"Who in their right mind wouldn't want to read a book by Mark Barry!" (Mary Quallo, St Louis)

"Who in their right mind wouldn't want to read a book by Mark Barry!"  (Mary Quallo, St Louis)
Coming next week - Carla Eatherington

Thursday, 20 September 2012

PINS by Jessica McHugh

I interviewed Jess McHugh really early on in the life of the Cauldron, at a time when I had yet to reach 500 views in total. 

Jess didn't know me from Jehovah, but she still allowed me her time - and it remains one of my favourite interviews. 

We've been cyber friends ever since and I follow her writing career with interest. 

Magnificent PINS cover
You can't help but like Jessica. 
Sassy, joky, gently sardonic, wry, modern, party-loving, gregarious and generous, quirky, slightly eccentric and not a million miles away from being off the wall, her Facebook posts on my feed are some of my favourite reading. 

More importantly, if you visit Amazon, and read some of the First Chapter Previews, you can see the woman can write up a storm. 

When desperate writers collectively realise that saturating Kindleworld with free and cheap books is the fastest way to oblivion, for everyone, the ultimate Tragedy of the Commons, and that the only way we can save ourselves is to assign a true value to our work, Jessica McHugh will be one of the survivors. 

And quite right too.

So. Jessica asked me to read PINS, her soon-to-be-released pulp novel set in a bowling alley-cum-strip club. I've been looking forward to PINS for some time and I was glad to. More than happy. 

You might think that with the above introduction I'm going to give her five stars, whatever, because that's what Independent writers do to their friends, innit, cosy sock puppets that we are guv. 

Well, I approached Jessica's work as a reader. She deserves that honour. And that didn't happen.

Previous McHugh

Let me give you an example: I'm currently reading Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo.

My friend Clive will tell you I adore Martin Amis with a passion bordering on mania. Money and London Fields are my favourite books of all time. I really wanted to like Lionel Asbo but it is, sadly, the most mean spirited and vile book I have read in my entire life and I feel like burning both my favourite books as an act of bloody minded vengeance.

Reading Lionel Asbo is like discovering my harmless old Uncle worked at Buchenwald in the bakery. 

That's an objective view. As objective as I was when I reviewed PINS.

BTW, I don't rate books. I'm a Binary Code reader. 0 and 1. If I complete a book, it gets a 1. If I don't, it gets a 0.

So. Here's what the Wiz thought of PINS.


Horror beneath the mirrorball.
There is no doubt in my mind that the world is ready for a horror story about strip clubs and lap dancers and PINS comes along to supply the demand.  I struggled to think of anything in the market remotely like this and if everything else went wrong, writer Jessica McHugh scores big marks for innovation.

PINS is about Birdie, a twenty something college drop out, with hang ups about her figure and a bad case of Elektra competition with her ex-beauty queen mom.  Exasperated and skint, she decides to earn some fast cash by taking a dancing job at a strip joint called PINS (a play on words partly based on Cockney slang for legs).

Jess McHugh
Luckily, the owner, a squat, world weary African-American called Cecil isn’t one of those guys who asks for a personal audition, but unluckily, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t believe in a phased Induction programme. Birdie is thrown in at the deep end but takes to dancing like a duck to water.  With the exception of an angry stripper named Ginger, she fits in straight away with the other girls, a hyper-sexy cabal of druggies, college girls paying the rent, economically impoverished lone parents and thrill seekers - including the seductive and alluring Honey, who has seemingly been dancing on stage since she first learned to walk. 

Dumped by her childhood sweetheart just before her career change, she is introduced to Honey’s sinister boyfriend James and his handsome friend Josh. The two hit it off and before long, Birdies clothes are coming off on a double shift and she feels she might be falling in love.

However that’s as bright as it gets. 

There's a Killer on the Loose.
Someone kills one of the PINS dancers. Then another. There’s a violent serial killer on the loose with a taste for strippers and soon, Birdie and the girls are laying bets on who ‘s next…

Set in the bars and strip joints of writer Jessica McHugh’s home state of West Virginia, PINS is set firmly in the American pulp tradition. Written mostly in dialogue, the story rattles at a rare pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome.  I read it in one sitting and then I read it again. It isn’t Dosteovesky, but it doesn’t pretend to be.  It is firmly in the US pulp tradition and designed to entertain. 

One thing is for sure – McHugh can write and tell a story, the two major components I look for in a book (and you would be surprised, in the world of Indielit, how many authors actually fail that test – sometimes both tests).

PINS carries its influences like a beacon – schlockmeister Richard Laymon springs to mind, in particular a brilliant little potboiler called The Cellar, but all the way through I was reminded of the Scream Trilogy. Crackling, real world dialogue. Knowing , clever aphorisms, self-referential interactions, a sly nod and a wink to the reader.  The book doesn’t suffer from that – in fact, it glories in it and consequently involves the reader.

Sapphic Sanctum Sanctorum
The dialogue is realistic sassy and snappy and you can imagine listening to the characters rap in a café as you eat a hot dog. The narrative structure is lean and spiky, skeletal in parts – fans of Tolkienesque fifteen-page descriptions of forest glades won’t find much in here – and on occasion, the writer appears keen to get the job done; squarely in the penny-a-word pulp tradition, where if writers didn’t write, they didn’t eat. 

That makes for an exciting read if nothing else; a Megaburger supporting a night out at a dance club rather than a five course meal in itself.

PINS is at its strongest in the strip club scenes. McHugh invites the reader into a Sapphic sanctum sanctorum, a place where men aren’t welcome, where women scheme and bitch and offload, and she does it well. 

There is a wonderfully erotic scene where Birdie is invited to snort a line of cocaine from the back of a stripper on all fours and this is counterbalanced by brutally honest discussions of hygiene and bodily functions, which would send the habitués of PINS screaming to the exits.

McHugh gets this bang on and not only engages, but immerses, the reader. I could smell the changing rooms, feel the frustration (and the secret joy), hear the friendships develop, sense the tension, see the sparkly thongs cast aside, taste the weariness and feast on the louche, exquisite fallen beauty of the dancers.  

Anarchic Angel Dust!
Birdie's interior thought processes are logical and move the plot forward without recourse to comic-style exposition and the growing interaction between her and Honey is well handled and ensures the reader turns the page. There is also a wonderful scene toward the end of the book involving a huge biker high on a cigar injected with Angel Dust, which is extremely vivid and convincing: I dreamed about it last night.
Crazed Biker with an Angel Dust Blunt

On the negative side, I was more interested in the characters than I was in the Whodunit (it’s not particularly challenging), and the violence was way too much for me.  The aftermath of the violence is graphic – the most spectacular and bloody I’ve read in years – and I can only assume that the younger reader has a stronger stomach than I have.   

Some Men Are Nice Too, You Know!
More seriously, I do wish she had added a positive male character.

At times, it felt an embarrassment being a man.  At various points, McHugh portrays men as perverted (a rather sad punter buying used and sweaty “luckies” straight from the stage), seedy (the sad, masturbatory faces in the darkness of the crowd), violent (there is a horrible scene where Birdie is assaulted), and somehow lost, almost contemptible.

Jessica doesn’t like the habitués of the club without ever mentioning the contradiction, nearly a paradox,  that without the observer, there would be no club, and Birdie would never have ever existed.  

Away from the stage, the outlook for Men in McHughworld is no better. Birdie’s ex-boyfriend Scott is a controlling, vengeful stalker. Her new beau is jealous and emotionally disconnected.  His friend is sinister and dark. Only Cecil, the black PINS owner and Brian the PINS DJ, who has a crush on Birdie, which is brutally rejected, portray an entire gender in a positive light and even then, that is tempered with ambivalence. 

On occasion, I felt that McHugh descended into caricature, particularly with the panty-buying scene, which drips with a scorn that borders on active dislike, if not hatred. This impression that the writer is antipathetic toward men pervades throughout the book and is melodramatically augmented in the final pages; the rather nihilistic and downbeat denouement.

I put the book down thinking two things: One, that the book is aimed at women and not the likes of me, and two, it could have been so much more had McHugh widened the focus. 

Number One
However, fans of horror, pulp, hard crime, depictions of very beautiful young women, hot dialogue and fast, pulpy tales won’t be disappointed and I’d recommend it for a plane journey from New York to Chicago.

Jessica and Dave McHugh

NB: Jessica disputes my misandry conclusion by the way. However when I suggested she lighten up one of the male characters to widen the scope of the book, she steadfastly stuck to her guns, saying her male characters are accurate representations of  punters she met in the clubs she frequented as part of her research. 

I can't argue with that. It is a true writer's job to create and damn the reader. If the reader doesn't get it, then tough. I like that attitude. 

You can pre-order this here in paperback. It's definitely on my Christmas list.


  1. Wow, that is one of the most detailed and vivid book reviews I have ever read. Well done indeed Wiz!

  2. Thank you so much for the review and the kind words!! :)


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