Thursday, 10 October 2019

Cage by Lilja Sigurdardottir

This is the third title in the author’s Reykjavik Noir series and I have a confession to make. When invited to review the title I had not read the previous two titles in the series (despite having them on my kindle) and so I quickly read all three back to back. I toyed with the idea of writing an individual review for each title, but in the end, I have opted to just write the one review, which while focusing primarily on Cage, is really a review of the trilogy as a whole. If this sounds a little lazy of me, it’s not, because while with some series individual books can be read as standalones, the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, in my opinion, can’t. I really would suggest reading them as a series, and reading them in order, as the structure of the books and the character development will really only make sense to the reader if they’ve read the previous titles. 

There are two main characters in the series, Sonja and Agla. Sonja begins the series in the first book, Snare, as a drug mule, having been tricked into it by a dodgy lawyer after a messy divorce. Her lover, Agla, is a banker, a “bankster” accused of manipulating the market prior to the financial crash. By book three, Cage, Sonja has risen to the top of the Icelandic drug trade, while Agla is in prison serving a short sentence for financial crimes. But Agla has fingers in many pies and is always making huge sums of money from one scam or another.

Each book introduces a colourful cast of supporting characters, many of whom are recurring, and also contains a strong subplot which supports the main arc that spans all three books. In Cage, the two subplots are a scam to make money out of the world’s aluminum supply (if that sounds dull, don’t worry, it’s much more gripping than it sounds) and two teenagers building a bomb (to blow up what is revealed at the end). 

These books are noir in the truest sense of the word, meaning that none of the characters are particularly likeable or sympathetic. A cliché said about writing is that a protagonist has to be likeable, that the reader needs someone they can relate to. But true noir often eschews this. One of the most famous examples is James Elroy’s novel White Jazz, the protagonist of which, a character named Dave Klein, is, in turn, a lawyer, bagman, slum landlord and mafia killer who’s also in an incestuous relationship with his sister! Somehow Elroy, one of the best writers of noir, makes this work. While the reader never comes to like Klein particularly, they can’t help but root for him. 

The Reykjavik Noir series is very much of this mould. None of the characters are particularly likeable, in fact, I would go as far as to say that they’re all pretty despicable (just like Klein, the character in the Elroy novel). An example, the first title, Snare, begins with Sonja smuggling drugs through an airport. To do this, she surreptitiously switches her luggage with that of another, wholly innocent woman (she buys an identical case in duty-free). Only when the other woman has successfully passed through customs does she approach her to admit her “mistake” and swap the luggage back again. Now think about that: if the other woman had been caught, her life would be destroyed, as she would be convicted and possibly imprisoned for drug smuggling. And yet Sonja is one of the main characters, a person we’re supposed to root for. Agla, the bankster, is even worse, the epitome of an amoral banker. Neither is there any let-up as the series progresses, throughout book two, Trap, and book three, Cage, the characters continue to profit from their criminality and unethical behaviour. 

But does it work as a trilogy? Well, yes, it does. Just as James Elroy pulled this trick off with White Jazz, which is seen as one of the classics of the genre and rated by his fans as one of his finest works, Lilja Sigurdardottir pulls it off with her series of novels. One just can’t help but root for Sonja and Agla, despite their despicable flaws. As a fan of noir, I really enjoyed these novels and grudgingly cheered for Sonja and Agla all the way. The author does a great job of telling their stories and these books are real classics of the noir genre. So if like me, you like books that are a bit more challenging than the average read where the protagonists are completely loveable and likeable, then the Reykjavik Noir series might very well be for you.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

This is a book that I kind of happened upon by accident. Or rather, I misunderstood its content. When I got hold of this title, I thought it was going to be an investigation into organised crime’s use of the sea: drug trafficking, people smuggling, piracy. These topics are touched upon, but the bulk of this book is the author’s investigations into the trawler industry.

The oceans cover approximately seventy-one percent of the world’s surface. And this sphere is governed by a patchwork of ill-enforced law. Ships are supposedly governed by the laws of the nations whose flag they sail under; beyond that, there’s maritime law that governs the oceans but it’s patchy at best. All this means that when something happens at sea, jurisdiction is often messy. Then there’s the problem of enforcement. It’s not like someone can just dial the emergency services and summon the police. Then there’s the problem of investigation. The ocean by its very nature does not make a good crime scene. Apart from its lack of solidity, evidence can simply wash away. Similarly, boats move and have to be tracked down. 

Despite the fact that this title only touched on the issues I was expecting, I quickly found myself engrossed, for the author reveals stories of shocking cruelty and criminality. I knew something of illegal fishing - trawlers breaking quotas and illegally fishing in the seas of other nations - but I didn’t quite know its scale. Nor was I aware of the brutality meted out as commonplace to crews. It transpires that many of the world's trawlers are crewed by slave labour. Seafarers are recruited from the poorest slums in the poorest nations on earth, their identity cards are taken so that they can’t leave, they are made to sign contracts that they cannot read, which pledge them to multiple charges, thus ensuring their debt bondage. They suffer beatings, sexual assaults, and rapes, and sometimes worse - murders and executions are regular occurrences. 

The author spent five years investigating all this, teaming up with environmentalists and activists, and the under-resourced law enforcers who struggle to uphold what laws there are and bring at least some of the perpetrators to justice. There have been all too few successes.

This is a deeply troubling book, not least for those like myself who’ve chosen to cut down on meat (for health and environmental reasons) and to eat more fish. I knew that there were concerns about plastic and chemical pollution in the seas and in farmed fish, but now anyone eating fish has to ask whether they are propping up a corrupt industry that operates on the backs of the enslaved. And there are the roaches. This is a minor issue, certainly, when considering the brutality the crews endure, but it is worth noting. One thing the author reveals is that the trawlers are crawling with cockroaches. So the fish are not exactly kept in the most sanitary of conditions.

To put all this in context, if this was happening on land - on a farm, a slaughterhouse, a factory - there would be an outcry. We’re used to seeing environmentalists and animal rights activists exposing the conditions within the meat industry, yet what the author details here is much, much worse. Imagine if a meatpacking facility was found to be cockroach-ridden, employing slaves who were beaten, raped, even murdered, who flouted the law with impotence and arrogance. They would be shut down within days, those responsible prosecuted. Yet this is precisely what happens every day and night on our oceans.

It is not every day that one comes across a book that shocks and changes one’s perception of the world. This is such a book. Deeply moving and concerning, this is a powerful and important exposé.

5 out of 5 stars

Weirder War Two by Richard Denham and Michael Jecks

This is the second collection by the authors of weird stories gleaned from the events of the Second World War. Their first collection, Weird War Two, was published in 2018, and this title follows the same format: small chapters that outline a curious fact or tale. The second book doesn’t follow on from the first, it’s not imperative to have read the first title at all, and both can be enjoyed separately.

Like its predecessor, Weirder War Two doesn’t break new ground in the sense of revealing anything new. The authors have not spent hours studying archives or prising documents from governments through FOIA. But that is not what they set out to do and it’s not the value of this book. Rather, both titles seek to introduce the reader to little known, and yet fascinating, stories. Readers are then free if they like to search out more information on any they might be interested in.

A good example of this is the first story in the title, The Avengers, which details the efforts of Jewish resistance fighters and vigilantes to avenge the holocaust by killing Nazis after the war. The chapter gives a good overview, including recounting the plot to poison Nazi prisoners held in an American POW camp near Nuremberg. If anyone reading this wants to know more they can soon find books that cover the story in more detail (such as the excellent history of Israel’s targeted killings, Rise and Kill First. Written by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, while it mostly focuses on assassination by Mossad and other Israeli intelligence services and special forces, early chapters focus on The Avengers and similar groups). But that said, the overview in Weirder War Two is a good and concise introduction to the topic.

As with its predecessor, Weirder War Two contains a variety of topics that run the full gamut of the Second World War. Some are funny, some ridiculous, some fascinating, some heartrending, and some horrific. Bamse the Dog and Wojtek the Bear are heartwarming stories of animals that were adopted by fighting units and became mascots to their men. But I challenge anyone to read The Shrunken Heads of Buchenwald and not feel nauseous. 

There are many chapters that span the emotions between these two extremes, but it is perhaps tales like the latter, challenging though they are to read, that explains the enduring fascination of World War 2. No conflict before or since has produced so many books. Even the first world war, which rivalled the second in its carnage, has failed to produce the weight of pages dedicated to its chronicling. There’s a sentence in the chapter on The Shrunken Heads of Buchenwald that I think explains this: “A civilised western nation, a Christian state, had experimented and shrunk a man’s head.”

While this sentence refers to the moral outrage the Nazi’s atrocities provoked, it speaks to the second world war as a whole. That a modern nation such as Germany had fallen into the grip of utter psychotic insanity is something the world is still trying to explain. All the tales in this book arise from that insanity - the heartwarming to the horrific - they all occurred due to that mass psychosis. 

In conclusion, like the authors’ previous outing, Weirder War Two is a fascinating collection. It’s the kind of book you can dip into, and no matter one’s knowledge of the conflict readers are sure to find something surprising among its pages.

4 out of 5 stars  

Sunday, 22 September 2019

In The Absence of Miracles by Michael J Malone

Michael is a prolific author and I’ve read a few of his titles down the years. He’s always guaranteed to produce a tightly plotted tale and in recent years he’s moved from more crimes titles to more psychological suspense tales, oftentimes with a touch of the supernatural about them. In The Absence of Miracles is very much in this territory. 

When John Docherty’s mother is taken into nursing care having suffered a stroke, he has no choice but to sell her home. Of course, to do so he needs to clear it of its contents and it is in doing so that his world is turned upside down. For John finds in the attic a box, and in that box, he finds proof that he had a brother he knew nothing about, one who disappeared when he was young. This discovery forces John to reevaluate his life, everything he thought he knew, everything he thought he could remember. John starts to investigate and find answers but finds it difficult to get to the truth, for inadvertently he has uncovered a secret that threatens his emotional and mental well being. 

I don’t really want to give away much more about the plot, but will say that this novel deals with issues of neglect, abuse, mental health, and much more. These are difficult subjects to write about but Malone does so with real sensitivity. The result is a beautifully written novel and one that is both touching, gripping and disturbing. 

Both the plotting and characterisation in this novel are very adeptly done and In The Absence of Miracles is a poignant book that will stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Fuck Yeah, Videogames by Daniel Hardcastle and illustrated by Rebecca Maughan

I have to admit to having a love/hate relationship to videogames and gaming. At points in my life I’ve been a gamer. My early teens in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s (yes, I really am that old) were spent playing Dungeon Master, a Dungeons & Dragons type of role-playing game, on a machine that I can’t even recall. But then I discovered girls, underage drinking and worse, and stopped playing. Years later, after graduating from university, I played out my god-complex with Sid Meier’s Civilisation, a game which had you guide a tribe of cavemen through the stages of civilizational development, all the while battling and conquering other tribes and cities, until they were the most advanced and powerful on earth. But I got bored of that and besides, responsibility in the form of work and family got in the way. In recent years I’ve dabbled with my crime fiction tendencies, fancying myself as an assassin and hitman, and playing games with those titles (Assassin’s Creed and Hitman). But again, I’ve eventually got bored and found they just take too much time. The point is that I’m not a videogames aficionado in the true sense of the word, I don’t share the author’s love and affection for them, these days preferring books or film. But I certainly can understand their appeal.

Fuck Yeah, Videogames is a peon to gaming and the games that Daniel Hardcastle has played, an ode to them, an extended love letter if you will. He’s clearly younger than me (there’s no Dungeon Master here, nor Sid Meier’s Civilisation) and those that do cross with my later period of gaming differ from my choices (no mention of Assassin’s Creed or Hitman) but that’s ok, you don’t have to agree with his choices, or even to have played the games at all. In fact, you don’t even have to be a gamer to enjoy this book, the author’s enthusiasm is infectious and with entertaining illustrations courtesy of Rebecca Maughan, this book is really brought to life.

I very much enjoyed Fuck Yeah, Videogames. It’s not my usual type of read or my preferred genre, but one can’t help but get caught up in his enthusiasm.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Devil’s Aspect by Craig Russell

I’m not a massive fan of serial killer fiction, preferring my crime fiction to be noir and/or touching on issues of corruption. But occasionally a serial killer thriller comes along to break the mold, or at least bring something fresh to it

The description of The Devil’s Aspect was intriguing. On the cusp of the Second World War, Dr Viktor Kosárek takes a new job at a remote castle in Czechoslovakia that has been converted into a high-security asylum. Its inmates are the Devil's Six, six of the worst mass killers in Central Europe. With names like The Woodcutter, The Clown, The Glass Collector, The Sciomancer and The Demon, there’s more than a little of The Silence of The Lambs to this novel. But that’s not all, Prague is being terrorised by yet another serial killer, dubbed Leather Apron, and this is a further thread that runs through the narrative.

Dr Kosárek is a Jungian and believes that myths and legends are archetypes common to all humanity. Thus, he has a theory that one’s evil, a person’s Devil’s Aspect, is to blame for all that is wrong in the world, and that the killers housed in the asylum did their wicked acts thanks to their Devil’s Aspect getting out of control. To prove his theory, he intends to use narcotics to put his patients into a suggestible state where he can identify and confront their Devil's Aspect. But what he finds is far more frightening than he suspected.

This is a long novel, running to approximately 500 pages, but the pages fly by. It touches on the madness of the Third Reich and Nazism that is about to engulf Europe, the paranormal – the devil and demons – and the hunt for the serial killer, Leather Apron. While Viktor Kosárek is the main character, there is a strong supporting cast. Most notably of all is the Prague police detective, Kapitan Lukáš Smolák, who is in pursuit of Leather Apron and seeks Kosárek’s help and advice, and Judita Blochová, an asylum administrator of Jewish extraction who Kosárek develops feelings for.

This is a great novel and one that I read very quickly. If I have one criticism, it’s that there are a couple of gruesome scenes where Leather Apron’s victims are found. I’m not a prude but I do find the gratuitous violence in serial killer thrillers a little off-putting. Luckily, however, there are less than a handful of these scenes and the author resists the temptation to tip into prurience, something that some other writers of serial killer thrillers do.

The Devil’s Aspect has already been snapped up by Hollywood for adaptation, which is no surprise. This is actually the first novel of Craig Russell’s that I’ve read and on the strength of this I might well dig out his earlier work.

4 out of 5 stars  

Thursday, 5 September 2019

November Road by Lou Berney

The assassination of John F Kennedy has created a mini-genre all of its own down the years. Movies such as The Parallax View, though heavily influenced by the tragedy, used it as the inspiration for a fictional assassination, while others fictionalised the assassination, elements of it, or the circumstances surrounding it. Amongst these are Charles McCarry’s novel Tears of Autumn, Don DeLillo’s Libra, and of course, perhaps the best of them all, James Elroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. 

Of course, this is is just a taste of the JFK assassination’s treatment in film (I haven’t even mentioned Oliver Stone’s film, JFK), television, and literature and the canon includes works which focus entirely on the assassination, to those that use it more as a backdrop. Lou Berney’s November Road is very much of the latter. While the assassination of Kennedy is integral to the plot, it is not central to it in the same way that it is to some other works. This isn’t a JFK conspiracy thriller as such, more one that uses the assassination and the conspiracy that surrounded it (in the novel there was a conspiracy, Lee Harvey Oswald having been a patsy) to drive the narrative forward.

Frank Guidry is a fixer for the New Orleans mob, a go-to guy for fearsome mobster Carlos Marcello. Guidry was asked to drive a car to Dallas. After the assassination, he puts two and two together and realises that the car had been used as a getaway vehicle for the real assassin. Guidry is scared, the assassination being audacious even for the mafia, in fact, it borders on the recklessly dangerous. When others who know about the plot start to die, Guidry guesses that Marcello is tying off loose ends and goes on the run.

Guidry meets a woman and her daughter who have fled a life of suffocatingly cloistered domesticity. He charms her so that he can travel with them, reasoning that whoever Marcello has sent after him will be looking for a man travelling alone, not a man with a family. But as they travel across America, he starts to develop real feelings for them.

November Road is in actual fact a road trip novel. The Kennedy assassination, Marcello’s determination to sew up loose ends, the hitman he sets on his erstwhile employee’s trail, all drive the narrative forward and give momentum to Guidry’s journey. The characterisation in the novel is top-notch. The contract killer is chilling, the mother and daughter touching and vulnerable, though not in a saccharine clicéd way. But most of all this is Guidry’s story. Much is said in creative writing workshops about a character’s arc, and November Road is a study in how to craft such an arc well. Guidry goes from selfish womaniser to caring partner and father figure, though tragedy is signposted from the start and its obvious that things can’t end well. This is all done incredibly adeptly and this change in Guidry’s outlook, this transformation he experiences, is convincing.

November Road is a brilliant novel. Part JFK conspiracy thriller, but mainly a road trip undertaken by a desperate man, this is a definite five star read.