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)

 

   Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Laurent Gaude- Hell’s Gate

When his son is killed by gangsters’ crossfire on his way to school, Neapolitan taxi driver Matteo is consumed by despair.
But just when he feels life has lost all meaning, he encounters a man who claims the living can find ways into the afterlife. And legend says that there’s an entrance to the underworld beneath Naples. What if Matteo had a chance of bringing Pippo back from the dead?

Very, very, rarely does a book literally haunt my dreams in the way that the perfectly executed Hell’s Gate did, and as a mark of its intensely powerful writing it drifts back into my thoughts. Despite only running to less than two hundred pages, this book contains more philosophical examination of the human condition, and important questions and observations on the nature of faith, redemption and the life beyond,  that I really did experience a multitude of emotions reading this. What could simply have been a straightforward tale of revenge and loss reveals itself to be so much more…

Although I’m probably the most irreligious person I know, I was genuinely moved, terrified and in awe of Gaude’s portrayal of the afterlife, and the sheer intensity of the love that Matteo exhibits in reconnecting with his son, despite the huge mental and physical cost to himself. Gaude’s depiction of Hell, and the souls that dwell within it, conjures up images worthy of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante, and the writing of these scenes in particular is utterly chilling. Gaude possesses an innate skill in making us believe that we are walking in Matteo’s shadow as he navigates the underworld, such is the visual power of the horrific images and depiction of sounds that accompany his torturous journey to reclaim his son. This unrelenting presentation of human misery and suffering is powerful in the extreme, and gives the reader more than one  pause for thought.

The characterisation of the damaged individuals who become aligned with Matteo in his hellish mission, is suffused with pathos. The individual travails of their lives gives Gaude ample room to provide comment on sexuality, poverty, exploitation and the insidious power of the Catholic church, all of which he does with a cool eye and sense of detachment which makes these individual’s  suffering all the more poignant and resonant. This is a masterclass in characterisation where Gaude shifts the focus on each character subtly and fluidly to really get under the reader’s skin, and worm their way into our consciousness so they truly stay with us.

There is simply no way that this book can be usurped from my eventual favourite reads of the year, even at this early stage, as I was profoundly affected by the power of Gaude’s writing. Mesmerising, cerebral writing that I cannot praise enough. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Gallic Books for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- David McCaffrey- Hellbound- Review and Extract

 

Hellbound Poster

Obadiah Stark aka The Tally Man, is executed at ADX Absolom, his death sentence watched by the world’s media, victim relatives and one investigative reporter, Joe O Connell. Penning an account of Stark’s personal history and subsequent crimes in the hope of determining what elements make the sociopathic mind tick, Joe discovers clues and inconsistencies which cause him to investigate Stark’s execution. While this is happening in the real world, Obadiah Stark awakens to an afterlife where he has a wife and daughter bound to his childhood hometown in Ireland. Following his natural predatory instinct, Obadiah proceeds to torment the town, committing multiple murders before being gunned down by the police. He awakens to find that everything has reset, with no one recalling his murderous spree a reality which offers no escape. As the scenes repeat, he is forced to submit to emotions he has never experienced before… and with it, a poisonous dose of morality…

Hellbound, by debut novelist David McCaffrey, quickly reveals itself as a serial killer thriller that goes beyond the normal tropes of the genre. Moreover, what transpires between its pages, is an intelligent and balanced exploration of the possibility of love and redemption for those capable of the most heinous acts. The book is punctuated by not only the psychological reports undertaken on Stark after his capture, but also by the omniscient narrator’s observations on the death penalty and the power of redemption that add a real punch to the reader’s own emotional responses to the central plotline. As we view Stark’s experiences post- death sentence, we are fully immersed in his emotional struggle as he embarks on a path to redemption through the interaction with his albeit virtual family consisting of a wife and a daughter. As he seeks to dampen down the more destructive aspects of his own psyche, imbued with the unconditional love of his family, he himself begins to be morally tested when their safety is compromised. It’s an interesting psychological exploration of the nature of evil in what could ostensibly be simply labelled as a thriller, and one which McCaffrey achieves admirably throughout.

Building on the strength of the psychological ruminations of the story, McCaffrey’s strong characterisation is another stand-out feature of the book. I grew to like Stark very much as we begin to bear witness to the man behind the mask, and our minds begin to question the validity of the death penalty for individuals such as him. Although seemingly unrepentant from the outset for his killing spree, the life beyond his death really brings to the fore the inner emotions and the propensity for love that he has buried for so long. Responding to the threats on his family a different man emerges, and there is a real feel that his could have been a life well-lived under different circumstances, shoring up the author’s questioning of the validity of the death penalty. Likewise, O’Connell, embarking on the writing of Stark’s life story, and the bizarre anomalies surrounding Stark’s death, acts as a good counterpoint to Stark’s seeming lack of morality. O’Connell handles his research with sensitivity, demonstrating his solid moral compass, before being sucked in to the onerous world of a mysterious organisation called The Brethren, who exact their own cruel and unusual form of punishment on Stark. Naturally, O’Connell finds himself the victim of violence and manipulation, but also acts as a conduit for the reader’s own changing viewpoint on the question of redemption, and was an extremely likeable character indeed.

Aside from a few niggles over some aspects of the dialogue structure, I felt a very positive response to Hellbound as a book that challenged my own opinions and beliefs, Compounded by the fact that McCaffrey is a debut author, I thought it a well-structured and intelligent book, that also ticked the necessary boxes in marking it out as a gripping and pacey crime read. All in all, a thriller that makes you think, but keeps you entertained as well.

EXTRACT

The darkness drops again but now I know that twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

William Butler Yeats

Chapter Nine

September 28th

20:06

O’Dywers, Ashe Street, Tralee (Trá Lí)

County Kerry, Ireland

Evil can be subtle, insidious, capable of infiltrating the most secure of philosophies and ideologies, planting its ‘vicious mole of nature’ in even the most righteous of minds. Oligarchies and organisations can be founded with the most noble of aspirations in mind, and yet find themselves becoming the most capricious of despots, with their power resting amongst a small segment of society, the wealthy, royalty, military and corporate. But what constitutes an evil act? To answer that, it must first be defined what evil actually is. Is slapping one’s child considered evil? Were the acts committed at Auschwitz during wartime evil? The rape and murder of children? Is it the act which is evil, or the person who commits it?

* * *

Daylight was a distant memory by the time Joe arrived at O’Dywer’s. Despite the month, the air was warm as he finished the last of his cigarette outside the entrance to the pub. Anyone who smoked in Ireland nowadays was pretty much made to feel like a leper, the social ostracisation akin to being an endangered species. Joe was immune to the attention it now brought. He had only ever been a social smoker anyway, and given he was about to have a pint, it was his excuse for having one now. The open fire to his right was burning as Joe stepped through the doorway. He made his way down the narrow walkway adjacent to the bar, stopping long enough to order a pint of Guinness before removing his coat and taking a seat on the brown, velvet banquette in the empty booth at the bottom as instructed by his mysterious caller. The Guinness was refreshingly cold as Joe took a long drink, emptying half the glass. He realised he hadn’t been here in a while. He had always preferred O’Dwyer’s around this time, its early evening occupants mostly consisting of regulars ruminating over the newspaper or talking about their day at work. The sounds of the hushed conversation and the smell of brewed hops and whiskey were comforting. A presence made itself known by sliding onto the bench opposite. Glancing at his watch, Joe realised he must have dozed off. The man before him was stocky, built like a rugby player. Middle aged with auburn hair thinning on top, he had the intense stare of someone who took life extremely seriously. His black coat with its wide collars, buttoned almost right to the top, made him look like a spy from an old 1930’s movie. Joe rubbed his eyes and quickly centered himself, shuffling forwards on the bench slightly. “Hello,” he said firmly. “Can I get you anything to drink?” His journalistic instincts kicked in, knowing he could get more from someone if they felt at ease. The stranger glanced from side to side, quickly checking behind him and towards the bar before speaking. “No, I’m fine.” His Belfast-accented voice was strong, the voice of someone used to having people do as he told them. “So, mate. Can I ask who you are?” He paused before speaking. “Peter Stamford.” His hands were clasped in front of him, the thumbs methodically working around each other in a thoughtful fashion. Joe took another mouthful of Guinness as he assessed the man before him. So far, he wasn’t giving much away. “So, Mr. Stamford. Why am I here?” “I work at Absolom, Mr. O’Connell. I was one of Obadiah Stark’s strap-down guards.” Joe shifted in his seat. “Okay, you have my attention.” Stamford leaned towards Joe, his breath smelling like he had already frequented a pub before arriving here. “You were there, when he died, at the back of the room. What did you see?” Joe smiled at the direct nature of the question. “Straight to the point. Okay, what did I see? Well, I saw one of history’s most infamous serial killers strapped to a table, receiving a cocktail of non-recreational medications, whilst most of the world’s media and a dozen or so people who wished him dead looked on. Am I missing anything?” Stamford smiled a knowing smile. “You’re missing everything.” “Oh, really? Okay, let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re not jerking my chain. What did I miss?” Joe did little to hide the intrigue in his tone. “What do you really know about Absolom, Mr. O’Connell? Did you know that we pretty much provide an environment where the inmates eat, sleep and defecate in their cells and only leave them for one hour a day? With the full support of the Government, we have ensured that the prisoners never allowed themselves the audacity of hope that they would ever see the light of day as free men.” “That’s quite a profound statement,” Joe said quietly. Stamford ignored him and continued.Joe Fort imprisoned on drug trafficking charges; the only Irishman ever convicted of terrorism for hire. Santiago Margarito Rangel Varelas, murdered his two year old stepdaughter with kicks to the head. Upon investigation she also had numerous broken ribs and had been sodomised, all injuries Varelas told the police she had sustained having fallen at home. Stuart Swango, physician and serial killer. David York, serving 135 years for child molestation. Mohammed Rassim, one of the four former al-Qaeda members sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007 for their parts in the London July 7th bombings. The list goes on. I can’t think of one inmate there who deserves any leniency or compassion of the slightest modicum. And then you had Obadiah Stark.” Stamford hesitated for a moment as though thinking. “He never showed signs that any of those measures had any deterrent effect on him. He was simply a vacant, black hole of a human being. I hesitate to even call him a man, as he seemed to lack the most basic human emotions. There was no empathy, no remorse, not even hatred. Varelas demonstrated anger at his incarceration, denying he had committed a crime. Stark didn’t emote at all. You simply couldn’t gage the man for a baseline. He never caused any trouble, but you could see it in his eyes. It was more than darkness. It was simply…emptiness, as though he had no soul.” Stamford’s voice slowed as though recalling Obadiah had forced him to experience a deep disquiet. “Stark was kept in Sector 17; call it an ‘ultramax’ within the supermax. A group of cells where there is virtually no human contact whatsoever, not even with the guards. Almost the entirety of Stark’s incarceration at Absolom was spent in Sector 17.” Joe’s expression remained impassive as he finished his pint and wiped his top lip. “Okay, I can count at least four violations of civil liberties going on at Absolom, but assuming I actually give a crap that they are happening to criminals, why should any of this interest me?” “It should interest you, Joe, because you’re not reading between the lines. What I’ve just told you illustrates how well oiled a machine Absolom is. There are no mistakes or oversights. It has a perfect record for a reason. Which is why what I am going to tell you is all the more disturbing.”

HELLBOUND  is available to buy at  Amazon.co.uk

David lives in Redcar in the North East of England and works as an Infection Prevention and Control nurse in a local Acute trust. A huge fan of Steve Alten, John Grisham and Lee Childs, David loves reading as much as he enjoys writing. Hellbound is his first novel, all thanks to Britains Next Bestseller and the aforementioned Steve Alten who took a chance on him as a writing coach client and taught him so much about what it takes to be a writer. A self professed geek, David loves Doctor Who, Arrow, Supernatural, Batman, Superman, D.C Comics, Person of Interest, Continuum, Gotham, Star Wars, The Flash, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist…beginning to see a pattern here? He also knows he only exists as an author because of you, so thank you very much. Learn more about Hellbound and upcoming projects at www.davidmccaffrey.net Follow on Twitter @daveymac1975 and on Facebook here

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)