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)

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Doug Johnstone- Breakers

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum. On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt. With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation, unless he drags her down too…

About three years ago I reviewed a book by Doug Johnstone called The Jump , a book that remains as one of the best books I have ever read. In my original review I said that, “When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this, which possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves.” So it will come as no real surprise to hear that in this intensely compelling read, and in my ever so humble opinion, Doug Johnstone has more than achieved this again…

Let’s start with Tyler, the central protagonist, balancing his role as protector, provider, and accomplice, at a relatively tender age, and with an over enhanced sense of responsibility and some times misplaced loyalty in his familial role. Juggling the role of caregiver and protector of his younger sister ‘Bean’, but finding himself at the behest and control of his aggressive and borderline psychopathic step brother, Tyler navigates a tense and ominously threatening path through life. Desperate to keep the equilibrium of his home life, but with his mum’s instability and dependence on drink and drugs, casting a shadow over the stability of this, one impulsive criminal act places Tyler and Bean in extreme danger. What Johnstone captures so perfectly in the character of Tyler, is that of a young man propelled into adulthood and maturity due to the extreme behaviour of others. He’s bright, resourceful, and emotionally intuitive, and a wonderful caregiver for Bean, but there’s also there’s always this sense of the child about him, dominated by his stepbrother, his tentative handling of his relationship with spiky posh girl Flick, and his unflinching acceptance of his mum’s emotional and physical weakness. He is the epitome of a young man who’s had to grow up a startling fast rate, but not to the detriment of his own strong moral code, his integrity and compulsion to protect others.

As we have come to expect of this author, Johnstone himself is also unflinching in this portrayal of a family in meltdown. The particular angst, borderline poverty and issues of abuse and anger, that all too many families encounter lay at the very heart of this book, but tangentially Johnstone also shows through the home life of Flick that this emotional paucity is equally relevant to her life, with the emotional neglect of her parents, her mother’s alcohol abuse, and the coldness of her father. She seeks attention in destructive ways and she’s financially rich, but only attains an emotional richness through her growing attachment to Tyler, and by extension, Bean too. Through this relationship we also see her bravery and resourcefulness, and the sense of her yin to Tyler’s yang that begins to become apparent as her involvement in these dark events escalates.

The authenticity of Johnstone’s characters is due in no small part to his intensely realistic portrayal of the world that Tyler and his family exist in. The book is peppered with sudden outbreaks of violence and abuse, with the overriding control of his sadistic stepbrother Barry, and the ramifications of entering the dangerous world of a hardened criminal that Barry’s foolish and impulsive actions, catapult them into. At one point Tyler berates Flick for embarking on her own ‘poverty safari’ as their life experience appear to be so markedly different, and Tyler’s world is a stark contrast socio-economically- harsh and poor, with the threat of violence a norm. As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters’ lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him. You’re rooting for him, and it doesn’t feel that your belief in him is misplaced. Breakers is a superb read (with an equally excellent soundtrack woven into the narrative) and once more I would heartily encourage you that, if you haven’t read this author before, you really should do so.

It would be rude not too…

Highly recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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Blog Tour- Ausma Zehanat Khan- The Unquiet Dead

Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton’s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

Once again with The Unquiet Dead I have had the privilege of reading a book that defies any simplistic recognition of it being a ‘crime thriller’. Instead what we experience as readers is a searing testimony to the futility and brutality of war, in this instance the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia, and a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal of survivor rage, and guilt. All this is cocooned within the more linear investigation of a suspicious death; a death that reaches back into the turbulent past, but with severe ramifications for those in the present.

I am rarely emotionally moved by a book to the degree that I need to sometimes halt and take a breath, and in common with this book, those have been occasioned by novels depicting war and its consequences. Given the emotional reach of this book in terms of its depiction of the genocide and rape that occurred in this conflict, Khan’s prose and imagery of war is beautifully controlled throughout. It is written with a clarity and grace of simplicity that every scene of man’s unconscionable violence towards others hammers straight into the heart of the reader. Taking into account the author’s depth of research, this feeling of discomfort is amplified by the knowledge that these scenes are so firmly grounded in truth. These dreadful events happened, thousands died, and many more live with the physical and mental scarring of having witnessed such tragedy. Alternating between the past and present, the reader remains fully engaged with both timelines throughout, slowly piecing together the incontrovertible truth of  history continually reverberating in the present, as all the protagonists experience to some extent. Khan uses this motif not only in those affected by the war, but also other characters who have experienced some form of emotional, marital or familial upset too, so the level of human interest is palpable and certain situations recognisable to the reader too. It’s cleverly done, and merely strengthens the many levels of human relationships and experiences that permeate throughout the book.

For reasons that will be become absolutely clear when you read this book for yourselves, I am loath to delve too deeply in this review on some of the characters in this book for fear of giving too much away. Suffice to say, several of them exhibit the best and worst characteristics of the human condition, from quiet dignity to unbelievable greed and hatred. Instead, I would draw your attention to the unique combination of detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty who prove themselves so defined by their differences, but so symbiotic as an investigative team. There’s a wonderful quote from Getty on her taciturn and reserved boss, Khattak, in which she says, “He wasn’t a man who dealt in ultimate truths as she did, he traversed the underground cities of doubt and discrepancy where human frailty revealed itself in layer upon layer of incongruity.” Khattak remains almost unknowable throughout, being both sensitive and prone to introspection, but retaining an aura of quiet determination, despite certain revelations and his involvement in the case at a more personal level. Equally, Getty has an intriguing back story in terms of her family background which unfolds slowly, giving her some personal revelations of her own. She also proves an excellent foil to Khattak with her propensity to cut straight to the chase, and ask the difficult questions at the right time, without fear or favour. I liked both these characters immensely, and the strength of their partnership and very individual personalities that lie at the core of the book.

With a slow reveal of historic crimes, emotional wounds and the desire for monetary gain, revenge or closure, this books burns with a unique intensity, that is quite difficult to put into words. As a meditation on war and its aftermath it’s powerful and disturbing, and as a crime thriller on a conventional level it transcends the genre in terms of its emotional reach and characterisation. A difficult, yet thoroughly rewarding read, that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

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Blog Tour- Nuala Ellwood- My Sister’s Bones

 

msbblogtour_nov18Kate Rafter is a successful war reporter. She’s the strong one. The one who escaped Herne Bay and the memories it holds. Her sister Sally didn’t. Instead, she drinks.

But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.

What secret has Kate stumbled upon?
And is she strong enough to uncover the truth . . . and make it out alive?

As much as I seek to actively avoid thrillers with the merest whiff of domestic noir about them, I was intrigued to read My Sister’s Bones, a debut psychological thriller by Nuala Ellwood with its blend of emotional domesticity combined with more global concerns. Effectively marrying the usual tropes of domestic noir and familial conflict, with more salient humanitarian issues,  Ellwood has produced a thriller that is a curious blend of the intensely satisfying and the slightly frustrating…

The absolute lynchpin for my enjoyment of this book was Kate’s story, a seasoned war reporter who on her return from war-torn Aleppo in Syria, is battling the twin demons of PTSD and personal emotional stress caused by the death of her mother, and the non-connectedness to her sister Sally who is in the grip of alcoholism, and suffering personal distress at the disappearance of her daughter, Hannah. Reflecting my enjoyment of other thrillers such as Matthew Frank’s If I Should Die, and Kate Medina’s Fire Damage, which also explored the realm of PTSD, I found Ellwood’s portrayal of Kate, so emotionally affected by her horrific experiences in Syria, utterly authentic, bolstered no doubt by the author’s own familial links to the world of war reporting. Her confusion, anger and twisted sense of self worth and guilt was heart-breaking and emotional throughout, really tapping into the reader’s empathy, and depicting perfectly one woman’s personal experience of war. I also admired the clear-headed, objective portrayal of the Syrian conflict exhibited by the author, and its balanced and unflinching tone when describing the danger and human devastation that Kate experiences holed up in this war torn city. I liked the way that we as readers are drawn in and out of states of mistrust towards Kate, due to the symptoms of her stress, constantly questioning her veracity as a reliable narrator, and a credible witness to what she believes is happening in the house next door. Her story and actions totally carries the thrust of the book, and without giving anything away I was a little worried that her story had been too swiftly curtailed to carry my interest to the end.

More frustrating for me, was the close to home aspect of the story, where Kate finds herself immersed in the suspicious goings-on of her next door neighbour, and the grand reveal of how this relates to the travails of her alienated sister, Sally. Again, I think Ellwood, is spot on with the characterisation of Sally, fighting a battle with alcoholism, and the conflicting states of mind and self-awareness that this terrible addiction causes to those in its grip. Her experience was never less than utterly believable and affecting. However, I did find the central plot of the book a little weak, and far-fetched to totally draw me in, and the denouement was just a tad too fanciful to entirely convince this reader. Such is the strength of Ellwood’s writing in terms of human experience, that I wondered with the blips in the central plotting, if crime fiction was the right avenue to go down. With her undeniable knack for portraying the weaknesses and strengths of her female characters, I would happily have read this a contemporary fiction novel examining the condition of war and its impact on human relationships, drawing on the issues of PTSD, familial isolation and alcohol addiction.

So, all in all, a bit of a mixed bag for this reader, who didn’t really appreciate the ‘crime’ aspect of the book so much,  but with exhibiting such strong characterisation in the protagonists of Kate and Sally themselves, had enough to keep me reading on. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

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