End Of Year Review 2013

First things first. There is no best of from me this year. No lists of particular books you should buy. This year I’m going to write about people. Those amazing people that have inspired me to pick up a book and sink in to another world. It is not a complete list and is based solely on those people that have impacted me personally.

First off I’m going to start with Colin F. Barnes. One particularly bad day at work I typed in to Amazon “Killing My Boss”. I didn’t really expect to find anything. What I got was the most cathartic book I have ever read. I posted my review and I got a thank you from the author. I didn’t know it at the time but Colin recently told me that was the first review he’d ever had (excluding all those beta readers and editors of course). Since then I’ve been lucky enough to receive quite a few advance copies of his work. I’m a huge fan. I would like to see a follow-up to Killing My Boss called Killing My Ex though. That would be awesome. I don’t know if I prefer Colin’s cyberpunk or horror stories. At the moment I’d probably say his Techxorcist series, but he does have a new horror story called Dead Five’s Pass being published by Darkfuse soon.

Next I’m going to talk about Ian Sales. In twenty or thirty years people are going to look back and wonder why people were more interested in sparkly vampires than thoughtful and well written science fiction. When they do I’m pretty sure he will be one of the authors being lauded. I regularly read his blog and am constantly amazed by both the depth and breadth of his reading and literary knowledge. I have also been really impressed with his reaction to SF Masterworks. It was really eye-opening to read the sfmistressworks site and see just how many little known high quality female science fiction authors there are out there. Ian’s Apollo quartet is well worth reading and I for one am eagerly awaiting the fourth part.

After praising Ian Sales and his drive towards gender equality I am going to mention a woman next. Not an author this time though. Adele Wearing is the owner and driving force behind Fox Spirit. I’ve met Adele and I can confirm she is just as lovely as she seems online.  There is a certain enthusiasm and excitement to everything she does and that is reflected in the books she produces. I particularly like the idea of the Fox Pocket anthologies. These are the perfect size to fit in a pair of cargo pants or a handbag (man bag in my case).  The covers are fantastically vibrant and easy to spot in a pile too. If you are looking for quirky speculative fiction by excellent and often little known authors you really should check them out.

The final person I’m going to mention is David Cranmer from Beat To A Pulp (BTAP). I owe a lot to David. He changed my reading habits more than anybody has for many years. I barely had a clue what crime noir was let alone hardboiled before I started reading BTAP. Without David I would not have enjoyed reading amazing stories by authors such as Patricia Abbott and Thomas Pluck. Probably the biggest surprise for me though was how much I have enjoyed reading stories set in the old west. Westerns are dead in modern fiction, right? It turns out that I was wrong. From David’s Marshal Cash Larmie to Heath Lowrence’s dark and weird western fiction there is a wealth of great stories out there. It was because of this that I decided that every so often I’ll read something completely out of my comfort zone. Which is why I read an erotic fiction story by K.A.Laity called Chastity Flame. I literally blushed whilst reading it.

As you can probably see I like it when I’m made to think about different things on occasion and all of the above do that. In my mind great art should be beautiful but also challenge the audience. Each of the people mentioned above are worth spending a few hours and a couple of quid on (more than that but you get my gist). There are plenty more people I could have mentioned but these are the ones who have impacted on my way of thinking the most this year.

I am already looking forward to reading loads more emotive and insightful stories next year.

Have fun one and all.


Gumshoe by Paul D. Brazill

I enjoy reading crime noir but a lot of the stories I enjoy have a distinctly American voice. Mr Brazill manages to get that same feel with a obviously British feel. A lot of  Brazill’s stories are set in the fictional seaside town in the north east of England called Seatown. I grew up in the south east near the coast and I recognized every single character. I’ve never met a detective but I do know people that have been asked to do some of the dubious tasks undertaken by Peter Ord.  Some of the phrases in this book I haven’t heard for years. To say it is written in the vernacular would be to raise it a few levels.  The setting of Seatown and the language used set a scene so vivid I could be hear and picture every character.

Peter Ord used to be an English teacher with a gorgeous wife. He lost both. Now he’s a degenerate drunk with aspirations to be a private detective. Unfortunately for him the only people desperate enough to hire somebody like him usually want services that are not exactly moral or legal in a lot of cases. Ord doesn’t care. As long as he can get another drink he’s content. I don’t think Ord does happy. If he won the lotto he’d piss it away in a year and die of liver failure. I was rooting for him even though I was pretty sure things were going to go badly. The ending was a bit of a surprise for me but had a certain karmic touch.

If you want some down and dirty crime noir with a uniquely British twist then you need to buy this book. I can also recommend listening to Seasick Steve whilst reading it.

BEAT to a PULP: Hardboiled 3 edited by David Cranmer & Elise Wright

I am a fan of Beat To A Pulp (BTAP). I regularly visit the BTAP website and read the weekly pulp. The anthologies are what I really like though. Particularly the Hardboiled ones. There is something almost primal about some of the stories in them. A simplicity and gritty realism that heightens the emotional impact.

The first thing I noticed when I looked at this book was the cover. It has the same pulp style I’d expect from a book in this series (I’d buy the first one for Black-Eyed Susan alone) and you somehow the woman in the picture makes it seem more modern. For me it really mirrored the way that the content bridges the old pulp stories and fresh new gritty and emotive stories.

The second thing I noticed was that it contained a Patti Abbott story. That is always a good thing. I was left numb and stunned after reading ‘Doe In Headlights’. Somehow Abbott manages to make this story seem much worse than it actually is. There are gaps. Deliberate gaps that let the reader use their warped little minds to heighten the nastiness of this story.  I found this story in particular to be a compelling read even though I really didn’t want to know what happened. I really didn’t but I couldn’t stop reading.

Every story in this collection is different. From the writing styles to the content. There is a nasty streak that runs through this book. Some truly revolting characters and utterly disturbing situations are covered in this book. The anthology ends with ‘Speed Dating’. I can’t really say much that won’t give away the plot but it has an interesting structure and is impossible to put down before you’ve finished. It felt like it took about a minute to read that story I was so engrossed.

There isn’t a poor story in this book and it is well worth the price of a frothy coffee.

Snapshots by Paul D. Brazill

This collection of stories is not a happy one. In fact it is about as far away from happy as it is possible to get. Even for a collection of noir stories this is pretty grim. The is no glamour in crime or life in general. Everybody has problems and most of them end up being terminal or at best highly self-destructive. Even alcoholism that usual stalwart of good cheer in noir stories brings more pain than joy for the characters in these stories.

The one thing that isn’t gloomy is the quality of the writing. I first heard of this author in some American anthologies. There was something different about his stories. They were noir like the other stories but somehow felt more personal to me. It wasn’t until I read the stories again I realised that there was a definite British twinge to the style. I was hooked. There are certain phrases like ‘saying hello to the one-eyed milkman’ that you just don’t hear outside of dodgy pubs in the city centre. There are also a lot of references to Seatown which took me back to my teenage years sitting in dodgy pubs playing pool and drinking beer.

This book contains nearly everything I have spent my life trying to escape. The gritty realism hits you in the face and makes you say rude words. This book is like meth. You know it is bad for you but you have to keep reading. Mr Brazill nails this one.

Roman Dalton – Werewolf PI by Paul D. Brazill

One of the things I enjoy about Crime Noir is the modern take on pulp fiction covers. This cover is very simple in terms of detail and yet manages to convey everything that it needs to. It is clean with no wasted effort. It sets the tone nicely for the stories inside. I’ve read a couple of these stories before in other anthologies but there are others that I haven’t read. My favourite Dalton story is She’s My Witch. It is one of the stories that I had read before and even though I could vividly remember most of the story I enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

Paul D. Brazill has a definite and distinct style. As you start to read his work they feel like American Noir, but not quite. There are little things that could only possibly be written by somebody that has spent a lot of time in the UK. There is a blue collar Brit feel that comes across quite subtly at times but at others it is bleeding obvious. This book is insanely easy to read and I enjoyed all of the stories.

Roman Dalton was a police detective. He retired after being mauled whilst on the job. He’s kinda recovered to become a PI. I say recovered. Now he’s a Werewolf with an insatiable hunger. Luckily he has just enough control to aim his hunger at criminals most of the time. He is a ticking time bomb. There is a sense throughout these stories that at some point he’ll eat the entire population of an orphanage and not be able to live with himself. This provides an extra level of tension that I really enjoyed.

This is an unflinching blue collar Brit Noir that should not be missed. Seriously, buy it now.

Interview with Thomas Pluck

I am a big fan of Thomas Pluck. He has a style that manages to be right up in your face and nasty without being Offensive. Well not offensive to me. Pluck is a an active advocate for the rights of abuse survivors and the prosecution of the abusers. His work with Protect included an anthology that sent all the profits directly in to campaigning for the betterment of all. One phrase from the introduction of that book has stuck with me. There are only two numbers you need to know about abuse. One victim is too many, and zero is the only acceptable number of victims.

I’ll stop waffling now and pass you over to the talented Mr Pluck.

Q. I have to start by asking you about Protect. what do they do, how did you get involved and more importantly how can other people help?

PROTECT is the only lobby in Washington entirely dedicated to the protection of children. To use their own words, “PROTECT is a bipartisan pro-child, anti-crime lobby whose sole focus is making the protection of children a top political and policy priority at the national, state and local levels.” And they get results, they fight to have their laws funded, which is the hard part. Politicians love to pass a showy law named after a victim and then never implement it due to “austerity.” The PROTECT crew doesn’t let them get away with it. The best way to help is to join then with a donation at www.protect.org — but you can also fund them by purchasing Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, with stories from 41 authors including George Pelecanos, Andrew Vachss, Ken Bruen, Roxane Gay, Ray Banks, Joe Lansdale, Charles de Lint and many more.

Q. How would you describe your writing style and what shaped this style?

I call my style “unflinching fiction with heart.” I won’t compare myself with the great Daniel Woodrell, but I like that he calls his work “dramatic fiction,” despite the reviewers tag of country noir. Because it’s just about “people doing people things,” which often leads to violence, either physical or emotional. I have no problem with being called a crime writer or a pulp writer. Both those genres are about big emotions and turbulent storms in the sea of life. So that’s fine with me. What shaped it? My favorite writers early on were Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Andrew Vachss, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke. But I also read all the Judy Blume books at the library. What they have in common is emotional punch. As for voice, I grew up at a kitchen table full of storytellers. Truck drivers, sailors, mechanics, bartenders, hairdressers, bikers, rock musicians and waitresses. Working people have their own patter, a rhythm to our speech. Our own kind of after dinner showmanship, and those stories from my family have influenced me more than anything else.

Q. It was through Beat To A Pulp that I really started to enjoy your work. How would you say modern pulp compares to the older stuff, and why should we read it?

First we have to define pulp. Which I won’t do. It’s like defining noir. Noir’s actually a small subset, but we use it to mean all kinds of dark and violent fiction. When I hear pulp, I don’t think badly written, I think wildly imaginative. My first novel is pulp. There is just as much emotion and drama as there is action and intrigue. I call it pulp because it puts real people into outrageous situations, like your wheelchair-bound grandfather fighting it out with ninjas. I think e-books are the paperback originals of today. Pulp is now bytes. And I think the quality if anything has gone up. And why should you read it? Because it’s a blast, and just like the old pulps, writers can get away with subversive stuff. We mock Mandingo today but if you wrote it like Gone with the Wind no one would publish it. I wouldn’t call Vachss pulp, but if he exposed the brutal reality of child abuse outside of the crime genre he would never have been published. Pulp is like Robocop: it’s fun and exciting, and there’s often a razor sharp streak of social commentary in there if you care to look for it.

Q. Although there are guns and shooting in your stories there tends to be a lot more up close and personal violence. Is this a deliberate choice or just what feels natural to you?

Guns kind of bore me. If I put a gun in a story it will be terrifying and there will be consequences beyond the shooter’s intent. We like to think of them as magic wands that end arguments and only hurt what we want, but they are controlled explosions that fire a blunt projectile at such speed that it tears through living flesh. Look at JFK, 50 years later no one wants to believe a single bullet could zig zag through him like a finger through pink gelatin. But that’s what bullets do, they are unpredictable. To me, guns are too mechanical and distant for proper revenge. If you want to assassinate or fight, guns are great. Best thing for it. But I find infighting much more emotionally satisfying. If someone killed your mother, would you rather shoot the bastard or stomp his face to jelly? I’d probably go for a strangle. Then I’d have to remember it every time I looked at my hands.

Q. I keep asking when your novel will be out and you’ve said in the autumn this year. What is it about and why should we buy it?

In Blade of Dishonor, ‘Rage Cage’ Reeves is an MMA fighter who comes home from Afghanistan to find his grandfather, a veteran of the second world war, embroiled in a centuries-old battle for a lost Japanese sword. It takes you from the American heartland to the battlefields of Europe to underground fighting in Japan. You’ll mix it up with the Devil’s Brigade, cage fighters, a hot rodding redhead ambulance driver, modern samurai and yakuza. It’s the ’80s movie I never got to see, Big Trouble in Little China meets Commando and Vanishing Point.

Q. The Zombie Apocalypse is here. You can have one vehicle and one weapon. What would you choose?

I think these things out too much. Fuel capacity and mileage, all that. I figure when the Zeds come we’re all gonna get eaten, so I’ll go out enjoying myself. a ’71 Hemi Challenger with a full auto street sweeper shotgun. That or a belt-fed grenade launcher on the roof. I’m kind of a Mad Max kinda guy.

Q. You’re stuck on a desert island with only five books to read. Which ones would you want them to be?

The Hunter, by Richard Stark. The Stand, by Stephen King. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. And To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Burnt Bridge, PANK Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, Beat to a Pulp, and numerous anthologies. He is the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.

STEEL HEART: Ten Tales of Crime and Suspense, is available from all e-book retailers, and his debut novel BLADE OF DISHONOR, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to World War 2 and the present, will be released in 2013. You can find him on the web at www.thomaspluck.com and Twitter as @tommysalami

Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck is one of my favourite short story authors. For me he pretty much sums up what I want to read in a Hardboiled Crime Noir story. All of his stories have nasty themes. What really sets him apart though is that when he talks about a nasty theme like child abuse he doesn’t spend most of the story writing about the deeds and then a quick bit at the end to make it seem alright, instead he spend more time talking about the survivors and how they live their lives. Somehow Pluck manages to do this without losing any of the aggressive writing that is so important in stories like these.

There are very few characters in these stories that you’d hold up as paragons of virtue but there are times where I could certainly empathize with the actions of the characters. A great example of this is in Black-Eyed Susan. I had read this story in another publication and it is one of my favourite short stories, not just in this collection but in general. I’m not going to spoil it for you but there is definitely a bit of mean street justice going on in this fantastic story.

The award for the best title goes to Kamikaze Death Burgers at the Ghost Town Cafe. I’d bet money that man vs food had been on not long before that title was born. This story is a bit longer than the rest and that allows a lot more character development than the rest of the stories. By the end of this story I had decided that I wanted to read more about Jay both before and after this story.

This is a hard-hitting and entertaining read from start to finish and it costs less than a pint so there is no excuse for not giving this book a try.

Hard Road by J.B. Turner

I have to start by saying that this feels like a Tom Clancy Op Center story. Not a copy, and the organizations and plots are very different. What I mean is that J.B. Turner builds the tension in a way that you really do feel like the world is under threat. This book gave me that feeling, you know the one, the one where you just know that this is going to be a long series of books that needs to be purchased. This is story is based more around the FBI than a shadowy grey ops agency but the addition of the ex-Delta Force private contractor adds that air of mystery to proceedings.

The two main characters could not be more different and yet similar in subtle ways. John Reznik is a former special forces private contractor that carries out unpleasant tasks for the government without them having to be directly involved. He’s as tough, smart and resourceful as most special forces soldiers tend to be. He does have issues though. I like the way his personal issues leaves him unable to communicate even with those that he loves the most. It feels real. This is in stark contrast to FBI Assistant Director Meyerstein. She is a woman in total control of herself and those around her. She is calm, calculating and methodical, which seems so different from Reznik and yet they seem to gel so well. I can see this becoming one of those ‘will they won’t they’ relationships as the series progresses.

Biochemical weapons are to me quite frightening. The thought that some unseen microscopic particles gently blowing on the wind can end not just my life but that of those that come in contact with me is just plain scary. This book if anything makes this type of threat seem more real and genuinely terrifying. This book is a fascinating read that entertains from cover-to-cover.

Dangerous Games: How to Win by Matt Forbeck

This is the third in the Dangerous Games trilogy. This series was part of Matt Forbeck’s Twelve for 12 idea. If you haven’t heard about this totally insane idea it is a variation on NaNoWriMo that involved writing twelve novels of about 50k words each over the period of a year. To make life even more difficult they were funded be a series of four Kickstarter crowd funding drives. This is where being in the gaming and writing industries for over twenty years comes in handy. The funding goals were of course the easy part. Writing four disparate series in a single year (plus all the other freelance work) is a challenge and Matt rose to that challenge. For me this series is the best one. It is quite obvious that Gen Con and the gaming community mean a great deal to the author and that adds a real passion to the whole environment.

The story takes you back to Gen Con a year on from the second book. This time Liam Parker is the full-time head of security for the convention. What could possibly go wrong? The answer to that one is pretty simple. A lot. Some old issues are dragged back to the fore but in a new and spectacular manner. It is pretty safe to say that with the body count higher than the first two books put together this would be a pretty bad year to visit Gen Con.

As usual for a Matt Forbeck book this story flies along at a great pace. The amount of games and people in the gaming industry that get a mention across this series is just insane. Some I had to stop and look up just because I had to know but with most of them it was just a joy to see them get a mention. My favourite mention in this book is of a reviewer and huge advocate of Matt’s work. As a fellow man who enjoys reading those reviews it gave me a great amount of pleasure when I came across it. It was done so perfectly too. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the trilogy as a whole. It is a must for any gamer.

Noir Carnival edited by K.A. Laity

This anthology is a follow-up to Fox Spirit’s Weird Noir. I love the cover of this book. It is a perfect design for a t-shirt or a poster as well. It isn’t easy to make a clown seem more creepy but this cover manages to do that and yet somehow manage not to seem too serious.

It would be easy to call this an eclectic mix of the weird and the outright bizarre but there is is more to this book than that. Carnivals are always a great inspiration for things that are a little odd. In this book that oddness has been twisted and darkened and yet somehow manages to inject some humour (albeit gallows humour).

Family Blessings by Jan Kozlowski is a great start to this book. It really does set the tone and get you in the mood to read more. It took me about five pages to work out that I was going to enjoy the whole of this book. There are plenty of stories to enjoy. Chloë Yates gives us a story that makes dolls seem even more creepy than the Chuckie movies which feels totally different than the totally bizarre trapped in a box story presented by Joan De La Haye. My favourite story in this anthology is She’s My Witch by Paul D. Brazill. I am a fan of Paul’s work and this short story works perfectly. It is probably the most crime noir of all the stories but it is definitely on the weird side of the tracks. The last line of the story ties it together perfectly and three days later is still clarion clear in my mind.

Probably the best thing about this book for me was that there were a lot of stories by authors that I had never heard of that provided me with plenty of entertainment. I plan to look some of them up later for some more reading. To make that easier The Skulk have provided a biography and links to author sites at the end of this book. I enjoyed this book immensely and think it is probably the best Fox Spirit book so far.