Riding Shotgun Review: American Story Telling At Its Finest

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Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties is an inventive collection of three novellas by the multi-talented Andy Rausch who is, alongside being a writer, is also an American film journalist, author, screenwriter, film producer, and actor.

This selection of three novellas pays homage to a range of genres, offering the reader a glimpse into the crime market in the USA. In the opening story, Easy-Peezy, the reader is transported to into an innovative take on a western as a group of outlaws pull off daring heists as they seek the riches stored in the country’s banks. The titular story, Riding Shotgun, is a pulp fiction esq caper featuring some superb examples of swearing in action (of which I thoroughly fucking approve).

Finally, Rausch portrays the exploits of a criminally minded hip-hop crew as they seek riches by sticking two finger to the established music scene in $crilla. Each novella is uniquely tailored to its setting and set-up, making for a consistently strong portrayal despite the varied styles Rausch employs.

Dialogue, something that, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a massive fan of when done right, is expertly utilized here, particularly in Easy-Peezy’s wild west setting, where the characters are each given a individual voice to allow their status as establishment or out law to shine through. As mentioned before, the swearing Riding Shotgun is expertly crafted, and shows a great knowledge of how to really exploit voice in a story to heighten both the internal tension and the reader’s interest.

Overall, drawing on his vast and varied experiences, Andy Rausch has created three unique stories, each of which is an individual representation of America’s Crime Fiction history. From the wild west through to urban thrillers at their best, this creative selection of stories has something to please everyone.

Jackie Baldwin Interview: “I see criminals as real people”

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Former criminal lawyer turned Crime Fiction Author Jackie Baldwin talks to me about her writing, her inspiration and her enduring love for Agatha Christie.

Tell me about how the books you write. Why do you have such a passion for crime fiction in particular?

Like a lot of crime novelists I grew up in an era where there was no young adult genre, so when you were 12 you were let free in the adult library. There, to my delight, I discovered crime writers like Agatha Christie and thriller writers like Alistair MacLean. Although I read quite widely across various genres, I came to enjoy crime fiction in particular as for many years I was a criminal lawyer so I knew that world. I also love that nowadays there is such diversity within the genre. Anything goes, from hardboiled to psychological thrillers to cosy mysteries. They all have something interesting to offer the reader.

What was the first crime fiction novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?

I always loved mystery books like The Secret Seven and The Famous Five but I think my first adult crime novel was by Agatha Christie. I read them all one after the other but can’t remember which one I started with. I remember I was always getting into trouble for reading too much as I was always desperate to keep going and find out who did it. My catchphrase was, ‘I’ll just finish the chapter.’ It used to drive my mum crazy!

How do you draw on your background as a lawyer when writing?

Well, I suppose first and foremost I see criminals as real people. I also think you have to view people who commit crimes within their entire context and not in a two dimensional way. Nobody is all good or all bad. Most of us inhabit some shade of grey. During my time as a lawyer I met very few people who made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up although there were a handful. Mostly it was people who made bad choices in difficult circumstances, were reared in a family culture of criminality, or had spiralled down into offending through drug addiction.

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Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I write in the third person but I like to focus in very closely on the internal life of my main characters at times of pressure. I’m fascinated by psychology and people’s inner life. Often that is so different from the image they present to the world. I wanted to avoid the trope of the alcoholic hard- bitten detective with a failing marriage and offer the reader something a little different so my lead character, DI Frank Farrell is a former practising RC priest who suffered a devastating mental breakdown as a young priest but recovered.

What books/ authors do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

The weird thing is that since I was published I seem to have a lot less time to read than I used to and I do love to read. On the crime front, I enjoy books by Sophie Hannah, Susie Steiner, Robert Bryndza and Peter James. All of these have influenced me to the extent that they create memorable characters who feel very real to me and have a complex inner life which is what I have tried to create in my own work. I also love science fiction, particularly Asimov and Alisdair Reynolds. The only thing I tend not to get along with is romance!

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I would love to work with Sally Wainwright on a TV drama. I recently watched Happy Valley for the first time and was completely blown away. I admire her tremendously. It was so immersive. One night, I found myself screaming ‘Run!’ at the TV to the great consternation of my husband and daughter. Isn’t it infuriating when people say to you, ‘It’s just a TV show’?

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

At the moment I am nearing the end of book 2 in my DI Frank Farrell series. After that is submitted I have plans for a commercial fiction novel and then a sci-fi crime novel. It’s going to be a case of write, eat, sleep, and repeat for some time! I was late getting off the starter’s block with my writing so I feel I’m playing catch up to some extent.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year or in 2018?

Mike Craven has a new series coming out next year which I’m looking forward to as I loved his Avison Fluke one. Felicia Yap’s crime novel Yesterday sounds terrific and is out in August 2017. I’ve also just downloaded The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond which came out this month. There have been so many exciting new books released recently that I’m struggling to keep up with the ones I’ve bought so I haven’t really had time to contemplate what’s happening next year yet.

Thanks to Jackie for speaking with me, it has been fascinating. You can learn more about Jackie and her work HERE.

Price and Prejudice: Are Books Really Too Cheap?

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Recently, Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, announced that the organization will be launching a campaign for publishers to stop damaging authors’ earnings by discounting bulk sales to book clubs and supermarket. The author, who is perhaps most famous for the His Dark Materials series, has personally slammed the cut-price culture which pervades in literature today.

However, in the age of stagnant wages and an ever-rising cost of living, is Pullman, a man of considerable fortune and whose books have grossed millions of pounds in profits, simply out of touch with the modern market?

After all, as paper books face stiff competition from the links of ebooks and Kindles, as well as the ease with which readers are being lured away by audiobooks and TV streaming, low prices are keeping the industry alive. Combined with the convenience of buying books at the same time as groceries, low prices lead readers to become more adventurous and explore new genres and styles.

Also, it is clear from the profits made by many publishers and huge authors (including Pullman himself) that the low prices of mainstream literature are justifiable, and although this may mean that some up and coming authors struggle, the fact is that there are other avenues to pursue to ensure profitability. Almost all of the creative arts offer low wages and many earn significantly less than Pullman and other members of the Society of Authors, which makes this petty argument simply distasteful.

As my recent post has demonstrated, physical books remain popular, and this is, in part, due to the ease at which they can be purchased- unlike films or songs, which now need to be downloaded and often synced to a device, books are easy to buy in many places, including supermarkets. Whilst Pullman and his cronies want to see supermarkets banned from bulk buying books, the reality is that the convenience of being able to buy a paperback at the same time as stocking up your kitchen cupboards is driving sales in the literature market.

Ultimately it is my belief that low book prices are not crippling the industry, but driving it. Whilst there are often loss leaders, particularly among hardback sales, book prices are always calculated to make a profit, and although authors are often paid a measly proportion of that money, this is the reality with many creative arts. Those who work in these industries do it out of love and passion, and there are many other markets in which workers are underpaid, such as the NHS, which need far more urgent attention. Pullman and his moaning pals should concentrate on pushing the literature market forward and encouraging and supporting new writers, rather than trying to line their own pockets.

Taylor Leon Interview: “The key for me is always the premise”

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Taylor Leon, author of the captivating Erin Dark series, talks to me about his work and explains the influence that other writers, as well as TV and films, have on his work.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime and thriller writing?

I have been writing since I was about seven and over many years have experimented in probably every genre, but thriller writing comes the most naturally to me. I have a low boredom threshold so, if I’m reading a book or watching a film it really must grip me and not let go. That is how I naturally approach my writing. I must keep myself hooked first and foremost- hopefully that will then be the same for my readers.

The key for me is always the premise, it might be a scene that I “see” first, but it always comes back to the premise. If I ‘m choosing a book to read, or a TV show to watch, then I want it scream out to me: “Wouldn’t you like to know more?” That in a nutshell is what I’m trying to achieve when I start a book. The premise must consume me and prey on my mind 24/7 before I will consider turning it into a novel.

Please tell me about the Erin Dark series. What defines your writing style?

Erin Dark became a police detective after her mother was murdered and the killer never caught. Over time however, she has become disenchanted with her day-job which she doesn’t think always provides justice. Now she also leads another secret-life with a group of vigilante witches who, quite literally, send unrepentant, evil criminals to hell. The series follows Erin as she juggles the two very different lives she leads, and the moral questions she faces.

In the first book, Dark Justice, Erin and her new partner, Detective John Cade, are investigating what at first appears to be a straightforward gangland murder but which transpires to be something bigger and more sinister. Erin needs to convince her Coven to come out of the shadows and help her save thousands of people from a planned terrorist act.

In the second book, Dark Games, Erin is on the trail of the mysterious Games-Master who has created a game for serial killers to compete with one another for a huge cash prize, by murdering specially selected victims and earning points.

In terms of style, my writing is “efficient”; I steer clear of wordy prose, and concentrate on keeping the story moving forward and the reader interested. Of course, there are some ebbs and flows, there has to be in order to build tension and unleash the unexpected twists, but the story is king and it must always march on. Strong, interesting characters are vital in making this happen!

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I write in short chapters, each one ending in a way that, hopefully makes the reader want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next.

Otherwise, I don’t consciously use any particular medium or trope. I write what I “see”. I have the premise, a brief outline of where I think the story will go (which usually changes!) and a set of rules (in a series there is a larger story arc to keep an eye on). But then I let the characters take-over. I see things through their eyes, and hear their voices in my head, and then I write it all down.

What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

I enjoy reading all types of fiction and styles, but my three favourite writers are Cormac McCarthy, David Peace and Stephen King. I could read anything those guys write.

When I was growing up I read a lot of thrillers, especially Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. At the same time, I also read the so-called more “literary” writers (oh how I hate that term) like Isabel Allende, John Updike, Armistead Maupin and John Irving. I have always tended to veer away from nineteenth century fiction, with the exception of Charles Dickens.

Reading books to me is like watching TV. Sometimes you want a fast-thriller, other times you want something a little deeper, or maybe a comedy, and so on. I just read whatever the mood takes me.

I don’t think any single book or writer has influenced me, but my whole reading experience has shaped the way I write and subconsciously think about character, dialogue and plot.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I find novel writing such a personal and immersive business that I imagine I would find it quite hard to collaborate with anyone on a book. Hats off to those that do- one of my favourite books is The Talisman which was a collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub, and of course, James Patterson has built up an industry collaborating with other writers. For some, it clearly works- after all they don’t come much bigger or better than SK and JP!

But I would love to collaborate on a TV series. Say, contribute an episode or two to a show like Doctor Who. I actually have an outline for a Doctor Who episode that, believe me, would blow everyone’s mind, but I’m keeping it to myself for now, because you never know…

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

I have three first drafts written and several outlines on the go at any one time, so it is always very exciting. My next couple of books are thrillers without a paranormal element so a slight difference from the Erin Dark series, but believe me, just as exciting. Maybe even more so! I am hoping the first one will be published in October. I am also working on my first YA novel which does have a strong sci-fi slant, and which I am really excited about. It’s different to my first four novels, but still retains the excitement and unexpected twists and turns. Then, of course, there is the third Erin Dark novel that is also in work. I can’t forget Erin, not after the way I ended Dark Games!

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?

Besides McCarthy, Peace and King, I tend to browse and choose books as I go along. Having said that I have enjoyed the last couple of Adam Croft books, so I imagine I will keep an eye out for his next one.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just that I hope you enjoy my books as much as I enjoy creating them.

Thanks Taylor for answering my questions, it’s been awesome to hear your thoughts. You can find out more about Taylor’s work HERE.

Merlin at War Review: An Enticing Historical Thriller

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As a rule, historical novels aren’t my thing, but I was intrigued by the concept of Mark Ellis’s Merlin at War, which I first encountered when I interviewed him for a blog tour recently. Set during the Second World War, the novel follows the exploits of detective Frank Merlin, who works to solve the numerous crimes that abound despite the escalating global violence.

The crimes in question are various but all, coincidentally, connected. First, the body of a young Irish woman who died as the result of a botched abortion is investigated; later, the abortionist himself is found killed at his boarding house. Merlin, who also has to deal with the bureaucracy of having one member of staff removed for fraternisation and replaced by an American, takes on both cases simultaneously.

Later, his friend, having just returned from fighting in Crete, visits him with a small problem, on which Merlin advises. Shortly afterwards this friend is also murdered, and so the detective and his team come up against corporate deception as they unravel his problem, which is linked to a case of embezzlement in a massive international bank.

History never has been my strong point, and as such I am not entirely certain if the depictions of the various historical figures in Merlin at War are even remotely accurate, but the characterisation overall is excellent. Everyone, from the snobbish bank employees through to Machiavellian officers in the various military and security services, are superbly depicted, with the dialogue carefully catered to their personalities to ensure both consistency and realism. Seedy, untrustworthy men are Ellis’s strongpoint and he does them well, with numerous characters from across the story portrayed with such skill that they make your skin crawl.

The novel flits around the world, from depictions of the Creation retreat to intrigue-ridden Buenos Aires, but it is London where the majority of the action takes place, and the city is bought to life thanks to Ellis’s stunning depictions. His seamless integration of setting into the narrative entices the reader and draws them further into this fascinating story.

As I mentioned, I have never been a big history buff, but I truly enjoyed Merlin at War. The one small issue I have is that I’m not entirely sure that attitudes in 1940s London would have been so relaxed, and as such the lack of prejudice on all fronts feels slightly unrealistic. Bernie Goldberg, the American detective who is placed with Merlin’s team, as well as the various other foreigner characters the reader encounters throughout the novel, seem to face very little racial backlash despite the hostile military situation and the general ignorance of and distrust towards other races that abounded at that time. I also find it incredibly hard to believe that widowed Merlin’s unmarried relations with his Polish girlfriend Sonia, who lives in his flat, would be tolerated so easily, with even the uptight Assistant Commissioner and his wife welcoming the unconventional couple with open arms.

Incorporating a wide variety of genres, including detective fiction, thriller, espionage and historical novel, Merlin at War is a truly spellbinding page turner that keeps you hooked right until the end.

Tom Claver Interview: “When reading a thriller I enjoy seeing what authors do with the built-in tropes”

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Tom Claver, author of the popular thriller Hider/ Seeker, discusses his fascination with detective fiction and dark films and how it influences his writing.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?

My style of writing tends to be quite direct with plenty of dialogue. I think my economy with words comes from being a journalist and keeping the word count as low as possible when writing news. When I was young I had ambitions of working in films and made some shorts, which helped me gain a visual sense of storytelling. This led me to write some feature length scripts, one of which interested the BBC, but nothing came of it. Some thirty years later, I decided to re-write that particular script into Hider/Seeker, my first novel.

Why crime fiction? As a young film buff I was mad on Hitchcock although I never thought at that time of writing a novel. I was too focused on cinema and enjoyed all film genres, although thrillers excited me the most. In the 1970s while I was studying for my economics degree, I went to a creative writing class that had just been set up by Dr Rod Whitaker, an American professor from the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. He arrived late to the first class because he’d just come off the phone from speaking to Clint Eastwood, who was going to turn his debut novel, The Eiger Sanction, into a film. After that entrance, he had my full attention. 

What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?

I’ve had a long career in business journalism, both in print and television. One lunchtime I was browsing in a bookshop and I came across The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I realised that I had seen the Humphrey Bogart films many times, but had never read the novel. After devouring that book, I began to read other classic thrillers to see how much they varied from their film version. Books such as Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, Point Blank, by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. This rekindled my desire to try again to write a novel as I enjoyed so much reading these books. I read books on writing and taught myself to put 90,000 words together in a comprehensive way.

I had already been writing for more than 10 years when I decided to go full-time. I just wanted to see how I would fare in an entirely different sector of the publishing industry. I think that during those years of writing part-time, I knew I was repositioning myself towards a new type of career ahead.

Please tell me about your novel, Hider/Seeker.

Hider/Seeker was published originally as an ebook in April 2015 and after three months it had broken into Amazon’s British top 100 paid ebooks. It reached No.11 in the Kindle Store and ranked No.2 in Crime Thrillers in the UK. Last year, it reached No.48 in paid ebooks on Amazon.com in the US and was No.3 there in Crime Thrillers. The paperback version is due out shortly.

The story is about Harry Bridger, who makes his living helping people disappear from their enemies by teaching them how to avoid detection in the digital age. But when he helps a woman disappear from her violent husband, little does he know he will need to find her again for his own survival. The story opens in London, but it soon shifts to Central America and there are plenty of twists and turns on the way.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative tropes you like to use in your writing and why?

That’s the whole fun of writing a thriller. Bertolt Brecht, who was a fan of thrillers, was once quoted as saying that the aesthetic quality of the detective novel is derived from the variation of its fixed elements. When reading a thriller I enjoy seeing what authors do with the built-in tropes. It’s like watching an escapologist getting out of chains while in a burning box. Every time I pick up a thriller, I think, how is the author going to pull it off this time around?

When starting a novel, I always create a hero with plenty of baggage who is reluctant to get involved in an adventure. Then I engineer it so that he has a lucky escape from death towards the end. It is the basic chassis to build any story upon. As long as I can torture the hero along the way, I’m happy because the reader needs to experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist.

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What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

You’ve probably guessed that I prefer reading thrillers from an older era, partly because they are less horrific, but mainly because they have such a wonderful style of writing. I read recently Rebecca for the first time, having seen the Hitchcock film on numerous occasions and found that I enjoyed it more than the film. I’m currently reading My Cousin Rachel, also a Daphne du Maurier novel, and am totally absorbed by her clever storytelling. Similarly, I like Patricia Highsmith for those reasons. But the trouble with writing is that you can only do what you can do however much you dream of writing like your favourite author. You have to work with the material you’ve got and know your limitations. I tend to introduce humour into my thrillers as I feel it brings more realism to the characters and also helps to bring a greater contrast when things go wrong for them. I’m probably most drawn to authors such as Hammett, Chandler and Deighton because their dry wit is so appealing.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I strongly believe it is a mistake to meet your heroes, as they can never live up to your expectations. After all, it is their work that we love, not them, as they are complete strangers with their own private lives and complications. So, I don’t think I would be attracted to collaborate with anyone as writing a novel is not really a collaborative art form like filmmaking. But if I had a time machine and had a chance to work on a film script with a director, it would have to be Hitchcock, because I would be able to learn how to extract the nub of a story in such a cinematic way. He would always seek a story where he could explore its emotion rather than its detail. Daphne du Maurier didn’t like what he did to her novella, The Birds, but he had the good sense to focus on the horror she had created based largely on her descriptive writing.

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

Yes. I am publishing my second book, Scoop of the Year, at the end of October. It’s a suspense novel with a healthy dose of humour and is quite a departure from Hider/Seeker. It’s about a young hapless journalist called Martin who becomes jealous of the meteoric rise into television by Tom, a fellow reporter. But when he lands a scoop that would allow him to outshine his rival, he discovers his malfunctioning family gets in the way.

It is written in the first person from Martin’s POV and shows a positive side to envy. Martin is a luckless hero you can’t help but root for as he aims for greatness. Both the ebook and paperback will be available on Amazon from 28th October.

Thanks ever so much for your time Tom, it’s been really interesting to hear your thoughts. To find out more about Tom and his work, click HERE.

Nepotism: Is it Killing Literature?

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Recently there has been a huge furore about David Beckham’s son being given a book deal, which saw him showcase his poorly taken, often out of focus photographs, alongside lame captions designed to be witty one liners but coming off as smug social media snippets. I have been watching this row in fascination, finding it hilarious that so many people are missing the reason behind Brooklyn Beckham’s book deal; that nepotism is at the heart of it, and that it will always remain in every faction of the arts, no matter what we say.

The Beckham’s are famed for sliding themselves into industries where they don’t fit with varying degrees of success; from David’s stilted cameo in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur to Victoria’s successful fashion empire, the power couple and their offspring have used their fame to worm their way into markets where others have had to strive and sacrifice to survive. Frankly, they are not the only ones. Everywhere you look there is someone getting their child into their industry on the merit of their name alone, or sliding into a new space with no talent, training or knowledge simply on the strength of their fame in another market. Models and sports stars, whose careers are notoriously short, often move into other spaces, and writing, alongside acting, is one of the most common thanks to the idiotic notion many have that both are easy.

This causes issues for those who have actually grafted to get where they are today, and resent being usurped by the untrained and often untalented. Brooklyn’s book attracted the ire of writers and photographers alike, with both factions arguing that his book deal highlighted the lack of respect for those who actually work for their success. Whilst this is, in part true, in reality the issue is society’s appreciation of celebrity, and the increasingly corporate nature of the creative arts. Whilst many were quick to pan What I See and mock Brooklyn’s poor attempts at both photography and writing, there were many who bought the book simply because of his second name.

Anyone who has tried to get a book published will be particularly wrangled by Brooklyn’s easy access to a high value deal- it can be almost impossible for even brilliant writers to get their work out there, resulting in many turning to alternative platforms such as Kindle or self publishing. With this in mind, it can be tough to reconcile the notion that Brooklyn got a deal based on the success of his parents, however the subsequent outcry from both reviewers and the general public proves that we still have good taste when it comes to both writing and photographs, and are not willing to settle for anything less than the best of either.

Fundamentally, nepotism is always going to exist throughout the arts, and I doubt that we will ever be rid of it. As such, the best way to handle the issue is simply to support those who are genuinely grafting to create legitimate, exquisite art, drawing on their skills and expertise, rather than on the accomplishments of their families. There are many great authors out there and we need to be buying their books, listening to their readings and watching their shows.