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Mexico

Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

In 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:

 

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Hester Young- The Shimmering Road

A woman is driving through the desert wasteland. Ahead of her, the road shimmers in the heat. She is running from a dream that is so terrifyingly real that it haunts her waking hours. The pop of a bullet, the rush of blood through water … Is her vision a premonition, a message that she and her daughter are in danger? Then Charlie learns that the mother she never knew has been murdered in Arizona. Soon she must confront her past, and untangle a web of secrets that will reveal the truths of her own nightmare…

Having enjoyed The Gates of Evangeline the debut novel by Hester Young, I was very keen to see what this author would produce next. The Shimmering Road takes us on a journey through the border states of America, exposing the grim realities of those whose lives are defined by their proximity to one of the richest nations on earth, whilst weaving a compelling tale of family, poverty, retribution and the search for emotional closure.

The character of Charlotte is the real epicentre of the book, and she confidently holds the reader’s interest throughout. As a woman from a broken background who has strived and achieved success as a journalist, Young now places her in an entirely different geographical and emotional situation on the cusp of motherhood, yet drawn back into the dark history of her family with the murders of her estranged mother and sister. Charlotte is haunted by violent visions of death, and with the news of these murders is drawn into the desperate lives of her former family, uncovering a dark and sordid tale of sex, drugs and violence. Charlotte possesses all the wisecracking toughness and doggedness of her former career, but by the same token displays credible moments of self doubt and emotional uncertainty, which draws us as readers to her. As she delves deeper into her late mother’s work in the Mexican border towns, we see her assumptions challenged, and her willingness to stop at nothing to expose the mistreatment and exploitation of the members of these communities. I loved her caustic wit, her undulating relationship with her partner Noah and the underlying emotional baggage of his previous marriage, and the very real uncertainty she displays with impending motherhood and the tentative adoption of her late sister’s child. Young cleverly uses her character as not only a conduit for the anger and emotional responses for the other characters, but also uses her as a prism for us to be exposed to the social deprivation she observes as she embarks on the mission to uncover the facts behind the murder of her family. In common with The Gates of Evangeline, as a plot device, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Charlotte’s borderline supernatural visions that draw her in deeper to the demise of her family, but appreciate that this becomes invaluable to her investigations in Mexico later in the book.

Having had a long-held interest in the socio-political aspects of Mexico, I was completely hooked by the clear and precise, though not necessarily comfortable, portrayal of life amongst the destitute inhabitants of Nogales. Here, Young draws us into a gruelling world of extreme poverty and sexual exploitation, that is uncompromising, and sadly, all too accurate. What proves interesting is how Young so clearly shows the difference in morality that enables people to survive in dire circumstances, and how some toil in the most indescribably harsh and dangerous conditions to ensure the survival of their families. Others however, through greed and lack of compassion, are more than happy to make a buck by exploiting young girls either for men’s sexual gratification, or to take part in ‘baby farming’ for rich and childless American couples. As Charlotte begins to explore this world, through the charitable work of her reformed late mother, she tends to reflect the sheer horror at these people’s lives that we experience as readers, and to mirror our emotional reactions to these desperate circumstances. This aspect of the book was intense, incredibly well-written and utterly compelling.

I thought this for the most part an extremely accomplished book, with its vivid characterisation, intense emotion, and a wonderful expose of those whose lives are in such stark contrast to our own. Undercut by moments of humour and extreme pathos, Young has produced not only an effective thriller, but a book that is packed with issues of family, poverty and revenge. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin Random House for the ARC)

Down Mexico Way- Sam Hawken- La Frontera/Christopher Irvin- Federales

La Frontera, by Sam HawkenAna Torres is a Texas Ranger assigned to a dusty outpost to protect the border. When she discovers the body of a dead crosser, the stage is set for an investigation and a confrontation in the nighttime desert.
Luis González lives on the Mexican side, helping those who seek a better life in the north while looking for peace in his own way.
Marisol Herrera, a border crosser, braves hardship and dangers on her journey from the high mountains of El Salvador to the sun-blasted flats of the Mexico/Texas border. She is alone, chasing a dream, but threatened by the realities of la frontera.  The stories of these three  intersect in the badlands of Texas and there will be death and pain and prices paid along the banks of the Rio Grande….

Following in the tradition of his first two novels, The Dead Women of Juarez and Tequilla Sunset, Hawken brings another glorious and affecting Mexico influenced novel with La Frontera. Cleverly intertwining three distinct and separate stories, Hawken manages to encompass the essential ills of South American and Mexican life, showing the desperation of those keen to enter America in the search of a better life, those that feed financially on this desperation, and the forces of law and order who seek to thwart their foolhardy attempts at escape. I can say with no compunction whatsoever that this book was so perfectly constructed that all three strands stood both singly and together as intensely powerful and accomplished pieces of writing. So often in split narrative books there is a story that does not hold the same level of interest in the reader, but Hawken so neatly side-steps this due to his vibrant and empathetic characterisation.

I felt that I really saw beneath the skin of all three protagonists, who all to some degree have their morality and sense of purpose severely tested and questioned as the story develops. Ana is a representative of the law, tracking border crossers, marking the locations of the sinister rape-trees, negotiating with landholders who have little time or sympathy for the border crossers, and proving her strength as a woman in an incredibly male-dominated environment. Luis is an ex-coyote, now dedicated to providing the essential supplies for potential border crossers, but who quickly discovers that his former life is not so easy to shrug off, which brings him into contact with Marisol, making her way from El Salvador and the inherent dangers this encompasses to get to Mexico on the the brink of reaching the promised land- America. Luis and Marisol’s stories in particular are truly touching, as Hawken affords the right level of sympathy and empathy with both, whatever the rights and wrongs of their actions, previously or now. I was absolutely rooting for Marisol, who shows such a strength and dignity as the story progresses in her single-minded determination to reach her goal, and those she protects along the way, mirrored in the actions of Luis.

I must confess that having read both of Hawken’s previous books, I was not expecting any deviation from the accomplished and gripping style that permeates his writing. I was quite right in this assumption, as La Frontera, merely strengthens my admiration for his writing with its perfect rendition of not only location, but the sustained and probing characterisation that underscores a compelling plot. Excellent.

fedMexican Federal Agent Marcos Camarena dedicated his life to the job. But in a country where white knights die meaningless deaths, martyred in a hole with fifty other headless bodies in the desert, corruption is not an attribute but a scale; no longer a stigma but the status quo.

Next to Christopher Irvin’s Federales, a slim and precise novella with a control of narrative that Irvin so regularly exhibits in his short story output. Focusing on Marcos, a veteran of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt and violent federal police, or federales, Irvin paints a picture of a man adrift in the moral abyss of those who hold themselves up as the defenders of this torn and violent society. Marcos is defined by his moral integrity in an organisation functioning immorally with bribes and pay-offs and the leaking of information, but comes to a crisis point where he can stomach the illegality rife in his department no longer, and cannot sink to the depths of his colleagues’ actions. He takes a job as a personal bodyguard to Eva Santos, the former mayor of a small town on the Mexican coast, who has proved herself to be a vociferous and outspoken challenger to the powerful drug cartels, based on the real life political figure of Maria Santos Gorrostieta, who was assassinated in Mexico, through her condemnation of the cartels. What follows is a poignant, but ultimately tragic portrayal of Marcos’ endeavours to protect Eva and her daughter Clara, from the the insidious reach of the most corrupt sphere of Mexican society.

The writing is defined by its sparsity, and leaves more said by what is evidently unsaid, in the chosen narrative style, and is made all the more powerful and vital for it. It is a moral tale without being preachy, and a fitting tribute to those who seek to buck the status quo that the corruption and influence of the cartels wreaks on Mexican life. A short but satisfying and emotive read.

About the authors:

Sam Hawken is a novelist whose mainstream publishing career began in 2011 with the publication in the United Kingdom of THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUÁREZ, a crime novel that used the real-life tragedy of female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez as the stepping-off point for a story of corruption, despair and tragedy. It was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger. TEQUILA SUNSET followed in 2012, returning once again to Ciudad Juárez and its sister city, El Paso, Texas. This time Hawken drew upon the legacy of the infamous gang Barrio Azteca, at one time responsible for over 80% of the murders in Juárez, formerly the murder capital of the world. Once again, the Crime Writers Association recognized Hawken’s work, nominating TEQUILA SUNSET for the Gold Dagger (best crime novel of the year). Trained as an historian, Sam Hawken leans on his scholastic background to create books with solid connections to the real world, while also telling human stories in the crime-fiction genre. Though he no longer counts Texas as his home, he has not left the American Southwest behind. His third traditionally published novel, LA FRONTERA, appeared in December 2013, with a fourth, MISSING, coming in 2014. A self-published release from 2013, JUÁREZ DANCE, mines this same fruitful territory. Follow on Twitter @samhawken / www.samhawken.com/

Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s rest for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. His short stories have appeared in several publications, including Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Shotgun Honey. His debut novella, FEDERALES, is out now from One Eye Press. He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. Follow on Twitter @chrislirvin / http://christopherirvin.net/

 

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