For The Want Of A Nail

typically excellent insight here

Murmuration

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For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I’m pretty sure we must all be aware of the old proverb that predates, yet neatly predicts, chaos theory. The loss of a horseshoe nail results in the loss of a kingdom, the outcome having a sensitive dependence on small differences in initial conditions. Anyone who has worked in modern business conditions will recognise this scenario all too well. Seemingly insignificant omissions lead inexorably to disaster. In 21st century organisations, stuck with out-moded 20th century thinking it’s the cumulative effect that’s dragging us to the precipice. A…

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100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

gallerychar_1900x900_100bullets00_52ab9de406c229-05513183Reviewing a comic book series that has been around for well over a decade and already been garnered with more awards than your proverbial Oscar ceremony seems like something of a fool’s errand but there is something deeply compelling and addictive about Azzerello/Risso’s sprawling crime series 100 Bullets and, with your humble scribe having re-read it, a look back at the series on these pages was always going to be something of an inevitability.

For the unitiatiated, 100 Bullets first saw the light of day back in the summer of 1999 and ran for 100 issues. Within three years, its brilliance had already been identified with a Harvey and Eisner award (basically, the Oscars and Golden Globes of the comic book industry).

The basic premise of the book was to ask the question of personal motive and whether people would execute an often bloody and violemt revenge if they were given both the means and opportunity (as well as the all important ability to get away with it).

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In the comic’s first few issues we meet the enigmatic Agent Graves who meets with protagonists who, in many circumstances, have suffered a terrible wromg or injustice. The shadowy Graves proceeds to provide our victims with a chilling opportunity to exact revenge through an untraceable handgun and 100 untraceable bullets for the aforementioned weapon, together with a portfolio of information around the victims’ assailant and how to take revenge on them. Graves performs a combination of avenging angel and modern day Mephistopholes, facilitating a series of revenge murders for individual satisfaction. So far, so pulp fiction. However, like the very best comic book series, 100 Bullets only really began to reveal its ambitious scope and depth some way into its complex and foul mouthed narrative.

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As the series proceeds, you begin to understand that they are merely sub-plots in a wider narrative wherein we learn that Graves is the leader of a secret group known as The Minutemen, an organisation that appears to have been established for protecting and enforcing the wealth and will of prominent European families. This group-The Trust- are revealed to have betrayed the Minutemen and, as we learn, our early protagonists that are offered revenge by Graves have also been deceived by the Trust. So follows a complex narrative of treachery, double crossings, revenge plots and more blood letting than a slaughterhouse festival.

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100 Bullets attracted ongoing popular and critical acclaim whilst it ran, being praised for the complexity and nuance of its dark tales of skewed morality as well as its consistent ability with realistic dialogue, slang and atmospherics (see panel above). For once, the hype is entirely justified.

100 Bullets takes the crime fiction tropes and twists them brilliantly. Characters are, like in most crime fiction, deeply and often irredeemably flawed. Personal motivation, justice and right and wrong are played around with constantly; sometimes, it is hard to know who or what to trust.

When it was published, 100 Bullets appeared on DC’s (publisher of Batman and Superman) more mature imprint, Vertigo. It needed to be; this is not a book for all audiences. 100 Bullets is often brutally unflinching in its depiction of the lives of criminals but what sets it apart is its attention to detail and eschewing of the cliches of modern pulp fiction. Azzarello has a particularly acute ability with dialogue that sounds like real people talking, not just hackneyed phrases one would expect to read in a pulp novel. Similarly Azzarrello’s characters are never ciphers and the writer’s ability to twist the plot as well as getting his character’s to make unexpected and often startling choices keeps the reader engaged and believing in their fate, however bloody it often ends.

This being a comic book, it is not just the writing that one must credit. The art of Eduardo Risso is quite brilliant. There is a style and panache to the work that whilst reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City is never hagiographic. Rather, Risso’s art is more reflective of the bleak and haunting circumstances that our characters find themselves in, where Miller’s pencils opted for highly stylised (and effective) black and white. It really shouldn’t be this joyful to look at pages that contain some of the most brutal and violent images to grace the pages of a comic book. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

100 Bullets is not for the faint hearted. It is a violent, foul mouthed book. It has graphic depictions of sex, murder and all manner of terrorising violence. At its heart, however, is a tale of the importance of life love and the choices and challenges we all face. 100 Bullets is really a morality tale. A morality tale covered in a bucket of blood, granted, but a morality tale all the same.

 

The View From The Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction by Neil Gaiman

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It wouldn’t be true to say that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading Neil Gaiman but he’s one of those authors who seems to have been part of my life for so long that it would be easy to make out like he’d always been there. Wrong, but easy.

Whether it’s his novels or comic books, Gaiman has a deserved reputation as one of our premier imaginers. This collection of his non-fiction was given to me as a Christmas present and I devoured it in two days. Ostensibly a simple collection of speeches, book introductions, reviews of other writers as well as a terrific essay that reveals just how awful the Oscars are, The View From The Cheap Seats gives the reader a superb insight into the mind and interests of this singular author.

At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking this is a simple cash-in. You would be wrong. The thing about Gaiman is that he cares enormously- about writing, reading, the process of creation, the joy of life and of making good art. All of the pieces here are worthy of your time. Regardless of whether you think you have little or no interest in some of the subjects on offer here, Gaiman’s. compassion and accessibility as a writer will have you falling in love again or caring anew about a huge range of topics.

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There’s stuff here about The Oscars, the rock band Evelyn Evelyn, HP Lovecraft, film criticism, spending pocket money and, well, Death.He had me reaching for my notepad- not just to fill in the gaps in my Gaiman collection but to discover other writers that have piqued the author’s interest. By the end of the book, I had counted twenty two authors I wanted to devour- from gothic fiction to sci-fi and back again. More though, this book effortlessly rekindled in me the pure joy of reading and gave me a much needed nudge to start writing about reading again.

The View From The Cheap Seats is by turns enthralling, self-deprecating but, above all, human.

Our Kind of Traitor by John Le Carre

So. You know that feeling when you’d like a book to be much better than it actually is? Yeah, well that. I’d taken this Le Carre as part of my holiday reading partly because I’d become a recent zealous convert to the man and his work and partly because I’d had it lying by the side of my bed for ages. One of them.

This is Le Carre on the Russian mafia and for the most part, it’s fine. What you get is a fairly perfunctory tale of Russian billionaire money launderer wanting to defect assisted by those familiar literary tropes that Le Carre is brilliant at: the insider knowledge of the secret service, the big geopolitics, the sense of impending doom.

If, therefore, you’re looking for a less cerebral Le Carre and one that’s heavy on Hitchcockian intrigue and light on Whitehall machinations then this might be your thing. It’s pacily written and not without its charms: if you’re a fan of tennis, you’ll be in oils. 

However, it didn’t quite live up to its promise. The first issue I had with the novel was a niggling sense of an inability to make its mind up about what it actually is. It veers between chase thriller and back to spy novel with such abandon that you’re sometimes left with a feeling that this is a novel in draft rather than the final product. Second, the characters don’t quite hit home. 

I couldn’t help but imagine the businessman Phillip Green as the Russian  criminal which probably says more about me than the author’s intent but there you  go. Equally the female characters feel only partly drawn and as a consequence you’re left feeling not actually that bothered about them which is a bit of a shame.

All the same, the novel is not without its charm and the denouement is downbeat but appropriate. This isn’t the best Le Carre of recent times- nor the worst. It is, though, the one that you’ll keep thinking has a better novel in it than the one you actually have in your hands.

Stoner by John Williams

When someone whose opinions you truly respect recommends that you read a novel that brazenly states on its front cover that it’s the best novel that you’ve never read, then you can hardly be blamed for having high expectations. In Stoner, my expectations weren’t just matched, they were smashed out of the proverbial park.

Stoner is the sort of novel you want to be introducing all of your friends to. Ostensibly the life story of William Stoner, young farmhand turned academic thanks to the power and the protagonist’s love of literature, it reveals itself to be considerably more than a simple tale of boy made good thanks to the power of education.

Stoner is a simple yet profound take on the nature of love: love of work, love between people, love of humanity. It is a book where simple events and occurrences take on a resonance and permanence, thanks to the brilliance and clarity of the writing. Williams’ protagonist is a man of simple principle yet, like us all, he is not without fault. As readers, we all to easily see the challenges in his marriage that he appears either blind, indifferent or oblivious of. Similarly, we are frustrated at his initial inability to see how he can achieve the personal love he so desires in his relationship with another key character in the book.

Stoner is transformed and given purpose by his love of literature which he takes up after eschewing a course in agriculture that his parents have sacrificed enormously to give him a chance at a better life. His rejection of agriculture for literature is indeed a selfish one but it is one borne out of desire to understand his own purpose on earth and to pursue, with vigour and resilience, the academic life. This idea of understanding oneself, through challenge, adversity and the pursuit of love runs throughout the novel as we follow Stoner’s academic life, his personal growth, his family and his intellectual ambitions.

As a depiction of campus life, Stoner is scarcely bettered. For anyone who has experienced the intensity of tertiary education, there will be deep recognition of the environment which can be as vigorous and enabling as it is suffocating and small minded (a key part of the narrative brings this paradox to brilliant, painstakingly accurate life).

Stoner is not, however, a rediscovered Dead Poets Society. Rather its themes are more universal and, by extension, more triumphant. Through Stoner, Williams has created if not an Everyman character but a character who, like us all, strives to understand the why as much as the what; who fails as readily as he succeeds but who never loses the optimism that the pursuit of a better life through love and being loved can bring. 

Stoner is wise, true, beautifully written. At times the novel is breathtakingly sad but it is not sadness that you’re left with. On the contrary, it is the joy of having met and read the life of one of the most complex, beguiling and human portraits in American literature. 

Three is the Magic Number: Rock Music books that are worth reading

Frank Zappa’s famous maxim that “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read” has, for the most part, be borne out by history. However, like much writing, there is good, bad and indifferent. In an attempt to separate some decent wheat from pompous chaff, here are some rock music books that are worth getting out of bed for, throwing “shapes” at and definitely taking to that tax evading mansion in the south of France.

  1. Our Band Could Be Your Life- Michael Azzerad

 

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Michael Azzerad’s brilliant history of the US underground, punk and hardcore scene of the 1980’s and early 1990s is not just a stunning chronicle of some of the most influential (and at the time, largely unknown) bands of the American music scene, it is one of the best books about rock music per se. Azzerad has an unerring eye for detail and an insightful understanding of the motivations and drivers for starting and maintaining a band. Even if you know nothing about bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat or Husker Du, it scarely matters a jot. Through Azzerad’s writing you meet a fantastic range of characters, all with their very human frailities and failings on display. This is no hagiography: Azzerad is a passionate yet objective narrator and guide and you’re left with a detailed and perceptive understanding of how the underground music scene influenced the mainstream and a burning desire to go and discover some genre-defying life, affirming music.

 

2) The Dirt- Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band- Neil Strauss

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In his 1992 comedy show, No Cure for Cancer, Denis Leary told the following story: “I was reading an interview with Keith Richards in a magazine and in the interview Keith Richards intimated that kids should not do drugs. Keith Richards! Says that kids should not do drugs! Keith, we can’t do any more drugs because you already f*****g did them all, alright! There’s none left! We have to wait ’till you die and smoke your ashes! Jesus Christ! Talk about the pot and the f*****’ kettle.” Actually, Leary was wrong. Motley Crue did em all, as this hysterically funny,  eye wateringly honest biography of the Los Angeles based heavy metal band will attest. As a biography of one of the most notorious bands in rock’n’roll it’s pretty hard to beat but its as a cautionary tale about what huge amounts of money, drugs and alcohol can do when given to a group of young men in a hurry, where it is unsurpassable.

3) Never a Dull Moment- David Hepworth

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Most music fans love a good argument and this extended argument by former Smash Hits and (still much missed) Word journalist  David Hepworth is the best sort of extended argument. Hepworth’s contention that 1971 had “more influential albums than any year before or since” and remains “the most febrile and creative time in the history of popular music” is of course completely arguable (that’s the whole point) but it’s the brilliance and effervescence of his writing that makes Never a Dull Moment completely live up to its title.

More than simply bringing a “I’m right, you’re wrong” contention to the book (which, naturally, he does) Hepworth brings an insight to what was going on behind the scenes as much as what was happening on stage or in the recording studio. Hepworth is a writer of insight and elan with a knack of making connections and offering a lens and opinion that other writers simply daren’t attempt. As a young writer living through that year, he brings an eyewitness account that is affectionate yet not overly misty eyed. He doesn’t get everything right- he’s weak on the influence of soul music and heavy metal, for example- but when he does get it right, he gets it right in spades. This is as much a social history as it is extended pub argument and all the better for it.

 

 

So there you go- three tomes for your burgeoning shelves. What would you recommend? I’d love to hear from you.

The Burglar Who Kept Me Reading- Lawrence Block and the art of American Crime Fiction

My first (and only) meeting with the American crime writer Lawrence Block was at a book signing at the Hay Literary Festival back in, oh, a long time ago. If I remember rightly, it was raining. It usually does. Block was a humble and charming man, with a keen wit and an eye for forensic detail that he often brings to his work. That work has, almost unbelievably, now spanned over fifty years.

I’d been thinking about writing about Lawrence for a while. Not because he is under appreciated- he has plenty of awards, fans and critical acclaim but, in my circle at least, he remains something of a relative unknown and I thought it would be nice to put that right.

Let’s start with a statement of the obvious: Block is a writer for readers. His prose style is efficient and elegant; his dialogue believable; his storytelling deft and inviting. Like many working writers, Block has spent time crafting as many novels and short stories pseudonymously, a number of which have been reprinted under his given name in recent years.

He cut his writing teeth on a series of pulp novels in the 1950s (some, invariably, are better than others). His major break came in 1976 with the release of The Sins of the Fathers, the first novel featuring his most acclaimed creation,  a recovering alcoholic ex-cop plying a trade as an unlicenced PI called Matt Scudder.

The first three novels are pretty much exercises in riffing on a decent theme. It wasn’t until the 80s that a broader, coherent narrative was introduced with additional back story on Scudder’s early drinking and his descent into alcoholism becoming a core part of the overall story. In my favourite Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Scudder’s character is a fully formed, nuanced man with very human frailties and failings. Ginmill marked a step change in the ambition and scope of the novels,  in terms of plot complexity, taut dialogue and broader characterisation. In subsequent novels, old and new characters are introduced, and Block introduces general developments to Scudder’s character that are as surprising as they are welcome.

Warmth towards the character and familiarity of plot and structure are part of what attracts and retains Block’s readers. Despite an often gruesome content ( A Ticket to the Boneyard is probably the best example in nastiness) there is a comfort to Scudder novels that should not go unremarked. Scudder is a truly beguiling character, full of idiosyncracies and behaviours that bring the reader back in time and again. My mental image of Scudder was not quite Liam Neeson (the most recent film adaptation of Block’s work in A Walk Among the Tombstones)  but, hey, if it gets more people reading Block’s work then so much the better.

Scudder is a man who spends much of his time reflecting on his choices and his life- a theme Block has returned to with his most recent creation, the hitman Keller. A man as obsessed by stamp collecting as he is by assassination, Keller reveals himself as a reluctant killer, daydreaming about retirement and settling down; of giving up a life on the edge and settling for humble domesticity. In Hit Man, Hit List and Hit Parade (you get the idea) Block grapples with extraordinary job and life choices with a down to earth matter of factness that is infectious. I don’t know whether or not there is a direct influence or not but an echo of Keller can be found in Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso‘s astonishing crime comic book 100 Bullets, a work of graphic violence, deeply flawed protagonists yet firmly within the pulp and crime fiction traditions.

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Whilst Azzarello and Risso had an enormous canvas and complex plot for their chief protagonist Agent Graves, there are undoubted echoes of Keller and his deliberations over choices and consequences.

If you need a hopping on point for Block though, then it is the character of  Bernie Rhodenbarr with whom you should start. Rhodenbarr is one of my favourite characters in crime fiction: scrap that, he may be one of my favourite characters in literature, full stop.

Over thirteen novels, Block has, in Rhodenbarr, a witty, gentleman burglar, grappling his way from completely unbelievable event to the next unbelievable event with panache and aplomb. Rhodenbarr is a charming, knowing host and enormous fun to have around. The plots, as with the Scudder novels, run to a form- our anti-hero does a B&E, discovers a much more heinous crime afoot (usually a murder), finds himself the prime suspect and then sets about solving the crime and wrapping things up, usually with an absurd sense of drama. And herein lies the charm of Rhodenbarr and the smartness of his creator. Block is acutely aware of his own audience and the fact that they are likely to be readers of other crime writers.Brilliantly, he has Rhodenbarr as bookshop owner and crime novel officianado. This knowing wink to the audience is an old trick- think of it like a literary version of Kevin Spacey turning to camera in House of Cards, letting us in on the narrative and the secret gags.

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The Rhodenbarr novels are liberally littered with references to other writers and  in The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart there is a nearly, but-not-quite jumping of the shark: a Humphrey Bogart festival and a series of set pieces around Bogart films is wonderfully constructed and executed. Block knows we love this stuff, he loves this stuff, why don’t we all enjoy it together?

Block is one of those writers who simply do the work: but what work. Most writers would give their high teeth for one great character; Block has created around a dozen. Block is much more than dependable and reliable: his style and class as a writer and brilliant plotter are superlative.

In case you were wondering about that book signing, he was good enough to put a signature in an omnibus edition of his Matt Scudder books for me. As you might expect, it’s a copy that I hold very dear.

 

Review: Patience by Daniel Clowes

Patience-Daniel-Clowes.jpgI first came across Daniel Clowes’ work when Terry Zwigoff turned his Ghost World graphic novel into a quirky, offbeat coming of age movie starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johanssen. I loved the movie so it was hardly an imposition to pick up the source material. Since then, I have followed Clowes work assiduously.

For the unitiated, Clowes’ emerged from the underground US comics scene back in the mid to late 80s, bringing an intelligence and humanity to comic book writing whilst losing none of the quirkiness and often eccentric juxtaposition of kitsch and horror, themes that Clowes has incorporated into his work time and again.

Patience is his latest work and is a masterclass in comic book narrative, straddling an often delicate balance between sci-fi, domestic realism and murder mystery. Patience may be an apposite title for a graphic novel that is as intricate and detailed as it is emotional and moving.

This is a graphic novel in Three Acts, each linked. In Act One, we join our eponymous heroine in 2012, discovering that she is pregnant. This pregnancy, and her relationship with her boyfriend Jack Barlow are the only two positive aspects of a life that appears to have been blighted by poverty, neglect and a whole heap of angst. Barlow, one of life’s nice guys, is also seeking salvation and redemption through his relationship with Patience. He arrives home from work one day to discover that she has been murdered, apparently by an intruder. Barlow gets fingered as the main suspect and, in a sequence of terrible event after terrible event, we see a decent man descend into emotional, psychological and physical freefall whilst he obsesses over who killed the love of his life.

Act Two takes place in 2029 where we find Jack an almost pyschopathic entity, hell bent on revenge. In this Act, Jack meets an odd character called Bernie who may have stumbled over a form of time travel. Jack travels back to 2006, voyeuristically eyeing a younger Patience’s life and convincing himself that her killer is an ex-boyfriend, a ne’er do well named Adam. Jack decides that the only way to save Patience is by murdering Adam through intervening in the space time continuum. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, things don’t exactly go to plan with Jack finding himself back in the 1980s, learning about Patience’s past and, as the time travelling intervenes in events, the story begins to spin on its head.

In Act Three, we find ourselves coming back full circle to 2012, with the full impact of the situation, Barlow’s meddling and our emotional connection to our protagonists reaching their climax. No spoilers but this is something you will read and re-read.

Like his previous masterwork, the Hitchcockian melancholia that was David Boring, Patience is the sort of graphic novel that you read in one sitting and then realise that you have missed a huge amount because you didnt pay sufficient attention to every single one of the panels. Clowes is an artist of detail and efficiency: every panel matters. Patience is the sort of comic book that you can heartily recommend to those people who will tell you that they don’t like reading comic books. Essential.

To Read, or not to Read, that is never the question

I’m always reading something. Newspapers, novels, magazines, comic books, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, biographies, websites, blogs. Words, words and more words. If you have wandered here, either through happy accident or deliberate journey, then welcome. Here you’re going to find a lot more words about words. Reviews, opinion pieces, the occasional piece of news about books, authors and the multi-facted, multi-layered world of books. If you like what you are reading, do let me know. Similarly, if you don’t like what you’re reading, do let me know. Thanks for being here, for however long (or short) you stay. I hope you find something you want to read.