Category Archives: US authors

Thriller writers Peter Ralph and Dave Stanton do it again

 

 

 

 

 

Two of my favourite thriller novelists snuck into my Kindle last month with Dying for the Highlife and Blood Gold in the Congo . I’m a fan of both US author Dave Stanton and Australian Peter Ralph, and I’ve watched their work develop over the last few years.

Peter Ralph’s forte is financial/political thrillers ranging from riches-to-rags story The CEO to the almost epic environmental saga Dirty Fracking Business. When you read a Peter Ralph thriller, there’s always the suspicion that the plot is over the top. Could the corporate world be quite as poisonous as Ralph portrays it? Well, have a look at his background on his author profile; this is a guy with a serious knowledge of the seamier side of business.

Blood Gold in the Congo take us into literally new territory – Africa – and again the plot feels eerily authentic. Joseph Muamba , illegally adopted as a child, becomes a top US athlete and returns to the Congo to smash the international corruption rackets that are robbing the Congolese of their mineral wealth. The hallmark Ralph denouement is there, with the chief villain meeting his just desserts. With Blood Gold in the Congo Peter Ralph’s writing is getting tighter and more economical, with the story allowed to flow unimpeded. I raced through it.

Stateline was my last Dave Stanton novel. I loved the winter setting of this Dan Reno story, but in Dying For The Highlife, things hot up as private eye Reno (‘as in no problemo’) hooks up again with his buddy Cody Gibbons. This time, Dan’s South Lake Tahoe PI business is on its knees until the ‘nearly beautiful’ Sheila Marjorie propositions him in a casino. Her stepson has won $43 million in a lottery, and now the jackals are circling.

I’m not a great fan of book series, but the Dave Reno formula works so well that I go back for more. Dave Stanton achieves a consistent mix of complex plotting, characters that grow with each new book, and  – number one for  me – California-Nevada setting. Keep it up, Dave!

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Stuart Campbell’s new novel Cairo Mon Amour will be published in July 2017.

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Gay love, snappy fantasy, and missing the point

img_0863Somehow I missed André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name in 2007, but a friend kindly lent me a paperback copy (there doesn’t seem to be an ebook edition, and so I spent a few days with the unfamiliar feel of paper between my fingers). I’ve bundled Aciman in this post with two quite different works: A short story by indie author Jack Binding, and the dance piece Spectra, which just opened at the Sydney Festival.

Let me start with Spectra, a collaboration between artists from Tokyo and Townsville, that “explores the interconnectedness of the universe – illuminating the potency of intentional actions and their inherent power to bear fruit in the future”. I had difficulty in finding points of connection between the dance and the theme, and in turn between the music and the light sculpture. At the same time, the athleticism of the dancers was stunning, and there were some highly original components, such as the line of arms that took on a snake-like life of its own. While I left the theatre feeling slightly dissatisfied, the performance stuck in my mind the next day, especially the exhaustion and elation of the young dancers in the curtain call, for whom the emotional force of the piece was obviously authentic and drenched with meaning. I spent the rest of the next day reflecting on why I hadn’t engaged with the piece, concluding that I’d failed to remember that every generation rediscovers the art forms of the previous one, and that perhaps I’d left my empathy at home. The review of Spectra by Deborah Jones filled in the gaps for me.

Jack Binding, an English writer living in Sydney, followed my blog recently, so I returned the favour by downloading his short story Dot Matrix. I’m envious of anyone, Jack Binding included, who can write a short story. All of mine have been overwrought flops. Dot Matrix is a smart, short and snappy fantasy of workplace revenge with a technological quirk that floats somewhere between the paranormal and the paranoid. Check out Jack’s well-groomed website here.

Call Me By Your Name passed me by in 2007. My reading experience of gay literary fiction (is that a genre?) is pretty well limited to Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty* and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, so I dived into Aciman’s novel without much of a frame of reference. It’s a love story on the familiar theme of self-doubt and unrequited desire, but with two male protagonists – a brilliant student summering at his parents’ Italian villa, and a slightly older house guest who is spending the season working on the translation of a scholarly manuscript. Call Me By Your Name is a skilled depiction of emotional and erotic tension, with the pair warily circling the possibility of a relationship, until the inevitable happens. The striking thing about the book is the psychological particularity of this (or any?) same-sex relationship, which is enshrined in the title. There’s inevitably an element of prurience in reading this kind of work; let me say that the sex is handled tactically, as it should be: In good writing, sex scenes have a job to do, other than to provide entertainment. I wasn’t sure of the need for the final chapters. Did it really matter how our men felt two decades later? Did I really need a cup of cocoa after the degustation?

A movie based on the book is to be released in 2017.

*I found the BBC mini-series of The Line of Beauty thin and wan, on a par with the superficial and rushed mini-series of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Why do they bother? Just read the bloody books!

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Find out more about my books here.

An offbeat mix in my New Year book review round-up

img_0837Having just read two most unlikely companions in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Pamela Crane’s The Scream of Silence, I stumbled across two reads from earlier in the year – Jenny Diski’s The Sixties and C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.

Diski, who died in 2016 tweeting to her last days, describes in her 2009 book a decade much more colourful that mine. Her sixties was the real thing, not the toned-down version of the outlying suburbs of London where I grew up. But then, who’s to say what was and wasn’t real? Written more than three decades after the events with the hindsight of a dazzling literary mind, The Sixties is the sixties that I wish I’d had, but perhaps nobody had.

I don’t have much to say about Surprised by Joy. I gulped Lewis’s fiction as a teenager, but decades later he comes across as finicky and laboured. I found this book worthy but not especially convincing in the writer’s explanation of the discovery of his faith. The account of his sadistic boarding school was the high point. I learnt recently that the school, carefully disguised as ‘Belsen’, was located in my home town in England on a road I have walked hundreds of times, probably more than once with one of his novels in my pocket.

Now when it comes to worthy, it takes a lot to beat Harriet Beecher Stowe. Somehow, I’d missed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my reading career, so I downloaded a free copy and braced myself. I won’t comment on the theme of the book, other than to say that Stowe was a fierce critic of slavery, and that her novel sold many thousands of copies when it was published in 1852. What interested me as a writer was the difference in literary technique in the ensuing one and half centuries. Three aspects stood out: One was the manner in which the author intersperses the narrative with her own critique of slavery, addressing the reader directly before hopping back into the action; the second was the unfashionable treatment of point of view, with Stowe directing proceedings from on high and dropping into the consciousnesses of her characters at will; the third was the sometimes impenetrable rendition of slave speech, which fogs the page and invites the eye to skip down. Nevertheless, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin greatly moving, even though I suspect that Stowe would have got a C-minus in a modern creative writing  course.

Let me finish with something quite different in Pamela Crane’s short story The Scream of Silence. Crane writes psychological thrillers of terrific quality, and this short story – a taster of a longer work that is under way -is no exception. I loved the sense of place – the grittier side of Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, as well as the desperate whackiness of the first-person narrator. I also admire Crane’s professional and entrepreneurial approach to the difficult business of being a writer. Look her up.

 

Learn more about my books here.

Edward Said’s ‘Out of Place’ – a window into the mind of one of the world’s great thinkers

orientalismIt would be no exaggeration to say that Edward Said has been one of the major influences on my intellectual life. I’ve waited sixteen years to read his 2000 memoir Out of Place, which deals with his early life in Cairo, Palestine and Lebanon, and his education in the US.  Said began the book around the time of his leukemia diagnosis, which he explained as the impetus for the writing of this extraordinarily intimate account of his lifelong sense of dislocation. For me, Out of Place provided a key to understanding the emotional foundation of Orientalism, his entirely unemotional and razor-sharp critique of Western conceptions of the East.

I completed my early degrees in Arabic and Linguistics  just before Said’s  Orientalism  turned on its head the very concept of Oriental Studies, and I’ve spent many years pondering the intellectual upheaval that the book triggered in me. Looking back at my research career and my academic writing,  it is now obvious to me how heavily I was influenced by Said’s work – even if that was not particularly clear to me at the time. His ideas have also never been far from my mind  in my later life move into writing fiction.

I’m especially fascinated by the Cairo chapters in Out of Place given that I lived in Cairo in 1973 and 1974 and have just finished my novel Cairo Mon Amour set in that era.

I’m also struck by Said’s ultra-dry irony. Here’s a delicious example from his description of the stuffy English school he attended in Cairo  in the early fifties (along with Michel Shalhoub, later known as Omar Sharif):

“The incarnation of declining colonial authority was the headmaster, Mr. J. G. E. Price, whose forest of initials symbolized an affectation of pedigree and self-importance I’ve always associated with the British.”

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Learn more about Stuart’s books here.

Dave Stanton’s ‘Stateline’ free download for a few more hours

stateline coverI really enjoyed Dave Stanton’s Hard Prejudice earlier this year*.

Dave’s novel Stateline is free on Amazon for a few more hours. Get it right here.

I just downloaded it, and I’ll be reviewing it in the next few weeks.

*My review of Hard Prejudice is here.

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Learn about Stuart Campbell’s books at http://www.stuartcampbellauthor.com

 

 

S.C. Harker’s ‘Binnacle Bay’: Hard cop, soft cop.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 11.57.45 AMConfession #1: I’m a big city boy, and I’m generally sympathetic to the view – expressed to me by a drunken philosopher many years ago – that the countryside should be closed down and left to the fauna.

Confession #2: I’m obsessed by the USA and its vast kaleidoscope of landscapes. My imagination is gripped by its splendours and its ugliness, its coziness and its brutality. There is a standing joke in my house that one day we will visit New Iberia in Louisiana, where Tabasco Sauce is made. ‘Over my dead body’ is the punchline. Of course New Iberia is the home of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux, the archetype southern deputy sheriff and hardboiled ex-alcoholic. How different can S.C. Harker’s Pat Fitzlaff be from Robichaux? The landscape is part of the explanation: Harker’s Binnacle Bay is in the coastal NorthWest; setting shapes a character, and there’s a whole continent between sweaty Lousiana and the bracing winds of coastal Oregon.

But Fitzlaff fascinated me from the outset; under the tough guy is an almost feminine sensibility. Harker’s competence as a writer gives him the requisite three dimensions, but I kept coming back to the small touches – his orderly house, his courtesy, his eye for detail in jewelry and clothing; there’s an extra dimension to this guy.

And of course there’s the immersive experience of Binnacle Bay: Nautical, cosy and small-town, with a cast of eccentrics you’d expect and some you wouldn’t. I said I was a big city boy: I feel more comfortable in Sydney or Paris or Manhattan, but there’s nothing like a vicarious vacation in Binnacle Bay or even New Iberia! You can find more details of Binnacle Bay and S.C. Harker’s other novels here.

My colleague Lesley Latte happened to be in Seattle recently and offered to track down the elusive S.C. Harker to pose a few searching questions. Here’s what Lesley learned:

Latte.  I felt that Pat Fitzlaff had a softer side than the standard hard-bitten cop. How did he get this way?

Harker.  That’s easy.  A violent death in the family.  Pat was born in a small town in central Nevada and spent much of his young life there.   As the only boy, he was particularly close to his father, an avid sportsman who loved hunting and fishing and never failed to take Pat with him on his rambles through the remote desert landscape. Pat was an expert in survival at an early age.

His two younger sisters idolized their brother, and their sibling relationships were normal for an average, small-town family.  In other words, the older brother mostly ignored the two girls, considering himself above what he considered their silly, juvenile behavior.

Then, when he was fifteen, Pat’s world was turned upside down.  The older of Pat’s sisters was brutally murdered, and the case was never solved.  This tragic incident was devastating to the family and had a profound impact on Pat, ultimately leading to his passion to become a homicide detective.  Conversely, rather than becoming bitter and hard-bitten, Pat is rather more sympathetic than most, especially toward the victims of crime.  It is one of his strengths.

Latte.  You create a great sense of place in the Binnacle Bay community. How did you invent this setting?

Harker.  I lived for a prolonged period of time on the Oregon coast in a house overlooking the sea.  We had a boat and fished the ocean for Salmon, Albacore, Halibut—you name it.  We had close encounters with whales and dolphin, and more than once had to rely on our GPS to find our way home in the fog.  Many times at low tide we walked down our hill and dug for clams.  We also crabbed whenever we got the chance and bought fresh oysters from the local farm.

Almost every day we took long walks on the beach with our two Brittany Spaniels.  By the way, though Murphy is a giant hound*, he is simply a dog at heart, and I learned about the true heart of a dog from my Spaniels.  Everything I write about Binnacle Bay is from experience and colored by my love of the ocean, dogs, small towns, and the people who inhabit them.

Latte.   Stuart Campbell tells me he likes to imagine having a drink with his characters, but is there anybody in Binnacle Bay who you’d avoid if they walked into a bar?

Harker.  There are always a couple of pains in the neck in every town.  Alba Enstadt is definitely someone I would avoid.  She appears in “The Bloody Lighthouse,” as does Beezer Arthur.  To have a drink with them I would have to go to Pirate’s Cove.  It’s not that I object to a low-class saloon every now and then, but Alba is a mean drunk who gets more and more combative as the night goes on.  And Beezer has the kind of unrelenting, smart-ass attitude that, as time goes on, makes you want to either get up and leave or, depending on how many drinks, to smash his face.

One person with whom I would never share a drink is the cold-hearted being who appears in “The Bloody Lighthouse” and again in “An Echo of Murder” (to be released later this year).

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*Murphy is a canine character in the book – SC

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

My tribute to author Pat Conroy, 1945-2016

When I heard this weekend that author Pat Conroy had passed away, I remembered something I wrote in 2013 when I had just finished reading The Prince of Tides. The piece was originally called Unimagining Literature with Google Maps. I was inspired to write it after reading the last pages of The Prince of Tides when Tom is sailing out of Charleston Harbour. Here it is:

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One of my pleasures in reading is to meander through a genre and see where serendipity leads me. I’m an unashamed fan of James Lee Burke, the veteran novelist whose books lay bare the seamy and steamy underside of the southern states of the US through his flawed anti-heroes – Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Hackberry Holland and the rest of the sweating, gun toting, self-doubting crew. Even the women in Burke’s novels seem to have hairy chests. The landscape of the Dave Robicheaux novels is the worn-out, waterlogged settlements of New Iberia in Louisiana. I’ve never visited this region, and so I conjured up from Burke’s rich prose my personal imagined picture of Robicheaux’s world. It looked a bit like Bali. I was hooked and began to plan my literary tour of the Deep South.

Reality intruded when I looked up New Iberia on Google Maps. The images showed something quite different: Dead straight roads passing through an utterly flat green landscape, grey skies. Suddenly I didn’t want to go there anymore.

Despite the let-down, Burke piqued my curiosity and I began to follow leads to other writers of the South. I discovered a great deal of collateral detail: Tabasco Sauce is made in Avery Island, Louisiana; there is something called cracker culture, and it’s got nothing to do with biscuits; Mofro is a really interesting band. Moving up to Oklahoma, I found Glenn Ford in the 1960 movie Cimarron.

The two highlights of my Deep South reading were Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides (which most people probably know as the film version). Look Homeward, Angel is a great rambling, untidy, deeply moving mess of a book, which follows the rise and fall of the desperately alcoholic Oliver Gant, his sons, and his calculating wife. It took me months to read it in fits and starts, but at the end I felt the same feeling of emotional exhaustion that I had from Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.

Pat Conroy’s novel continues the despair and unresolved angst that seems to pervade the literature of the South: The terribly damaged Tom Wingo struggles to come to terms with his equally damaged sister Savannah and his brother Luke. He finds some resolution at the end of the book, and this state of mind is conveyed metaphorically as he sails through the South Carolina islands following the course he had taken many times with his father. Now here’s where it gets weird: I’m reading this on my Kindle and my hand is twitching to open Google maps. I weaken and open the laptop, and for the next half an hour I drift through the sea coast of South Carolina sitting behind Wingo on his boat while I watch with Google Maps from the shore. It was a very serene and beautiful – if peculiar – reading experience.

So are our imagined visions somehow violated when technology virtually (and I mean it in both senses) places us in almost any street in the world? I’m not sure: It’s an experience that we already know from film versions of books, but of course these films are themselves artistic interpretations, and not in the same realm as photographs. I tried making a quick scorecard of film or TV versions of novels that have (a) complemented and (b) violated my imagining of the novel: Pride and Prejudice: I can’t think of a film version that comes remotely close to affecting my enjoyment of the novel; McEwan’s Atonement: Hmm, it nibbled at the edges; The BBC series of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong: Oh dear.

The one that kept popping into my head, however was the 1969 movie Justine, based on part of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which I drooled over in the early eighties. I read the Quartet before discovering the movie, but once I’d watched Justine, the character of Pursewarden was defined retrospectively and for all time thence by Dirk Bogarde. In fact, the movie Justine caused me to reimagine at least part of the book.

I’m reading James Lee Burke’s Feast Day of Fools right now. It’s his most gaunt and spare novel, set in a desert landscape on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. I’m using a tablet now, so the Maps app is just a twitching finger away.

 

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .