Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Quick Review: Blood on Blood - Frank Zafiro & Jim Wilsky

Two brothers, one girl. Sounds like trouble?

Okay, now throw in some diamonds and a handful of mafiosi, a lot of muscle and a bunch of guns. And that’s just the start.

Half-brothers Mick and Jerzy don’t have a lot in common. Mick is an ex-cop, a tainted hero looking for redemption. Jerzy is a career criminal with some bad friends and worse enemies. Thrown into the middle of a turf war, he needs a way out of Chicago – with the enigmatic Ania in tow.

About the only thing that connects them is their father, and before he breathes his last in a prison hospital, he leaves them one last gift: a coded clue to the whereabouts of diamonds that went missing after a heist he was involved in years ago.

But just recounting the plot doesn’t do justice to the breathless action of Blood on Blood. You know the old writer’s saying: start with the protagonist in trouble and then heap on the grief. That’s exactly what happens as things start bad and rumble downhill like a runaway train. The twists and turns are many, but clear and credible. This thriller never gets beyond itself, but stays close and personal; a gritty, claustrophobic read that grips and doesn’t let go.

I especially liked the way the two authors handle a dual (and dueling) 1st person perspective. As the chapters flip between brothers, the twin viewpoints reveal their flaws, their egos, their mistakes, overreactions and underplayed hands. It’s cleverly done so that two voices add up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s at least as interesting for this as for the intense action and emotion that is given to the two main parties: both of which are compelling, believable and rounded. With the mysterious Ania bouncing between them and throwing around red herrings like feeding time at the penguin pool, and it’s a great little cast.

The close atmosphere of noir, with the pace and page-turnability (?) of an A-list thriller. Another good read from Snubnose Press.

Friday, April 19, 2013

QotM: American Gods - Neil Gaiman

Everybody’s got a list, right? No, I don’t mean a shitlist, or the list that was in that episode of friends (Audrey Tautou and Kylie Minogue, two and a half times each). And I don’t mean a bucket list. Just a list of (mostly) realistic things that you fully intend to get around to doing in some ill-imagined future perfect life, when you finally get your shit together. Like that book you always forget to remember to finally read, as you have done for the last ten years.

Anyway, here’s a small portion of mine. I’m sure yours looks something similar:

  • Read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
  • Visit Budapest
  • Live in NYC
  • Find out who Charlemagne was
  • Ditto the Brady Bunch
  • Learn the words to Adestes Fidelis
  • Make a film
  • Eat more fish
  • Inspire a Tom Wait’s song
  • Watch a 6 Nations game at each of the home grounds in one season
  • Sober up
  • Watch Raging Bull
  • Get into jazz, man

I’ve been ticking quite a few things off my list in the last couple of years. Wrote some books, learned the words to Jerusalem, and have got half my head around quantum physics (not the math bit). I even spent last winter boning up on jazz, although I need more time on that. And there’s a ten percent chance I’ll be in New York for a while in the next couple of years.

And finally, finally, I am reading American Gods.

Quote of the Moment: 
“I’ll tell you something,” he said, as if he had said nothing that day. “You’re walking on gallows ground, and there’s a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from heaven to hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging.” He stopped. “I’ll rest here a spell,” he said, touching down, his back resting against the black brickwork. 
“Good luck,” said Shadow. 
“Hell, I’m fucked,” said Mad Sweeney. “Whatever. Thanks.”

 American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’m halfway through, and then it’ll be one more thing ticked off. After that I think I’ll google Charlemagne.

And, yes, Raging Bull. I know.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Quick Review: The Hawthorne Series - Heath Lowrance

I’ve never been big on westerns. I mean, sure there are some great western movies – the man with no name films, the Django series, Magnificent Seven, etc. But I only like these because they’re great movies. I would never anticipate a movie purely because it’s a western. Not in the same way that I would watch a film noir, a sci-fi, or a horror, just because I like the genre. And I’ve never thought about picking up a western book.

Until Hawthorne. Because it’s Heath Lowrance, because it fuses southern gothic, horror, and westerns into one big unholy mess, and just because it sounds like a great idea. At least, that’s why I read the first one, That Damned Coyote Hill.

I read the others because the first one is so damned good.

Here’s the thing, though. Yes, the taciturn anti-hero with the cross-shaped scar on his forehead is a fantastic character. Yes, the plots, the characters and the action kept me hooked. And yes, the brooding atmosphere, dark and fearful, full of unseen menace and suspense, is fantastically executed. All these things make them good stories. But where Lowrance gets clever is this: He had a great idea, and he’s not telling you what it is.

Most writers have a great idea for a story, or a character, or a set up, and they write it down. They put it all in the story. In the Hawthorne books, the thing that really elevates them is what the author isn’t saying. He’s not going to explain anything - not about Hawthorne, and not about the evils he faces down. Most importantly he’s just going to keep up the atmosphere, the tension, and the unholy creeping fear that stains every page. Hawthorne may be a great character, but we keep dragging along with him because, just like Hawthorne, we don’t understand the world in which he works. It’s a world full of unexplained horrors, and like Hawthorne we can only face these one at a time. The pace of the story doesn’t allow Hawthorne to ask any questions, so we don’t get any answers.

It’s something Lowrance does well. Ben over at Dead End Follies puts it this way: "What Heath Lowrance nailed that most writers failed at is to create the strong-silent, mysterious type properly. Most authors feel obligated to weigh down their tough guy with a weepy backstory of murder, helplessness and revenge, in the name of character development. There is none of that to Hawthorne... Giving his stories such a lean diet of emotional content, Lowrance frees the space to write some really impressive stuff. There is always a part of the setting that's a character itself.

Then again, maybe there’s no great idea behind it. As Heath commented about writing the first story, Hawthorne is “on a mission to seek out and destroy evil wherever he finds it. Why? I didn’t know at the time, but it didn’t really matter.”

And perhaps it doesn’t matter, so long as the stories keep coming. The second book, The Long Black Train (my favourite so far) answers no questions. In fact it keeps adding to the mysteries about the man and the dark things that inhabit his world. Superbly executed, it’s full of gore, but Lowrance is smart enough to know how to use the blood. It doesn’t fulfill the set up, only adds to it. And the third, The Spider Tribe, has one of the most disgusting, grisly creatures I’ve come across in a long time. A visceral, biological, Cronenburg-like terror. More questions are asked than answered, but that’s the great thing about the format. The stories are long enough to be complete, and to keep adding to the mystery. But they’re also short enough to avoid any kind of filler. We don’t need the character padded out, because both the protagonist and the stories are as much about the world we don’t see as the world we do. That’s what keeps the brooding, menacing atmosphere so strong. We like the unexplained just as it is.

And the stories do keep coming. Sure, eventually we’ll need more. Word is there are some old tales come to light in the latest installment. And there you go, one reason I like these stories is because Heath is so sparing with the back story, and yet I can’t wait to find out more. But not too much more, not too soon. As long as there are unanswered questions, as long as some things remain unexplained and mysterious, then there's scope for more Hawthorne books.

The fourth story, Bad Sanctuary, is out now from Beat to a Pulp. It’ll be on my Kindle very soon. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

QOTM: Nightfall by David Goodis

Quote of the Moment:

And the quiet went on. And Vanning had the gun aimed at John's face, the gun heavy in his hand, the gun seeming to gain weight with every passing second of that dismal quiet.
The quiet went on.
Finally John said, "I don't figure this. I've been trying but I can't figure it nohow."

Nightfall by David Goodis (1947)

Image from Le Samourai (1967)