#BlogTour- Chuck Caruso- The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity

In a near-future Pacific Northwest, a made-to-order sex robot tests a married couple’s concept of fidelity; in the Tennessee hills of 19th-century America, an itinerant preacher forces others to prove their devotion to God – at gunpoint; and in a settlement town of the Old West, a former outlaw seeking to rescue his deceased brother’s family from a life of poverty discovers to his horror the true meaning of blood. In The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity, Edgar Allan Poe scholar Chuck Caruso combines his deep roots in the American Gothic with his own contemporary sense of macabre humour. These sixteen stories of dark fiction range from crime thrillers to western noir to grotesque horror. Each twisted tale displays Caruso’s unique blend of wry prose, feverish storytelling, and tragically-flawed characters discovering that even the most innocent encounter can lead to death. Or sex. Or both…

Yes, yes I know, short stories are not usually my thang, but with a showbiz name like Chuck Caruso, and the whiff of Poe that the author’s scholarly interest promised, I found the temptation of perversity a little difficult to resist…

The collection is a strange and successful mix of the contemporary and the historical, where Caruso traverses timelines by putting a traditional or futuristic spin on the age old themes of human frailty, and the extreme actions this can provoke, Consequently, these stories cover a lot of ground in terms of their themes ranging, amongst others, from a couple’s will to survive an apocalypse, a wife’s jealousy of her husband’s new sex robot, a man’s simmering resentment for his altogether more popular friend, a pest exterminator who calls on entirely the wrong customer, oh, and a bit of cannibalism too. I liked the way that Caruso unashamedly makes us wince, either in a knowing recognition of the horror that is about to be unleashed, or just simply because that is what the best and darkest writers do to jangle our nerves. There were some nice little nods to Poe in these stories, and before you start thinking that these may be a trifle too dark, there are some genuine moments of emotional complicity and cohesion amongst his characters, although some may not live to tell the tale…

Reading more about the author on the web, his writing also draws comparison to Elmore Leonard, which is another plus point for this reader, and boy oh boy, I was not disappointed in the tales set in the Old West, with their visceral themes of sex, death, revenge and bloodlust. Permeated with swift and violent retribution, I particularly enjoyed this selection of tales, oozing with atmosphere, a perfect rendition of time and location, and as authentic as the sawdust floors, sharp shooting and cathouse violence that we instantly recognise from the traditional western genre. The violence is uncompromising, meted out with little regard, and has all the earthy and primal feel of a time when men were men, however, stupid or gullible they prove to be at the sharp end of Caruso’s writing. There is also a real authenticity to Caruso’s dialogue, and inflections of speech in these tales in particular, and you can almost anticipate the sound of saliva hitting spittoon between their clipped and precise pronouncements. Loved it!

So all in all, a most satisfying collection of, yes, quite perverse tales, and although I did sway towards the western noir ones a little more, overall there was much to enjoy here with Caruso’s razor sharp, slightly strange, and at times darkly witty writing. Recommended.

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Author of The Lawn Job, a wicked, sexy crime thriller from Cloud Lodge Books, Ltd, Chuck Caruso’s crime and horror tales have also appeared in Cemetery Dance, Shroud, and Dark Discoveries, among other print magazines and anthologies. His western noir tales have been published by The Big Adios, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and The Western Online. His story “They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete” was included in Kwik Krimes, Otto Penzler’s new best-of-the-web crime anthology.

 

Learn more about Chuck by visiting any of the following online interviews:

Author Interviews

Murder by the Book

Buy The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity (UK)

Buy The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity (US)

 

 (With thanks to William Campos at Cloud Lodge Books for the ARC)

 

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)

There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

 

This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomfited even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

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It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

Blog Tour- Peter May- I’ll Keep You Safe

Husband and wife Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own Ranish Tweed: a Hebridean company that weaves its own special variety of Harris cloth, which has become a sought-after brand in the world of high fashion. But when Niamh learns of Ruairidh’s affair with Russian designer Irina Vetrov, then witnesses the pair killed by a car bomb in Paris, her life is left in ruins.
Along with her husband’s remains, she returns home to the Isle of Lewis, bereft.
The Paris police have ruled out terrorism, and ruled in murder – making Niamh the prime suspect, along with Irina’s missing husband, Georgy. And so French Detective Sylvie Braque is sent to the island to look into Niamh’s past, unaware of the dangers that await her.
As Braque digs deeper into the couple’s history, Niamh herself replays her life with Ruiairidh, searching her memory for those whose grievances might have led to murder. And with each layer revealed, and every unexpected twist uncovered, the two women find themselves drawn inexorably closer to a killer who will not turn back…

There is little that banishes the January blues quite as effectively as a new book from the popular, and diverse,  crime novelist Peter May. It is with some pleasure that the Raven can declare that I’ll Keep You Safe, another Hebridean outing and laced with a touch of the Parisian, accompanied by leftover Christmas chocolate and a wee dram was, by and large, a real new year treat…

For my review I will only dally fleetingly on the plot of this one, as there are neat little twists and tricks, heralded by the literally explosive beginning that will unsettle, surprise and delight you in equal measure. Integral to the success of these is the structure of the book, and the characterisation, and this is what I would particularly like to draw your attention to. Strangely, I’m going to compare Peter May to a stand up comedian, and here’s why. Just as a good stand up comedian would begin to tell you a story, then seamlessly goes off on what appears to be a largely unconnected tangent, then drawing you back to their original story, and repeating this process to the story’s conclusion, so May uses this same device to great effect. He provides us with a relatively linear plot in that woman’s possibly unfaithful husband is killed in car explosion and setting the reader on the course to find out who did it, but by using casual small references to previous events,  he then takes us on an intriguing circular perambulation to explore these happenings, satisfyingly building up layers of the personal histories of his characters. It’s also akin to looking at an old photograph album, so that we can picture Niamh and Ruairidh at crucial points in their formative years, as well as in the life they build together. Niamh’s life and experiences in particular are a real driving force in the book, and as the book is so closely structured around her grief, confusion and anger, I felt incredibly drawn to her. I enjoyed discovering more about her as the book progressed, and the emotional weight that May invests in her does to a certain extent put other characters in the shade, most notably French detective Sylvie Braque, who aside from her interactions with the island police, disappointingly failed to ignite my interest to any degree. Some of the more minor Hebridean characters like Richard Faulkner of Ranish Tweed, and ruddy faced policeman George Gunn provide some good local colour, but I had mixed feelings about another character who brings strife and chaos in their wake…

Throughout the book I couldn’t shake the sense that although I was enveloped in the characters’ lives, the authorial voice of May was very strong as he embellishes his narrative with the depth of research, the evocation of landscape, and his astute understanding of human frailty and strength compounded with his natural flair of almost seeming to speak to the reader one-to-one. For this reason I found myself genuinely interested in the history of tweed, bizarre burial rites, the dangers of peat, and other random facts, that I will be certain to introduce into conversation when the opportunity arises. But seriously, May’s depiction of the landscape, texture and rhythm of life in this island community is fascinating as always, triggering our senses, and enveloping us completely in the story. I was enthralled by his descriptions and observations, so much so that the strangeness of the ending, which I confess did baffle, and slightly perplex me, faded into the background due to the mesmeric beauty of the four hundred pages which preceded it. I loved the pure storytelling I’ll Keep You Safe, and was again in thrall to May’s ability to so closely draw the reader in to this insular and unique community, and the secrets and lies that come to bear. Your senses will be tantalised, your fancy will be tickled, and I guarantee that ending will get you talking…

(With thanks to Riverrun/Quercus Books for the ARC)

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