The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

October 23, 2014

Discussion Questions

My book club recently read THE COLD COLD GROUND, by Adrian McKinty. I led the discussion as the book was my choice, but as I could find no discussion questions on the Internet for this book I had to devise my own. Here are those questions for the use of anyone who feels the need. (And I'm happy to say that the general consensus on this book was positive, and some members have already sought out the next book in the series.)

  1. The story is set in the mid-1980s, during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Were you able to relate to this setting or remember any of that situation? What kind of details did the author include to remind you of the time period?
  2. What is the meaning of the title?
  3. Is there a theme to this book? Discuss the dualities that are juxtaposed throughout the story.
  4. What did you think of the prose? Overblown? Poetic? Visual?
  5. What kind of character is Sean Duffy? Were you able to relate to him? How is he different at the end of the story than when the book began? Are the minor characters as well defined as Sean?
  6. The reality of living with years of random violence and death must have taken a toll on those who survived it. What do you think Sean would be like by the time the worst of The Troubles ended? What do you think would be the most common effect on the people of NI as a whole?
  7. Were you surprised by this book or was it predictable? In what way? Did the ending satisfy you? If not, how would you change the ending? The murders are solved by book's end, but did you still find the ending ambiguous? In what way?
  8. Did you enjoy the humor in this book, or did it not amuse you? Did it seem out of place, TV-like, or true to life? What lines or situations struck you as particularly amusing?
  9. The author wove historical facts and perhaps his own memories into the story. Did any of the history he included surprise you?
  10. Did you come away from this book wanting to read more (or nothing ever again) by this author?

February 17, 2014

CAPTURE and DUST DEVILS by Roger Smith

I'm excited because February 20, marks New Pulp Press's release in PRINT, in the USA, for the first time of Roger Smith's novels, CAPTURE and DUST DEVILS. I highly recommend both of these books, or any book written by Roger Smith, really. I'm so happy that these books finally going to be available here in print format. Here are The Drowning Machine's previous reviews of both books:

South African journalist Robert Dell, his wife and two children are all headed off on a holiday, when a black pickup truck runs them off the road. Dell's family is killed and he is framed for their murders.

If that sounds anything like a typical thriller, please, just hold the phone a sec. Because you haven't read anything like this book. No, you haven't. No, it's not like that book or that one or any of the thrillers you'll recall right offhand, and that's because Roger Smith isn't just any writer. In the span of just three books, his prose has gone from spare and evocative to darkly lyrical. His characterizations are masterful, his POV treatment is impeccable. And thematically, where once he was just pretty damned good, he now soars.

DUST DEVILS is a brilliant work, revolving around five major characters: Dell, a pacifist wrought by his grief and also by his sense of justice in a world that has none, into waging personal war on the men who killed his family; Inja, a corrupt, murderous cop and Zulu chief, a man dying of AIDS and looking to superstition instead of science for help, he will kill anyone who gets between him and his 16-year-old bride-to-be, Sunday, because he believes that sex with her will cure him. Sunday wants only not to have to marry Inja. She, as much as anyone, knows him for the cold killer he is. And then there is Disaster Zondi, an ex-cop as a result of having principles in a time and place where those things have no cash value. The author spins these characters and more through a space-time continuum where personal interactions go repeatedly nuclear. Oops, I said five characters, didn't I? South Africa is the fifth one. The varying cultures, the extremes of power and wealth matched again helplessness and poverty, places where AIDS harvests one out of three people thanks to neglect, superstition, and ignorance. Where news events don't begin to tell the depth of the stories.

Along the way, the reader gets a mini-education in the behind-the-scenes politics of South Africa as that country moved from apartheid to... whatever one calls it today, because freedom hardly seems the right word. Unless one is remembering the old song lyric from Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

Thematically, where other authors would simply push the characters examining their past sins toward a search for redemption or atonement, Smith takes his characters beyond and into a stark cultural landscape where the wages of sin don't include the possibility of redemption, and where careful preservation of innocence is futile because innocence was long ago the first victim of sin. Harshly violent, the book is a broken window onto the cultural indifference to massive suffering, but more pointedly -- and poignantly -- Smith highlights the effect of the neglect by those powerful enough to relieve such suffering, who make such suffering more intense and widespread through corruption and indifference. The story's end is a sorrowful angel, breathtakingly cinematic on one level, and on another so personal that the reader's heart bleeds. A brilliant work.


Somewhere on the Internet recently I came across a discussion about what constituted or defined neo-noir. This book is my idea of what neo-noir is all about: the same sick, twisted, desperate, going-down-the-tubes characters found in original noir plus the faster pace and action usually found in thrillers. In this latest release, Smith somehow manages to conjure up a character, Vernon Saul, who is evil incarnate. What kind of man can sit back and watch a child drown, his inaction solely for the thought that he might find an angle to gain some kind of power over the grieving parents? And yet the reader cannot help but sympathize with the abused child that preceded the man Vernon became. There is a line delivered by William Peterson in the 1986 Michael Mann film, MANHUNTER, that perfectly sums up my feelings toward Vernon Saul:
My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable... As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.
CAPTURE is bit more of a psychological character study than Smith's previous novels, but the tension ratchets up, chapter by chapter, to a shattering and satisfying denouement.  


Note: Okay, then. The publisher told me the print editions were due out the 20th, but apparently amazon has had both books available for the past week. Doesn't matter. Do yourself a favor and read a Roger Smith book.

February 3, 2014


Clive McCahon is a drug dealer fresh out of a Washington state prison after seven years, the last three of which he was in "protective segregation." Nobody was actively targeting Clive, but he'd reached a point where he was ready for a do-over. He wanted peace, law-abiding peace. No guns, no drugs, no retaliation. But on the way back to his hometown of Cold Storage, Alaska, Clive picks up two things: a big pile of money which might be his or might belong to his former business partner in the drug business, and an ugly, ill-mannered brute of a dog called Little Brother. Questions: What in the world can Clive do with all that money in a place as small and remote as Cold Storage? What happens when the business partner decides he needs the money more than Clive? Why is Clive hearing animals talk to him? And why is he listening to their advice? Waiting for Clive in Cold Storage is his older brother, Miles, the town's medic, war hero, and a pragmatic man who yet prays to his outboard motor.

Wherever you think John Straley's newest novel will go, trust me on this: it won't. But where it does go is never less than delightful, turning the crime genre's tropes inside out. Straley writes in prose that is closer to poetry - but never pretentious and not strictly lyrical poetry. Call it prose with a poetic resonance. Cold Storage is populated with characters at once memorable, affable, pathetic, real, and sometimes maddening. No doubt there are readers who will draw parallels to the populace of Northern Exposure, though that show held little appeal for me as the quirkiness of its residents seemed to me to be more affectation for the sake of audience than that of three-dimensional characters. Quirky the people of Straley's Cold Storage may occasionally be, but they are never less than real, with their struggles, their dreams, their failures and modest successes, and their binding sense of community that lightly overlays their fierce if sometimes false self-reliance.

The author overtly yet subtly (how does he do that?) works varying religious viewpoints into a cohesive but elusive blend that both humbles and amuses the reader. While the overriding quality of this book is a rare kind of Zen charm, Straley is far too good a writer not to ensure that depth of setting (think Shangri-la without the humbuggery), character, and plot are all present and in abundance.

COLD STORAGE, ALASKA is a gem of story, marvelously told, that repays the reader many times over for the reading. Only February, I know, but this book will certainly be on my year-end favorites list.


January 25, 2014


May, 1981. Northern Ireland. Bombs, assassinations, torture, hunger strikes, riots. Sectarian violence is the clean label the journalists slap over the ugly and complex brutality known gently and woefully as The Troubles. If you're present, you're involved. There's no escape short of emigration. And it's not as simple as Catholic vs. Protestant, or Irish vs. English, or police vs citizens. Because it's all of that and more. It's rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, gays vs. straights, expectations vs. reality, loyalty vs. betrayal. It's duality in everything, every person, every situation. And author Adrian McKinty captures it all, in a luxurious clarity of language and reasoning that are both intelligent and easily followed.

In Sean Duffy, a  young detective sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, McKinty has created a fascinating character: Duffy is Catholic, a rarity in the 1981 RUC (and perhaps still today for all I know), who buys a house in a Protestant district because that's the house he wants and can afford. Clearly the Protestants aren't going to be happy with him, but the IRA condemn Catholics in the RUC as traitors - in other words, it's open season on Catholic cops, from either side. One would think these facts alone would be enough to keep Duffy on his toes 24/7. But no, he occasionally forgets to check under his car for bombs. Duffy's a trifle laid back, yet he can also be described as an excitable boy, one who does not readily cope with frustration created by those who ought to know better.

When a murder case, and then a second one, land in Duffy's lap and those killings have nothing to do with The Troubles, but appear to be the work of a serial killer, our lad has to ask himself: If you want to be a serial killer in Belfast, why not join one of the paramilitary groups that encourage murder? That way, you get your killing done and get it approved as well, with lots of people willing to cover for you. Why make yourself stand out? And then a young woman, missing for months, is found dead, an apparent case of suicide, and what had been a complex case for Duffy now becomes positively labyrinthine. Before it's over, this case will reveal to Duffy his own dual nature, one that is just as complex as the world he inhabits.

All praise to McKinty for his depiction of Belfast in the throes of civil war:
There was trouble up in Belfast again. Potassium nitrate flares falling through the darkening sky. A Gazelle helicopter flying low over the lough water. Little kids walking past the police station showing each other the best technique for lobbing Molotov cocktails over the fence. Jesus, what a nightmare.

This was a city crucified under its own blitz.

This was a city poisoning its own wells, salting its own fields, digging its own grave...

Yet the author never sacrifices story, plot or pacing to accomplish the vivid creation of this historical setting. The story is a cracking good whodunnit, leavening the tragedy with wit and humor and fine characterization. Not to mention sticking very close to actual events. THE COLD COLD GROUND is the first in McKinty's trilogy about Sean Duffy and The Troubles. I'll be purchasing the second installment, I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET, very soon. Like today.