Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Blog Tour - Falling from the Floating World by Nick Hurst - Blog Tour

Ray is an English teacher working in Japan, having been sacked from his job in London in advertising. Having a degree in Japanese Studies he’s been to the country before, knows it well, speaks the language. While there he meets Tomoe, a woman better than him in so many ways: more beautiful, more charismatic, with a greater zeal for life. He falls for her and he falls hard. But there’s a surprise in stall, when she tells him that something has happened to her father and it has to do with the Yakuza. She asks him to help her with her inquiries, then she goes missing. Ray is now drawn deeper and deeper himself into the underbelly of Japan and it’s a dark place indeed, especially for a gaijin - foreigner - like himself.

Many novels claim a sense of place, and this is especially seen as important by some crime novel readers. Of course, not all novels need to do this and there are many a successful novel, including crime novels and thrillers, that don’t try to conjure up a particular locale. For those that do, some succeed, some don’t, while others still come across as mere travelogue. What marks Falling from the Floating World out as special is that not only does it conjure Japan and Tokyo up beautifully, this sense of place is integral to the entire plot. Indeed, this is not a novel that could have been set anywhere else, so vital is the culture and society of Japan to the story. This is hardly surprising, as the author, Nick Hurst, has spent much time in the Far East, including Japan, and obviously knows the region well. Even so, the research that has gone into this novel, his knowledge of Japanese society, its underworld and the Yakuza, Japanese myths and folklore - all of which is fed into the novel’s narrative - is deeply impressive.

In a world increasingly homogenous, there are arguably few places which have held onto their individual cultural identity as much as Japan, and the author introduces the reader to a rich tapestry. There are the myriad different layers of prostitution; the fact that the Yakuza are semi-legal, indeed, they have their own offices, signposted (albeit discreetly), a situation unthinkable in other countries - imagine if the Sicilian Mafia had offices. These major facets are fascinating, but it’s the smaller things I found most intriguing. One such example is the homeless caused by the Japanese economic downturn. Unlike the homeless in Western nations, these are not the product of broken homes, mental ill-health, alcoholism or drug abuse; rather, these are salaried workers who have lost the job-for-life, people who abandon their families through shame, their carefully constructed shelters on the sidewalk intricately put together and cared for. Another example is the pod hotels, tiny rooms let out for the night. Some cater specifically to those planning illicit liaisons, complete with keys dispensed by vending machine and no staff in sight.

While the plot of Falling from the Floating World is strong and keeps the reader turning the page - I grew to like Ray, a regular guy quickly out of his depth, while Tomoe is beguiling, and one can understand why Ray falls for her - it’s the depth of the world the author creates that makes this novel something special. I really felt like I learnt something about Japan (a country to which I’ve never been), that I understand its society and culture a little better, and that’s a very rare thing in a novel. This is a fascinating novel, and Nick Hurst is a talent to watch, and I certainly look forward to reading whatever he chooses to write next.

5 out of 5 stars 

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

Kjell Ola Dahl is a Norwegian writer best known for his contemporary crime novels set in Oslo. The Courier is standalone and is a departure from the author’s usual work. Rather than a contemporary setting, instead we have a historical thriller tackling the thorny issues of the Nazi occupation of Norway and persecution of the Scandinavian nation’s Jewish population.

Ester is a young Jewish woman in Oslo. The year is 1942 and the Nazi’s occupy Norway with the collaboration of Norwegian fascists. She works with the resistance, distributing illegal newspapers. But at the outset of this novel, she witnesses her father being arrested, his shop shuttered for being a Jewish business, then narrowly avoids being arrested, the local Gestapo having been alerted to where she is meeting her contact to distribute the papers. Ester now has no choice but to go on the run. First, she hides at the house of her friends, Gerhard and Åse Falkum, before moving on to the be smuggled out of Norway into Sweden. In Sweden, Ester hears to her horror that just after she left Norway Åse was murdered, her baby in its cot nearby. Gerhard is under suspicion for the murder, though the resistance reckons on the culprit being a Nazi, luxuries being found in the house. Gerhard also flees to Sweden and is forced to leave his daughter, Turid, behind in the care of others. Later Gerhard appears to die in a fire at a meeting with the resistance but years later he reappears, determined to find out once and for all who murdered Åse.

The Courier unfolds along two separate timelines told in interchanging chapters. The first timeline is in the 1940’s and tells of Ester and Gerhard’s interactions in wartime Oslo. The second timeline occurs in the 1960’s when Gerhard reappears seeking what, we are unsure. Does he want to reconnect with Turid? Does he want justice for Åse’s death? Does he want vengeance?  

This is an intriguing read and the characterisation is told deftly. It drills down into a murky period of history in which there are tragedies and mysteries, not a few people would rather remain hidden. Recently I was listening to a BBC World true-crime/mystery podcast about the Isdal woman - a woman who’s indentity remains unknown whos charred corpse was found in the Isdalen valley in Norway in 1970. Many theories surround her - was she a spy?, was her death linked to Norway’s wartime past? 

While fictional, the plot of The Courier deals with similar themes, for there were and are events which remain unexplained from the war and the decades after. Indeed, as Gerhard tries to uncover the truth his very presence in Norway is unwelcome to many of the other characters and this keeps the reader guessing as what they have to hide. The author handles the plot deftly and both timelines work well with each other making this a very satisfying historical mystery.

5 out of 5 stars

Cherry by Nico Walker

I first heard about this book when it was talked about by Brian Van Reet, a former US Army tank crewman who served in Iraq, who then went on to write a very good novel set in the Iraq War, Spoils (which I reviewed here: https://bit.ly/2GWyscN). Brian’s review of Cherry was agnostic; he was initially concerned that the novel had been picked up in the first place, and then hyped, specifically because it’s story was so sensational, and while he then went on to say it was well written and that it was an important contribution, as a former serviceman he still has some reservations as to why it has received such attention. You can read Brian’s review here, it’s well worth a read: https://bit.ly/2SGelkz

Since then I have heard a lot about this book, for it has made a splash, rightly or wrongly. The reason for this notoriety is that Cherry’s author, Nico Walker, is serving a long stretch for armed robbery. An army medic, he served in Iraq and came back with PTSD. He then got hooked on heroin and ended up robbing banks to fund his fix. Nico Walker is at pains to stress that his novel, written in prison on an old-fashioned typewriter, is fiction. That said, it is clearly inspired by his own experiences, the protagonist an Iraq war veteran, an Army medic, returning from theatre with PTSD, only to end up addicted to heroin and then finally, robbing banks.

Cherry takes us through the narrator’s journey, from his aimless and rather rootless life prior to joining the army, through his decision to do so, then training, deployment to Iraq, and aftermath. The character hasn’t had a hard upbringing as such, at least the author doesn’t paint this as being the case, but he is the product of the post-industrial wasteland that is much of middle America (indeed, much of the Western world). Jobs are hard to come by, at least a career is; gone are the days of full employment, a job for life, a pension awaiting you at the end. He and his friends get high and drunk. They have sex. They try to fill their days and experience an all-too-familiar-to-many ennui. Indeed, when the narrator decides to join the army, this is with no real commitment, this is no lightbulb moment of revelation. Rather it is almost with a shrug: a friend has joined the Marine Corp, so why not? After all, he has nothing better to do. This feeling of listless apathy follows through to basic training. The narrator’s generation have grown up on a diet of Hollywood movies and video games; they’ve all seen Full Metal Jacket and the like; the drill sergeant is something familiar to them. Indeed, even those employed as drill sergeants seem not to have their heart in it, and the two sides, trainer and trainee, go through the motions.

As might be predicted, it is Iraq that punctures this sense of complacency. Neither the narrator, not any of his fellow soldiers, are prepared for what they face. It isn’t long before as a medic he is accompanying more than his fair share of patrols and witnessing sights no one should. It is here in Cherry that some of the most vivid and horrific scenes occur. In particular, there is one chapter that will stay with me. An IED has hit a patrol and they are trying to pull the bodies free from the vehicles. The victims have been torn asunder, quite literally. They’ve just pulled one dead soldier from the wreckage when a sergeant taps the narrator on the arm and tells him that there is still some of him in the truck. The narrator looks and sees “a string of fat running along what’s left of the driver’s seat, the frame of it.” So, he runs his glove encased fingers along, collecting the fat, rolls a ball of it and tosses it in an irrigation channel.

The rest of the novel details the narrator’s return home, his gradual decline into heroin dependency, and eventually, inept bank robbery to feed his addiction. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, the author Nico Walker states that the main character is an asshole but kind of likeable, and this is true of sorts. On the one hand he sleeps around, lives a feckless existence, introduces others to heroin and through his own egotism prevents his girlfriend, Emily, from kicking her habit. On the other, he’s strangely guileless, adhering to a philosophy that there’s no point avenging wrongs, that when one is harmed the damage is already done and therefore seeking revenge is pointless. So even when dealers rip him off, he accepts this as his lot in life. Heroin in this novel is far from glamourised; this is a grubby addiction that robs those ensnared in its clutches of choices and dignity. When the narrator begins robbing banks it feels inevitable, the final destination of a sordid journey.

So, in final analysis, controversy and/or hype aside, was this book any good? Well yes, to an extent. There’s definitely a raw feel to the writing of Cherry. I’ve seen praise of this novel comparing it to Reservoir Dogs, or what would have happened had Holden Caulfield gone to war; while the story has been likened to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. There’s an edginess to the text that is immediate and in the readers face.  That said, I can see why some might see its success, the praise it received, as problematic. As veterans like Brian Van Reet might point out, most of those who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan didn’t turn to mainlining heroin, didn’t rob banks, and there’s a certain salaciousness to the media’s embracing of Cherry. That said, this novel brings home the dreadful toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on swathes of working-class young men. In the United States and its allied nations (for let’s not kid ourselves that this is just an American issue) scores of young people with little or no prospects who’ve signed up to the military on the promise of skills, training, or education, have been left with life changing injuries, physical or mental. So, while Cherry is far from perfect as a novel, and perhaps even less so as an insight into the veteran experience, it is still a valuable addition to the Iraq War canon.

4 out of 5 stars

American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love

This is a sequel to the author’s debut, Lola and picks up pretty much where that novel ended (just a few years have passed). Lola Vasquez has now been outed as leader of the Crenshaw Six street gang, and the gang itself has grown in size substantially (the six referring to the core members) and dominates the Los Angeles drug scene to a greater extent than before. With the gang’s expansion has come money, and lots of it, which Lola launders through a legal pot dispensary amongst other methods and uses to send her adopted daughter to a posh private school.

But with success has come risk, one such being that one might sell heroin to the wrong person and that this might have serious consequences. Lola has issued her gang with the directive not to sell to well-to-do white people. This isn’t because she holds them in any great esteem, but rather that should they overdose the police reaction tends to be severe. She’s well aware that the same cannot be said for when a non-white dies, but she is nothing if not practical. At the outset of American Heroin an SUV of young, wealthy, white college students arrive in Lola’s hood and one of her gang sell them heroin. I won’t divulge spoilers, but needless to say one of their number is the son of somebody very powerful indeed; when he overdoses, Lola’s predictions of dire consequences come to pass.

Lola has a soft spot for abused women and kids. One day a pregnant woman comes to see her to say that her husband is about to be released from prison. He used to beat her, and she fears he will now beat her child. By good fortune, Lola’s brother, Hector, is detained in the same prison as the husband (for a murder Lola in fact was responsible for, events which occurred in the previous title) and she contacts him now to order the hit. But Lola soon discovers that she’s been lied to, that the woman is not married to the man she has asked Lola to kill, is not even pregnant but had strapped padding to her stomach. Lola tries to call off the hit but too late. When she learns that the man her brother killed was in fact a founding member of a very dangerous Mexican cartel, one which now is set on revenge, she knows her troubles have only just begun.

The subplot of Lola’s attempts to bring up her adopted daughter and create a “normal” family life for her continues in this book from the last. Lola always had a keen awareness of racial disparity and this is sharpened in this title as she finds her attracted to the wealthy white father of one of her daughter’s schoolmates. All this adds to the nuance of the tale and fleshes out Lola Vasquez as a character.

If I have one criticism of this book, it is that the cartels Lola and the Crenshaw Six have come up against in both the first book and this sequel appear both relatively small (Lola only has to despatch a few key members to see them off) and tame to the real-life version. One only has to google the Mexican drug cartels to read tales of barbarity that are truly horrific. Decapitates corpses hanging from bridges, mass burials and corpses dissolved in acid are the norm for these people. I would like to see the author notch the danger up for book 3 (I presume there will be third title) to truly existential levels. Have the Crenshaw Six come up against something like the Los Zetas. 

That minor observation aside, American Heroin is a worthy sequel to the author’s debut and continues Lola Vasquez’s story nicely.

4 out 5 stars

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love

Perhaps surprisingly, there are relatively few novels about street gangs. There are gangster novels, certainly, but they tend to focus on the upper end: organised crime families and mafia organisations. The most famous such novel of course is Mario Puzo’s Godfather, which spawned the classic movies. While The Godfather traces the Corleone’s rise from bottom to top, the family is still born into the mafia tradition, and there is a sense of if not inevitability, at least entitlement. There is a sub-genre of course that focuses solely at the bottom of the criminal tree, novels such as Irvine Welsh’s trainspotting that focus on addicts, petty criminals and chancers. But despite the street gangs that blight many an inner city, comparatively few novels focus on this mid-level rung of the ladder, where gangs of young men and women struggle over street corners and lives are often cut short by homicide or long periods of incarceration.

Lola fits very much in this neglected territory. Lola Vasquez, the novel’s titular character, is the girlfriend of Garcia, the nominal head of the Crenshaw Six, a small street gang in Huntington Park, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles. We learn very early on however that Lola is far from just the little woman, rather she secretly leads the gang, having executed its previous leader, Carlos, after discovering that he was ripping them all off. Now she covertly leads, allowing Garcia to be the face of the gang as many might not accept a woman as leader.

The Crenshaw Six is tiny in the scheme of things, but when Los Liones, the powerful Mexican drug cartel that owns the monopoly for trafficking drugs into the city, asks the gang to sabotage a drop between one of their former clients and a new supplier trying to muscle into the trade, Lola and Garcia smell an opportunity to win favour and expand. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out to plan and the Crenshaw Six soon find themselves in debt to the cartel for two million in cash and two million worth of heroin. They must find and return both for the cartel or Lola, who the cartel still labours under the impression is merely a girlfriend, will be tortured and killed.

So begins Lola’s quest to find the loot for the cartel and thus save her life, navigate her gang through the treacherous waters of the city’s criminal landscape, all the while maintaining the fiction that Garcia is really the one in charge. Along the way she meets a corrupt cop, an enigmatic District Attorney who might be friend or foe, various gangbangers and other denizens of the underworld. A subplot is provided by Lola’s determined efforts to rescue the abused daughter of a heroin addict.

Lola is an interesting and compelling read for a number of reasons, not least its protagonist. This is a novel that was first published in 2017, just as the Me Too movement was building steam, and what is Lola if not a gangster for the Me Too and Time’s Up generation? And herein lies the twist in the narrative, the thing that makes Lola different to many a crime novel, for the protagonist is grappling with the age old issue that women across class, ethnicity, and history have had to: sexism and misogyny. There have been female gangsters in real life - for example, in Italy there were cases of women stepping into the role of godmother after male bosses were killed or locked up - and one wonders if they had similar experiences to Lola in this novel. Of course, a criminal is never a poster case for any social movement, but equally criminals are not divorced from the societies they live in - or prey on -and will be equally affected by them.

This is an interesting take on the crime novel but is also an entertaining read on its own merits. Despite the fact her gang is dealing heroin, one can’t help but cheer Lola on and the author imbues the character with enough morality (difficult in a heroin dealer) and charisma to make her compelling. The plot too, encompassing as it does this plucky little gang and its leader trying to outwit a Mexican drug cartel and various double crosses, is engaging and page-turning. All in all, this is a great read.

5 out of 5 stars

The Taking of Annie Thorne by C.J. Tudor

Joe Thorne is a teacher. He’s also a gambling addict and alcoholic who owes a lot of money to some bad people. Finally, he’s a man with a troubled past. Joe grew up in a Nottinghamshire pit village called Arnhill. Post the miner’s strike, the village sunk into a depression from which it has never really recovered. It was, and is, an insular and angry place. Growing up in Arnhill there’s not much to do, and despite the colliery being fenced off, with warning signs against trespass, kids tend to do just that. Joe fell in with the local bully, Stephen Hurst, more for survival than choice. One night the bully and his gang, Joe included, chance upon something in the depths of the tunnels of the colliery. Joe’s sister, Annie, has followed them down and needless to say, this being a horror/supernatural thriller similar to the kind of novel Stephen King would write (King praised the author’s previous book, another excellent read, The Chalk Man) things go downhill from here. Fast forward to the present day and Joe has received a cryptic email that has him return to Arnhill. He has unfinished business and scores to settle, and not a few mysteries to solve, and is soon butting heads with old adversaries who both don’t welcome his return or his asking of questions.

Like the author’s previous novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne has a tremendous sense of place, one really does get a sense of Arnhill. Again, to draw the comparison with Stephen King who often bases his fiction in a small town in Maine, in both her books C.J. Tudor brings to life a certain England that many will recognise: the small town that is suspicious of outsiders and suffering from economic and social woes, that while perhaps less visible than those to blight  inner cities, are no less pernicious to the residents that suffer. 

Tudor is also adept at bringing to life a character and in particular her portrayal of the petty and vicious bully, Stephen Hurst, is a strong feature of this second book. The misery inflicted by him on his victims is at times almost painful to read. Hurst will likely be uncannily familiar to all but the most tone deaf of reader - for who has never met such a character? Every school had a Stephen Hurst - though perhaps not as cruel - and whether readers avoided their attentions or not, I doubt any will not have memories brought vividly back.

Other characters are equally well drawn - Marie Gibson, Hurst’s girlfriend, who Joe is sweet on; and Nick Fletcher, Hurst’s Neanderthal thug - being two of note. There are characters in the current timeline too who make their presence felt - Beth Scattergood, a teacher who takes Joe under her wing, and Marcus Dawson, a sensitive soul who’s being relentlessly bullied by Hurst junior, Stephen Hurst’s son. While all these characters are brilliantly drawn and help bring this tale to life, they each contribute to the plot as well and propel events along.

The Taking of Annie Thorne has a more supernatural bent to it than Tudor’s previous book. Whereas The Chalk Man edged closer to crime fiction territory, this novel has a more folkloric bent. This isn’t a graphic novel, there’s not much violence or gore, rather a real sense of dread stalks its pages, and it’s an incredibly creepy read.

In conclusion, The Taking of Annie Thorne easily lives up to the author’s debut, The Chalk Man and I would recommend this novel heartily.

5 out of 5 stars  

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Kill Redacted by Anthony Good

A terrorist bombing on the London Underground kills scores of people, one casualty being the wife of Michael, headteacher of an inner-city comprehensive boy’s school. Michael is devastated, he loved his wife, idolised her. But Michael does not sink into a pit of despair, though he is certainly depressed and has more than his fair share of bad days.  Neither does he channel his energies into charity work or campaigning, as some might do. Instead, Michael’s mind turns to revenge. It is not the terrorists or their masterminds who are the focus of his ire however, but rather the British Prime Minister whose policies Michael feels provoked the terrorist outrage.

Kill Redacted is told entirely from Michael’s point of view, via a diary he keeps, “self-reflections” he writes for his counsellor, Angela, and the occasional letter he writes to others. This proves a remarkably good way to tell Michael’s tale, as he is an exact man, highly intelligent with a precise grasp of logic. An old school disciplinarian, his writings are didactic and take the reader along threads of logical analysis and reasoning. If this sounds boring, it is anything but, Michael proving to be a complex and fascinating character, if not a little chilling. This feeling that he’s more than a little dangerous, someone you might be wise not to cross, ratchets up as the pages turn.

Much of what Michael writes concerns his thoughts on his wife’s loss. He feels grief at her passing, at the fact that he will never hear her play the piano again, but he also feels great anger and rage towards the Prime Minister. He ruminates on the nature of justice and how the scales can be balanced, but drip fed in amongst all this are the concrete steps he is taking. Throughout the novel it is unclear just how decided he is on vengeance, but as he starts lifting weights at the gym, training in Muay Thai, considering how he might purchase weapons, the notion increasingly comes to dominate his thoughts. Throughout the narrative we also learn of Michael’s past - how he met his wife; just how traditional he was as a headteacher; the pupil, Paul, who he came to take under his wing; Sultan, another pupil, who he punished in the most brutal manner. This all fleshes out Michael as a character and reinforces the impression that he is a man who might be capable of something quite frightening.

Kill Redacted is a brilliant novel and one that is certain to prove controversial, not least because the unnamed Prime Minister that Michael is determined to kill is clearly meant to be Tony Blair. No date is given for the events in the book, but the explosion on the tube that kills Michael’s wife could well be the 7ThJuly bombings. Equally, Michael’s logic that the PM’s policies have provoked terror is exactly the criticism levelled at Blair. Indeed, Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former Director General of MI5, stated at the Iraq Inquiry that the invasion of that country had “substantially” increased the threat to the UK. 

Throughout Kill Redacted, the Prime Minister’s name is redacted, blacked out like in a confidential official report. One chapter of the novel is almost completely redacted, line by line, presumably the narrative making clear who the PM is supposed to be. At the start of the novel there is a note from the publisher claiming that this redaction was carried out for legal reasons, though whether that is true or just a marketing ploy I cannot say. Whether or not the PM is Blair and whether the redactions were for legal reasons or just a writing device, they add a certain frisson to the narrative, a sense that one is reading something prohibited, and thus add to the enjoyment. 

Kill Redacted is a brilliant novel and highly original. In fact, it is so good I think it’s going to take some beating. It’s only February and there’s another ten months to go but could this be my book of 2019? It’s more than a little possible. 

 5 out of 5 stars