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.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

REVIEW: The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

The north west of England is being battered by storms of biblical  proportions and at their epicentre, on a stretch of rain lashed seafront stands  an abandonned and semi derelict public baths, scheduled for demolition.

There are some who believe that the old building holds within it the power to heal, while there are others who say that only death is to be found behind its crumbling facade and boarded windows. Whatever dark secrets it holds it is far from deserted.

Welcome to the Oracle, a place peopled by characters who seem lost and cut off from the world outside; poor damaged Laurel, the stern and secretive Silver, the ghostly old twins Kester and Pollux and the graceful, innocent Delphina with whom Arthur falls hopelessly in love.

The Oracle is dark, dreamlike and filled with wonder but to Arthur, who first came here to escape the rain it becomes a place to shelter from the loneliness and despair of his life outside.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

This is billed as the opening of a three part novella and having finished reading it last night, in one sitting, I’m almost disappointed to know I’m already a third of the way through.

Rene cares for her sick mother in their delapidated homestead somewhere in the deep south of 1950’s America. Despite her mother’s tough-as-hoof-tacks southern grit and Rene’s rock steady calmness it is clear that Lilah is dying. A chance encounter offers the possibility of a cure from an unexpected source but both Lilah and Rene have grave misgivings.

There is darkness here but it is definately not of the clumsy unremmitting variety. Instead it is its pierced with flashes of hope and kindness. There is also intimate and unpleasant graphic detail associated with Lilah’s illness but again, it is not the centre piece of this excerpt and serves instead to add a sense of urgency neatly counterbalencing the deadpan Southern dialogue.

Eric Shonkwiler’s style is redolent of Faulkener’s As I lay Dying, not just in its setting and premis but most strikingly in its use of isolated imagery and plausibly dispassionate narration.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review: A Fucked Up Life in Books

This book has the word ‘fuck’ in the title and its author has the word ‘cunt’ in her pen name. Still with me?

Its a series of snapshots of her life from early childhood to the present day and its settings include her family home, student accommodation, cafes, bars, offices, busses and  tube trains.
It has a supporting cast of family, boyfriends and work colleagues and its written in an engaging and at times conspiratorial tone that draws us in as if we were sitting across the table from her in a cafe or sharing the commute to work.

Where it differs from the legions of other comentators on everyday life is in the fact that situations of wince making awkwardness are conveyed matter of factly alongside white hot fury at everyday acts of betrayal and dishonesty. Here you will find the deepest loathing and the darkest thoughts but also heart warming kindness and unblinking loyalty. Then there is the author's highly developed sense of right and wrong combined with her complex moral flexibility.

Meet Bookcunt, an anti Bridget Jones for the social media generation.  Here are adventures in everyday life, refreshingly devoid of  a need to be loved and admired. There is no false modesty, no unspoken plea for sympathy.

Boyfiends come and go but constant features include the disasterous relationship with her mother, her close bond with her brother and a lifelong love of books, something she wants to share both with her readers and with those around her.
For me, where the book works best, is in the matter of fact, and at times dispassionate, retelling of explosive and life changing situations. This places all the emphasis on the dialogue's grim content, in very much the same way Banks's The Wasp Factory did.

While for many of us, speaking our minds when the situation requires it is an aspiration, for Bookcunt it seems like a lifetime vocation. I
t would be great to think that this is just 'Vol. 1'.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

DARK WATERS by Jason Lewis
Part one of The Expedition trilogy

In the summer of 1994 two unemployed twentysomethings set out to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe using only human power. It would involve crossing the Atlantic and Pacific and oceans as well as five continents, a trip they believed would take three years.

Thirteen years and 46,505 miles later, one of them, Jason Lewis, returned. This is his story.

From the outset these were not two clean livin' professional adventurers plastered with corporate sponsor logos, far from it, they were two young guys setting out on the adventure of a lifetime with almost no relevant experience. In fact during the early stages of volume one its touch and go whether they are actually going to be sober enough for long enough to get the journey underway at all.

But as the departure date draws near and the full enormity of the task becomes apparent we realise that the hard drinking and partying are an essential part of their build up because this is an adventure they will be lucky to survive.

With books about a journey, the purpose of which is the journey, there exists the possibility of becoming bogged down in numerous brief descriptions of a great many places. But not with this book. While Lewis keeps us up to speed with where we are the main thrust is the human elements, namely the people he meets along the way and his companion Steve Smith with whom he enjoys an increasingly difficult, but mutually dependant relationship.

The centre piece of volume one is their perilous Atlantic crossing during which we are treated both to the almost unbearable claustrophopia of their tiny craft and vast emptiness of the ocean.
Lewis has a powerful descriptive ability, particularly where nature is concerned, and reveals the sea in all its moods. We also get to share, in vivid detail, his peaceful contemplation of the stars and the full blown fury of an Atlantic storm.

This is a genuine tale of an adventure. It doesn't start with the cliche of a drunken bet and and it wasn't undertaken for the purpose of nailing a book deal. And whilst the whole undertaking appears very ramshackle at times there is no novelty factor, no hitchhiking with a fridge, no search for people called Dave Gorman and no tedious false modesty.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


On sunday I had to make good on an offer to help out at a bric a brac sale. It was being held in the the local masonic lodge, an imposing brown sandstone building with pillars flanking the door and a pair of dividers carved into the masonry above it. Inside, the grandeur has faded and the whole place looks scuffed and drab although the oak panelling, brass fittings and black and white floor tiles must have looked very impressive once. Interestingly the main hall has not a single window.

This morning tables line its walls, weighed down with crockery, dusty glassware, old handbags and brollies, shoes, board games, DVDs and books. The term bric a brac feels very apt, its redolent of of marginal utility and value. Tittle tattle, fiddle faddle, chitter chatter.

Martha, the organiser, puts me on the book table on which sits several tattered boxes of books, many of them old, torn and dusty. They are crammed in any old how and before we officially open the doors I have to try and sort them into some order. It makes me feel like Andy Dufrain in the Shawshank prison library, but he had all the time in the world whereas I only have half an hour before the doors are due to open at 11.00am.

Despite the fact that there are people who have been waiting outside in the rain there is no urgency amongst our first customers, just a sense of optimism as they float between the tables. Maybe they’re looking for a lamp for the hall or the DVD of Dirty Dancing to replace their worn out and redundant video copy. Maybe a coffee pot just old enough to be retro or perhaps a much loved board game from childhood; ‘When I was a kid we loved playing Mousetrap...’

My first customer approaches the table, a heavyset man in his sixties.
‘Have you get any Westerns?’ I don’t, but perhaps here is an opportunity for him to broaden his reading tastes.
‘If you like killings and gunfights, I’ve got a couple of Andy McNabs,’ I offer, remembering Martha’s instructions to smile, but he moves on, unimpressed.

Amongst the books are one or two pleasant surprises but there is little surprise in finding Fifty Shades of Grey, given that there are approximately two hundred books on the table it was almost a mathematical certainty. But even though this is the first copy I’ve actually held, I don’t open it, in fact I lose interest halfway through the back cover.

Then I find Clan of the Cave Bear, an old favourite that did the rounds of all my school friends. This copy does not have convenient dog ears to highlight the sex scenes and I can’t remember where they are now but for a moment I’m lost in happy memories.

‘I’m looking for historical romance,’ says a rain soaked, woman with a baseball cap.
I’m tempted to suggest Clan of the Cave Bear but I’m going to keep it instead, I never got round to reading the whole thing and there’s a better alternative to hand. Its a fairly recent looking paperback but with a cover illustration featuring a red-coated soldier arm in arm with a woman holding a parasol, it reminds me of the old Quality Street tins. She buys it for for fifty pence.

A man tells me his wife likes Jilly Cooper. I’m not familiar with her work and I don’t have any of it here but I did once hear it described as ‘juicy’. I offer him ‘Fifty Shades’ but he looks at me as if I’ve farted and I realise that neither of us will ever read this book albeit for entirely different reasons. Instead I offer him ‘The Family’ by Martina Cole. I read it myself after my wife bought it as a holiday read a year ago but this one is a very handsome hardbacked version.

‘It kept me guessing right til the end,’ I am able to truthfully attest. He nods and buys it. In fact it kept me guessing for some time after that, and as I hand it over I’m still trying to figure out how these three hundred pages of cliche and inconsistency can have sold so many copies. On the other hand it has only taken me twenty seconds to sell this one which makes me think about the importance readers place on genre.

As the day wears on I manage to sell a few more books, and I can see that at other tables steady progress has been made. Not bad considering that this was event was advertised by putting up posters in the high street and flyers through doors. As a form of advertising its as ancient as the town crier but it certainly works because a large collection of previously unwanted items have been exchanged for money in a series of face to face transactions.

What’s more, several hundred people have visited this  dingy hall in a quiet back street on a wet Saturday afternoon, and all without the aid of the internet. However, If we had used the full array of social media it could have been significantly bigger. In fact, if we’d then allied this to an online selling platform we could have extended our reach much further. I’d have been in with a chance of shifting all the books on this table.

But even if I had, I wouldn't have experienced what I did today; placing printed words in the hands of another person and watching them make their decision right there and then. But its not the way to sell a million copies of any book, least of all my own.

Towards the end I notice Martha looking sadly at a large number of items on one of the other tables. Mismatched china stained with tea, sturdy earthenware cups and an assortment of brightly coloured coffee mugs ‘Breaktime’, ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, ‘Nescafe’.

‘Looks like we’re going to have to chuck it all out she says sadly, glancing up at the clock. We have to vacate the hall by 4. 00pm prompt and have been expressly told not to use the big trash bins at the back of the building. But the Lodge kitchen has an even bigger collection of random crockery and with a bit of persuasion I manage to squeeze all ours in amongst it - I doubt if anyone will notice.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Review: The Wrestling, by Simon Garfield

The Wrestling

Say what you like about British Wrestling as seen on TV, I can tell you that as a kid growing up in the seventies and eighties it was entertainment at its best. You might have to sit through quite a bit of a John Wayne movie before the bar room brawl started, but when it did your eyes never the left the screen. Well, World of Sport at 4 00 on saturday afternoons gave you a whole hour of it, only without the obvious distractions of spurious storyline, bowler hatted piano player and smouldering heroine.

There has been so much written about it since; its obvious fakery, its ludicrous characters, grimy venues and rowdy audiences and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve enjoyed some of these hilarious retrospective accounts immensely, most recently in the excellent 21st Century Dodos, by Steve Slack. With this in mind I picked up ‘The Wrestling’ without a moments hesitation, already imagining myself on the couch chuckling through the comedy capers of Giant Haystacks, Rollerball Rocco and ‘Wheelbarrow’ Wilson. However, far from being a cynical retrospective on the story of one of my great childhood memories, ‘The Wrestling’ turned out to be something much, much better - a series of frank interviews with its central characters.

There are no cheap shots here, none of the easy cynicism which characterises much of the work on this subject. Instead, Garfield goes to great lengths to acquire all the interviews in this book and having done so, handles each as though it were part of a collection of national treasures. Like a curator he places them carefully to create a seamless unvarnished and compelling first hand account.

Here are the grim untold tales of of Les Kellet’s transport cafe, the pathological lies of Giant Haystacks, the plumber who stumbled on Kendo Nagasaki’s true identity and the questions that still remain about Mick McMannus’s hair. It’s also about the low pay, the constant travel, the injuries, the rivalry and above all the love of the game that kept these guys coming back to entertain us time after time.

Simon Garfield’s book hasn’t changed the way I feel about this subject, it will always have the happiest and fondest memories for me, but its safe to say it has changed pretty much everything I know about it.