#Blog Tour Sergio Olguin- The Fragility of Bodies

When journalist Veronica Rosenthal hears about the suicide of a local train driver who has jumped off the roof of a block of flats, leaving a suicide note confessing to four mortal ‘accidents’ on the train tracks, she decides to investigate. For the police the case is closed (suicide is suicide), for Veronica it is the beginning of a journey that takes her into an unfamiliar world of grinding poverty, junkie infested neighborhoods, and train drivers on commuter lines haunted by the memory of bodies hit at speed by their locomotives in the middle of the night. Aided by a train driver informant, a junkie in rehab and two street kids willing to risk everything for a can of Coke, she uncovers a group of men involved in betting on working-class youngsters convinced to play Russian roulette by standing in front of oncoming trains to see who endures the longest. With bodies of children crushed under tons of steel, those of adults yielding to relentless desire, the resolution of the investigation reveals the deep bonds which unite desire and death…

Right, where on earth do I begin, to get across to everyone how intensely, sublimely brilliant The Fragility of Bodies is? A book shot through with painful truths and gritty realism, and with the ability to put its reader through a whole gamut of emotions with its pared down prose, perceptive exploration of the human compulsion to make connections, and larger themes of trust, exploitation and social injustice. This is a huge, important book hiding behind the deceptively simple label of an Argentine noir thriller, but has much to say about the nature of human relationships, and the power and exploitation of the few on the lives of the many…

With such a self assured, dogged, yet emotionally turbulent central character as journalist, Veronica Rosenthal, I was instantly entranced by her. She sets about her investigation into the worrying trend of suicides on local railway lines, with verve and energy; a verve and energy that also extends to the more base needs of her character, and the mutual seduction that occurs in the course of her investigation. She is flighty and independent, in relation to her friends and siblings, but she has a real strength of character and essence of self control, that her peers can only aspire to. Not only does Olguin put his readers through the emotional mangle, but Veronica is tested constantly in her pursuit of the truth behind the pattern of suicides occurring on train tracks of late, sucking her into a world of bribery and exploitation that will prove dangerous in the extreme. I can truthfully say that she is one of the most well-realised, compelling and authentic female characters that I have encountered for a long time, and this mix of tenacity and bravery, is beautifully tempered by the more impulsive, reckless and passionate side of her nature, be it in her professional or personal life.

The breadth of crime fiction set in South America has been a recent revelation to me, and Olguin naturally captures the grinding poverty, misplaced optimism, and dangerous existence of the lower classes of Buenos Aires society. Young boys believe that football is their ticket out of the slums and the path to riches, but putting them squarely into the path of those that would exploit them, and such is their desperation to escape the clutches of poverty and to help their families, or just to feel valued that they are easily coerced into the dark activities of the adults in whom they trust. Olguin perfectly captures the conflicts that arise in these young boys, lured into a dangerous form of ‘chicken’ to satisfy the men who place bets on these youngster’s bravery and ultimately survival, with the lure of a hundred pesos.

The world of these boys is unflinchingly depicted by Olguin, capturing the deprivation of the neighbourhoods they live in, the struggles of their families, and the thin line that exists between survival and criminality in the dangerous world of the favelas. Olguin’s depiction of this world is written with sharp clarity appealing to the reader’s senses, and which cannot fail to move the reader’s emotions too, but what is also detectible is the thin veneer of hope that lies behind the most meagre of lives, the feeling that not all is lost, and that a sense of morality can breach the divides Olguin so truthfully depicts. As long as journalists like Veronica, and honest citizens seek to expose the morally bankrupt despite the risks, there can always be hope, despite the inherent danger in society of those in positions of power.

The Fragility of Bodies has rocketed into my best books of the year, and all I can say to Sergio Olguin and his wonderful translator Miranda France, is that I am already salivating for the next in the series to be translated. This book shocked, moved and completely absorbed me from beginning to end, and think this will leave a few of my future reads trailing in its wake. Gritty, beautifully prosaic, and intensely moving, I cannot do justice to the power of this book, which moves the emotions, sparks the social conscience, but pays heed to the need of a thriller to excite and entertain us too, with a truly compelling central character. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the ARC)

 

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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William Shaw- Salt Lane/ Kate Rhodes-Hell Bay

I am going to don my bookseller hat here, and say with some confidence that if you like the sound of one of these beauties, I can pretty much guarantee that the other book will appeal too.

Go on. You know you want to…

DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Murder is different here, among the fens and stark beaches. The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions. It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt…

Having made the acquaintance of DS Alexandra Cupidi some time ago in The Birdwatcher , a wonderfully atmospheric thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak coastline of Dungeness, prepare to be completely absorbed as she makes her return in Salt Lane. Not only is this a well plotted and compelling police procedural, once again using this particular landscape to its full brooding and slightly sinister effect, but Salt Lane reveals itself to be so much more.

When you cast your eye over the backlist of William Shaw, comprising of his evocative 60s series, and the aforementioned The Birdwatcher, one cannot help but be struck by the skill of his storytelling, and the strength of his characterisation. As well as unfailingly producing absorbing, moving and carefully constructed police procedurals, Shaw also uses either the zeitgeist of the period, or the locations to envelop the reader completely in the atmosphere he seeks to produce. In Salt Lane the desolate, but rawly beautiful, locale of Dungeness once again reveals itself as a centrifugal force in the book, being either a place of safety or danger in equal measure, but also effectively acting as a prism for the emotional state of both Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter, Zoe. As Zoe seeks to deal with her emotional pain and seeks solace from the landscape, also unwittingly leading herself into the heart of her mother’s investigation, Cupidi herself finds herself at times waging an emotional and physical battle with the unique geography of the area, and the murders that occur within its boundaries.

Taking a backward step for a second, I can’t emphasise enough the weight of emotion, and more importantly the completely plausible emotion that Shaw injects into his trinity of female characters, Cupidi, Zoe and Cupidi’s mother Helen, who will be recognisable to some readers from Shaw’s previous books. I was absolutely blown away by how succinctly and honestly Shaw captured the internal and external emotional lives of these women, as they navigate their differences and similarities in the course of the book. The tension and moments of conflict are balanced beautifully with moments of epiphany in their personal relationship with each other, and the scenes featuring these three exceptional characters are a joy to read, feeling raw, true and suffused with realism. I must confess that I don’t read much ‘women’s fiction’ as that which I have encountered always has a slightly mawkish feel in its depiction of ‘women’s experience’,  but I was held spellbound by the resonance of these characters in my interpretation of how women truly are, and how that which separates them, can be seen to actually bind them together more than they initially feel.

As for the plot itself, Shaw is given free reign to expose the worst ills of a Britain caught in a monstrous wave of nationalism and post-Brexit turmoil. Against the Kent location of the book, Shaw weaves a disturbing police investigation into an unflinching and, most importantly, objective appraisal of immigration and exploitation, that boils the blood, and tugs at the heartstrings in equal measure, depending on your political viewpoint. Without resorting to soapbox declarations on the state of Britain, Shaw holds a mirror up to the conflicting sides of the immigration issue, whilst keeping the book solidly on track as a crime thriller. Consequently, Salt Lane is never less than a wonderfully multi-layered contemporary thriller, replete with the highest calibre characterisation, and a looming feel of unease. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Riverrun for the ARC)

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DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.

With all the claustrophobic feel of a locked room mystery, and introducing us to a little fictionally represented corner of the world, Hell Bay proves to be a real treat, and on the back of Kate Rhodes’ brilliant series featuring Alice Quentin, this introduction to a new character DI Ben Kitto can only augur well for books to come…

I know I’m always going on about location in the books I read, but I genuinely think that if,  as a reader,  you can’t imagine this all too crucial element to a story in a tangible sense the book is lost before it starts, hence my adoration of writers such as Peter May and Ron Rash whose evocation of place is always perfect. So first big tick in the box to Rhodes who deftly depicts the ruggedness and solitude of her Scilly Isles location from the opening age, and consistently and atmospherically through the course of the book. The unique feel of this landscape, and the ever present changeable moods of the sea, provides the most sinister backdrop to her story, and I love the way that Rhodes manipulates this to add to the tension and emotion of the human dramas played out against its omnipresent influence. Indeed, many of the characters have an unbreakable and sometimes damaging connection to the sea, be it by occupation, by loss or by emotional disturbance and its influence looms large in the story and readers’ consciousness throughout.

I did like the character of DI Ben Kitto from the off, with his, at first concealed reasons for returning home, and his reluctance to re-engage with people from his formative years, adding a nice degree of shade and light to his character. I also enjoyed the way that we see him slowly assimilate himself back into the community, the pace of life, the pressures on peoples’ livelihoods, the suspicions of neighbours, and the reopening of conflicts from years past. This gave a very rounded feel to the particular pressures of living within such a small community, and how the actions of one person, is so deeply felt in the lives of the others. Kitto aside, I thought Rhodes’ characterisation was excellent throughout, and loved the disparate band of island dwellers who thwart or assist Kitto in his investigation. There was a real satisfying melting pot of characters, some infinitely more demonstrative than others, and the way that Rhodes’ uses them to portray the frustrations and hardships of island life, and the rootedness or need to escape each display.

Obviously with the premise of the book being a murder mystery, Rhodes works hard to achieve a marvellous modern interpretation of a classic locked room mystery, and she achieves this admirably. With only a finite number of suspects, I very much enjoyed the sense of personal detection she encourages in the reader in true Agatha Christie style, and I found the outcome of the book entirely satisfying. Hell Bay is a particularly strong start to a potential series, I hope, and one I shall follow with interest. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

bakerIn Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant  Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…

Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.

The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.

The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.

City Without Stars is an intense, emotive and completely absorbing read, suffused with a violent energy, and with an unrelenting pace to its narrative. It heightens the reader’s senses and imagination throughout, completely enveloping the reader in this corrupt and violent society, with instances of intense human frailty and moments of strength, underpinned by precise description, and flurries of dark humour.

I thought it was absolutely marvellous. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites: