My Top Ten Reads of 2014

Damn! Has the year really gone that quickly?

It only seems like yesterday that I was making plans for how I wanted my year to go, and here I am at the end of it. The Glasgow Grin still hasn’t made an appearance – never have I put so much work into a writing project – as it expanded from a relatively short 50,000 word novel into a pretty complex 105,000+ monster that is still being edited as I write this. But it’s a much better tale because of the changes – at least, in my humble opinion. Such was the nature of the project that I didn’t read and review as many novels as I had initially wanted to in 2014.

Occasionally, weeks went by without me reading a single word of prose – mostly because I wasn’t able to spare brain capacity from redrafting and editing The Glasgow Grin project. Alas, I just don’t have that big a brain!

Still, when I did get the chance to read, I devoured stuff. And this year has been marked by its sheer quality. There have been very few duffers (I only stopped reading two books this year, which is a first), and even though I didn’t read as much as I would have liked I’ve read some great work.

Right, enough waffle. On with the list, which is in no particular order.

1) Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Last year, Ayres’ superb novella Fierce Bitches made my list. It was a beautifully written tale with a density and ambition that promised great things to come. Peckerwood, published by the superb Broken River Books, is the first fulfilment of that promise. Written in a more straightforward pared-back style than Bitches, this Jim Thompson-esque tale of corruption in a small town came with some wonderful characters, great dialogue, and fine set-pieces. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you grab a copy straight away.

2) Corrosion by Jon Bassoff
Bassoff’s twisted and deliciously evil slice of psycho-noir revelled in its squalid small town atmosphere, numerous unreliable and unstable narrators. Well written, with a keen eye for the right piece of detail to make a description come alive or a piece of dialogue sing. A truly impressive piece of work.

3) The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson
This dark, kinky and violent piece of noir about a zen bank robber chasing his wife and partner in crime was a real surprise. I read a couple of reviews before picking it up, but they didn’t really prepare me for such a gut-punch of a thriller that packs more into its 100+ pages than many thrillers of three times the length. If you have the stomach for some of the brutality, you probably won’t find many more exciting thrillers around.

4) The Bitch by Les Edgerton
This tale of blackmail and a robbery that goes very, very wrong was easily one of the best I read in 2014. It piles incident on top of incident, almost to the point where a lesser writer might tip it over into parody, but Les Edgerton never lets this happen. Through a combination of excellent writing and controlled plotting, Edgerton turns this into a quite excellent noir thrill-machine of a novel. Excellent stuff.

5) Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson
It’s the title story, about an ageing bare-knuckle fighter, that’s the real killer in this collection (a fine tale, written in some of the most beautifully rendered prose I’ve read in a short story), but it’s a strong collection filled with several superb short stories.

6) Mixed Blood by Roger Smith
Ah, what would one of these lists be without one of Roger Smith’s black-hearted, fast-paced tales on it? Not the same, that’s for sure! This ultra-violent thriller has several story strands that interleave beautifully. And, as ever with Smith, it has a brilliant and vile villain. Why Roger Smith isn’t a more successful writer is one of the big mysteries? He writes superbly, can plot with the best of them, and paints a picture of South Africa that grows scarier with each novel. When dog-shit writers like James Patterson sell millions for ghost-written tales, you have to wonder why Smith, a far superior writer with real story-telling chops, doesn’t sell anywhere near those kinds of numbers.

7) The City And The City by China Mieville
My first experience of this British science fiction author was a highly positive one. It’s a detective thriller set in two eastern European cities that share the same geographical space. The inhabitants of the city have differing languages, customs and architectural styles, and deal with each other’s existence through a combination of architectural cross-hatching and ‘unseeing’. It sounds like more of a ‘mindfuck’ than it actually is, and is a well-written thriller that seamlessly combines philosophical elements and satirical digs at big business and national identity. Superb stuff.

8) Paul Carter is a Dead Man by Ryan Bracha
Bracha’s alternative version of modern-day Britain makes for an ugly place, but also for a damn fine satirical thriller that skewers the kind of UKIP-style politics that currently blights our nation, along with nice digs at social network justice and its own brand of replacement swearing.

9) The Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis
This original take on the the ensemble novel has its flaws, but it has stayed with me in a way that no other book has this year. It has some fine moments, plus far and away the best action setpiece I read this year (between two hitmen that starts in an apartment block and eventually expands out into a wider conflict with the police). It also has some wonderful prose.

10) American Death Songs by Jordan Harper
A fine collection of hard-edged short stories that really put its steel toe-capped boots into its characters’ guts. Harper is a damn fine writer of short tales. Great collection.

I read a lot of good stuff this year and there were many other notable and highly enjoyable works by writers such Paul D. Brazill, J. David Osborne, Keith Nixon, and Josh Stallings among many others.

Here’s hoping 2015 throws up as many gems.

Merry Christmas, folks, and a Happy New Year.

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Review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

Regular readers will know how much I love the work of Roger Smith. In my opinion, he’s the best writer of noir thrillers around. His work is a mixture of razor sharp, clipped prose, incisive and clever plotting, brutal violence, well etched characters, and a fatalist’s eye for the dark ending.

Mixed Blood is one of his earlier works, and the only one that I hadn’t read. It had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, partly because once I finished it I knew I’d have to wait some time for the next Smith novel to come around. Hence delaying the inevitable.

Like all of Smith’s best work, Mixed Blood begins with a tragic incident from which the protagonist tries to escape, usually with disastrous results. In this case, a couple of Cape Town hoods try to rob the house of Jack Burn and his family. The problem for them is that Burn is an ex-military man who’s on the run because of an armed robbery gone very wrong. He kills them in the struggle and disposes of their corpses. This brings all manner of problems for Burn. Firstly, his already strained relationship with his pregnant wife is brought to breaking point. Secondly, corrupt, murderous and grotesquely obese cop Rudi Barnard is looking for one of the hoods that Burn killed. Barnard finds the car belonging to the hoods parked near Burn’s home and interviews the American. He suspects that something isn’t quite right with the man’s story and delves into his background. Barnard soon finds out Burn’s identity and realises that this might be his way to an early and lucrative retirement. Thus ensues murder, kidnapping and some seriously bone-crunching action and violence.

Mixed Blood is another fine addition to Roger Smith’s brilliant back catalogue. It’s tight, controlled, well plotted, with a varied and strong cast of characters, superbly paced, and as ever with Smith has a wonderfully repulsive villain in Barnard, who is happy to murder anybody that crosses his path. Honestly, Smith writes the best villains in crime fiction – as repugnant as they may be they’re never less than human, and their motivations always make sense, even when what they are doing doesn’t. Smith also writes well about troubled family units, displaying their foibles and peccadilloes with an eye and an ear that would shame many of the literary writers for whom troubled families are a stock in trade. If you have yet to read Smith, I urge you to do so immediately. If you’re into balls-to-the-wall crime and noir thrillers, there isn’t a better practitioner around. Excellent, and highly recommended.

Potted Reviews: Rust and Bone – Craig Davidson, American Death Songs – Jordan Harper, 18 Days – Allen Miles, The City and The City – China Miéville

A couple of heavily altered stories from Craig Davidson’s collection of shorts Rust and Bone were the basis of a recent film of the same name by French director Jacques Audiard. It was a good film, a strong film, but it lacked the humanity that makes the title story such a wonderful short tale. For a start, the protagonist in the film is a selfish prick with few redeeming features (he improves as the film progresses, though not that much), but in the story he’s a truly decent man who fights out of a sense of duty and honour (to say more would be to spoil things). It also contains some of the finest prose you’ll find in short fiction – beautifully written, perfectly modulated, and wonderfully paced. The other tales in the collection aren’t quite as perfect, but they’re still superbly written with three-dimensional protagonists who burn brightly long after the final word has been finished. Excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Had it not been for Rust and Bone, Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs would have been the best short story collection that I’d read this year. As things stand it runs Craig Davidson’s collection a very close second. The prose is less flashy, and the tales are less angst ridden, but, damn, Harper tells a mean story. There are some really superb shorts in this book, with some recurring characters and nice line in amorality. Also excellent, and also highly recommended.

In 18 Days, the protagonist Davy Sheridan has everything to live for: a beautiful wife, a steady job and his first child on the way. But when Davy’s wife dies in childbirth, he falls to pieces and goes on a long, self-destructive bender – the 18 days in question – that threatens his sanity, his relationships and even his life. Miles’ novella isn’t exactly what you would call a pleasure read, but if you have the constitution for it it is a good read. Miles’ prose is, for the most part, strong and direct and at its best when it keeps things simple. Sheridan’s innate selfishness makes him difficult to warm to, but Miles’ control of the story keeps you reading to the end. Recommended.

The City and The City by China Mieville works on the premise that two cities at the far end of eastern Europe share the same physical space yet have their own separate identities. They are separated by crosshatching and the residents’ skill in the art of unseeing each other. But they are also separated by the fear of Breach – the concept of a person from one city suddenly seeing or interacting those in the other city. Once Breach has occurred a shadowy organisation takes over and deals with it once and for all. It’ll take most readers a bit of time to get their heads around the concept. But once it sinks in I have no doubts that most of these readers will be hooked on a murder mystery that takes in the concept of identity, has faint digs at the society we live in (we often unsee the homeless or areas of vast deprivation when the need arises), and makes less veiled attacks at corporate interest (not that surprising considering Mieville’s well-documented socialist leanings), but is also a damn fine tale in its own right. It’s the kind of idea that Philip K Dick would have had a field day with in his 60s heyday, though Mieville is a far better prose stylist than Dick. Highly recommended

Review: The Bitch by Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton’s crime novels and short stories have a rich vein of truth and knowledge running through them that most crime writers, even the most talented, simply can’t emulate. Which is hardly surprising considering that he once spent a couple of years in prison for burglary at the Pendleton Reformatory in Indiana. Even the most stringent research is a mediocre substitute for real life experience. And it’s this kind of experience that filters down through the bedrock of Edgerton’s novel, The Bitch, and permeates the actions of its two main characters, Jake Bishop and Walker Joy.

The Bitch in this case is not a woman, but the nickname that cons and ex-cons alike give to the three strikes and you’re out sentencing structure of the American legal system – the point at which prisoners become ha-bitch-ual offenders and go inside for the rest of their lives.

At the start of The Bitch, after a second stint in jail, Jake Bishop is a reformed character working as a hairdresser and dreaming of opening up his own salon with his pregnant wife, Paris. The trouble starts when he takes a phone call from Walker Joy, his one-time cellmate, to whom he owes a very big favour, begging for help: by getting him out of a jam with a dodgy jeweller that he owes money to. His thinking clouded by fears of The Bitch, Jake declines. He is then warned by the jeweller that he has knowledge that will put Jake inside for a third strike and also intends to frame Jake’s younger brother for a recent burglary of his premises. Jake is left with no choice but to take the job on.

The job is to steal a few very special stones from a jewellery designer who is away for the weekend, but there will be a lot of other jewels in there too. If they can pull it off, the take will be massive.

The only problem is that, in true noir style, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Jake is left wondering just who he can trust, and just how far he can go to avoid the ever-present third strike life sentence. Well, he goes pretty far, believe me, but to say more would spoil things…

I enjoyed The Bitch immensely. It is written with skill and care by a writer who knows his stuff personally, and that comes through in the fear and increasing desperation of Jake’s narrative voice. Thoughts of that dreaded third strike are always on his mind, colouring his decisions, clouding his judgement, making him irrational – it’s an impressive piece of first-person narration. But it’s the plotting and organising of key events in the narrative that impressed me most. There are times in many noir stories where events tumble into the protagonist’s path with such frequency that there’s always the danger of the narrative tipping over into parody. Les Edgerton sidesteps these potential problems adroitly through a combination of fine writing and slowing the narrative down to allow the characters and readers time to draw breath. He drops a few twists along the way to a really satisfying ending, in which he gives Jake a truly great line of closing dialogue (so good, in fact, that I wished I’d written the damn line myself). If you are a noir fan, a heist fan, or a straight up thriller fan, there’s plenty in The Bitch that will satisfy you. Highly recommended.

Review: A Day in the Life of Jason Dean by Ian Ayris

Jason Dean is an a hard man, a very hard man, the kind of scary-looking bloke who gets sent to collect debts and, if needs be, kill people, which is exactly happens on this particular day, but the problem is that his heart isn’t really in it any more. He has a wife who hates him, and the only thing he truly loves is his daughter, Sophie, who occupies his thoughts a lot on this particular day.

So when local gangster, and all-round Wagner-loving psychopath, Mickey Archer, tells him to deal with some debts and then kill a skinhead car dealer who has sold Archer a dud vehicle he does so more out of fear of his boss than any desire to flex his muscles.

Jason’s debt collecting duties happen with mixed success. One of the men, an elderly soldier, commits suicide in front of him, and the other involves dealing with a nightmare family of the kind you’ll find on many deprived council estates. Jason ruminates on writers during many of these incidents, partly because although Jason isn’t a well educated man, due to parental negligence, among other issues, he is a well read and intelligent one.

Finally, he has to face up to the dealer and go through with Archer’s request, but even that is fraught with surprises…

A Day in the Life of Jason Dean is a very strong performance written in a stylised local vernacular that helps burrow into the mind of its protagonist. The character of Dean, who could so easily have been a cliché in the wrong hands, comes across as a sympathetic and even sensitive soul, albeit of the kind that you wouldn’t ever want to upset. The disagreement, although it’s more one-sided than that, between Archer and Dean about Wagner and Shostakovich is both funny and scary, and there’s a similar feeling of unease in another meeting between the two men later in the story – you always get the feeling that Dean is treading on eggshells around his boss. Similarly, Dean’s love for his wife and daughter is equally well evoked, and pays dividends towards the end of the story. Jason Dean is a very well written tale with a genuine compassion towards people on the lower rungs of British society and comes highly recommended.

Review: The Scent of New Death by Mike Monson

When Phil Gaines’ new wife, a kinky young barmaid called Paige, and his business partner, a psychopathic pervert and genius getaway man called Jeff, run off together it’s a case of so far, so bad. But when he realises that they’ve also made off with his life’s savings, accumulated from years of bank robberies executed with zen-like calmness and precision, it’s a matter of life and death. Until this point, Gaines has managed to live a quiet and controlled life of meditation in his modest apartment in Modesto, California apartment and successful robberies out of the state.

But now his life is anything but quiet and controlled. He wants his money back and his wife and partner dead.

However, his ex-cohorts have plans of their own, which include framing and killing Gaines in a big robbery that will make them a lot of money if they can pull it off. But when the plan goes awry and Gaines escapes it leaves the main players chasing each other across the state to the home of an ageing pornstar, where their blood-soaked destinies await.

Mike Monson is a fairly new author to me. I’d read a couple of pieces of his flash fiction over at Shotgun Honey (Tough Love being an especially memorable tale), but The Scent of New Death is I believe his first longer-length work. Although the title page calls it a novella the story manages to cram more incident and character into its pages than many works that are twice the length. And I honestly loved every second of it. The characters of Phil, Paige and Jeff are fully realised and are starkly contrasting. Phil is controlled and calm most of the time, thanks to his zen meditation, but he also has a sociopathic disregard for human life, which means he’ll kill anybody who gets in his way. Paige is wild and initially fun-loving, though her idea of fun differs markedly from that of most regular people. Jeff is as vile as they come – a sexually deviant psychopath with absolutely no regard for human life and enjoys murdering for the sheer thrill. Even the minor characters have a feeling of interior lives, rather than as pieces to be moved around an elaborate literary chessboard. The prose is clear and precise and doesn’t get in the way of the action and incident, of which there’s plenty, and the dialogue is sharp and snappy without being showy. It is a superb crime thriller with some very, very violent and kinky moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it I can’t recommend The Scent of New Death highly enough. Superb.

Review: The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer (Jon Bassoff)

Having been impressed earlier this year by Jon Bassoff’s psycho-noir stylings with the cracking Corrosion, I decided to find and download some more of his work, which led me to The Disassembled Man under the pseudonym of Nate Flexer.

This novel shares some traits with Corrosion (grimy first-person setting with an unreliable and insane protagonist, a keen eye for blue collar American life, and a rich cast of repulsive low-lives) but also diverges in some respects, bringing in a sense of the supernatural with one of the cameo characters (although this seems open for interpretation, at least in my reading of the text (the protagonist is insane, after all)).

The protagonist, Frankie Avicious is man at the end of his tether. He’s a heavy-drinking slaughterhouse worker who is in love (more obsessed) with a stripper. His obese wife, whom he hates, wants to leave him for another man because she believes he married her for her father’s money, which happens to be true. But his father-in-law, who owns the factory where he works, has such little respect for Frankie that he’s placed him in a dead-end post on the slaughterhouse killing floor rather than in a more palatable post in the office. Frankie decides to murder his father-in-law and then his wife in an attempt to get his hands on the inheritance money and run away with his stripper, with a little guidance from a mysterious and creepy watch salesman. Like all noir plans it inevitably goes wrong in the worst possible way, but it takes a few wild twists and turns before the gruesome and nightmarish finale.

The Disassembled Man is another very fine piece of noir from Jon Bassoff. It’s very well written with a neat line in glib metaphors and hardboiled one-liners. It isn’t as strong as Corrosion, partly because some of the supporting characters feel a little underdeveloped, like they’re just there as Frankie’s cannon-fodder, but the prose conjures up some wonderful images, especially during the hellish finale, and there are some great set-pieces and intense moments of suspense. If you have a strong stomach for violence, this novel comes highly recommended.