. I was completely engaged and wrapped up in this from the start and was still buzzing even when I’d turned off my kindle after the last, gripping pages.

Do you have to read ‘All The Young Warriors’ before ‘Once A Warrior’? Not at all. It stands alone and everything that you’ll need to know of the first book is dripped into the sequel seamlessly.

And which is better? I remember giving ATYW 5 stars without any hesitation. It’s even easier to do with ‘Once A Warrior’; it’s the sequel I prefer and that really is saying something.

You also get a badass called Poe in the sequel. He’s some piece of work and what a name for a villain.
This is a book that can make a long trans-Atlantic flight pass and you find yourself landing as if it’s barely been minutes since take-off. It would be perfect for the beach on a lazy holiday. It’s just what you need to take your mind off the cold outside when you’re sitting by a fire in mid-winter. It’s a great read start to finish wherever you happen to be and whatever the situation.

Go get.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


First a little nice news for me.

How To Choose A Sweetheart has been shortlisted for a couple of awards over at Indie Book Bargains. It's in the Best Romantic Comedy and the Best Overall Book categories and I'm thrilled. Thanks to all at IBB for their hard work. You don't have to buy it to read it if you can access Overdrive via your local library and if you are a Scribd subscriber it's available here.

I also have a couple of collections going for free at Amazon just now. They're With Love And Squalor and Beat On The Brat (and other stories). You'll probably have them already, but if you don't, maybe you'd like to give them a try.

You can ignore all the above quite easily, but I'd like you to take the following words in very carefully. It's new of a book you're likely to love. Here goes:

‘Kyle lay that way for hours, his fear of the lizard-beast bursting in to find him balanced somewhat by a child’s faith in the mystical protection afforded by pulling the covers over one’s head.’

The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform is a collection of stories that have been inspired by the dream diary of a young man who is no longer with us. This is explained beautifully in the introduction by David Cranmer, an introduction which serves as a launch pad into a journey through a new series of realities as told by some of the best short story writers around.

What the stories have in common is that they seem to shimmer in a dreamlike way so that it’s always clear from the outset that things aren’t exactly as they might immediately seem. It’s like entering the Twilight Zone in that you’re told that things will be unusual at the outset and yet you are still surprised that nothing turns out as might have been expected.

The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform by Chris F Holm is a classy piece about a boy, Kyle, who has been moved from his familiar surroundings and has been successfully bought off by a telescope. Unfortunately for Kyle, he spots things in the distance that he may rather not have known about.

Dust To Dust is a wonderful story by Terrie Farley Moran. It’s rooted in the very real and cruel world of conservative America, as a young adolescent girl is moved out to stay with her grandma to have the baby she’s conceived out of wedlock. It’s told in flashback and the strength of the feeling it gives off and the horror of the situation is beautifully handled.

Twin Talk by Patti Abbott takes a fabulous look at a home where twin daughters rule the roost. They have that spooky communication thing going on and the sinister feel pervades the whole piece so that it’s impossible to stop reading.

The Malignant Reality by Evan V Corder is a slick and classy take on the theme of soul-selling. What is surprising here is how superbly this old concept has been bent out of shape so that it becomes something utterly fresh and new.

Ghosts In the Fog by Steve Weddle has its feet planted mainly on the ground. It’s set in a hospital after an incident the main character might well have done better to avoid. There’s a real sense of introspection as a cafeteria conversation takes him back through the hoops of his life to find how he got to this point and what he wanted to do with his life way back:

“It’s like this catalogue we had in college,” I said. “We used to get in the mail. Where you can get DH Lawrence’s shoes for $200. How they tell that story and you’re walking through the light rain in Ceylon and this woman knows your name and then she takes you to a cafe and someone is playing the violin and you watch the moon between the buildings and everything is just right and whatever. I wanted that. Whatever that is. Not a job.”

 Powerful stuff.

The Debt by Hilary Davidson is a wonderful thing. A living hell for a hitchhiker who just can’t escape the circles in which he’s trapped. It’s this simple sentence at the opening that sets things up so nicely:

‘The hitchhiker heard a car behind him, and he half-turned to look. It was a silver Prius, of course. Always the silver Prius.’

The Zygma Gambit by Garnett Elliott is a futuristic work set in a world where greed still eats up people and things. The protagonist sets off on a journey into the future to replace his uncle, even though he’s seen clearly in a dream that the gravity boots he’s wearing have been sabotaged. Imagine a western in space. A great way to round off the collection.

The pieces here are superb in their own right. As a collection, they come together perfectly. If they’re a memorial of sorts, it speaks volumes for the man it celebrates, one Kyle J Knapp. This may be a disparate gathering in the sense that there are a range of genres, but there’s also a gel that holds them altogether. Perhaps it’s that dreamlike quality I mentioned at the opening or, maybe, it’s that these gems were all spawned from the same Petri dish.

On the cover it mentions that this is Veridical Dreams Volume 1. This reviewer is definitely hopeful that 2 and 3 are just around the corner.


Wednesday, 11 June 2014


“What would you say to a bottle of Tinto de Verano?”

“I’d say: I love you. Will you marry me?”

If you like your fiction hard-boiled then A Case Of Noir is a book for you. The above example of sharp dialogue is just one a thousand examples of crackling, punchy prose that weave through this book like a spider on speed. The quips are so very well handled and serve many purposes – they colour the characters, add zing, focus images and bring humour by the Sam Spade-load.

The atmosphere is hot and pregnant with lust (‘Lena was a heat-seeking missile and I was the target.') and disaffection, with lowlife and alcohol, with apathy and action  and has a soundtrack that would make a nice little compilation.

 Follow Luke Case (the eponymous anti-hero) as he trawls from one sordid experience to another. While you there, you can also discover how killing really is and how it’s nothing like it is on the TV. You’ll get to know parts of Europe that you may never have visited and, if you’ve been there, you’re unlikely to have seen them in this light:
Red Esperanto (Warsaw)
Death On A Hot Afternoon (Madrid)
The Kelly Affair (Granada)
The Big Rain (Toulouse)
One Of Those Days In England (Cambridge)

Refreshingly straight and unpretentious stuff that brings a new zing to an old favourite.
Really, what's not to like?

Saturday, 7 June 2014


If you have a TV or radio or computer, I imagine that it was difficult not to think about the D-Day landings yesterday. I’m always hugely moved by the human stories of the period and the levels of desperation people must have had to endure and move beyond (if they were lucky enough).
I have my own tiny story. It’s not a fiction, though it is blurred by a failing memory and the piling up of the years.
It was 1984. I’m pretty awful with dates and can rarely be bothered to work things back to find out when things happened. In this case it’s pretty easy. As part of my adventure, I remember being dropped off in Paris by a German in a sporty car who had a love of continental thrash punk. The rain poured and the cafe we took shelter in was showing the Olympic Games from LA. I was with my good friend Gareth and we were hitchhiking around France and were having one hell of an adventure.
The part of the holiday I wanted to mention here was near to Bayuex in Normandy. Gareth and I were in the area. Must have been dropped off by someone at a junction where his plans and ours went in separate directions.
The area was rural. It was boiling hot. With a typical lack of preparation, we had hardly any food or drink with us and the road seemed pretty deserted. After an hour or so, things were looking bleak. The car-drivers who passed looked disinterested and usually refused to give eye-contact. The evening was drawing in and the prospect of sleeping in a field seemed to be very real.
At that point, just when our spirits fell off the scale, a van drove by. A guy popped out and had a chat with Gareth about our plans. Said that if we hadn’t been picked up by the time he returned in an hour or so, he’d take us home and we could stay at his place.
For a while, Gareth and I were full of joy and I’m pretty sure we didn’t stick out our thumbs again until the man came past again.
True to his word the man came back, threw our bags into the back of his van and drove us back to his house.
I remember experiencing some relief when we were introduced to his wife and his child, a toddler who should now be well into their thirties. There were dogs, too. I wasn’t comfortable with children or animals back then and just did my best to seem at ease. We had a home cooked dinner, shared some wine and were given beds for the night.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, the man took us on a tour of the area. My French is shocking so much of it went over my head. Thankfully, Gareth was a very capable translator. Still is. The tory was about the war. How the tanks had appeared in the area. How one of them had got stuck and was rescued by the local people, including the man’s father. How grateful everyone was to the soldiers who had come to liberate them. How pleased they were with the outcome. There was a real power to his words. He was conveying his own gratitude to us for the freedom that came, passing on his father’s joy and filtering them to us as if he just couldn’t help himself. As if the hospitality he’s shown us was a thank you to those soldiers who’d passed through his land way back when.
I was amazed by it.
Not that they’d finished.
The man’s wife took us to visit the cathedral after our walk and then dropped us off at a spot where she felt we were bound to find our next lift.
To thank the family, we bought a rather lovely looking cake for them to share over lunch. It was a small thing to do to, buying them that flan, but it taught me a lot. I’m grateful to Gareth and to the family for the lesson.

Et voila. Nothing earth-shattering, but a tiny speck of a thought on something that happened a long time ago that had me thinking about a time even further back in history.