Amy Engel- The Familiar Dark #BlogTour

Eve Taggert’s life has been spent steadily climbing away from her roots. Her mother, a hard and cruel woman who dragged her up in a rundown trailer park, was not who she wanted to be to her own daughter, Junie. But 12-year old Junie is now dead. Found next to the body of her best friend in the park of their small, broken town. Eve has nothing left but who she used to be. Despite the corrupt police force that patrol her dirt-poor town deep in the Missouri Ozarks, Eve is going to find what happened to her daughter. Even if it means using her own mother’s cruel brand of strength to unearth secrets that don’t want to be discovered and face truths it might be better not to know…

I must admit I am rather partial to a journey into the redneck heartlands of America, so it was pretty much a dead cert that The Familiar Dark would be tailor made for this reader. Also every so often a book comes along with such an understated, but breathtakingly powerful, writing style that knocks your socks off, and yes folks, you guessed it, this box is firmly ticked too. Focussing on the character of Eve Taggert, a weary and careworn but devoted mother whose world is shattered by the seemingly unexplainable murder of her young daughter, Engel weaves a tale of simmering violence and deceit that absolutely grabs you by the throat, and at times heart and refuses to ease its grip. As the story unfolds I couldn’t help but think of the quote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive” as Eve edges ever closer to the truth of this senseless crime, and shocking secrets come to the surface.

I absolutely adored the character of Eve, scarred by the physical and mental claustrophobia of a childhood with an abusive mother, and by a series of similarly abusive interactions with men, “here it was still the same old merry-go-round of drugs and poverty and women being chewed up and spit out by men,” in the small town of Barren Springs.  She exhibits a fortitude and strength that belies her previous state of victimhood, and like her hometown itself, whose residents have a “sheer, stubborn wilfulness that kept people breathing when it might have been easier to give up,” so she embarks on an increasingly dangerous, and emotionally testing path to uncover the truth behind her daughter’s murder. What I found incredibly affecting in the book was the way that Engels dissects the very nature of womanhood, and a woman’s part in this incredibly controlling patriarchal community. In one passage the author refers to the fact that women were expected to show weakness and conformity, but anger and any form of challenge to the accepted norms was not acceptable. Hence, as Eve, fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, begins to routinely challenge the notions of how she should be behaving, and the posturing masculinity she encounters, and as a consequence our respect for, and empathy with her is heightened. Although she cannot evade the pernicious grip entirely of some of the male figures in her life, inch by inch she begins to garner the strength to chew them up and spit them out herself…

I found her relationship with her previously estranged mother, a real lynchpin of the book, as Eve had so effectively distanced herself from this less than stellar influence in her formative years. Where Eve has on the surface of it effectively turned her back on, and grown away from her poor and abusive roots, her mother has stayed rooted in a destructive and criminal life. What becomes increasingly interesting in the book is the enforced return of Eve to her mother’s influence, and what this means in terms of her relationship with her. There’s some surprises in store from our initial perception of this relationship, and none more so than closing chapters of the book. Eve’s relationships with others (aside from her work colleagues) are guarded and defensive, but like her increasing interactions with her mother, Eve, and the reader, make some interesting discoveries along the way. It’s so hard to review this without spoilers…

Engel has a has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to her writing style, where the brevity of her prose works to increase every word and image used. Little wonder that I read this in pretty much one sitting, and really appreciated the book as not only a fully formed and compelling murder mystery, but also as the exposure of one woman’s harsh and emotionally isolated existence, outside of the fullness of love for her daughter. As we learn more about Eve, both good and bad, we care increasingly more about her, and her search for justice, however this is to be meted out.

Amy Engel is a new-to-me author, and if The Familiar Dark is anything to go by, one whose previous books are going to be investigated. From its heart-in-the-mouth and visceral opening, to its superb characterisation and beautiful writing style, this book is one that will stay with me for a long time, and I will most certainly read again. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Hodder Books for the ARC)

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Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

Michael Farris Smith- Blackwood #BlogTour

The town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, though those who’ve held on have little memory of when that was. Myer, the county’s aged, sardonic lawman, still thinks it can prove itself — when confronted by a strange family of drifters, the sheriff believes that the people of Red Bluff can be accepting, rational, even good. The opposite is true: this is a landscape of fear and ghosts, of regret and violence, transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still. Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who’s returned to Red Bluff, knows this pain all too well, though he too is willing to hope for more when he meets and falls in love with Celia, the local bar owner. The Deep South gives these noble, broken, and driven folks the gift of human connection while bestowing upon them the crippling weight of generations. With broken histories and vagabond hearts, the townsfolk wrestle with the evil in the woods, and the wickedness that lurks in each and every one of us…

Outside of my love of crime fiction, I am also a fan of American fiction, and more particularly the canon of authors who write within the Southern gothic genre, so writers such as William Faulkner, Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill et al. Having been completely blown away by Farris Smith’s last book The Fighter I then backtracked and read all of his previous books. What a writer he is. So, it was with immeasurable delight, as I’m sure you can imagine, that Blackwood was received, and quickly read…

Farris Smith is for my money one of the finest contemporary American writers, and has a natural talent for encompassing big emotional themes in a relatively compressed page count. This book focusses very much on what is termed small town America, where sins of the past acquire a mythical status, and, by the same token continue to infuse the sensibility of the present. The key protagonist Colburn, a man returning to his hometown of Red Bluff, encompasses the veracity of this theme, as the local populace, in particular local lawman Myer begin to remember the traumatic event of Colburn’s youth. Throughout the book Colburn’s every action is influenced by this event, leading him ever closer to despair, and compounded by present day events with ramifications for those he has made a connection with, the book sucks us deeper and deeper into his personal darkness. In fact, aside from Myer, pretty much every character in this book seems to be descending into some kind of personal insanity leading to murder, acts of violence, a recognition of the malign influence of the supernatural or a feeling of disconnect on a human level with those around them. Colburn only makes one meaningful connection, but inevitably this becomes tainted too.

I found the characterisation in this book incredibly powerful and the way that the author imbues each character with a sense of victimhood worked on a real emotional level. There seemed to be a real sense of the weak and the strong, but with Farris Smith blurring the lines between the two with ease. Equally, the day to day lives and routines of this claustrophobic town, and those that live within it gave a real texture and richness to the book, with petty rivalries, unfaithfulness, and an overarching feel of suppressed violence.

What really stood out for me in this book was the author’s integration of both the beauty and malevolence of the natural world. The passages of description of the verdant landscape, tainted by the trailing tendrils of the kudzu vines, added a real texture and atmosphere, becoming ever more threatening in parallel to the deepening darkness of the central plot itself. This continual feel of the natural world impinging on each character, or determining their actions was so beautifully portrayed that I began to feel a genuine sense of fear. As the natural world encroaches more and more on the psyche of those seeking shelter, and, at times, redemption within its grasp, it also seems to arouse in others an even more heightened motivation to commit evil deeds.

Blackwood is not an easy read as there is a feel of unremitting sadness about the book as whole, with only slight interludes of humans making any meaningful connections to one another. But I loved it. There are passages of sublime description, stoked with a resonance of our small place in the natural world, and also the sheer folly of some our actions toward others. I was genuinely moved in parts, enraged by others, as we are drawn into this world of damaged individuals, hell-bent on destruction or looking for redemption, or more simply, affection. Powerful and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

A Reading Round Up- Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper/ Rob Hart- The Warehouse/ Laura Sims- Looker/ Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land/ Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Time for another quick round up as the ‘I’ve read these’ mountain continues to grow, but time for reviewing decreases for a little while. Although not going the whole hog with a reviewing spreadsheet, (the pinnacle of blogging time management), plans are afoot for some better time organisation, so hopefully will be up to full speed soon as I’ve read a host of excellent books of late. Anyway, let’s get to it and hope you enjoy this eclectic mix of recent reads…

Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper: London, 1855. In the grey mist of the early morning a body is dumped on the shore of the Thames by a boatman in a metal canoe. The city is soon alive with talk of the foreign killer and his striking accomplice: a young woman dressed in widow’s weeds. Branna ‘Birdie’ Quinn’s sleeplessness led her to the river that morning, but was it only thoughts of her drowned husband that kept her awake? She has always been wilful, haughty, different… but is she a murderess? To clear her name, Birdie must retrace the dead man’s footsteps to Orkney and the far north. A dangerous journey for a woman alone, but one she must make in order to save her neck from the hangman’s noose…

A definite change of direction and style from one of my favourite authors, and despite not being a massive reader of historical crime fiction, I enjoyed this book very much indeed. The story traverses between 19th century London and Orkney, and opening with the discovery of a dead man on the fetid shore of the River Thames, Carson immediately places us firmly in the feel and atmosphere of this burgeoning city.

As with her previous series, Carson once again demonstrates her intuitive and precise approach to scene setting, and as we journey with Birdie to the remote reaches of Scotland, as she flees a trumped up murder charge, Carson cleverly draws comparisons between the claustrophobic intensity of le in a teeming city, and that of a small coastal community. Carson also expands the story significantly to draw on the story of the ill-fated journey of William Franklin to Canada and beyond, and having recently read Michael Palin’s book Erebus, about Franklin and his exploration, it was really satisfying to have an overlap in the realms of fiction and fact, demonstrating again Carson’s attention to detail and her skilful interweaving of the plain facts into incredibly readable fiction.  Aside from the historical accuracy and sense of time and place, Carson creates in Birdie a truly empathetic and brave protagonist. From the familiar surroundings of her life in London, this determined and feisty girl embarks on a journey of discovery, not only to a completely alien community, but on her own mission to unmask a murderer and clear her name. Again, Carson adroitly mixes a commentary on the patriarchal nature of the time and how women’s lives are defined and shaped by their correlation to such an ardently male society, but cleverly pushes a subtext of how women can escape from, or manipulate this overarching definition of 19th century society. Indeed, the female characters within the book all demonstrate this inner will to defy and challenge the patriarchal norm, and exhibit a strength of character that is to be admired, despite the perilous situation that Birdie amongst others find themselves in.

There is always a slight flicker of tension, but also anticipation when an author you admire decides to travel a different path with their writing. However, my fears were quickly assuaged and Carson has only succeeded further in endearing myself to her writing, her superlative plotting, characterisation, and her innate ability to thoroughly immerse her reader in the world she presents. Highly recommended.

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Rob Hart- The Warehouse: Amidst the wreckage of America, Cloud reigns supreme. Cloud brands itself not just as an online storefront, but as a global saviour. Yet, beneath the sunny exterior, lurks something far more sinister. Paxton never thought he’d be working Security for the company that ruined his life, much less that he’d be moving into one of their sprawling live-work facilities. But compared to what’s left outside, perhaps Cloud isn’t so bad. Better still, through his work he meets Zinnia, who fills him with hope for their shared future. Except that Zinnia is not what she seems. And Paxton, with his all-access security credentials, might just be her meal ticket. As Paxton and Zinnia’s agendas place them on a collision course, they’re about to learn just how far the Cloud will go to make the world a better place. To beat the system, you have to be inside it…

As a person employed in the increasingly fragile bricks and mortar bookselling trade, I have my own axe to grind about the almost world domination of a certain online retailer. Consequently, I felt honour bound to read this fictional critique of the world of globally powerful organisations that control, monitor and manipulate our shopping habits. I absolutely loved this clever and inventive thriller set in the world of Cloud, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the all powerful corporations currently strangling free enterprise, and consumer choice across the globe. Within the Cloud all workers are monitored, corralled and totally controlled, so although they have the dubious honour of a job where millions don’t, Hart constructs an interesting analysis of this grand manipulation of the workforce, and how easily these people can find their services dispensed with. Indeed, this world that Hart has constructed is scary in the extreme, as elements of it already exist in certain workplaces, and to be honest some of the other indignities that the workers suffer are all too easy to imagine coming to pass as the years progress. As each layer of scurrilous corporate behaviour is revealed, Hart has produced not only a tense, nerve shredding thriller, but a damning indictment on the world of big business, that will strike a chord with most people I’m sure who care about the evils of certain areas of global capitalism.

However, before you begin to think that this is all a bit preachy and big business bad, free enterprise good, Hart has actually produced a damn fine, unsettling and nerve shredding thriller, that will appeal to most readers of dystopian fiction. This is Nineteen Eighty-Four for contemporary times, whilst not losing the thrust of the thriller form, with action, suspense and pace beautifully controlled throughout. Both Paxton and Zinnia are compelling characters, and I really liked the way that Hart builds their relationship and depicts their sharply contrasting experience of life within the Cloud. Zinnia’s militancy is superb from the get go and she is a total firebrand, set against Paxton’s slowly growing awareness of the suppression of the corporation, and the ethical dilemmas he proceeds to do battle with.  This is certainly one of the most tightly plotted and clever dystopian thrillers that I have read for some time, and a grim reflection on the all too recognisable power of the virtual retailing world. Highly recommended.

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Laura Sims- Looker: The Professor lives in Brooklyn; her partner Nathan left her when she couldn’t have a baby. All she has now is her dead-end teaching job, her ramshackle apartment, and Nathan’s old moggy, Cat. Who she doesn’t even like. The Actress lives a few doors down. She’s famous and beautiful, with auburn hair, perfect skin, a lovely smile. She’s got children – a baby, even. And a husband who seems to adore her. She leaves her windows open, even at night. There’s no harm, the Professor thinks, in looking in through the illuminated glass at that shiny, happy family, fantasizing about them, drawing ever closer to the actress herself. Or is there?

A slim but ultimately satisfying read, very much in the territory of Notes On A Scandal, but with a nod to the familiar creeping unease of writer like Patricia Highsmith. This is  an intense and claustrophobic read, depicting the maelstrom of envy and covetousness that one woman exhibits, as she studies the seeming perfect life and family of ‘The Actress’ who lives in her street. As the intensity of her scrutiny and jealousy increases, Sims ramps up the transition of  The Professor from her initially emotionally wounded and depressed state into something increasingly akin to a Hitchcock thriller, as she slowly makes inroads into ingratiating herself into The Actress’ life. I read this pretty much in one sitting, and would suggest that this is the perfect way to approach this book to really get the full experience of the increasingly creed unsettling tale that Sims unfolds. Although I found the ending a little disconcerting, for the most part I enjoyed the book, and how Sims carefully manipulates our empathy and relationship with this woman on her descent to irrational behaviour, and how emotional trauma can take an individual on a strange and troubling path in their lives. Recommended.

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Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land: War is coming to No-Man’s Land, and Connor Fraser will be ready. A mutilated body is found dumped at Cowane’s Hospital in the heart of historic Stirling. For DCI Malcolm Ford it’s like nothing he’s every seen before, the savagery of the crime making him want to catch the murderer before he strikes again. For reporter Donna Blake it’s a shot at the big time, a chance to get her career back on track and prove all the doubters wrong. But for close protection specialist Connor Fraser it’s merely a grisly distraction from the day job. But then a bloodied and broken corpse is found, this time in the shadow of the Wallace Monument – and with it, a message. One Connor has received before, during his time as a police officer in Belfast. With Ford facing mounting political and public pressure to make an arrest and quell fears the murders are somehow connected to heightened post-Brexit tensions, Connor is drawn into a race against time to stop another murder. But to do so, he must question old loyalties, confront his past and unravel a mystery that some would sacrifice anything – and anyone – to protect.

Neil Broadfoot is a consistently excellent crime writer and I have read many of his books, so all the signs were there that this would be a cracking good read- and so it proved to be. What I like about Broadfoot’s books is the less linear and more complex plotting that he employs, tackling big themes but never losing sight of the fact that his characters caught up in these webs of deceit need to be credible. In Connor Fraser, ex police officer and now security specialist, Broadfoot has has come up trumps, marrying the image of the tough guy with a more cerebral edge, similar to genre stalwart Jack Reacher. Fraser is a character that will appeal equally to men and women, and supported by another great character in the shape of female journalist Donna Blake, who proves an excellent foil for him but also being a likeable and determined protagonist in her own right. Broadfoot slowly fleshes out both his principal characters, putting them through the wringer, but not afraid to balance their more dangerous experiences with some good character analysis, particularly Blake balancing her compulsion for career advancement with the attendant difficulties of being a single mother. As the story segues between Fraser’s former experiences in Northern Ireland, and a series of pretty visceral and inventive murder around Stirling, Scotland. Broadfoot keeps the action flowing, as a dark conspiracy comes to light, affording Broadfoot the opportunity to put a more socio- political slant on the main plot, which resonates with the troubled times we currently find ourselves in. Very pleased to report that the first of this new series augurs well for further books, and there will be much to enjoy from Broadfoot in the future. Highly recommended for thriller lovers everywhere- it’s a damn good twisty one…

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81KAJMvXg5L__AC_UY218_ML3_Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate: At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life. Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit,  and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

Well, here is a major revelation for everyone, but I have hardly ever read science fiction, and over the years I cannot recall ever finishing a book that I have idly picked up in this genre. I’ve always found this strange as I do have an abiding fascination with space and enjoy movies in this genre. Finding myself, book-less one lunchtime at work and drawn by the cover, I picked up a proof of this one. Between lunchtime and finishing the commute home, I had fair whipped through it, and was really pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray back into this genre for some time. I obviously didn’t know a huge amount about Chambers started but was delighted to find out that her writing is informed by her own family’s involvement in the world of space, giving a glorious reality to the experiences of Chambers’ characters, and although speculative, sowing the seeds of possibility for generations to come. I loved this microcosm of humanity, with just four principal characters, and how they co-exist in such a compressed space, millions of miles and years away from home, and how we are given such an insight into their relationship with each other. I also liked the passion that each character exhibits for their own particular specialism be it geology or meteorology for example, and went into complete geek mode for the more intricate science that Chambers balances with her examination of these peoples’ lives, hopes, fears and thirst for discovery. Needless to say, I shall be seeking out other books by this author, and would like to extend a personal thank you for awakening a new interest in me for this genre- fortunately, I have been taught… Highly recommended.

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(Thanks to Head of Zeus for a copy of Clare Carson- The Canary Keeper, Bantam Press for  Rob Hart-The Warehouse, and Hodder for Becky Chambers- To Be Taught, If Fortunate. I bought Laura Sims- Looker and Neil Broadfoot- No Man’s Land)

 

 

 

#BlogTour- Chris Carter- Hunting Evil

As roommates, they met for the first time in college. Two of the brightest minds ever to graduate from Stamford Psychology University. As adversaries, they met again in Quantico, Virginia. Robert Hunter had become the head of the LAPD’s Ultra Violent Crimes Unit. Lucien Folter had become the most prolific and dangerous serial killer the FBI had ever encountered.

Now, after spending three and a half years locked in solitary confinement, Lucien has finally managed to break free. And he’s angry. For the past three and a half years, Lucien has thought of nothing else but vengeance. The person responsible for locking him away has to pay, he has to suffer.
That person … is Robert Hunter.
And now it is finally time to execute the plan…

After boom shabang of a cliff hanger at the end of The Gallery of the Dead Chris Carter has reintroduced us to the devil incarnate in the shape of strangely charismatic serial killer, Lucien Folter from An Evil Mind. Having escaped incarceration he is on a revenge mission, and has our erstwhile hero Detective Robert Hunter of the LAPD Ultra Violent Crimes Unit firmly in his sights.

Let the terror begin.

If ever the question was put to me of what would be my ‘treacle’ read, I would plump for Mr Carter every time.  I have a real sense of just sitting back and relaxing with these books, allowing them to take me on a flight of fear and excitement, with characters I’m familiar and comfortable with, and the nifty way that Carter has of plumbing the depths of real evil, offering up a host of ghoulish surprises along the way. I see that the jacket for this one is emblazoned with the message, “As addictive as a TV boxset,” and that is in no way wide of the mark for the sheer entertainment value of his books. In the same way as Stephen King, Carter very much plays up to the notion that his readers like to be unnerved, startled and genuinely scared at points, and I always enjoy the way his killers come crashing into the lives of ordinary people like you and I which always adds another level of tension to his books. Ten books in and Carter is showing no let up in the depths of depravity his books deliciously reveal to us. Mwahaha…

As I think I have now read all ten books in the series, I am still delighted by his two central police characters, Detectives Hunter and Garcia, the cerebral Batman and Robin as I refer to them. Throughout the course of the books, Carter uses the character of Garcia to filter information to the reader, as he observes and questions the more intuitive impulses of Hunter, during their investigations. What is noticeable in this book is that as much as Hunter is caught out by the sheer deviousness of Folter, especially when the case takes a more personal turn, there seems to be a slight growing in stature of Garcia. Although he still questions, he is much more forthcoming with his challenges to Hunter’s suppositions, and makes some significant breakthroughs of his own, as Hunter becomes so immersed in his battle of wills with Folter.  As much as Hunter takes centre stage, and rightfully so given his personal history with Folter, I very much enjoyed seeing Garcia blossom, equally so, as he as he had missed out on their previous showdown in An Evil Mind, but perhaps this worked significantly in his favour, giving him an unsullied take on this most pernicious of adversaries. Being reluctant to reveal any of the details on this tussle between Hunter and Folter, suffice to say there are some interesting blurred lines between them, and as clichéd as it may be, Folter possesses all the twisted charm, cerebral flexibility, and extreme wickedness of a certain Mr Lecter, as he embarks on his devilish game of cat and mouse with Hunter, the US Marshall service, and the FBI. I quite like him, although he is one evil dude.

I think Chris Carter should be afforded some major kudos for maintaining such consistency over a relatively long series of books, still unleashing some surprising twists and tricks along the way, and for this reason Hunting Evil is no exception. He seems to have an infinite trove of heinous murderous techniques, and a bottomless pit of nasty, violent killers to scare the bejesus out of us with. This I applaud, and for this reason too, I will be a constant reader of this author. Bring on the nasty…

(With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)

 

 

Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

On a snowbound night near a small Michigan town, Virginia Barkeley is discovered staggering around, covered in blood and blind drunk. Nearby, wealthy lothario Claude Margolis is found dead, stabbed several times in the neck. The case seems open and shut. Even Virginia thinks she probably committed the crime, although she cannot for the life of her think why. In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer, Meecham, uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder…

Despite being a huge fan of classic American crime, it is with some shame that I admit to never having read Margaret Millar before. Perhaps slightly overshadowed by her husband, fellow author, Ken Millar aka Ross MacDonald (of whom I’ve read many), on the strength of this one, I think I have a whole new cache of her work to discover…

This is classic American hardboiled crime fiction with a steely feminine edge, that absorbs the reader instantly, and sucks you in to a superbly plotted tale of murder and deception. Millar captures the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of this small town with finesse, where rumour and petty jealousies fuel every interaction. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive for their actions, and like Meecham you find yourself picking through the evidence, trying to uncover who is the most duplicitous individual in a cast of possibly guilty characters. The plotting is absolutely flawless, and Millar keeps Meecham, and us, in a state of mistrust until the final, and unexpected unmasking of the killer.

The characterisation, particularly in relation to the female characters is just peerless, and I loved the way that each woman Millar introduces are so defined by their difference to the others. We have a femme fatale, a controlling mother, another alcoholic mother, a young doe eyed companion, a strident, though adoring, wife, and so on, each one precisely drawn jumping from the page to our imagination due to the strength of Millar’s characterisation of them. It’s also interesting how she uses her male character, the smart talking and cynical lawyer Meecham, to colour our perception of them further by observing his differing interactions with them, sometimes testy, sometimes flirtatious, or others that reveal a deeper compassionate edge to his character too. All through the book, he is the perfect foil for their particular episodes of scheming, dishonesty or weaknesses of character.  In true hardboiled fashion, both his, and their, cadence of speech and dialogue reflects the razor sharp and clipped style of the genre, conjuring up images of the classic old black and white crime movies with the ‘I speak, now you speak’, style of conversation.

I think we can safely say that Vanish In An Instant was a little gem of a discovery for me, and my hunt for further Margaret Millar books starts here. Her writing is just wonderful, with a tightness yet rhythmic fluidity to her prose that is enviable. A superb plot of red herrings and unexpected twists, populated by a vibrant and perfectly realised group of characters, further adds to the overall distinction of her writing. Cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Douglas Skelton- The Janus Run

When Coleman Lang finds his girlfriend Gina dead in his New York City apartment, he thinks nothing could be worse… until he becomes the prime suspect.

Desperate to uncover the truth and clear his name, Coleman hits the streets. But there’s a deranged Italian hitman, an intuitive cop, two US Marshals, and his ex-wife all on his tail. And trying to piece together Gina’s murky past without dredging up his own seems impossible. Worse, the closer he gets to Gina’s killer, the harder it is to evade the clutches of the mysterious organisation known only as Janus – from which he’d long since believed himself free…

Egged on by some of his fellow Scottish crime authors, Douglas Skelton has taken a break from crime fiction set in his native Scotland, and taken a wee diversion to the mean streets of New York in The Janus Run, and what an utterly splendid diversion it is…

Like another Raven favourite, David Jackson, I think Skelton has set out on a series that could have a lot of mileage, having introduced a cast of strong, well realised characters, combined with a real fly by the seat of your pants action thriller, with the action coming thick and fast. The central character, Coleman Lang is a man with a mysterious past, by day an advertising executive, and after the murder of his girlfriend Gina, revealed to be another man entirely with former links to a shady organisation with the moniker Janus. Joining forces with Gina’s estranged father Tony Falcone, a former Mafia henchman now in witness protection, the two set out on a troubled and violent vendetta to bring the real killer to justice, and avoid the attention of the NYPD (with Lang as their chief suspect), and the vengeance seeking former acquaintances of Falcone. It’s a dynamite combination from the start, with Lang clearly trying to resist being sucked back into his old ways and his links to Janus, and Falcone as a real act first, think later man with violent impulses, bent on revenge. Add into the mix a couple of credible strident female law enforcers in the shape of no-nonsense, Lieutenant Rosie Santoro, who I adored, and the shadowy US Marshall TP McDonough, along with a host of caricature-ish Mafia types, estranged lovers and family, and a real old school NYPD cop who tries to assist Lang and Falcone, all of whom Skelton brings vividly alive throughout. I thought the characterisation was first class, and supported by whip-smart dialogue which carried all the cadence and rhythm of speech you would expect from a New York/Italian cast, it all worked in harmony beautifully.

The plot itself was well constructed, high octane and full of tension, littered with car chases, shoot outs, and cross and double cross. As Lang and Falcone edge nearer to the truth of Gina’s demise, they begin to attract the attention of some real rum sorts, and no-one is safe, with violence being meted out willy-nilly along the way. It’s real punchy stuff, driven forward with energy and pace, and although I had a brief hiatus in reading this, when I picked it up again, I was slam bam right back in the thick of it. I really enjoyed this first foray by Skelton to stranger shores, and cannot wait for the next! Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)