Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Bosnian Garden, by Brendan Walsh

The Bosnian garden
Anyone who can remember the nineties can probably remember the news footage that came out of Bosnia, a place with a seemingly infinite capacity for violence, misery and atrocity. It always seemed to feature smoking ruins, muddy fields strewn with bodies and grief stricken villagers.
The Bosnian GardenBosnian Garden puts us on even more uncomfortably intimate terms with this conflict through the eyes of a former American Marine, now a mercenary with an International Brigade. As we follow him through the muddy fields and ditches, the carnage around him begins to peel away the layers to reveal his real reasons for coming here
Walsh himself served in Bosnia as a paratrooper enabling him to not only give the story wince making touches of detail but also to portray a small corner of the conflict through the thoughts of a soldier on the ground.
While we are spared little in terms of the sights, sounds and smells of a war zone the story does not revel in these things. Instead The Bosnian Garden garden is a story of redemption and forgiveness, found in the unlikeliest of places.

The Ugly Bus

The Ugly Bus

Its Boxing Day in Cardiff and the biggest game of the season is just a couple of hours from kick off. As thousands rival fans pour into the city so too come fervid anti fascist demonstrators and booze fuelled gangs of hooligans bent on violence.

An undermanned police force feeling the pressure of political correctness and public scrutiny, must now also prevent these potentially explosive elements from mixing in a city centre already teeming with post Christmas revellers.

For the cops on the ground its a daunting prospect but for newly promoted sergeant, Martin Finch it’s also a tightrope in which the faith placed in him by his superiors must be balanced against earning the respect of his colleagues.

As if that wasn’t bad enough he is now responsible for a group of tough veteran coppers who’ve seen it all. Thrush, Dullas, Flubber and Vince are definately the guys you want to see coming over the hill when the spaghetti hits the fan but as tensions in the city spill over into violence it becomes clear that years of policing some of Britain’s toughest streets has taken its toll on their sympathy, their patience, and their restraint.

Just as he did in his debut novel Pocket Notebook, Thomas brings to bear not only the technical knowhow and jargon of modern policing but also a deep understanding of the seemingly incompatible objectives of political correctness and low crime stats.

Thomas handles the narrative from multiple points of view without ever once leaving us wondering whose eyes we are currently seeing it through. In fact he portrays each character with such clarity and consistency that it feels at times as if we are watching the action unfold on a bank of CCTV monitors. That said, he also places us on uncomfortably intimate terms with the depths of human depravity, the terror of being hopelessly outnumbered and the callous pleasure of men who thrive on conflict.

Ugly Bus is that rare combination of front line experience and masterful storytelling.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

REVIEW: 21st Century Dodos, by Steve Stack

21st Century Dodos, by Steve Stack catalogues the technology, customs and even confectionary which so many of us grew up with. Like a car-boot salesman he manages to handle this collection of memorabilia with great care and respect whilst humourously reflecting on its enduring place in our hearts.

There might no longer be room in our fully synced, on demand and high definition world for Dickie Davis, Spangles and Pen friends but Stack acknowledges the enormous contribution that they, and their like, made to the world we grew up in.

He gives credit where its due as well to the ZX81, the recordable cassette and the calculator watch; clunky electronic devices which paved the way for the development of the ipad, the mp3 and the android.

It is painstakingly researched without ever being nerdy and consistantly funny without ever resorting to the obvious cynicism that obsolete technology inspires.

Bring back the Texan bar!

Monday, 19 August 2013

REVIEW: Pocket Notebook, by Mike Thomas

REVIEW: Pocket Notebook, by Mike Thomas

PC Jake Smith is about to bring a whole new meaning to Zero Tolerance. Outwardly he is the copper’s copper, a second generation police officer and a member of the elite armed response unit. The implacable enemy of lager louts, he bristles with state of the art tactical equipment, he can bench over a hundred kg without breaking sweat and can read the street like a map.

But, after fifteen years he is angry. Angry at the leniency shown to repeat offenders, at the beurocracy of the modern force and its stifling political correctness and angry at the steady and irreparable breakdown of his marriage.

His body courses with steroids while his mind begins to blur the line between his role as entry man for the firearms unit, his playstation and his collection of Vietnam DVDs.

Its all about to go horribly wrong...

Pocket Notebook brings together the tactical fluency of Andy McNabb with the spiraling maddness of Bad Lieutenant  and the hopelessness of Generation X with the quirky Cameraderie of End of Watch. Shotguns, steroids, hookers, bleeding knuckles and white hot rage. PC Smith has the road to hell in front of him and we are all along for the ride.

Five stars.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

My favourite stories almost always involve ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances so when college lecturer Steve Edwards set forth, alone, into the wilderness, wearing the wrong boots and filled with trepidation, I knew I would enjoy reading about what followed.

As writer in need of peace and quiet, spending seven months as caretaker of a ninety-two-acre backcountry homestead in Oregon’s Klamuth mountains is a perfect opportunity to immerse himself in his work. As a newly divorced twenty-something its the chance to lick his wounds and move on, but from the moment he arrives at the homestead it is clear he has embarked on a life changing experience.

From the outset it is also clear he is no zealous mountain athlete out to pit himself against nature in a do or die struggle to the finish and neither, despite his lack of relevant skills, does he descend into a primal frenzy of guns, traps, knives and camoflage.

Instead, this is the story of a man of peace, although not necessarily a man at peace, who spends seven months in one of America’s last great wildernesses. Its written with a keen eye for detail, a deep love of nature and a gift for lyrical prose that makes you read and re-read certain passages over and over.

This is a book for anyone who has spent time alone on the trail and felt the need to share an epic sunset. It is for anyone who has heard the sound of their own heart beating after making eye to eye contact with creatures they have only seen on TV.

Its also a book for anyone who wants to know what it feels like to hear  a creaking floorboard in an empty and remote house at night or what goes through someone’s mind when they find a bear on their lawn eating from the apple tree.

Whether alone on the homestead’s deck, watching the night sky or hiking the Rogue River trail Steve beckons us to his side to share these moments of silent wonder, terror and self doubt.

A five star story.

Friday, 21 June 2013

REVIEW: Five Pairs of Shorts by Richard Wall

Muscle cars, a box of priceless undiscovered records, a briefcase full of cash and the control room of a nuclear submarine. These are just some of the props in Richard Wall’s Five Pairs of Shorts, a collection of ten short stories guaranteed to turn any dreary commute into an edge of the seat experience.

Locations and characters are penned with a few vivid lines and the stories quickly build momentum from there, each one winding up to  a sucker punch in the dark or a clanging frying pan to the head.

There is no clumsy attempts at deliberate misdirection here, instead the stories have an inbuilt feeling of impending disaster for at least one of the protagonists and its with an almost sick sense of anticipation that we can watch it unfold.

I read The Fat Elvis Diner a few months back and bought this off the back of it. I’m very glad I did!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Jack Reacher: The return of an 80’s icon?

Jack Reacher: The return of an 80’s icon?

Director Christopher McQuarrie recently brought Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher to the big screen and portrayed him, faithfully, as a man who has chosen to live on the edge of society. He avoids the internet, mobile phones and electronic bank accounts. He also prefers public transport, motels and grubby diners to any semblance of a settled lifestyle. As a hero he might lack the keyboard skills of Jason Bourne and the dress sense of a latter day James Bond but he has all  the charm of Thomas Magnum, all the lethal skills of Kane, from Kung Fu and all the anonymity of David Banner. Combine this with an ability to drive a dodge charger recklessly, sense a tail and handle assault by multiple goons, and you have the sort of action hero we haven’t seen since the days of John McLean.

Even the film’s villains, a group of  crooked property developers, have a reassuringly 80’s feel. They are the sort of ruthless and uncomplicated adversaries that Hannibal Smith or Michael Knight might have encountered in a small, dusty town in America’s midwest rather than some shadowy government agency, or syndicate of high tech operatives out to crash the internet.

However, Reacher’s  chosen lifestyle, that of rootless drifter, with his scant possessions and reluctance to form attachments does make him seem out of place at times and leads Public Defender Helen Rodin to ask, ‘You don’t live in the real world at all, do you?’

Whether he does or not, Jack Reacher is arguably a tougher adversary in ‘the real world’ than he would have been in the pre-digital one he seems to belong to. After all, the avenues of research that the police resort to nowadays are useless in the hunt for a man with no social media profile, no hotmail account, no smartphone, no images posted on instagram and whose only weaknesses appear to be leather bomber jackets, muscle cars and loose women.

And yet, he can read people with an easy assurance that twitchy Jack Bauer would have died for, he has the old fashioned detective skills we never see on CSI, and he can kick butt as well as any of the  legions  of shallow vigilante/mercenary/ex-soldiers played by the likes of Jason Statham, Mark Whalberg or Tom Hardy.

Jack Reacher, for me, represents the welcome, and long overdue return of an 80’s action adventure icon, that of the lone traveller whose highly developed sense of right and wrong outweighs his need for anonymity. A man who will come out of the shadows to fight for the underdog and who, when justice has been served, will quietly move on.

It’s certainly worked out better than Sylvester Stallone’s recent attempt to recreate another iconic 80’s figure, that of the muscle bound, gun toting mercenary who recently returned to the big screen with ‘The Expendables’ and its sequel, both of which looked more like a flimsy pretext for a reunion gig than an attempt to recreate an iconic species of action hero.