Review: Zulu by Caryl Feréy

I grabbed this recently while on a book expedition in London. I’d never heard of either the author or the book before, but the blurb appealed to me. It pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener.

The story basically concerns the murder of a young, affluent white student in Cape Town. The violent killing has a suspected sexual motive, and seems to have been done in a senseless frenzy. Ali Neumann, an emotionally repressed detective, and his team (Dan, intelligent but weak, and Brian, angry and self-destructive) soon discover a second killing that then leads them down a path into political machinations, a new meth-based drug that sends users into a violent frenzy, and conspiracies pitting black against white (and vice-versa). As the bodies pile up (and boy, do they pile high in this), and the tale develops more twists than fusilli, this really does develop into a gripping novel.

Roger Smith’s crime fiction has made South Africa seem like a very scary place (somehow even scarier than the very violent reality), but Feréy’s novel makes Smith’s work read like fucking Cider With Rosie in comparison (with the exception of the astonishingly black Man Down). The moment a major character is killed off in the first quarter was the point I realised that all bets were off in this story. Anybody could die at any time. And they do – lots of them – in very violent and gruesome ways. It is brutal stuff. It is also beautifully paced: starting slow, but building momentum as the tale progresses, until the pages seem to be practically turning themselves at the end. Superbly plotted, with a keen eye for a post-Apartheid political scene where neither black lives or white lives matter so long as the folks at the top make a profit and maintain power, and well told, Zulu does somehow meld Le Carré with neo-noir to create something fresh and new – and in the process becomes a dreadful advertisement for South African tourism. Highly recommended.

Review: Black Gum by J David Osborne

Having read a couple of Osborne’s previous works (Low Down Death Right Easy and Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit), and having found them both rather impressive, I’ve had my eye on Black Gum for some time. And I’m glad to tell you it didn’t disappoint.

Originally, I think Osborne pegged the project as a direct sequel to Low Down, in that Danny Ames (one of the main characters in that novel) plays a major part in the proceedings. But somewhere along the way the project seems to have changed and become something else, something different. Ames only appears in the last third of the book, in a small, though significant, cameo, and the book itself feels different in tone and texture to its predecessor. The narrator is a bit of a man-child who lives with an old friend after the failure of his marriage. They deal drugs, have parties, and hang out with the friend’s strange cousin, Shane; and generally they just exist in a vacuum where life is the stuff that happens to other people.

Whereas Low Down felt like a surreal crime drama, Black Gum feels more like a naturalistic drama with an element of crime running through it. The moments of weirdness that punctuate Osborne’s LDDRE are mostly missing here – consisting instead of minor details weaved into the main text (Shane’s body modification, Juggalo parties, the narrator’s strange trip at the end of book). It is also a very short work – more novella than novel – but that intensifies rather than diminishes the book’s impact.

Black Gum has a Carver-esque clarity to it, insofar as its simple, well-written, pared-back prose gets on with telling the story without the need for posturing and posing. What little action there is done without grandstanding; instead, it has more in common with the blink-and-you’ll miss them moments of real life. I liked that Danny Ames’ one-and-only appearance here is done without any real violence (he appears, the characters realise resistance is futile and do what they’re told).

If you’re looking for balls-to-the-wall crime action you won’t find it here, but what you will find is quality, character-based fiction with criminality weaved through it. Black Gum comes highly recommended.

Review: Amsterdam Rampant by Neil Cocker

Fin McPhail is having a difficult time out in Amsterdam. He’s getting over the break-up of his marriage (and a resulting case of sexual dysfunction) by throwing himself into his job as a marketing specialist for Cloudburn Whisky. The problem is, after a bright start, his ideas about local folklore aren’t really selling any more, his US boss is looking to fire him. He’s given the weekend to come up with ideas to save his job. Things get even worse when a particularly brutal treatment for his impotence by a ‘sex therapist’ results in him accidentally knocking a prostitute on conscious and running away in fear. The problem is compounded by the fact he accidentally leaves his phone in the brothel, and is soon contacted by a ‘psycho pimp’, which makes the weekend of his soon-to-be brother-in-law’s stag do that much more difficult. Things inevitably go awry, and Fin has to try and save his job, rescue the groom, and deal with his problems in any way he can.

Not knowing Neil Cocker, other than through his blog, or his previous short works, I started Amsterdam Rampant armed only with a few reviews (some of them by other Brit Grit authors). I expected it to be Irvine Welsh-lite (several Amazon reviews pegged it as such), but it really isn’t. The dialogue has some Scottish phonetics, but they are  scaled back from the kind of verbal pyrotechnics Welsh is renowned for (maybe that’s why some readers made the comparison). Certainly, the shenanigans the stags get up to are relatively tame in comparison with what Welsh writes, and Cocker seems more concerned with relationships than his compatriot (Welsh, for all his strengths, is a much more adroit writer of set-pieces than he is at documenting human frailties and partnership difficulties). Fin McPhail (Mcfailure to some of his friends) is a fine character and narrator, and there’s compassion and yearning in his voice. He also has a good eye for Amsterdam’s details and nice descriptive skills in his scene-setting, plus a solid sense of how to pace his narrative. It does all get wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, almost with a big bow on it, but that’s a minor caveat (and probably just a case of me being finicky), because this is an entertaining and very well written novel. Highly recommended.

Glasgow grinning

Yesterday was the day I sold 1,000 ebooks in a single month.

If you’re also a writer and you guffaw at this figure (and say to yourself, “Well, I sell that many in a single week, day, hour), then congratulations, as you’re obviously very successful. I salute you.

However, if you’re a writer like me – one who set himself a target of reaching, and hopefully bettering, 1,000 sales for the entirety of 2015 – then you’ll understand my joy at reaching this milestone. You may also understand my complete and utter lack of comprehension at how I managed to reach my target so quickly.

You see, I haven’t a clue how I did it. Well, I have clues, but lack the intellect needed to assemble them into something approaching an idea.

Obviously, I understand that the majority of those sales come from The Glasgow Grin, but what I don’t understand is how or why it has been so successful. My sales strategy for GG has been as haphazard and piss-poor as every launch that preceded it. In fact, if you were to gather a group of ebook marketing specialists together and ask, “So, folks, just how did he do it?” I honestly think their brows would lower with concentration for several minutes, they would collectively shrug their shoulders and offer a terse, “Fucked if we know,” in response. “But it’s obvious that this man is a marketing dunce.”

It could be the successful freebie of The Hunters that I ran last year, which shifted over seven thousand units. If only ten percent of readers read the tale (and liked it enough to want to read my other stuff) then that could account for some of the Glasgow Grin units sold – people wanting a resolution to the narrative started in The Hunters. Also, judging by the total numbers of units shifted of all my ebooks last year (around 672, not counting borrows, most of which were Stanton tales), I’d say I gathered enough regular readers to shift maybe a hundred units of GG to them. Considering that I’ve shifted over 750 units of Grin alone this month (and well over 1,100 in its first three months), there are a fair few folks unaccounted for! So what else?

Algorithms, or, as I like to call them, Amazon’s magical book fairies.

What do they do? Buggered if I know, mate. My limited brain power suggests that they process the maths behind sales and correlate them into user consumption figures that compare and contrast what people are currently reading with what’s already on its shelves (I’m figuring by the power of keywords and other search optimisation), to give readers a list of things Amazon think they’ll like. So if Reader A likes stuff with the tag Brit-Grit or heist then the engine will recommend other books that feature in that list. It will also suggest things that other readers bought at the same time. So if Readers A through Y bought The Hunters, The Curious Case, Keith Nixon’s The Fix and Ryan Bracha’s Paul Carter then Reader Z will be recommended at least a couple of those titles when they inspect each book individually. At least that’s my understanding of it – though don’t take my word for anything, because I’m a fucking idiot.

The Glasgow Grin seems to have been paired with Amsterdam Rampant and Ryan Bracha’s output a lot in the Readers Also Bought section. The Ryan connection I get, because I’ve reviewed his work and featured in his novel of stories Twelve Mad Men (and historically he has sold a lot more books than me), but I think that having Glasgow in the title (which is a reference to a violent act rather than the place), has seen me paired with various Scottish authors.

Still, it’s now about making sure that the next book is well written. And once I’ve achieved that, then the work becomes about making sure that it does at least as well as The Glasgow Grin. That’s how real progress is made and measured – over time. I’ve got several works featuring the brothers over the next 12 months and then I plan to take a bit of a hiatus, to concentrate on other work (including Mark Kandinsky’s first novel The Amsterdamned, in which the brothers make a small but very funny cameo). It’ll be during this period that I find out if what I’ve achieved with GG is sustainable or if it is a particularly pleasant one-off.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’s the latter.

Review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

I loved James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. They are about as perfect a series of crime novels as it is possible to get, and in White Jazz he produced one of the best novels ever written (in any genre). It works as a character study, a beautifully plotted mystery, a linguistic extravaganza, and the perfect way to bookend a brilliant series. It’s also got fucking Eyeball Man. Any book that has Eyeball Man in it is improved by exactly one hundred per cent. The Underworld USA trilogy of books (the superb American Tabloid, the excellent but difficult The Cold Six Thousand, and the fine but flawed Blood’s A Rover) were also massive achievements. However, some of his other recent works have been patchy to say the least: Shakedown was poor and the autobiographical The Hilliker Curse is very mediocre in comparison with the brilliance of My Dark Places. Also, he’s not a very good writer of short stories.

A few years ago, when he did a Q&A in London to promote Blood’s A Rover, Ellroy told the audience that he planned to do an earlier LA Quartet, running from Pearl Harbour right through to the period just prior to The Black Dahlia. Being a bit of a renowned practical joker (in fact, much of Ellroy’s shtick is an act), the audience laughed and chuckled and went oh, right, Jimmy, pull the other one. Nobody believed him.

So when the press release went out that Ellroy was indeed working on another earlier LA Quartet, everybody in that audience must have felt very foolish. I have a feeling that those people might have experienced some trepidation too. After all, a writer revisiting a previous success after years away can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

So, is Perfidia a disaster?

No, it’s not a disaster, but it isn’t great, either.

The huge story concerns the ritual murder of a naturalised Japanese family and its proximity with the attack on Pearl Harbour. It also involves land grabs from interned Japanese Americans, eugenics, pornography, and Communist conspiracies. As with all Ellroy novels with plotting is superb with nary a foot put wrong, but to get to the point where you realise that this is a decent read you have to wade through the first quarter. From goosestepping Japanese snitches, to Dudley howling every time somebody cracks a joke, to over-abundant alliteration (more so than usual), there are a lot of the worst Ellroy excesses in this. And it’s frankly fucking tiresome. So much so that I nearly shelved it.

And then something clicked, though I’m not sure what caused that click, and I began to enjoy the novel. It has some massive flaws. Kay Lake’s diary for starters, which reads exactly like James Ellroy, with no modulation in the writing style. In the original LA Quartet, Dudley Smith was served up in small portions, and there’s a reason for this – a little Dudley goes a long way. In large portions he becomes dull – particularly his ridiculous speech about communing with a wolf in Ireland (especially ludicrous if you know that there haven’t been wolves in Ireland since the 18th century), and his doomed and somewhat pointless affair with Bette Davis. Also get this, Dudley is Elizabeth Short’s father – that’s right, folks, the Black Dahlia herself – which really isn’t necessary because it adds nothing to the story. However, the bits involving Hideo Ashida and Bill Parker do work well, particularly when they interact with Dudley, and the plot mechanics are well assembled and mesh beautifully. The language (aside from the over-use of alliteration in places) is as sharp as ever. The style is less telegrammatic than that used in the Underworld USA trilogy and is all the better for it (though he really should have altered his approach for Kay Lake’s diary). And the man’s storytelling chops remain impressive, even if there is too much padding and the first quarter is a chore. I can recommend it to seasoned Ellroy readers (you folks are going to read it anyway), but those new to Ellroy would be better served by reading the first LA Quartet, The Underworld USA trilogy or the Lloyd Hopkins novels first.

The Glasgow Grin by Martin Stanley

thegamblersnovel:

Derrick Horodyski gave The Glasgow Grin an excellent review on his blog. Please feel free to give it a read, and then go and check out the rest of his posts.

Originally posted on Regular Guy Reading Noir:

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About a year ago, I took a chance and bought a book called The Hunters by Martin Stanley, an author I was unfamiliar with. I devoured the book in two days and immediately started looking for other books he had written. That is how I stumbled upon the series of short stories and novellas that feature the Stanton Brothers. This accidental discovery of Stanley’s work is one of the top highlights of the past year in my reading life.

To say that the Stanton Brothers’ stories, novellas, and novels will keep you entertained is making too simplistic of a statement. To be accurate, they will entertain you, amaze you, make you laugh, keep you up late at night as you read “just one more chapter” and make you a fan of Martin Stanley forever.

I have been waiting for him to release The Glasgow Grin since I finished his last…

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Review: Angels of the North by Ray Banks

Set in the Derwent Hall estate in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher’s social experiment with selling off public utilities to the highest bidder, selling council houses to willing tenants, and turning Britain into a service based economy was at its height, Angels of The North deals with three men who turn vigilante when their estate is threatened by a squat filled with drug dealers and junkies. When Joe, a former soldier and heroin user, is informed by Gavin, a local cabbie, about the violent assault of estate resident Brian at the hands of the dealers, he decides that he can kill two birds with one stone: he can drive the dealers off the estate and also get his hands on a free supply of H. He does this by roping in the initially reluctant Gav – who has delusions of grandeur and wants to run the cab firm he works for – and the even more reluctant Brian – an intelligent but unemployed man cursed with a deceitful ex-wife and unpleasant teenage daughter – and gets them to help him raid the squat; although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s doing it to steal heroin. Everything goes as wrong as can be expected, but it instils Gav with more determination to do something about the drug dealers.

With the help of aggressive driver Phil, Gav organises the drivers to burn down the squat. Then things change: Gav forces his unwell boss to hand over the cab firm, and turns the cab firm into a sort of Guardian Angels of Tyneside (though Phil is taking this further than agreed by beating dealers and taking their money); Joe, meanwhile, is now a full-blown heroin addict who despises his wife, his child, his live-at-home father, and himself most of all; and Brian is an alcoholic cleaner at the Metrocenter indoor shopping estate.

From here the fortunes of the men see-saw from highs to lows and back again, as their ambitions and foibles ultimately lead to a tragic and violent final third.

Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate Ray Banks. His storytelling abilities are first-rate, his prose is clean and fat-free and his ear for the patterns of regional British dialogue is probably the best around. The Cal Innes novels and Wolf Tickets are superb reads, but Angels of the North is something else entirely. It feels like Banks is channeling his inner James Ellroy. From the well implemented historical setting, to the distinctive three protagonist structure that the ‘Demon Dog’ made his own, right through to Puma Cabs, which seems to be a play on American Tabloid’s Tiger Kabs, Angels gives the impression of a writer wanting to expand his horizons into territory that Ellroy knows well. And like the best of Ellroy, Angels is really quite brilliant.

Three flawed, not particularly likeable, but very well-drawn protagonists propel the reader through a character driven tale. Unlike James Ellroy, Banks isn’t interested in Byzantine plotting (although the way he weaves a corrupt police officer through the story suggests that he could have gone in that direction if he so wished), he tells the story through the decisions (wise and unwise) that his characters make. Through a combination of hubris and poorly made decisions the three characters reach fates that seem entirely natural (no matter how tragic).

The writing is scalpel sharp and cuts through the characters’ lives with regularity. The dialogue resonates with authenticity and a few choice Eighties expressions that I’d almost forgotten. Angels works as an outright character drama piece and also as an exposé of what Thatcher’s policies did to the north. This novel establishes Banks as Brit Grit’s premier exponent. I might read a better novel this year, but it’s going to have to be a once in a blue moon work of brilliance to top this beauty. Highly recommended. If you don’t download this on Kindle you’re denying yourself something very special.