#BlogTour- Orlando Ortega-Medina- Jerusalem Ablaze

image001In Jerusalem’s Old City a young priest and a dominatrix converse in the dying light; on Oregon’s windswept coast a fragile woman discovers a body washed up on the beach after a storm; and in Postwar Japan a young protege watches his master’s corpse burn, with bitter thoughts blazing in his mind. An eclectic collection of thirteen short stories…

I do love it when I am approached by publishers offering me books that take me outside of my comfort zone, as they so often provide some magical reading experiences. Jerusalem Ablaze is one such example, as I rarely read short stories of any description. So it was with a wonderfully blank mental slate that I dived into this intriguing collection…

Orlando Ortega-Medina has produced a remarkable volume of stories that are not only far reaching in terms of location, but also in the very recognisable aspects of human emotion he weaves into his character’s individual experiences. Across the stories, he addresses the themes of love, death, ageing, sexuality, family conflict and obsession with an intuitive and engaging style, that at times brings the reader up short to truly sit up, and think about what they have just read. For the purposes of this review, and so as not to mar your discovery of all the stories in this collection, I just wanted to write a few words on a couple of the stories that made me sit up and think too.

In a guest post at Reader Dad, Ortega- Medina talks about his experience of writing short stories, and makes reference to After The Storm, my particular favourite in the book, and the number of revisions he made to it, right up until the point of submission to his publisher. This story runs to about 18.5 pages, but to me encompassed the emotional breadth and detail of a book many times this length. Focussing on a woman’s chance discovery of something on a beach (no spoilers here), Ortega-Medina constructs a story that is heart-rending and thought provoking, on the breaks in communication, and loss of awareness that occurs in many personal relationships. The story is darkly strange but underscored by an innate feeling of truth and observation that takes hold of the reader, and even in the aftermath of reading reoccurs in one’s thoughts. Susan’s actions seem so totally alien and discomforting at first, but when seen through the eyes of others, are imbued with a real sense of poignancy. Also, the author’s depiction of this wild coastline where Susan and her husband dwell in their secluded lighthouse, is described with such clarity that you can sense the thrashing sea spray, the keening of the gulls, and the smell of the seaweed. Perfect compacted prose that reveals a world of emotion.

The intensity of Susan’s experience set against the broad, unending landscape of the natural world is mirrored in  Star Party, where the theme of human relationships is played out beneath a huge expanse of sky where people have gathered to star watch. I like the way that Ortega-Medina transposes the small but intense insecurities and problems of his protagonists against this broad canvas, which puts our relative importance in the universe in perspective, but never lessening the real concerns of his characters’ lives. Equally, in The Shovelist, the financial security of an old man and his wife is seen to be dependent on the coming of the snow, and his neighbour’s willingness to pay him to shovel their driveway, a fairly humdrum problem you would think, but one that in the author’s hands, explores community and the realisation of, and sympathy for,  other’s troubles.

As much as every story works in this collection as a self contained tale, the two part story of An Israel State of Mind had me wanting more. Narrating the events of a young man and his girlfriend’s trip to a kibbutz, I loved this tale of pent up emotion and unresolved love,  the exploration of difference and misunderstanding, all within the framework of a shared, and what should be a life affirming experience. I think it’s a real feat of Ortega-Medina’s writing that he so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters in this story and others, when whole books can pass you by without this essential connection as a reader. I still want to know what happens to these characters beyond what is written here.

So as a non-widely read short story reader, I gained much from Jerusalem Ablaze, and it has honestly awakened an appreciation of the form for me. An alternately dark, emotional, tender, and violent contemporary collection that I enjoyed greatly. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Ledge Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

blog-tour-jerusalem-ablazetb

A Quick Round-Up- Caroline Mitchell- Don’t Turn Around/ Denzil Meyrick- Whisky From Small Glasses/ Barbra Leslie- Cracked

Let’s get the feeble excuse over with first! Currently battling with a very nasty viral illness, which seems to be reluctant to just bugger off. Although amazingly ahead of my reading, am woefully behind on reviews so here’s a quick round-up of books that have emerged from the teetering to-read pile…

9781909490970As D.C. Jennifer Knight investigates a routine stabbing in the quiet town of Haven, she is shocked at what seems like a personal message from beyond the grave.  When more bodies are found, Jennifer is convinced the killings are somehow linked. What she discovers is more chilling than she could possibly imagine. The murders mirror those of the notorious Grim Reaper – from over twenty years ago. A killer her mother helped convict.  Jennifer can no longer ignore the personal connection. Is there a copycat killer at work? Was the wrong man convicted? Or is there something more sinister at play? With her mother’s terrifying legacy spiralling out of control, Jennifer must look into her own dark past in a fight not only to stop a killer – but to save herself and those she loves…

There seems to be a small tide of paranormal tinged crime thrillers appearing at the moment, and having recently read James Nally- Alone With The Dead, I decided to dip my toe into this spooky sub-genre again with Mitchell’s debut thriller, Don’t Turn Around. Drawing on her experiences with the police, and her own encounters with more unexplainable phenomena, Mitchell has produced a perfectly creditable police procedural, underscored by some very dark goings-on indeed. Like Nally’s debut, I was extremely impressed with the book in terms of its characterisation, and DC Jennifer Knight in particular. Not only did she come across as an authentic police officer, but I loved the way that as the timeline gravitated back and forth, we began to see more the her determination to walk in her late mother’s footsteps, and how it influenced her own growth as an accomplished police officer. I enjoyed her interactions with her less dynamic colleague, Will, who lightened the feel of the book overall, and felt their partnership worked well. Unlike many books with the past/present structure, both timelines held my interest equally, and Mitchell carefully dealt with the ramifications of past crimes impacting on the present, and Jennifer’s task of catching a particularly heinous killer. Perhaps due to my natural scepticism of ‘otherworldy’ phenomena I was less enamoured with the supernatural thrust of the story, but to be honest, this didn’t prove a major stumbling block in my enjoyment of the book, as the police investigation was well realised, and overall I felt the book provided a very strong foundation for a potential series.

(I bought this copy of Don’t Turn Around)

51Xpc8S2wRL__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_When the body of a young woman is washed up on an idyllic beach on the west coast of Scotland, D.C.I. Jim Daley is despatched from Glasgow to lead the investigation. Far from home, and his troubled marriage, it seems that Daley’s biggest obstacle will be managing the difficult local police chief, but when the prime suspect is gruesomely murdered, the investigation begins to stall. As the body count rises, Daley uncovers a network of secrets and corruption in the close-knit community of Kinloch, thrusting him and his loved ones into the centre of a case more deadly than he could ever have imagined…

The first of Denzil Meyrick’s series featuring DCI Jim Daley, a Glasgow cop despatched to a small community of the west coast of Scotland to take on a particularly testing murder case in a miasma of secrets and lies. This proved a frustrating read for me, as for at least two thirds of the book I was absolutely hooked. So we’ll start with the good. The characterisation of Daley was brilliant, a bear of a man with a determined and professional stance in relation to the investigation he undertakes, and how he treats his friends and colleagues, but whose weak spot was his feckless and really quite dislikeable wife, Liz who manipulates him at every turn. I particularly loved his right hand man DS Brian Scott, whose gruff Glaswegian persona, worked beautifully in tandem with his boss Daley throughout, and played off (and wound up)  the ‘small town’ cops and residents to great effect. The evocation of location in the fictional community of Kinloch, was equally assured, and there was a vividness and sense of realism throughout in Meyrick’s descriptions of this small coastal community, and the beauty of its surroundings. However, despite the meticulous and engaging plotting of the book up to the last few chapters, I was suddenly struck by those black thoughts of ‘oh no, he’s not going to do that with the plot is he;  that would be really obvious. And annoying’. He did. So I’m afraid that the ending of what had been a really rather impressive tale of murder, drugs, and skulduggery fell a bit flat at the end, and all felt a bit too ITV crime drama for my particular taste. (Which is fine if you want your book to be filmed as an ITV crime drama- ha!)  But nil desperandum and all that, because the combined force of Daley and Scott and their natural bonhomie would definitely entice me to read another in the series. I raise a small glass to this duo…

(I bought this copy of Whisky From Small Glasses)

Cracked_cvrAfter her stormy marriage ends, Danny Cleary jumps down the rabbit hole into a world of crack cocaine delivered to her door by a polite but slightly deranged dealer. But when Danny’s twin sister Ginger is murdered, Danny and her rock musician brother fly to California to find their nephews and the people who killed their sister. Fighting her addiction, nosy cops and crazy drug dealers, she kicks ass and takes names, embracing her inner vigilante in a quest to avenge her sister and save her family…

Right, let’s finish with a bang, and let me introduce you to one of the most mental, high-octane, and fast-paced thrillers I have read for some time. With its mash up of Janet Evanovich and Breaking Bad, Leslie brings us an absolutely brilliant protagonist in the shape of crack addict, Danny Cleary, who doesn’t seek to find trouble, it just naturally gravitates towards her! I loved the emotional opposites that Leslie weaves into her character, with her ballsy, high energy, kick ass attitude so wonderfully melded with a real emotional vulnerability, that she constantly seeks to overcome to avenge her sister’s death. She takes no prisoners, and basically you mess with her at your peril. I fair raced through this book with its punchy, pithy dialogue, and fast moving plot that sees Danny uprooted from the relative safety of Toronto to California, where events escalate at an alarming and dangerous pace. There’s drugs, violence, sadness, more violence, and for much of the book you are blindsided by who’s bad, who’s good with some great reveals at key moments of people’s evil motivations and depravity. I though this was an absolutely cracking read, which left me emotionally spent, but ultimately very fulfilled. A sassy, dark, thoroughly entertaining thriller and highly recommended.

(With thanks to Titan Books for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

Peter May- Entry Island

When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city. Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home. The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met. Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professional duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.

Following the sucessful and highly enjoyable Hebridean trilogy comprising The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen, Peter May returns with a new standalone, which again reflects the strength of his storytelling and the precision of his building of atmosphere and location. Using a split narrative, May carefully weaves the themes of time and history into an interlocking plot, comprising of real life historical events and a contemporary murder mystery…

I don’t usually read other reviews of a book that I am planning to review myself, but I was very interested to see other’s perceptions of the effectiveness of the dual storyline at play. The central character of the piece, disillusioned Montreal detective Sime Mackenzie, an interloper through his nationality, Scottish and a man set apart from his work colleagues both socially and professionally, is used as the conduit for both aspects of the story- a modern police procedural influenced by the events of the past. As Mackenzie seeks to unravel the possible mariticide of an influential island dwelling businessman, he becomes more than a little involved with the chief suspect, and therein slowly unfolds the possible historical connection between himself and the accused. May begins to reveal the history of Mackenzie’s forebears through a series of diaries and dreams, tapped into by Mackenzie’s sleepless nights in the wake of his marriage break-up,  charting the enforced immigration, in the same way as the more well-documented Irish exile, sparked by the illegal foreclosure and clearance of Highland farms  many years previously. This is where the real strength of the story lies for me, not only in the sheer interest that these people’s struggle raises up in the reader’s consciousness, but the fact that it gives full vent to May’s undoubted prowess in the depiction  and merging of location and history, so evident in his previous Hebridean trilogy.

I was totally immersed in the troubles of Mackenzie’s predecessors, making the harsh journey to Canada, and the obstacles awaiting them in establishing new lives abroad. I found the gradual unfolding of this slice of history totally engaging throughout, that the more contemporary aspect of the book was as just a small interuption in what I perceive as the more important  and well drawn facet of the story, depicting a cruel and unnecessary fate of decent folk at the hands of the English oppressor. It was beautifully rendered due to the strength of May’s control of the portrayal of these events, which strike an emotive chord with reader. Other reviewers prefer the contemporary storyline, but I just found it a little drawn out and the ending a little hackneyed, as much as May’s sense of setting breathed life and interest into this plot. Indeed, I found Mackenzie and his infatuation with the victim’s wife more than a little irritating, but appreciate that this was the key to May’s central remit of the resonance of the past in our contemporary existence. Overall a satisfying read, with the historical aspect of the novel in particular coming to the fore.

Read other reviews of Entry Island:

Crimepieces 

 Crime Fiction Lover

Peter May talks Entry Island: Crime Thriller Fella

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)