Monthly Archives: December 2011

Review – Ice Age by Iain Rowan

If you’ve read Iain Rowan’s previous book, Nowhere To Go, you’ll already be aware what a talented writer he is.  If not, you’re in for a treat.

Ice Age is a slim but potent collection of eight short stories, superficially horrors but actually far more disturbing.  Rowan doesn’t deal in schlock and gore, he’s a much more considered writer than that.  These stories are set in a painfully ordinary world, bleached out and suburban and perfectly safe, until Rowan twists them slightly, introducing a half-perceived something or an exquisite moment of impossibility.

Through The Window opens on a quiet residential road, outside a house with a broken window.  Would you take a peek?  And what would you do if the woman inside asked you to get her out?  Rowan knows what you should do and he shows you the cost of it.  It is an unsettling story, largely because of how skilfully Rowan builds the character of his protagonist, but also because it plays on deep, campfire fears.  I won’t give away the ending but you’ll see, it does.

Similarly Driving In Circles gives us a recognisable situation to bring our own old anxieties to – we’ve all been there, an unfamiliar country road late at night, no lights, no other cars, just thousands of acres of crushing darkness and distant stars.  In Rowan’s world something stirs in the black fields, one of those ambiguous impossibilities he’s so good at, and it is genuinely disturbing to read.  It will be even more disturbing tomorrow night, driving home through the unlit Essex countryside, I’m sure.

The title story Ice Age, by contrast, is about the shifting darkness inside.  Coppard develops the flu the day his wife leaves him but when it breaks a chill settles in which won’t be warmed.  He’s convinced a new ice age is stealing up on the world, because it can’t just be him, emotional pain can’t be so completely physical can it?  As an exploration of abandonment this story is very powerful, building to a terrible but inevitable ending.

Every story here is superb but special mention to Lilies, which opens the collection.  Set in a nameless European city during wartime it follows Alex, a young man sent back from the front to work as a courier, but with the threat of returning hanging over him.  The city is beautifully rendered, Georgian facades, rattling trams and bodies unclaimed in the streets, single white lilies left on them.  Alex meditates on the suffering of the families who may never find them, but there is a war so it seems natural to us.  Until Alex recounts the resurrection of his dead grandfather.  If that sounds like a cheap trope I can assure you it doesn’t read like one.  With this story Rowan transcends the horror genre.  Lilies is a piece of literary fiction and an excellent piece at that.

Ice Age is a deliciously unnerving collection, incredibly well written – Rowan is a writer in full and firm control of his voice – and one which you will definitely go back to time and again.  I had high expectations after reading Nowhere To Go but Ice Age has actually surpassed it for me.  It is a real gem.

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Review – The Other Room by James Everington

I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle awhile, waiting for the wintery weather to come, because after a quick peek at the opening story I realised this kind of creepy  fiction is best experienced with snow in the air and a raging fire.

If you want gore this isn’t the collection for you.  It’s chilling stuff, subtle and full of insidious imagery which will stay with you long after you put the book down.  In many ways it’s a collection of fairytales, distinctly modern but with the same themes you find in the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Anderson, and that same mittel-European darkness.

The Watchers could be an ancient Slavic folk story; a woman whose appearance is different to every person who sees her, shifting to become their ideal, so that she doesn’t know what she looks like herself.  Until she falls in love and stabilises, only to find that no one woman is good enough for any man.  You could read it as a comment on the male gaze and the increasing pornofication of visual culture, but it also a completely timeless ‘curse of beauty’ tale in the mould of Snow White or Daphne and Apollo.

The otherwordliness of The Watchers is present in most stories here and Everington puts just enough on it to unsettle the reader without losing credibility.  He writes in a brisk, unfussy manner and his characters feel familiar in just the right way.  The collection is very cohesive but a couple of stories really stuck out for me.

The Other Room takes on the classic doppelganger plot, transplanting it to a business hotel with Ballardian overtones, where Waits, our wageslave protagonist, walks into a room which is the mirror of his own, filled with his own belongings and registered to a man he has invented.  The mood is claustrophobic and loaded with quiet menace, as Waits is gradually sucked into his double’s world.  Everington teases the story out and delivers with a perfect ending.

Where The Other Room is a unsettling The First Time Buyers is downright disturbing.  Again Everington has taken on one of the genre’s hoariest old chestnuts, the haunted house mystery, binding it up with the state of the property market to place a single, struggling couple on an abandoned housing estate where they are the only residents in a long and lonely row, unfinished buildings all around them.  Then the noises start and a half-glimpsed figure with wrong proportions is seen flitting across the site.  It could be a squatter; it isn’t.  This story is the reason I’m writing a review at two a.m rather than being in bed.  I’m actually too scared to sleep.

The Other Room is an excellent collection, perfect for driving some shafts of darkness through your holiday cheer.


Review – The Death of Ronnie Sweets by Russel D. McLean

I’ve got this theory on how you find good crime writers, purely non-scientific, but pretty reliable so far.  Check out the author photo and if they look like a right piece of work, you buy the book.  Nine times out of ten you’ll get something decent.  The other one you get Russel D. McLean.

The Death of Ronnie Sweets is a collection of McLean’s early short works featuring Dundee P.I. Sam Bryson – yes Dundee has P.I.s, alright, who do you think tracks down the city’s unfaithful spouses and insurance frauds?  Or, in the case of a more committed character like Bryson, skipped witnesses, nonce councillors and a solicitor with some rather destructive daddy issues.

Across ten short stories McLean builds a credible world around Bryson, the city is present without becoming overbearing and the cast of secondary characters is skilfully deployed, with many recurring right through; there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by the protagonist of McLean’s novels, J McNee.

Bryson is an engaging character, less intense than some literary P.I.’s but he feels refreshing for that precise reason.  So he’s handy with his fists and he likes a drink – glass houses, people – he’s also sentimental, loyal and maybe a bit too understanding for his own good.

I was expecting a lot of blood and ruptures in this book, and I wasn’t disappointed, but there’s an emotional element here which is missing from a lot of gritty crime fiction.  Mclean has a keen eye for human frailty and every story has a deep undertow.

This collection is uniformly strong, although you do get a sense of progression in McLean’s writing as it continues, finishing with Flesh and Blood, a heavily freighted story about the responsibilities and abuses of fatherhood – served up with plenty of violence and a surprisingly sweet ending.  Her Cheating Heart is another standout, a short but atmospheric story about a man who desperately needs to be told that his wife is unfaithful.  It’s a two-hander, tough to write but beautifully executed.

The Death of Ronnie Sweets feels very complete for a collection of short stories and promises great things for McLean’s full length novels The Good Son and The Lost Sister.


Review – The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman

The accepted wisdom is that you need to hook a reader with the first few lines of your book.  Damien Seaman grabs you by the throat and drags you into a Weimar whorehouse where a detective is desecrating a prostitute’s corpse.

Consider me hooked.

The Killing of Emma Gross could easily have been another by-the-numbers serial killer novel, all the elements are there; picturesque victims, sexual sadism, an investigation marred by personal rivalries.  What lifts it above the norm is Seaman’s impeccable research into the ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’ case, which it takes its basic plot from, and more importantly, his good judgement on how much of it show on the page.

Seaman has a light touch and a keen eye for period detail, but never gets mired in the history.  So we get an evocative portrayal of Weimar Düsseldorf, schlepping from pavement cafes to insane asylums, via tenement blocks and jazz clubs and ‘cum cabins’, in a series of fabulous set-pieces sure to be unpopular with the city’s tourist board.

Detective Thomas Klein is a spiky character, tough but sentimental, carrying his own payload of demons – a bit of a wichser in places, but the best detectives, fictional and otherwise, always are.

Seaman’s writing is brisk and efficient, unashamedly noir in tone.  This is a dark book afterall, dealing with some contentious subjects under the cover of a police procedural, and featuring a genuinely disturbing serial killer in Peter Kürten.

The Killing of Emma Gross is an assured debut which really marks Damien Seaman out as one to watch.

The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman, available now from Blasted Heath


Review – The Point by Gerard Brennan

 

A couple of months ago I read a fabulous short by Gerard Brennan called Nothing But Time, set in HMP Maghaberry, it’s the story of a marked man waiting for the inevitable shiv to the ribs.  There’re no laughs, no comfort, just Brennan telling you how it is in a voice as cold and hard as concrete.

His new novella, The Point, is a different beast entirely.

This is a breakneck rush of a book – a page-turner in a non-schlocky way – full of humour and unexpected warmth.

Paul Morgan is your classic silver-tongued bastard; all mouth and trousers as my nan used to say, a career criminal dead set on drawing his brother Brian down with him.  The plot is simple, what happens when you piss of an insane drug dealer?  You run.  Grab your wee bro and take off to some quiet backwater where you’ll lay low until it blows over.

Paul Morgan won’t lay low though, he can’t.  While he’s inveigling his way into Warrenpoint’s seething underbelly brother Brian is falling in love with one of the most kick-ass femme fatales you’ll have seen in awhile.

Rachel Malone is a fantastic creation and a credit to Brennan’s skills.  Strong, gobby and prone to acts of extreme violence, she’s the kind of girl we can all look up to.

With characters like this on the page Brennan can’t go wrong.  The story rips along, there’re guns and cleavers and some poor guy gets strapped to chair so bad things can be done to him, all the usual ingredients for a cracking crime novel.  The writing is evocative, full of nifty touches and sharp observation, and the dialogue is right on the money.  It also has a cute retro-pulp front cover, if that sort of thing interests you.

The Point has cemented Brennan’s must-watch status for me.  It might be slim but this novella, with its Bateman-esque humour and solid writing, promises great things in the future.

 

The Point by Gerard Brennan is out now with Pulp Press


Review – Off The Record ed. Luca Veste

Luca Veste has gathered an impressive mix of US and UK talent for this collection – so impressive that you wonder what dirt he’s got on them.  Off The Record features some big names from commercial crime fiction alongside a clutch of top flight cult authors, who you may not have heard of but will certainly enjoy.

With thirty-eight stories you would expect a few fillers but like the playlist the titles are taken from, it’s all good stuff.  Neil White – yes that Neil White – kicks off with Stairway to Heaven, a tight piece of psychological fiction from within a prison cell, and things get progressively darker and meaner as the collection goes on.

Want to know the difference between a headshot with a .22 and a .38?  It’s in here, courtesy of bona fide ex-con turned author Les Edgerton, who’s story Small Change also has a cameo from everyones favourite gravel-throated singer.

Wife cheating on you?  Thomas R Brown’s Dock of the Bay has a readymade revenge scheme, guaranteed to work if you’ve got the balls to see it through.  For the ladies, Charlie Wade’s excellent Take a Bow Sheila has a more demure solution.  Involving pruning shears.

Noir fans are very well catered for in Off The Record, with Brit Pack stalwarts Paul D. Brazill and Col Bury lining up with literary outlaws from the other side, Steve Weddle, Matthew C Funk and Tommy Pluck – all working to their usual high standards.  Pluck’s Free Bird is a beautifully constructed story about the strength it takes not to act; may bring a tear to your eye.

A couple of gems I have to mention – Eric Beetner’s California Dreamin’ is fabulous and you can hear the song as you’re reading it, that sense of sun cracked nastiness under a pretty melody, full of suspense and with a killer ending.  Shadowboxer by Chris Rhatigan was another standout, deceptively simple – a man trying to outrun just-seen pursuers – but the writing is tense as hell.

Need more?

Seriously?  You’re tough.

Heath Lowrance’s I Wanna Be Your Dog is the nastiest story here – which is a compliment in this company – and really does justice to the grimy, driving quality of the song.  Helen Fitzgerald’s Two Little Boys is probably the funniest, bringing out the homoerotic subtext you always suspected was there.  Special mention to Ray Banks’ God Only Knows for a having a woman with a backside that looked like ‘two Volkswagen Beetles crashed in her leggings.’

The editor’s own contribution, Comfortably Numb, is typical Veste, a parable from the gutter told in a pitch perfect voice.

Off The Record is an incredibly strong collection, thirty-eight stories for pocket change and all proceeds going to childrens charities.  You’d have to be a flint hearted piece of work not to buy it.