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)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

 

Raven’s Yearly Round Up and Top 10 Crime Reads Of The Year 2018

And so another year of superb reading has ended, throwing all bloggers into a state of rumination, indecision and mild despair, as we seek to narrow our reads down to our particular favourites. Although, for various reasons I won’t bore you with, I had a slightly lower reading count this year, I feel I have unearthed some real beauties, and delighted that my general plan to ignore the most overhyped books of the year worked a treat for me! I only read two of these (for work) and was totally gratified that my new rule held true- if it’s hyped it’s probably a turkey! Joking aside, I genuinely have struggled to narrow my reading to a definitive list, so I’m going to cheat slightly and round up a few of those that just missed the final ten, as they are completely worth your close attention, before revealing the final line-up…

I already have a substantial list of books coming this year that have caught my attention, both crime and fiction, so I may mix it up a bit and do some fiction reviews too, as I love both genres. I’m also going to pull back a bit on participating in blog tours, to allow me a little breathing space, and better time management for reading and reviewing. My reading list has also been significantly increased due to my inclusion as a judge for The Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, as a replacement for the most excellent Barry Forshaw. It’s all very exciting and looking forward to discussing and comparing notes with Sarah Ward, Kat Hall and Karen Meek on a not insubstantial list- there’s been some great reads so far, but my lips are sealed…

So my honourable mentions go to these that only missed the cut by a hair’s breadth (click on the image for the review). From Barbados to Brazil, from Denmark and the USA to Belgium and France, all of these are brilliantly character driven, atmospheric, socially perceptive or just damned thrilling reads, that were close, so close, to my favourites of the year. If you missed them, add them to your New Year reading lists, and you won’t be disappointed…

   

So, eyes down and here we go for the Top 10 of the Year- click on the images for the full reviews…

10.

“It was feisty, fresh, wonderfully sordid and a sublime blast of noir to welcome in the new year.” 

  9.

“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.”

8.

“Caleb’s character works well on several levels, due to the authenticity that Viskic brings to him and his voice. Here is a man that recognises his own weaknesses, and by extension the weaknesses of others, and carries with him a real sense of emotional intelligence, despite the constraints that his aural impairment places on him.”

7.

Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment.”

6.

“It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of engagement Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this turbulent period of Indian history.

5.

“The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection.”

4.

“I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of people that read, aside from the pure enjoyment of reading, do so to provide themselves with an enhanced comprehension of the world around them, and to encounter and experience people, places and cultural differences, and this is what Miller achieves here. American By Day is smarter than your average thriller, but containing all the essential components of good crime fiction that keep us reading and reading.

3.

“Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of scrutiny and observation on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving.

1.

Yes, I know you’re thinking where has number 2 gone?

Well, all year I was convinced that a certain book would be my top read of the year until November when I read a certain book by Lou Berney called November Road, which was completely inseparable from Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, which deservedly held the number one spot since January! So I have two favourite books of the year and here’s why… 

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.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. November Road held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances. This is unquestionably one of those books that will haunt me for some time to come.  

So there we have it. Another year packed full of brilliant books, so thanks as always to my regular followers of this blog and on Twitter, to the publishers for the advance reading copies, to Netgalley for the same, to the wonderful bookshops across the land, and to my fellow bloggers who have directed me to many more amazing reads over the course of the year. A big Happy New Year to you all, and wishing you all another splendid year of reading delights. 

 

Blog Tour- Michael Farris Smith- The Fighter

The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred year old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to him. The foster mother who saved Jack Boucher from a childhood of abandonment now rests in a hospice. Her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack is now owned by banks and strangers. And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a notebook of names that separate friend from foe. But in a single twisted night Jack is derailed. Losing the money that will clear his debt with the queen of Delta vice, and forcing Jack into the fighting pit one last time the stakes nothing less than life or death…

I would like to begin this review by heartily congratulating Michael Farris Smith on writing a book that is so beautifully plotted and exquisitely characterised that I’m already doubting my ability to do justice to the book in this review. I’ll try…

The Fighter is at times so painfully brutal in terms of the physicality of violence that the author presents, but this is tempered by some of the most sensitive and soulful prose that I have encountered for some time.  In a throwaway comment on social media I described Smith as the bastard lovechild of Cormac McCarthy and Willy Vlautin, as his writing exudes all the pain, brutality, and baring of the soul of his characters that these two writers excel in. Jack Bouchard- the fighter of the title- is a man metaphorically and physically bruised and battered by the life he has led, and suffering in the wake of bad decisions and wrong turnings that he has made. As he teeters on the edge of financial ruin, and in the face the impending loss of the one person who, to use a boxing analogy, has fought his corner, since his less than stable childhood, we see a man at his lowest ebb. More importantly as dependent as he is on gambling, illegal medication, and fighting the physical effects of a life spent punched and pummelled as a prize-fighter, Smith loads this character with an incredibly strong moral centre, and a man capable of a depth of emotion that his actions and outward appearance belie. Smith plays with our expectations of this character from the beginning, as he moves Bouchard from an almost clichéd portrayal of a punch drunk wastrel, to this incredibly empathetic character. The characterisation of Bouchard is phenomenal, as we experience his extreme lows, and see his increasingly desperate reaching towards a safe haven and stability in his life. The scenes with Maryann, his adoptive mother, and his recollections of the life lived with her, are beautifully poised and incredibly moving, and there is such a melancholic grace about Bouchard as he teeters on the edge of loss. Bathed in pathos, but not cloyingly so, Smith achieves a rare balance between the essential tough masculinity of Bouchard, and the more sensitive core of his emotional regret and sadness – it’s masterfully done.

Parallel to Bouchard, we enter into the less than stable existence of a young woman, Annette, who bears her pain in a strange parallel to Bouchard. As much as he wears the scars of fights lost and won, Annette has chosen to represent her life, and channel her emotions and thoughts with her body art. As we see her initially in the roustabout world of the travelling show, with no sense of permanence of rootedness, her and Bouchard’s paths crossing seems inevitable, opening up a whole other world of emotional bargaining and personal revelation. I liked very much her curious mix of strength and vulnerability, and how, as a reader, we recognise this symbiosis of emotion that Smith imbues in these two characters. Also, with shades of Elmore Leonard, Smith constructs a small band of despicable criminal characters, to whom Bouchard is indebted, replete with their southern redneck mentality, and violent compulsions, to raise the stakes for Bouchard’s survival. They play beautifully in the overarching feel of violence and hopelessness that permeates the book, leaving the reader in hope of more uplifting revelations…

The sultry, suffocating feel of Mississippi drips from every page, and the laconic cadence of the Deep South, resonates in your mind, in the stripped down, bare bones dialogue, that says as much in the gaps that it leaves, as the spaces it fills. The book oozes atmosphere and tension, and as Smith weaves his tale, I would defy you not to surrender to this dark,  brutal, but utterly beautiful story with its glimmers of redemption, and the power of human connection. Cannot praise The Fighter enough- highly recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: