The Blackboard Jungle

imgres“He had never stopped a rape before, except by changing his mind, and he found his role of ‘protector of the virgin’ a difficult one to assume.”

The Blackboard Jungle is set in a vocational high school in the fifties and shows the journey, over the course of a single school year, of a new idealistic teacher, Richard Dadier. He’s a simple man who just wants to teach, and who believes he can reach a class of undisciplined teenagers: all he needs to do, he thinks, is find a way to engage them.

At first it seems as if there’s not much in the way of plot to hold the reader’s attention, but Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McBain) utilises every skill in his arsenal to grasp the audience and keep them interested throughout, using a number of emotionally gruelling moments to explore his themes of redemption, faith and hopelessness.

Aside from a collection of gripping classroom scenes, there’s a running subplot with a seductive femme fatale (another teacher in his department) who continuously attempts to lure the main character into bed. Richard Dadier, whose wife is pregnant and rarely “in the mood” has to fight his urges and curb the woman’s advances, and Hunter paints the scenario in such an evocative way that we’re able to feel the character’s internal conflict: lusting and wanting, but not wanting at the same time.

There are many more moments like this in the book: scenes that seem inconsequential on the surface, but effectively tug at the reader’s emotions and fill out the picture of Dadier’s life of frustration.

And to wrap it all up, the author doesn’t cop-out with an inspirational ending where all the students learn the error of their ways and turn into A-grade pupils. It’s more like a portrait of what it was like to be a teacher in that time period — and these days too. The book is no less prevalent today as I’m sure it was then. 

It’s raw and real and will bring most readers back to their school days.

In short: this book is essential reading.

For everyone.


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Enough Rope by Lawrence Block

imgres“I’d rather be carried by 6 than judged by 12.”

Enough Rope is a gargantuan collection of one hundred short stories by Lawrence Block, spanning over 40 years’ worth of material. Many have previously been released in magazines or other compilations or online, but near to the end of the book, there are also some unpublished pieces for those who’ve read all of his older work.

In any case, Enough Rope is currently the most complete gathering of his stories, and a must-have for any Block fan. Out of the 100 stories, about ten percent are duds, which is an amazing ratio, giving you nine classics out of ten. Some stories you’ll guess the twist near the beginning; others you won’t see it coming, even if you’re looking for it. Not all of the stories end with a twist, but many do. Either way, each piece pulls the reader in. Block has such an easy, fluid writing style, making his stories a pleasure to read. And each one offers something new.

However, the collection does slow down about halfway through.

This is because Block sections off the book with the “regulars” — short stories based on regular characters from his novels — and although some of them are interesting, the Martin EhrenGraff stories are especially repetitive and predictable, and you’d be forgiven for skipping them. Five or six stories later, the collection picks up pace again.

The creativity and imagination to produce so many unique works is astounding. Block has managed to keep his writing inventive and gripping for over four decades. The man is a writing machine; a well-oiled, productive, over-functioning member of the writing elite. This book is a testament to his hard work, and a celebration of his talent.

If you enjoy the short-story format, or you’re a fan, you’ll love this collection.

Pick it up, read it, and don’t stop until the final twist spins your mind backwards.


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Mastery by Robert Greene

imgres“This is the real secret: the brain we possess is the work of six million years of development, and more than anything else, this evolution of the brain was designed to lead us to mastery . . .” 

In Mastery, Robert Greene (bestselling author of 48 Laws of Power) tackles an interesting subject: the principles of success and intelligence.

There are many people who believe success is down to good fortune, or nepotism, or it’s accidental — a by-product of dumb luck. They also believe geniuses are born that way, as if their intelligence and ingenuity is hardwired into their DNA. But the truth is, although some people start off in life on a higher rung, with greater opportunities, and others have to struggle through their childhood, we’re all designed to succeed; we can all reach a level of mastery. It doesn’t just take talent — not entirely — but instead, success and mastery requires tenacity and determination; and above all, a thirst for knowledge: a deep-rooted desire to chase your dream and acquire all the skills (and more) in your chosen field.

And Robert Greene, with this in mind, delves deep into this theory, drawing from an exhaustive well of past-and-present high-achievers and geniuses, flitting seamlessly between stories of Mozart to Einstein to Edison and Darwin. Writing with depth and conviction, and fusing his own beliefs with examples of success, along with the occasional neuroscience and psychology facts, Greene not only delivers on his premise, but also paints a wonderful picture of historical (and present day) figures, making this both a self-help manual and an entertaining history book.

The continual insights into mastery, gleaned from hundreds of years of past successes, add weight to the words — and the sense of authenticity bolsters Greene’s opinions, giving them an authority and power that another author might have failed to serve. The book is engaging throughout and manages to teach without boring or preaching. And, ultimately, the stories work to inspire the reader with a deep and inarticulate yearning to succeed, whether it be in everyday life or your chosen career.

If you want to excel in a particular vocation, this book will push you on the right path. And if you don’t want to succeed, read it anyway. It’s worth the journey.


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Columbine by Dave Cullen

imgres“A terrifying affliction had infested America’s small towns and suburbs: the school shooter . . .”

Columbine is the in-depth account of the infamous Columbine High School shooting, committed in April 1999 by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. A decade in the making, Dave Cullen spent an inordinate amount of time researching all the available evidence and poring over thousands of pages of witness testimony, police reports, newspaper articles, diary entries, psychiatric opinions and theories, and any other related literature on the subject of Columbine. He also interviewed a slew of people, including many of the survivors and survivors’ families, along with police officers, FBI agents, teachers, and local pastors. He immersed himself in the tragedy.

And although many people are aware of the obvious details (two armed students killed twelve people and injured many more in a horrific school shooting), they’re unlikely to know the full story; the ins and outs of the case. And what they do know has been gleaned from multiple sources of both reliable and unreliable media. Which is where Dave Cullen comes in.

Referencing multiple sources, Cullen works to debunk many of the rumours, myths, lies, and half-truths that circulate around the tragedy. On top of that, he offers every small and relevant detail about the case; sifting through the minutiae of the killers’ lives, dragging us into their reality. He further draws the reader into the action by painting the victims and survivors as if characters in a novel, taking the reader on a journey, making us care about how it all ends. And even though the main bulk of information could be found in an hour-long documentary on YouTube, it doesn’t make Columbine any less gripping.

It’s a testament to Dave Cullen’s skills as a journalist that we join this story at the beginning and follow it through a fractured past-and-present structure, a seamless puzzle between the murders, the pre-murder, and the aftermath, locked in the entire way, wanting to know how it all ends, even though we already do know. And along this path of destruction, we learn every single detail — important and otherwise; the inside, outside, left side, all side of Columbine and what really happened that day.

The painstaking research lends credence and credulity to the book, and the writing and structure gives it the air and feel of a thriller.

Having said that, it is long, and at times laborious or depressing reading, but it’s worth every second of it. If you didn’t want to know about Columbine before, you soon will.


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Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

410MZ2FASWLHam On Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles Charles Bukowski’s early childhood leading all the way through to his mid-twenties.

The story is told in first-person through the fictional lens of Henry Chinaski. Starting from a young age, each section is written in the voice of that time period, which makes the book almost feel like a diary. The reader soon becomes caught up in Chinaski’s life as we witness the change in his maturity, the progression of his thoughts, and his gradual switch in perception of the events and people around him. And yet seven-year-old Chinaski still sounds similar to twenty-five year old Chinaski, which is where the genius in this book lies — Bukowski manages to write in a singular and unique voice and yet stretch it over a period of years, moving seamlessly between time periods without sacrificing the authentic voice of his central character and narrator.

And Bukowski doesn’t hold back or try to sugar coat anything. Bad or good, it’s all here for everyone to read in graphic detail. He takes us step by step through his tough upbringing with an abusive father, his sexual awakening in his early teens (with Henry suffering a ridiculous level of horniness which every male should be able to relate to), his torturous confidence-crippling skin condition, his propensity towards random acts of violence, and his eventual decline into a directionless, misogynistic, womanising, borderline alcoholic with nothing to live for, no one to die for, and nothing to look forward to. Bukowski portrays Chinaski as lost and confused — maybe even hurt and insecure — but most importantly, he comes across as real.

Ham On Rye may not appeal to those who prefer heavily structured and manipulative genre books. There’s no plot as such, no deliberate structure, no twists, and no real direction, other than forward, from one moment in his life to the next. The focus is as sporadic as the main character’s is, and that’s the point. His whole world is just one day at a time, one event at a time: the next fight, the next lay, the next drink. And we’re given a roadside view of it all, as depressing as it can sometimes be. There’s no happy ending, no life lesson learned or big character change at the end. Bukowksi just gives his readers the truth and feeds them wisdom through his own pitfalls. 

Above all, the book is hilariously sarcastic. It’s the equivalent of having a politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, sexist granddad tell you a lifetime of anecdotes. But don’t be blinded by the filth. The book is packed with insight. Bukowski offers a lot more depth below the surface. It’s merely hidden by his brashness and ego.

In short, if you’re not easily offended and have a good sense of humour, check out Ham on Rye. It might just be one of the funniest books you’ll ever read.


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Burial by Neil Cross

imgresBurial is a crime-thriller-cum-horror written by the man behind the hit TV series, Luther.

The story kicks off when Nathan, an employee of a famous radio DJ, attends his boss’s house party. From there, everything goes wrong. First he argues with his girlfriend in front of everyone, making a fool of himself. Then, drunkenly, he swings for his boss. And finally, he meets a girl and decides to drive out to a forest with her (alongside another guy he met at the party: Bob) and have sex with her. Bob also has sex with her, and during this twisted backyard swap-session, the girl dies. The two men bury her and conspire to cover up her death. To be on the safe side, they cut all ties and part ways. 

Nathan gradually gets his life back on track, and in a misguided attempt to assuage his guilt, he hunts down the sister of the deceased. To complicate things further, he falls in love with her. Then, ten years down the line, with that horrible night far back in his rearview mirror, and everything falling into place for the first time in forever, Bob turns up at his house and tells him they need to dig up the dead girl.

The story speeds towards its conclusion from there.

It’s a gripping premise, one that draws the reader in instantly, and the story, for the most part, delivers on it. As a whole, the book’s quick-moving, atmospheric, and realistic, with one major set piece (the death of the girl) and everything else just a long, winding, emotional aftermath. The finale is a little too neat and easy, but the novel is still worth reading for the journey to get there. The book almost feels like a novella in some respects; something that was stretched into a novel. But if that’s so, Neil Cross stretches it with skill. 

It’s not a story that will linger in the memory for years to come, but it will help pass a boring weekend.

Check it out.


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Suspect By Robert Crais

imgres“She snapped at the raining debris, and barked at the metal birds now circling the distant buildings like terrible wasps. There were more explosions, then a sudden silence filled the desert, and the clatter of running Marines approached . . .”

Best known for his series of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, Robert Crais, on this occasion, chose to depart from the much-loved, much-debated characters of Cole and Pike, and instead penned a standalone book. His previous non-series release, discounting the Joe Pike spin-offs, was The Two Minute Rule.

Suspect is the story of police officer Scott James, who happens across a dangerous diamond heist in the early hours of the morning — and soon everything turns bloody: bullets flying and people dying (including his partner, Stephanie). Luckily, Scott makes it out alive . . . barely . . . with multiple gunshot wounds. Zap forward a number of months and Scott is mostly rehabilitated, although the psychological scars still remain. He sees a psychiatrist to help overcome the guilt of his partner’s death, and also, with the aid of hypnotherapy, he tries to remember any pertinent details that could push the police towards capturing the killers. 

Aside from this, Scott has just joined the K9 team — a special dogs unit — and is quickly enamoured by Maggie, a dog who has suffered her own pain (and bullet wounds) and whom he instantly relates to and bonds with. And from there, it’s a story filled with mystery, intrigue, guns, death, and canine-human bonding, all wrapped in a generically plotted bow.

The story isn’t the strongest (or most original, especially considering some of Crais’s past work); the detective angle, for the most part, is meagre and reactive; the twists are rare and obvious, although sufficiently executed; and the main meat of the story relies heavily on a chance encounter and a dog with a sharp nose. Yet, minor flaws notwithstanding, there’s enough here to sustain the reader’s attention, and although the plot ultimately follows a much-treaded ground by Crais, the dog angle at least gives it a fresh spin. And the crux relationship between dog and human is expertly handled, bringing a warmth and depth to the story that it might otherwise have lacked.

Its main downfall, however, is the ending. It seems rushed and a little too easy, as if Crais wanted to finish the book, or had to finish the book, in time for his deadline, and didn’t put much thought into how to end it. It’s not a terrible ending as such; it merely feels glossed over and raced through. The lovely, slow, simmering build-up of friendship and loyalty between dog and hero is smashed apart in twenty pages by a speedy dénouement and a tacked on ending.

In conclusion: Suspect is not one of Crais’s best . . . but even an average Crais novel is better than a great novel by many others in his field. 

Read it and enjoy it if you already know his work.

Start with LA Requiem if you don’t.


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The First Five Pages By Noah Lukeman

imgres“This, simply, is the focus of this book: to learn how to identify and avoid bad writing.”

The First Five Pages is a little different than the usual writing guides: it’s written by a successful literary agent and is more about what you shouldn’t do, not what you should do. Noah Lukeman points out the potholes to avoid, the common mistakes that authors make, and the principles of BAD WRITING. He covers everything from dialogue, to characters, to pacing and plotting, to the actual presentation of the manuscript once it’s completed. He also explains the reasons your work may be overlooked by jaded, cynical literary agents such as himself.

It’s a comprehensive, fresh twist on the usual, and the writing is strong enough to hold the reader’s interest. However, it’s not without flaws. The hyperbolic examples of bad writing, for instance, detract from some of the points the author was making. It would have been more beneficial if he deconstructed true-life examples of bad writing, rather than concoct his own ostentatious version of something terribly written. The examples might help amateurs to notice poor writing, but were useless for the more competent writers. If Noah Lukeman picked apart a piece of work that was less obviously badly written — something that, on the surface, seems fine — it would have added more value to his advice. 

Aside from that, there’s still enough insight offered for even the mediocre (or great) writer to gain something from.

And it’s especially helpful to see things from a literary agent’s point of view; to see what common problems an agent looks out for as soon as he or she picks up a manuscript. So if you’re a writer trying to break in the door, or smash through the window of the literary world, check this one out.

On top of that, check out Noah Lukeman’s free downloads:

How To Land (And Keep) A Literary Agent 

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How To Write A Great Query Letter 

th-2Ask A Literary Agent (Year One)

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Will Grayson Will Grayson By John Green/David Levithan

imgres“Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large . . .”

When I first started reading this I wasn’t aware of the central concept: there are two different characters, both called Will Grayson, both similar in age and personality, and both are written in first person by different authors (John Green and David Levithan) in alternating chapters.

Once I realised the book was split into two separate worlds (which eventually collide), the distinction between the Will Graysons became clear; it’s hard to see how I didn’t notice earlier. One chapter is written normally and grammatically, the other chapter is written with a lack of punctuation and proper grammar. I read the book on my Kindle and for some reason just assumed the bad grammar/punctuation was a glitch with my file, not a stylistic decision.

My stupidity aside, Will Grayson Will Grayson is a delight: a comedic novel filled with funny scenes, witty dialogue, engaging prose, a fast-moving plot, and an array of bright interesting characters, especially Tiny and the two Will Graysons. And although it’s tagged in various places as a Young Adult novel, it doesn’t read like a typical teen novel; a lot of the content, themes, and language are of an adult nature.

In short: if you like quick and quirky books, check it out. It’s overflowing with charm and wonder. 


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Live By Night By Dennis Lehane

imgres“The word was out — choose a side or choose a headstone . . .”

Dennis Lehane is one of the greatest authors ever — past or present — and no one else’s opinion on the matter is valid. It’s the truth. The man is a beast with a pen. He wields his words like weapons of mass destruction.

Live by Night carries on from The Given Day (as the second in a now-completed trilogy), albeit with a different cast of characters and set many years later. It’s the story of Joe Coughlin — a small-time outlaw — and the novel follows his life as he falls in love, commits crimes, messes up, and struggles to come to terms with the type of person he is and the type of life he’s leading. The events take place over a number of years, primarily during The Prohibition Era, and chronicle Coughlin’s rise to the top as he moves deeper into the gangster lifestyle. Predictably, he soon runs into trouble — and those troubles gradually swell and grow and eventually converge in a satisfying and bloody climax.

Overall it’s a strong novel, as was The Given Day, with likeable and authentic characters, an engaging plot, page upon page of witty and realistic dialogue, and a powerful conclusion. You can read this without having read The Given Day, but I’d suggest starting from the beginning and reading the trilogy in order. It’s worth the effort. 


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