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poverty

Joe Thomas- Gringa

São Paulo, 2013: a city at an extraordinary moment in its history. Mario Leme, a detective in the civil police, has developed a friendship with a young English investigative journalist, Ellie. When she goes to meet a contact in central São Paulo, Mario observes from the street as she walks into a building and doesn’t come out. Inside, he discovers the dead body of a young man he doesn’t recognise, and Ellie s phone lying on the floor.

Set during five days in the redevelopment of the centre of São Paulo in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, Ellie’s disappearance links characters at every level of the social hierarchy, from the drug dealers and civil and military police to the political class she witnesses, and charts the feral brutality of urban breakdown…

This time last year I had the pleasure of reading  Paradise City , Joe Thomas’ gritty debut, introducing us to mercurial Brazilian detective Mario Leme. Being both an intuitive and compelling read, I was more than keen to see what lay in store for Leme, and to become even further immersed in the impoverished locale of downtown Sao Paulo…

One of the stand out features of Thomas’ debut was his ardent attention to the social, financial and political spheres of Brazilian society, and by using the backdrop of the urban regeneration needed to host the World Cup, Gringa puts the corruption and neighbourhood cleansing into sharp focus. As happened in South Africa, the book particularly focuses on the destruction of a shanty area of Sao Paulo, dubbed Cracolandia, where developers, legal personnel, and politicians, run roughshod over the lives of the less fortunate, to achieve their vision. With his innate feel for the hardboiled, pared down style of prose, Thomas consistently unsettles the reader with his depiction of these greedy, and not entirely legal practices, and those who suffer in its aftermath. Fortunately though, this is counterbalanced by a series of murders connected to those involved in the area’s development, and the disappearance of a young female journalist eager for a scoop. I found the level of factual detail intertwined with the main ‘thriller’ plot absolutely fascinating, and felt my hackles rise on more than one occasion at the social injustice that the book centres on. The level of corrupt nefarious practices that Gringa exposes was a real eye opener, and I appreciated the way that Thomas consistently exposes the naked truth behind the power and oppression of the more vulnerable in society. It was both powerful and thought provoking.

The weighty social issues of the book, are more than balanced with the superb characterisation, which I felt was even more assured than in the first book. Detective Mario Leme in particular has achieved a certain level of settled equilibrium in his personal life, after the emotional trauma of losing his wife, but in the style of all good crime thrillers, his new investigation threatens to turn this swiftly on its head. I like the slightly morose air of Leme, who is one hundred percent one of the good guys,  and his jocular partner Lisboa, who are set apart from their less reputable police colleagues. Leme reminds me strongly of a kind of world weary American detective, and his self questioning, but keen sense of morality,  reflects this further. There is a consistent attention to all of Thomas’ characters, from bright eyed but singularly naïve journalist Ellie, to Fernando and Leandro, two eager young chaps embroiled in  illegal practices relating to the slum clearance, and a host of other ne’er-do-wells who reek of violence and corruption.

With reference again to Thomas’s writing style, Leme’s and Lisboa’s interactions, along with all the dialogue in the book is sharp, snappy, and has a rhythmical fluidity consist with the sound and cadence of the Brazilian tongue. The book is punctuated with the Brazilian vernacular, some in the glossary at the back, some not, but with the flow of the prose you begin to take the meanings on by osmosis, and I have learnt some very choice Brazilian expressions of disgust or outrage that I’m sure will be valuable at some point! Joking aside though, I thought the structure and language of the book was perfect, and I loved those small episodic interludes of whipcracker paced streams of consciousness that punctuate the book. A great read for those who like their crime on the darker side of the tracks, and dare I say it, even better than the debut. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)

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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)

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