Cold Black Heart – Jeffrey J. Marriotte

cold black heart

Cold Black Heart – Jeffrey J. Marriotte

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

Cop gets blown up, wakes up in the hospital – bloody hell!! – she’s suddenly an empth. This has precisely fuck all to do with the actual main story. There’s also a sub-plot about a serial killer who imitates other serial killers. This gets introduced as a pretty piss-poor character trait for one of the bad guys later on in the book, but realistically has bugger, sod, and bollocks all to do with the narrative. The lead doesn’t HAVE to be an empath because she uses it exactly knob all times to progress the story, and the ability fades after a few chapters anyway, leaving a half-arsed attempt at character building. As for the serial killer, he crops ups, blathers the usual Hannibal Lecter bollocks about tasting the very essence of death, and contributes knack all to the understanding of why he does what he does. Filler, in other words.

We can count my personal bugbear along with these traits as well – the chapter-consuming dream sequences. They’re pretty good dream sequences as far as they go, but as per usual they trundle along, fill up a bit of time, and then do a runner, never to have an impact on the story again.

Which is a pity, because the book – bar a hilariously awful sex scene – is pretty well written. When not poncing about with empathic bullshit and serial killer nonsense it’s got an interesting strain of ancient folklore running through it, such as when a couple of hunters stick a nail through the footprint of their prey to cripple him further along the line. The only problem is in the plotting and the villains. We get one of the wettest demons in history cropping up at the end, plus a bad guy who LOVES to explain exactly what’s going on with the plot, and does so at length. For three fucking chapters. Just endlessly banging on about ‘ancient rites’ this and ‘we must feed the crops’ that, until you’re wishing the main character would just shoot the bastard to shut him up.

The problem is, the book doesn’t know whether to be a serial killer novel or a book about ancient evil, and it ends up floundering somewhere in the middle. He probably had a great idea for both, but not enough material to stretch one of these ideas out to novel length, so shucked the lot together and hoped for the best, which is fine if you’re Shaun Hutson, who seems to be able to weave strands like these together without breaking a sweat, but not if you’re Marriotte, who seems to have trouble conjuring up a plausible through-line for the two different stories.

Saying that, I actually enjoyed the book for what it was – dressed up pulp fiction, and there’s nothing bloody wrong with that. It’s obvious Marriotte’s a fine writer, but I reckon he just needs to concentrate on his plotting a bit more.



Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow

under the eagle

Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow

Grrr! This is manly book, for men! Men who drinks beer and smoke tabs! Men who shag women and watch films where Liam Neeson punches people! Men who talk about football and cars and have never read poetry, which is for girls!

If you like Bernard Cornwall and Patrick O’Brian then you’ll go for this. Ostensibly concerned with the growing friendship between hard-nosed centurion Macro and the big girl’s blouse that is Cato – freed slave and straight from Rome who likes to read and not fight – it charts their growing friendship and you can probably guess the rest of the story just from that last bit. Bish, bosh, bash, training camp where Cato grows his balls – wallop, crunch, lumme, as the two get in hot water and show man-love for their respective strengths – crash, bang, bollocks, a bit of story crops up at the end.

Like Cornwall and O’Brian, it’s well written and chirps along at a rapid pace so you don’t get bored, and like Cornwall and O’Brian, it has a massive pair of hairy testicles swinging in the wind, and slaps them out whenever the plot starts to get in the way. It’s nothing to write home about, but then it’s not that kind of book. If you want a lesson in history then pick up an Encyclopaedia. If you want to read a book about Romans shouting in Geezer language for some incomprehensible reason then read this.

It’s worth noting that all the characters are hewn from the most lumpen wood, but we’re dealing with stereotypes here, and that’s not a bad thing in the context of the work. Subtle nuances are for other writers with less chest hair. This book’s all about SHOUTING and PUNCHING GERMANS! And it’s actually a jolly good read for that reason, if you can get over the fact that Scarrow nicks whole lines from the ‘Sgt Hartman Names His Maggots’ section of Full Metal Jacket in the opening section. Once you’ve got used to the legionnaires all bellowing at each like squaddies and don’t demand too much of a writer as long as the story involves a bit of warfare and men stabbing each other repeatedly, then this is a rather enjoyable ‘Boys Own’ style romp. There’s even ladies in it, although one’s a slave and the other’s a scheming back-stabber, but hey-ho, if you wanted fully rounded female characters you wouldn’t be reading this sort of thing in the first place.

The book is also helped by the fact that Scarrow’s obviously done his homework, so there’s an air of authenticity about the whole thing (apart from the accents), at least where it comes to the minutiae of legionnaire life. But, as I said, this is pure ham – pulp, straight from the genre of historical fisticuffs, where grizzle-chinned men swap chirpy swears with their blood brothers and think nothing of hurling themselves into the fray against hordes of screaming natives. Good fun.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

spooky art

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

A book of two halves, one part a digression on Mailer’s own writing habits and ideology, and the other a catch-all ragbag of articles relating to other media and writers, collared from 800 articles and distilled down to 190 before Mailer expanded/redacted sections with the help of J Michael Lennon.

The first half is pretty good, as it’s Mailer, and Mailer is a very muscular writer, so sitting down to pen some of his prose is not just the act of writing, but a titanic struggle with the muse of creativity. He spends a lot of time making analogies to sport, as is his want, and talks of the struggles, trials and tribulations which came into knocking out books like The Deer Park and Barbary Shore, and how relatively easy pieces like The Naked and the Dead and The Executioner’s Song were, and coming across like the curmudgeonly, bombastic titan of literature he was.

This being Mailer, there’s an awful lot of crap as well, which takes up the second half of the book. His treatise on Last Tango in Paris is a paragon of bollocks, but an interesting look at his viewpoint on cinema nevertheless, and the expectations certain pieces of art hold and how they can be destroyed by critical hyperbole. He’s also a big fan of Tolstoy, who crops up relentlessly in this collection, and has less time for Any of That Modern Crap, casting vague aspersions on The Corrections by Franzen, but openly stating that it’s probably because he’s an old fart and doesn’t quite get it.

The problem with a lot of modern literature, he states, is that it lacks any depth or range, and seems content to piddle about in the middle ground, serving a half-arsed collage of mimsy personal tales about people whining, and anyone’s who’s read A Little Life by Yanagihara or City on Fire by Risk Hallberg will be aware of – both books of varying quality (well, Life was a pile of shite and Fire was ambitious but overlong) – and both seemingly under the impression they were saying something important about life and society, but both too busy naval gazing with varying degrees of self-absorption to be anything more than vague meanderings through boring lives.

Mailer is wrong about The Corrections, which does contain the requisite naval gazing to some extent, but rips through the artifice of society with some wicked humour and pin-sharp satire on the obsessive middle-class, and age, and families, and much more besides. It would have been interesting to see what Mailer would say about Lincoln on the Bardo or The Sellout – both works which actually have something to say about the human condition, but approached from diametrically opposite viewpoints. Then again, he’d probably hate them, as this was a man who despised the satire of American Psycho, and never saw past the surface level of the book.

For me, Mailer was a literary giant, which I equally admired and mocked for his pretensions which led him down some shite-laden polemical alleyways. Not everything he wrote was gold, and a lot of what he wrote was total crap, but even the crap was worth reading, purely for the fact that he wasn’t afraid to take his boots off and wade waist deep into the issues he tackled. Ancient Evenings and Why Are We in Vietnam are stunning works, and The Gospel According to the Son and An American Dream were self-involved wank, but it’s this lottery of ambition which makes him so readable.

The Spooky Art reflects this dichotomy. Half good, half bad, all involving.

Renegades by Mark E Smith


Renegades by Mark E Smith

I’ve never been a big fan of The Fall. The only album I had was Code: Selfish, and the only tracks which made an impression on me were Birmingham School of Business School and Free Range – the rest disappeared into a fug. I liked his sark-over on I Want You by the Inspiral Carpets, but still preferred the original. Outside of that and few curmudgeonly interviews in Melody Maker, the modern myth of Mark E Smith never focused on my radar.

Then he upped and copped it, and for some reason I couldn’t stop pondering about him. This was probably because the mags released a swathe of ‘Mark E Smiths Last Ever Interview’ pieces where Smith would bang on in his typically contentious fashion about what a bunch of shits everyone was, why the world was a big pile of bollocks, and why Noel Gallagher was a bucket of talentless wank.

And the autobiography is exactly the same, and because of it, it’s fucking genius. Whether it’s his genuine personality or whether he’s cultivated this ‘grumpy old bastard of music’ legend I’ve no idea, but his reason for existing seems to be to come across as antagonistic as possible, banging on about voting Tory during the Thatcher era and how most bands are all crap and how his ex-members are ungrateful shits and how Bowie was bollocks, and mainly complaining about how people are soft these days compared to when he grew up.

The book reads as though his ghost writer, Austin Collings, has simply plonked a tape recorder down in front of him and let him burble on, and for this reason it has the voice of authenticity. Typically, the blurb on the front and back go into paroxysms of treacly bullshit about how hilariously genius the book is – which it isn’t – but if you can ignore the hyperbole it’s a bloody amusing jaunt through someone who gives the impression – carefully cultivated or not – that he doesn’t give a shit what you or anyone else thinks, and he’s going to tell you facts, anyway.

Spaced out in a reasonably linear fashion, and splintered by short sections of stream-of-consciousness or cut-up chapters, Renegade runs through his life from fucking around on bomb sites in Manchester to making a shit-load of records. There’s not much in the book if you want to know about his music noodlings – maybe a few paragraphs about what inspires him (hint: it’s basically just stories about people) and a few ‘tours from hell’ anecdotes, but Renegades is mainly about Mark E Smith’s view on the world, and why everyone else can fuck off if they’re not 100% straight with him, which makes it more honest than the usual self-aggrandising bullshit you get from the bog-standard autobiography.

Saying that, there’s still a shit load of “I was great, and everyone was else was shite, and I invented the moon and breathing” in it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s Mark E Smith and he can say whatever the fuck he likes.

Definitely recommended if you laughed like a drain at the self-absorption in the Morrissey autobiography.

No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

no one gets out alive

No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

I read House of Small Shadows last year, and it was bollocks. I actually felt myself drifting off and my mind wandering as I was reading, which is never a good sign. So, it was with some trepidation when I approached No One Gets Out Alive, and at the start it was bollocks. The story of a woman who moves into a crappy house which may be haunted and which is run by a couple of nutters plods along for the first 100 pages or so in a pretty bog-standard. Unconvincing characters, god-awful ‘caw bloimey, guvnor’ accents for the creepy nutters, and the usual ‘I am clueless and therefore I wind up getting in the shit’ tedium from the main protagonist.

Then about halfway through the book everything changes, and there’s a feel of real threat to the proceedings, and it actually perks up as a pretty grim look at abuse against women by exploitative males.

And then, after an incredibly well put-together scene in a darkened room where all kinds of weird, Clive Barker style hideousness crawls out of the woodwork to fuck with the lead’s mind, it all goes back to being a bit shite. I don’t want to reveal too much, but let’s just say the lead character flips back and forth as regards her personality, and as a consequence it’s all a bit unconvincing. Also, during the final section of the book, she keeps calling everyone ‘mate’, which had a tendency to wrench me out of the story as it seems like such an unusual character quirk, especially considering she didn’t speak in this fashion for a good three quarters of the book.

Couple of things which irritated me about Nevill’s writing. First of all, dream sequences. Absolutely boils my piss and completely worthless as a plot device. Just another way of ramming in a few blocks of text to pad a story out, and any writer who does it without the dream sequence playing a major role in the evolution of the actual story can fuck right off back to Bad Writing Land. Second of all, characters who spend all their time questioning themselves. “What was it all about? Did they know more about what was going on than they were admitting? Why were the curtains brown and the moon made of cheese? Where’s Mr. Billy Bollocks going with that chainsaw?” You know the kind of thing. Absolutely pointless filler. Thirdly, main characters who act like idiots. Fine if they’re meant to be thick as pigshit, but not when they’re meant to be normal, intelligent, independent people with minds of their own. There’s one point in the book where the main character keeps hearing not-very-subtle comments about the house she’s staying in once being used as a knocking shop, and yet it takes her a good 10 pages before the penny drops, by which point I knew, as a lead, she was fucked from following any logicality to her actions.

Anyway, overall, a bit half and half. One part of me liked bits of it, while the other part thought it was irritating shite. In the end, it was a bit of both.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

white people

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Another book which could do with about 300 extra pages.

Principally about the reaction to Reni’s penning an article for The Guardian about why talking to white people about race was getting her nowhere, and criticisms of the way people of colour are perceived by society and the endemic racism in society itself, this book burns with a furious indignation and intellectual weight which makes me wish the fucker was longer.

It starts out with a historical look at people of colour and immigrants in the UK and how they’ve been victimised and ignored throughout the years whilst all the attention has been focused on racism in America, and works its way through to Brexit and Trump and the rise of the new right. There are a lot of unreferenced points in the text, and a lot of room for expansion, but as a precis look at racism in Britain it rages like a doozy.

There’s a certain amount of brush-stroking going on in the text where great swathes of society are lumped together under the same awning, but that’s down to the limited size of the work. If Reni had a chance to go Full Pinker and expand this fucker out to a ‘Better Angels…’ sized book then every numpty with an issue against her stance – that white privilege and in-built racist attitudes, even amongst those white people advocating anti-racism – will have less room to wriggle.

About halfway through the book there’s a gob-smackingly jaw-dropping interview with Nick Griffin – he of the BNP – which was introduced to bring a level of even-handedness to the work and succeeds in pointing out how bug-shit crazy the right-wing’s ideology concerning race and racism are, and it’s an invaluable insight into just how mad, prejudiced and destructive this way of thinking is.

The book is rightfully angry and takes no prisoners, fed up with the way race is skirted within the media and society, and how cossetted by certain sections of the press (looking at you The Express/Mail/Sun/Star/Times) racist attitudes are, and confronts straight-on the half-arsed attempts at moderation pushed by a lot of the anti-racism brigade, which seem more like a sop to appease white attitudes than to really confront or face the reality of being a person of colour or immigrant in the UK. It’s going to piss a lot of people off (and has done), but it’s bloody well needed as a head-long charge into the realities of dealing with racism and living in a racist society which propagates integration and yet kicks down at BME people all the time, pushing them out of jobs and houses and careers and even as a voice against racist attitudes.

It was produced too late to make any real headway into the whole Brexit/Trump see-saw of shite and only tackles the rise of the far-right in a tacked on end chapter which could have been another book in itself considering the issues it tackles, but it’s a hell of a piece of work nonetheless, which shines a much needed light on a society which is all too happy to avoid contention regarding the matter, and even more eager to embrace a reactionary attitude under the guise that ‘everything’s all right’.

What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

what the hell did i just read

What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

The third in the ‘John Dies…’ series, and much like the other two books, in which they have a certain flippant charm at the start which slowly fizzles out towards the end. The first book in the series, ‘John Dies at the End’, was great fun to start with, and then just sort of… lost track of itself. I can’t actually remember anything about ‘This Book Is Full of Spiders, the second book , even though I read it only a few years ago. I’m actually going to have to go back and re-visit it, just to make sure I did actually work my way through the fucker.

‘What the Hell…’ carries on with the adventures of David, Amy, and John as they potter about the town of Undisclosed, bumping into the odd monster and conspiracy. As a work it doesn’t really fit together, and reads as though it was made-up on the fly as the story progressed, which is fair enough, as this is how James Herbert used to slap his books together. It’s a fun ride, but like ‘John Dies…’, tend to run out of steam around the halfway mark. The main problem, for me, is that the main character of David is such a whiny little shitehawk that it was hard for me to empathise with him.

Much like the Cracked work David Wong (Jason Pargin) writes, ‘What the Hell…’ has a certain finger-wagging morality to it as well. In this book The Serious Issue is about how depression can never really be overcome and we should try and deal with each day as it comes. Nice ideology, but it feels out of place in a book full of dildo deaths and floating plastic bums. If Wong could shove this moralising aside for five minutes and try and kick some guts into the story it could immeasurably improve it.

There’s a problem with the action scenes as well. Where they should crackle and fizz they limp along instead, and because of the ‘with one leap he was free’ style plotting, I never got the feeling the characters were in any real jeopardy, which is the crux of the problem. The book is never meaty enough to be convincing. It’s got plenty of laid back, slacker humour and some chin-stroking Life Lessons, but when a character fires a sawn-off shotgun you need to feel the kickback of the weapon on the page.

A shitload of people will disagree with me, and – despite my nagging in the previous paragraphs – it won’t stop me buying any more David Wong books as there’s always something to enjoy in them. But with ‘What the Hell…’ it feels as though the main character’s depression has sunk through to the meat and bones of the novel, and what should be a pants-whirling ride into the ballsack of oblivion turns into a slightly perilous meandering through somebody observing incidents without really giving a shit what’s going on.

Despite this, recommended.