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#BlogTour- J. M. Gulvin- The Contract

In New Orleans, Texas Ranger John Q is out of his jurisdiction, and possibly out of his depth. It seems everyone in Louisiana wants to send him home, and every time he asks questions there’s trouble: from the pharmacist to the detective running scared to the pimp who turned to him as a last resort. Before John Q knows it, he looks the only link between a series of murders. So who could be trying to set him up, and why, and who can he turn to in a city where Southern tradition and family ties rule?

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing J. M. Gulvin’s debut thriller, The Long Count  featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie- a tough guy who could out-tough Jack Reacher.  The Contract sees John Q uprooted from his native Texas to the pulsing heart of New Orleans in this tale of corruption and exploitation echoing the reverberations of the Kennedy assassination…

John Q is a brilliant construct, oozing masculinity and toughness in a highly self-contained way, and like the heroes of the American Western tradition, imbued with a rigid core of morality and decency that permeates his dealing with those that have sinned and are sinned against. In comparison to other tough guy figures of modern crime thriller writing, he doesn’t go in for mawkish naval gazing, having found himself a sole parent, does not get drawn into unbelievable love entanglements, and when he does occasionally get his butt kicked we know that it does actually smart a bit.  Gulvin has characterised him with a laconic speech pattern that also plays into this hero tradition, and the brooding quality of the moral avenger. It works incredibly well, as Quarrie proves a menacing opponent for the cast of amateur hitmen and corrupt society figures that his jaunt to New Orleans uncovers.

The absolute stand out feature for me of the two books to date is the exceptionally visual nature of Gulvin’s writing. As he transports the reader between the two disparate locales of Texas and New Orleans, the depiction of both is beautifully realised. The stretching, arid and barren landscape of Texas where Quarrie dwells with his young son is the extreme opposite of the sultry, sensual New Orleans where violence always seems to dwell just beneath the surface. As Quarrie takes up temporary residence in New Orleans, Gulvin moves us effortlessly around the thoroughfares, taking snapshots of the architectural heritage, and immersing us in the culture, politics and spiritual traditions of this unique city. There’s racial tension, sexual exploitation, corruption, and the shadow of the Vietnam War. Coupled with the use of Jim Garrison- a lead figure in the investigation into the Kennedy assassination- and other cultural and social references that firmly fix this book in a period of space and time, Gulvin’s research and attention to detail raises this book above the simple tag of thriller into a richly rewarding read. In common with Tim Baker’s Fever City,  Gulvin provides little teasing references to future seismic events, that the modern reader quickly recognises, again adding another layer of interest into the story. It’s neatly done, but not to the point that it feels contrived.

Tapping firmly into my affection for the more literary, less overtly bish-bash-bosh crime thriller, and replete with period detail and sense of place, Gulvin has confidently matched the success of The Long Count for this reader. On tenterhooks to see what John Q will become entangled in next… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber 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)

Blog Tour- Melissa Ginsburg- Sunset City- Review

Sunset cityTwenty-two-year-old Charlotte Ford reconnects with Danielle, her best friend from high school, a few days before Danielle is found bludgeoned to death in a motel room. In the wake of the murder, Charlotte’s life unravels and she descends into the city’s underbelly, where she meets the strippers, pornographers and drug dealers who surrounded Danielle in the years they were estranged…

Billed as ‘taut, erotically charged literary noir’, Sunset City pretty much ticks all these boxes, and in common with the brilliant  Cracked by Barbra Leslie, explores the life of a damaged young woman in an impersonal and isolating metropolis, in this case Houston. Through her first person narrative, we observe Charlotte immersing herself totally in the life of her murdered friend Danielle, to uncover the truth behind her death, and drawing her into maelstrom of danger and jealousy. Fans of edgy, slight and sexy crime fiction in the style of Megan Abbott will love this. There’s a good development of Charlotte’s character as she navigates the underbelly of Houston life, encountering the less savoury characters that Danielle has been associating with, and drawing the reader in to a hazy world of drugs and sex, that are graphically explored in the course of the book.

This is another incredibly female-centric novel with much time expended on developing their characters, and very little development of the male protagonists, who again begin to conform to stereotype, although one or two of them would have been more interesting if they had been fleshed out a bit more. I liked the portrayal of Charlotte and Danielle’s relationship and the way their paths had diverged only to be brought back together in such difficult emotional circumstances. Charlotte herself exhibits a curious mix of strength and flakiness, that is so representative of the insecurities that women undergo in their twenties, seeking their place in the world, and being not altogether immune to the temptations that life that throw up, She was a likeable character throughout, despite moments of exasperation with her as she wandered blindly into moments of danger. I also thought the underlying angst and the exploration of the relationship  between Danielle and her mother was incredibly well drawn, paying particular attention to the difficulties and jealousies that can place pressure on the mother and daughter bond. These parts of the narrative really gave a sense of depth to the book, as the central mystery of the reasons behind Danielle’s death became very obvious very quickly, and the emphasis on characterisation rather than the delineation of the plot itself led to a rather damp squib ending.

Always one to comment of the use of location in the book, and in this one Houston provides a smart backdrop to the book. In a recent interview Ginsburg, who was brought up in Houston but now lives elsewhere, says that she is almost re-imagining the city from her youth, and this is very evident in the book. The Houston we see through the different characters viewpoints and experience of it is a prism of the city as a whole, making it not strictly urban and not strictly rural, not completely moral, but underscored with social darkness. The city mirrors the moods and lives of the protagonists in Ginsburg’s portrayal of it, and this works incredibly well throughout, in this not altogether unsatisfying dark, violent and sexy tale. Worth a look.

Melissa Ginsburg was born and raised in Houston and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost and two poetry chapbooks, Arbor and Double Blind. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi. Sunset City is her first novel.  Visit her website here and follow on Twitter @Ginsburgmelissa

(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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Michael Robotham- Life Or Death

25484031Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for an armed robbery in which four people died, including two of the gang. Seven million dollars has never been recovered and everybody believes that Audie knows where the money is. For ten years he has been beaten, stabbed, throttled and threatened almost daily by prison guards, inmates and criminal gangs, who all want to answer this same question, but suddenly Audie vanishes, the day before he’s due to be released. Everybody wants to find Audie, but he’s not running. Instead he’s trying to save a life . . . and not just his own.

Billed as a cross between The Shawshank Redemption and No Country For Old Men, Life Or Death has been dubbed by Michael Robotham himself as the book he always meant to write. In all fairness, I would say that this is a book that all crime fiction lovers were meant to read. I have absolutely no qualms in stating that this is one of my absolute stand-out reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

From the very outset, Robotham firmly ensconces us in the world of Audie Palmer, a man on the brink of release from prison who stages an escape the night before his legitimate release. Immediately you are thinking why. Why would you do that? And take it from me, the journey to us discovering the reasons for this is a taut, compelling and dangerous one for us and Audie both. Pursued by both law enforcement, and a fellow prisoner granted an early release to track Audie down, Robotham takes us on nerve shredding yet beautifully paced story, revealing piece by piece the details of the cause of Audie’s incarceration, and his desperate dash for freedom. As he seeks to atone and deliver justice for the violent events of the past, Robotham immerses us in a world of corrupt officialdom who will stop at nothing to silence him…

With some degree of boldness I will say that although this crime novel strays to beyond 500 pages, there is not a single word wasted or scene out of place. I was enraptured from the outset by the vividness of the language, and the natural cadence of the American voice that shone throughout the book. Sometimes, when crime authors are locating their books in a non-native country to themselves, the voices do not so keenly demonstrate the natural rhythms and patterns of dialogue that they are seeking to represent. Robotham has done his homework well, as the natural ebb and flow of the Texan vernacular is keenly resonant throughout the book. Equally, the characterisation of all the main players is beautifully weighted throughout, so that characters that initially appear bad to the bone, are not truly so, as the demands of their public persona are starkly at odds with the depth of emotion, self-preservation and their fundamental human need to protect those closest to them. This is clearly in evidence in both Audie Palmer and law enforcement officer Ryan Valdez, who embark on a violent game of cat and mouse as the book progresses. Both men are imbued with their own sense of honour, sometimes twisted, that drives them to achieve retribution on the other for reasons I will not spoil here. I also loved Special Agent Desiree Furness, a pint-sized powerhouse of feistiness who endlessly strives to overcome both her gender and small stature within the masculine confines of the FBI. She adds not only an interesting counterbalance to the struggle between Audie and Valdez, but also affords Robotham to add some lighter moments to the book.

The slow reveal of Audie’s grand passion with the haunted and beautiful Belita is so poignantly and delicately portrayed, when taken in tandem with the more violent and disturbing aspects of the book, giving wonderful shades of light and dark throughout. Robotham plays with our empathy, and skilfully manipulates our perception of the characters, in a way that I have only rarely witnessed in crime fiction outside of those American crime writers that walk the line between crime writing and contemporary fiction. This along with the beautifully weighted and shifting timeline of the central plot, cannot help but hold you enthralled as the reveal of what has happened in the past gathers momentum to manipulate and taint the events in the present as Audie and Valdez hurtle towards a final showdown.

Although I have been a fan of Robotham’s for many years, as he is a consistently enjoyable crime writer, I was more than taken aback at this change of style, and if I had read this blind, would never have picked him as the author. Consequently, this has increased his stature even more, as this book demonstrates his true flexibility and skill as a writer, and has impressed me greatly, no mean feat in itself! A terrific book and executed quite beautifully. I am now emotionally spent…

Visit Michael Robotham’s website here Follow him on Twitter @michaelrobotham

(With thanks to Little Brown UK for the ARC)

John Stonehouse- An American Outlaw

Product DetailsThe scion of one of the West’s great outlaws comes home from the war in Iraq–Gilman James, the last of three childhood friends to return. His brothers-in-arms are mere shadows of their former selves–Gil, unmarked–determines to take care of them. But how far should a man go for the people he loves? Stepping across the line between right and wrong, Gil finds himself stranded in the Texan desert-as a bank heist he’s planned goes horribly wrong. Pursued into the badlands by US Marshal John Whicher, Gil crosses paths with Tennille Labrea; an outlander, with her own demons to fight. Shielding a secret too precious to share with anyone, she’s ready to cross her own line in the sand. What makes an outlaw? Marshal John Whicher, veteran of the First Gulf War thinks he knows. But can natural justice ever outrank the law? For three very different people a moment of reckoning is set in train: violent, defining; inescapable.

Always keen to highlight debut authors, John Stonehouse has proved to be a real find with his first book, An American Outlaw. This is a blistering slice of modern Americana that is hugely reminiscent in the spare, sparse style of authors like Cormac McCarthy, Ace Atkins and Denis Johnson, and hooks the reader throughout with its depiction of a fast-moving and tension filled manhunt across Texas.

The action focuses on Gilman James (a distant relation of outlaw Jesse James) and his two cohorts, having successfully completed one heist, and on the verge of a second in the far southwest of Texas. However, due to an unfortunate power outage, and the gung-ho actions of the other members of his team, their second job leads to death and injury and sees Gil and his injured friend on the receiving end of a desperate manhunt in the company of Tennille Labrea, a woman harbouring a secret and with an agenda all of her own. Stonehouse splits the action effectively between the trio’s flight from justice, and the actions of those who pursue them, headed by John Whicher from the US Marshals Office- a dogged and uncompromising ex-soldier who always aims gets his man.

With the ex-military background of James, his cohorts, and the marvellous and dogged Whicher, Stonehouse plays heavily on the themes of friendship, loyalty and the bonds and experiences illicited by the involvement in military conflict, and this is a real strength of the book. There is an interesting play on the way that the moral duty afforded to those who serve their country can be quickly unravelled in their return to society, as evinced by James and his friends’ actions. Stonehouse reveals a step at a time the connection between the main male characters through their military service across both Gulf Wars, highlighting key events across their tours of duty, and how these incidents have shaped and defined their connections to one another. The characters of Whicher and James, in particular, are incredibly well- defined, and lead to a shifting of loyalties in the reader’s conscience along the way, as neither man is wholly good or bad, making them both vital to the central plot and the holding of the reader’s interest. The pace is relentless and tense, and supported by this excellent characterisation, truly keeps those pages turning. Although I was initially less sure about the introduction of the female charater, Tennille, a young Hispanic woman joining up with the fugitives, my fears were quickly assuaged, as her story was integrated well into the main plot, thus undoing my feeling of her being a token female character to make up the numbers.

The atmosphere and location of the action is brilliantly rendered, with clipped and precise descriptions of the dusty environs of the Texas landscape and its haunting but desolate beauty. You can almost hear the twanging strains of a lone guitar, as the fugitives track across this endless wasteland of run down gas stations, diners and the miles and miles of deserted and hostile Texan terrain. It is incredibly visual, and also ramps up the tension tenfold, as the fugitives’ desperation increases in the sights of their dogged pursuer. Aided by the authentic and spare dialogue which captures the linguistic rhythms of Gilman’s southern roots and the Texan drawl of others, and the superb characterisation of the central characters, I would thoroughly recommend this. A good read.

John Stonehouse is a writer who’s spent a lot of time traveling, both in the states and overseas. Interested in history, literature, music and poetry he’s drawn to wide-open spaces; places few people go – inside or out. An American Outlaw is his first novel. He’s currently writing his second, due out later this year. Follow on Twitter @JohnStonehouse2/ https://www.facebook.com/pages/John-Stonehouse/1440763482836694 

(I bought An American Outlaw  in  Kindle format)

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