Sunday, July 19, 2015

Snake Farming

When I heard that my ZP brother, Gareth Spark was having a launch party for his new short story collection, SNAKE FARM I immediately typed the words ‘up north’ into my car’s satnav and hit the road. Some five hours later I arrived in Gareth’s hometown of Whitby on the north east coast of the UK. What followed was an evening of Brit Grit fiction, poetry and Scrumpy Jack Cider, with a little blues guitar thrown in for good measure.

Chris Firth, head honcho of Electraglade Press kicked things off. He was followed by and local up and coming poet Sam Brewster who read superbly in spite of this being her first time in the spotlight. Then it was time for the main event. Gareth started off with some crime tales, including two of my favourite Spark shorts, ‘American Tan’ and ‘Regal Kingsize’ before mixing it up a little with a western first published on the now sadly defunct Big Adios site and rounding out with a gritty horror. It’s fair to say he nailed all of them.
Hearing Gareth read reminded me why I love short fiction. Distilling a whole story into a couple of thousand words is a real skill. If it’s done well it can to blow you away. Gareth Spark does it very well indeed. Go buy a copy of SNAKE FARM and check that out for yourself.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Roadkill Review: The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

This is a curious novel. Short, but not at all to the point. As you would expect from Daniel Woodrell the writing is largely superb. His prose is more lyrical here than in previous outings, and while generally suited to the tone of the book there were places where it was in danger of overshadowing the story. That in itself is a minor grumble, a bigger issue for me is the wandering narrative, which often dead-ends in vignettes of bit-part players and robs the book of any real momentum.

The Maid’s Version is not a bad book. It’s just not my kind of book. I am not really one for musings and metaphors. This is as close as Woodrell has come to writing an out-and-out literary novel. I have a horrible suspicion that may prove to be his ultimate objective. If that is the case then I wish him well, but I don't think we can remain friends.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Pulling Hard on the Sorrow and Smoke

The UK has always been reluctant to embrace American culture. It’s not that we dislike all things USA, they're just not really, you know...our cup of tea. Here a minor celebrity TV dance-off will guarantee prime time ratings while outstanding shows like Breaking Bad run unnoticed in late night slots, often disappearing from the screen all together after just one or two series.

The same is largely true of American music. The UK charts have their fair share of US pop acts, but real American music barely gets any airplay. Country artists who sell millions of records across the pond (if you are under the age of 30 a record is a hard copy of a download) are routinely ignored here. In fact country music is often the subject of ridicule. For many it conjures up visions of sad old men dressed like John Wayne, yee-hawing at Kenny Rogers tribute acts in the working men's clubs of small provincial towns. In an attempt to avoid this widely held stereotype country is sometimes re-branded as folk music in the UK, which doesn't really help as that suggests bearded men in cable knit sweaters singing about sheep dogs. Sometimes you just can’t win.
I might be getting old (at least I am according to Katie who insists I am fast approaching the age of socks and sandals), but I don’t dress in western attire or cable knit sweaters for that matter, and I have rarely, if ever been known to yee-haw. However I do have a deep abiding love of that much maligned brand of American music.

Last Sunday evening I drove the 70 odd miles back to my own provincial home town and met up with my two oldest friends, who had reluctantly agreed to come with me to see one of the best singer / songwriters they (and probably you) have never heard of, Slaid Cleaves.
Over a drink or two in the bar of the Sun Hotel we got caught up and generally congratulated each other on still being alive and kicking after all these years, before heading upstairs for the musical entertainment.
Our reminiscing in the bar had lead to us rocking up a little after the advertised start time, which was apparently a felony offence judging by the withering look we got from the guy on the door. I have been to a lot of gigs in my time, most were in cramped dark clubs with sticky floors. The pastel pink walls of The Sun Hotel's function room and the hundred or so dinning chairs, arranged around the postage stamp stage made me think we had mistakenly walked in on a wedding reception. I could see by the dubious looks my two friend's exchanged that this wasn't what they had been expecting either.  
We hurriedly made our way to the only reaming seats, which were way over in back. I had never actually been to a concert where the audience was required to sit before. Sure, sometimes I had, but only on the floor and only when I was too wasted to stand. At least there were no cowboy hats on the heads in front of us to block our view.
Any doubts about the venue were quickly forgotten as Slaid launched into the stone cold classic, Horseshoe Lounge. His soft, effortless vocal soaring above the crisp melodies of Scrappy Newcomb's guitar. My friends nodded their approval.
The next song was another old favourite, My Drinking Days Are Over, which was followed by the brand new, Take Home Pay both of which received generous applause from a knowledgeable audience (please note the absence of any yee-hawing.) I could see by the foot tapping action going on alongside me that my friends were digging it and by the time Slaid had worked through a few songs from his latest album, Still Fighting The War including the damn near perfect blue-collar heartbreak of Welding Burns they were hooked.
Slaid & Me (My buddy is no photographer)
It goes without saying that Slaid Cleaves is a an accomplished musician, but more than that he is a damn fine storyteller too. His lyrics speak of hard times, working men and smoky bars. Call it County or Folk or whatever the hell you like, I really don't give a shit, for me good music is the same as good literature, it’s all about the story.
Time flies when you're having a blast and all too soon we had reached the wistful longing of Slaid's traditional closer, One Good Year. When the applause had died down I shook hands with my friends, and they both left for home clutching newly purchased copies of Still fighting the War. For my part, I left feeling very grateful that Slaid Cleaves still bothered to tour a country that had the nerve to relegate his exceptional talent to the upstairs room of a small town hotel. 


  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Roadkill Review: Joyland by Stephen King

Part mystery, part horror and part bittersweet coming of age drama. Joyland tries to be a lot of things at once and while overall it largely succeeds as a novel, it fails to do most of those individual elements any real justice.
 
Mystery aficionados may feel this Carny whodunit has a faint whiff of the Scooby Doo about it (I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you medalling kids!) While traditional King fans will no doubt be disappointed with the under-developed Shinning-esque sub plot. It’s the nostalgic, last summer of innocence feel to the narrative that works best out of the three, and in spite of a lot of foreshadowing it had me invested and even left me feeling a little wistful toward the end.  It might not be Stand by Me, but it ain’t too shabby either.
 
“When it comes to the past everybody writes fiction.”
 
While lines like that may give you reason to pause and consider your own rose colored glasses you can argue that others such as, “It was the best and the worst autumn of my life,” do nothing for you and I’d have to agree. If anyone other than King had written that one I would have probably ditched the book on principal right there and then. But over the past 30 years Steve and me have reached an understanding. I overlook these odd literary indulgences and he usually repays me with a pretty good story, and although flawed Joyland really is just that.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Roadkill Review: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

I must be one of the few people over the age of forty who had never read this book. At this distance it would be easy to dismiss Fear & Loathing as nothing more than a drug addled romp through the desert--a coked-out fuck up of a book throwing up on its own shoes in some dingy back alley--and maybe it is. But it's also a lot of fun and it says much about the time in which it was written.

In 1971 American was at war, not only in Vietnam but also with itself. The sixties were over. Peace and love had been replaced by something else. The American dream was still out there, somewhere, but the idea of exactly what it should be was now up for debate. As Thompson puts it, “Consciousness expansion went out with LBJ, and it’s worth noting historically that downers came in with Nixon.”
The times were indeed a-changing. Dylan might have gone electric in 65, but it took a little longer for the world at large to realize the age of innocence was over and plug in. From then on it was every man for himself and to hell with the rest; to hell with consequences too. 

Thompson's tale of manic excess encapsulates that brave new dawn and then proceeds to burn it up with mescaline and a wry smile. But hidden in the dope haze, behind the bloodshot eyes of a four day bender lurks an unrequited longing for a simpler time when Scott McKenzie advocated no trip to San Francisco would be complete without flowers in your hair and John Lennon claimed that love was all you needed.

If Kerouac was the voice of the post war beat generation, then Hunter S. Thompson speaks for all those who came down from the summer of love and spent the rest of their lives wondering just where the hell it all went wrong.

Does any of that make Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas great literature? Probably not. But it does make it worth your time.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is This Thing Still On?


*Taps microphone* Okay good, so let’s get on with this, I’ve got to be back in Marrakesh by midnight. Actually I don’t, but having to go wash the car and do all those other Sunday chores doesn’t sound nearly as exciting so I’m going to stick with the Marrakesh thing.  
The first three months of this year have seen me—or rather they haven’t seen me—taking a step back from the virtual world of blogs and social media. Delmore Schwartz once said, “Time is a fire in which we burn”, and that’s certainly part of it. But maybe Charles Bukowski put it more succinctly when he said, “I don’t hate people, I just feel better when they aren’t around.” Either way, I have been using the extra 10 or 12 hours a week I gained when I stopped scrolling through the cat pictures on Facebook to write a novel, and in between the usual moments of anxiety and crippling self doubt it’s been going pretty good. I have also managed to pen a short story for the next Zemler Pulp issue, but more on that nearer the time.
In other news I have got the rights back to my long awaited (at least by me) crime novella, Nevada Thunder. In the end things just didn’t work out with the publisher. No harm, no foul, just one of those things. I am currently talking with a new publisher and I’m pretty excited about what might result from this.

I don’t plan on putting out many short stories this year and I have turned down a fair number of offers to contribute to anthologies etc. so that I might concentrate on the work in progress, having said that I do have a few pieces out right now. As I previously mentioned I’m in DINER STORIES: OFF THE MENU recently released by Mountain State Press, with a new piece entitled Mary’s Place. This story is one of my personal favorites and is my own little love letter to all those great mom & pop diners that are sadly no more.   

Next up is ‘Last Exit’, which has just gone live at David Cranmer’s excellent BEAT TO A PULP webzine. This is my take on old school Noir, a story of rain swept streets and lost love out for revenge. Last Exit first appeared in Zelmer Pulp's, MAYBE I SHOULD JUST SHOOT YOU IN THE FACE, which has been our most popular issue to date and is still available for the princely sum of 99c (hint, hint).
Finally, I’m delighted to have ‘Long Time Gone’, a brand new crime story about a father trying to do right by his daughter in the latest edition of DARK CORNERS. Editor-in-chief, Craig McNeely has once again proved beyond any doubt that we are living in a new golden era of pulp fiction. He has put together another fantastic issue with a wide variety of stories in different genres. The one common theme being they are all from outstanding writers, including one by my brother-from-another-mother, Ryan Sayles.
 
So there you have it. That’s my 2015 so far in a nutshell; well the writerly part of it anyway. I’d love to stick around and shoot the shit some more, but you know how it is, Marrakesh awaits. Stay classy people, I’ll see you further on up the road.

                                                                                                                                   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Diner Stories: Off the Menu


A good old American diner may just be my favorite place in this world. It’s certainly right up there, along with dark and cozy British pub and my end of the couch. There really is nothing quite like it. The smell of fresh brewed coffee mixed with the sizzle of beef searing on the grill and the low murmur of half-heard conversations punctuated by the chink of cutlery on china.
Daniel McTaggart is the author of a collection called Diner Poems. It’s an evocative work that really struck a chord with me. It’s also the only book of poetry I have ever owned (I don’t consider that to be a failing, so bite me) and when I heard that Dan was putting together a collection of short fiction based in and around diners I knew I wanted in.
More than a year in the making, Diner Stories: Off The Menu is out now in paperback from Mountain State Press. I’m damn proud to be the only Englishmen to have a story included and to be alongside some very fine writers, such as Jason Jack Miller and Frank Larnerd.
You can check it out here: AMAZOD