Monthly Archives: November 2011

Review – All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith

If you polled Anthony Neil Smith’s readers as they finished his previous novel, Choke On Your Lies, I imagine very few could have guessed his next work would tackle east African piracy.  It’s a big subject afterall and there are only two ways to handle it, balls-out actioner or slow and cerebral literary exploration.

In All The Young Warriors Smith marries the two, producing a pumped up Boy’s Own adventure with a firm grasp on the politics.

The plot follows a pair of young American-Somali men returning to the old country to fight.  Adem, quiet, thoughtful, nothing like a soldier, and his banger-wannabe friend Jibriil, are the kind of men we see fighting on CNN and the BBC and wonder what drives them to leave comfortable lives in the west to engage in holy warfare.  The development of these characters was, for me, a major strength in All The Young Warriors.

They are each seduced into the life, Adem drawn by the intellectual aspect of Islam and Jibriil by the opportunity to kill without sanction.

Jibriil is horribly credible, a completely modern creation but with literary antecedents which stretch back to The Arabian Nights and beyond.  He’s the character who will stick in your mind when you’ve finished reading, popping up every time you turn on the news and see some fat warlord surrounded by his starving people.

Adem by contrast sucks you in with sympathy.  We see Somalia through his westernised eyes and Smith’s descriptions of the country are superb.  He has a sure touch, always finding just the right detail, kids dragging their rifles in the dirt, too small to carry them, the smell of cargo rotting on a captured ship.  An early scene depicting the stoning of a rapist and his victim is visceral and intense; instant culture shock.

Alongside this you have Bleeker, a Minnesota cop trying to track down Adem and Djbriil for the murder of his pregnant lover on the night they were leaving the US, and Adem’s father Mustafa, another barely contained hardman, who wants to prove his son’s innocence and bring him home.

As you’ve probably gathered All The Young Warriors is about much more than pirates.

Smith covers the background to the issue from all angles, showing us the Rockstar prophet recruiting foot soldiers in the States and the shady American mercenary group getting rich doing the government’s dirty work.  Everyone wanting power and money, prepared to stand behind whatever ideology gets them it.  Grim as that sounds there is a humane streak running through the story.  Adem’s relationship with Sufia has some aching moments and the bond which develops between Bleeker and Mustafa gives the book an added charge as they rush headlong into a violent endgame.

All The Young Warriors is a pretty rare beast, a clever page-turner.  It deserves to be a bestseller and has film adaptation stamped all over it.  If you’re new to Anthony Neil Smith’s work buy it, you won’t be disappointed.  If you’re already a fan prepare to be surprised and very impressed.

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith available now from Blasted Heath

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Review – Brit Grit by Paul D. Brazill

You need serious stones to name check the likes of Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond in the introduction of your book, so does Brit Grit live up to the exacting standards Brazill has set for himself?

Oh my, yes.

The opener, Guns of Brixton, is a pacy heist tale with the kind of nifty construction rarely found in short fiction.  It’s a tough ask, weaving so many characters into such a tight space  – mardy wife, coked-up jewellers and dragged up thieves – but Brazil pulls it off with aplomb, setting the tone for the rest of the collection.

This is gritty stuff.  Violent, dark and populated with characters who exist on the margins, but Brazill has a good eye for what makes people tick, even in his more surreal stories, and his characterisation is very strong.  Paddy in The Night Watchman is every old curmudgeon who’s ever conned a drink out of you and the narcissistic author in The Gift That Keeps on Giving sums up the petty vanity of risen losers the world over, going back home to stick the knife in.

When Brazill steps away from the violence his writing becomes softer and quite poignant.   Everybody Loves Somebody, Sometimes follows the ousted member of a Rat Pack tribute band screwed over by circumstances and his own failings, now taking his comfort where he can.  There is the trademark Brazill wit, but also a keen appreciation for human frailty.

Throughout the collection Brazill gradually builds a recognisable if unattractive world, full of sly humour and some neat one-liners.  The prose is taut, the set-ups intriguing and if you can think of a better way to dispose of a body than Kenny and Browny in The Sharpest Tools in the Box please put it in the comment section.

Brit Grit by Paul D. Brazill is available now from Trestle Press


Review – Beat to a Pulp Hardboiled

This is how you compile a collection, round up thirteen of the leanest, meanest pulp hacks working right now and tell them to make it hardboiled.  They will bring their A-game, guaranteed.

The latest instalment of Beat to a Pulp features names you’ll already be familiar with from their work at noir meccas like Shotgun Honey, Needle Mag and Dirty Noir, and if some are new to you prepare to be impressed.

Despite the ‘hardboiled’ tag these stories are diverse in background and tone, ranging from pachinko parlours to golf courses, morgues to fleapit motels, making for a cohesive but unpredictable reading experience.  And it is the sheer unpredictability which makes this such an impressive collection.  Many stories take their start from short fiction tropes like the unfaithful wife or the brick of coke, but each time you think you know how it will end you are wrong-footed and lead somewhere much more interesting.

Throughout the pace is brisk and the writing tight; there is hardly a wasted word in the whole collection.

It would be unfair to pick favourites when the standard is so high and difficult to separate them anyway.  A few images will stay with me though, the shrunken head in the birdcage in Kent Gowran’s  A Small Thing in the Devil’s Punchbowl, a whiskey douche for a ruined eyeball in John Hornor Jacobs’ The Death Fantastique, and as a boxing fan since the womb Benoit Lelievre’s Second Round Dive was a real gem.  That said there is not a weak story here, every one of them will send you looking for more of the author’s work.

Kudos to David Cranmer and Scott D. Parker, who deserve all the plaudits they’re getting for Beat to a Pulp Hardboiled.  They have curated one of the strongest collections I’ve read this year and given readers a taste of the good stuff that’s out there.

 

Beat to a Pulp Hardboiled is available now


Review – The Man in the Seventh Row by Brian Pendreigh

Okay, picture yourself walking into a room.

Now how did you see it?  Through your natural eyeline?  Or do you see the empty room, the door opening slowly into it, fingers curled around handle, then a body from an oblique angle.  Pull back.  Full reveal.  You are standing looking out at the audience.

If the second option is what you saw then The Man in the Seventh Row is the book for you.

Roy Batty is a movie star, he plays the hero and the romantic lead, rewriting the plots as he goes along.  Except he isn’t.  He’s actually a man undergoing a prolonged breakdown.  At least we assume he is.  He can’t really be all of those men on screen, but if he isn’t how does his lover Anna see him there too?  Is it a folie à deux?  Or is she another symptom of his delusions?

It’s a classic device, the split persona, but Pendreigh gives it a fresh spin here, leavening the serious subject matter with neat reimaginings of film classics.  In his version of The Graduate Ben knows his way around a woman long before Mrs Robinson gets her hands on him and does what any red blooded male would do in that situation, suggest a threesome to Elaine.  Sam Peckinpah’s Brief Encounter was my personal favourite, with Pendreigh taking it where we all know it should have gone, down and dirty on the floor of that borrowed flat.

The book is littered with in-jokes and sly winks to the reader, not least for Bladerunner fans, who will feel unease about Roy Batty long before the nifty reveal in Mann’s Chinese Theatre.  I’m sure there are lots of references I missed but that’s part of the fun, spotting the allusions.  Is Anna’s pretentious ex-husband an hommage to Annie Hall’s loudmouth in the cinema queue?  I’d love to think so.

The Man in the Seventh Row is a fantastical book in many ways but Pendreigh drags you along so confidently that you accept the strangeness and the pervasive ambiguity.  His writing is personal without being sentimental, and in spite of the happy ending he defies the conventions of the cinema he clearly loves by denying the reader a explanation for what Roy has gone through.  It is a brave stand to make in a culture obsessed with closure and really quite admirable.

Published by Blasted Heath and available now