Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Ghosts of the Desert by Ryan Ireland

Ghosts Of The Desert is an odd, psychedelic novel that has been compared by other reviewers to the work of Cormac McCarthy. I can certainly see the similarity and not just in the Navada desert setting. I'm a massive fan of Cormac McCarthy, but I particularly like his works outside of the Border Trilogy for which he's most famous. Sutre, Child of God, Blood Meridian, all have deeply flawed protagonists, often who are worse than anyone else featuring in the story, and Ghosts Of The Desert is of similar fare.

Norman is an anthropologist studying ghost towns and abandoned mines across the Navada desert. He runs afoul of a group of desert-dwelling outcasts led by Jacoby, an old man who appears imbued with equal parts mystical wisdom and psychotic madness. The group is part Manson family, part millenarian cult, and it's only because he begs for his life that Jacoby doesn't cut Norman down on the the spot. It's a decision which the latter comes at least in part to regret.

Norman is slowly inculcated into a life that simultaneously fascinates and repulses him. He's not held against his will as such, in fact at times Jacoby urges him to go, but he's a prisoner of geography, crossing the desert by foot likely to kill him. This isolation enables Jacoby to play with his mind, telling him at various points that the world has ended. 

But we quickly learn that Norman is far from an Angel and what's more Jacoby knows it. How he does so is one of the mysteries of the novel, Jacoby being something of a shaman figure. It also becomes apparent that while on the margins of society, the family and others like them perform some form of function for either organised crime or the government, murdering people lured to them by mysterious men in suits. They also murder the agents who are obviously marked by their employers for death. If this sounds somewhat confusing, it is meant to be. Like the McCarthy novels his work has been compared to, Ghosts Of The Desert leaves much to the readers interpretation and it is never entirely clear what is real and what is the product of Norman's fevered imagination and/or Jacoby's delusional dissemination. 

Ghosts Of The Desert isn't the easiest read. In some places it's heavy going, the violence at points visceral and graphic, and there are disturbing scenes of rape and sexual violence. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. Having said all that, it is a powerful and poignant tale of one man's descent into life on the peripheries of human civilisation and if you have the stomach it's enormously rewarding.

Thanks to Real Readers for the ARC.

I would award this 5 out of 5 stars

Shooting Up by Lukas Kamienski

This is a fascinating book, a history of the approved use of drugs amongst militaries. There have been numerous studies of the illicit use of intoxicants by soldiers - it was well documented in the Vietnam War for example - but this is quite possibly the first study of drug use approved, to at least ignored, by the higher command.

From antiquity to today's wars, the author details in exhaustive detail how intoxicants of various kinds have been used for 'Dutch courage', to combat fatigue and stress, to treat PTSD, to name but a few. The book starts with Ancient Greece, Greek soldiers apparently used Opium before going into battle, and follows through to the present day. Some of this will be familiar to readers, such as Hitler's abuse of Amphetamines, but there are many aspects which come as a real surprise, not least recent use of narcolepsy drugs such Modafinil by the US military to heighten performance. The author also touches upon how illicit substances have caused wars, the Opium Wars in China, and Cocaine in Latin America.

For me the most fascinating parts of this study were the small details he brought to the fore from other works. For example, he reminds the reader of the passage in Homer's Odyssey where we're told how the grief and sorrow Greek soldiers felt for those who died during the siege of Troy was relieved by "Nepenthe" the "drink of oblivion". This, in fact, is one of the earliest descriptions of Opium as used to treat the effects of war, which they dissolved in alcohol to create an early version of what the Victorians' termed laudanum.  Similarly, in the early stages of the Second World War, we learn that "Blitzkrieg was powered by amphetamines as much as by machine."

This is a fascinating study of an important and neglected aspect of the history of warfare, a hidden history if you will, and I would advise anyone to read it.

5 out of 5 stars

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo

Gillian Slovo is a South African born novelist who in 2011 wrote the play, The Riots, based on the civil disturbances which spread throughout the country that year. Her new novel, Ten Days, is not the play in novel form, nor is it a fictionalised account of the 2011 disturbances, but rather a novel inspired by them and set in the present day.

The story surrounds a single mother, Cathy, and her teenage daughter, Lyndall. Cathy has an unreliable partner, Banji, who regularly stays over. She is a leading figure in the local community association and they reside in the Lovelace Estate, a fictional sink estate in the deprived fictional London borough of Rockham. The Lovelace is slated for demolition. Relations have always been poor between the police and local residents, and this isn't helped by an almighty and oppressive heatwave that has enveloped London and has no apparent end in sight. When a well known local with mental health issues dies after being restrained by police, the community gathers around to support his parents in their quest for answers. They demonstrate outside the local police station and are ignored. One thing leads to another and rioting breaks out. This proves to be the spark that ignites various underlying grievances and soon the riots have spread, first to the wider Rockham area, then Greater London, and finally nationwide.

There are various other characters who surround this melodrama. We have a newly appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his capable but possibly scheming deputy, an ambitiously amoral and plotting Home Secretary and the Prime Minister he wishes to depose. The Home Secretary’s wife and secretary also feature strongly in the sub-plot that is the political machinations underpinning the Government’s attempts to get to grips with the turmoil on the streets.

I found this very much to be a novel of two halves. The first half concentrates on setting the scene, defining the characters, painting a portrait of life in Rockham and the tensions that lie at the heart of the Westminster establishment. We learn that the new Commissioner was the Prime Minister’s choice and that he overruled the Home Secretary who favoured his deputy. While this was undoubtedly necessary, I found this part of the novel to drag a little. The second half of the novel, which describes the continuing rioting and the Government and Met’s attempts to get to grips with the disorder much more compelling, especially as a series of big revelations come thick and fast in both the main plot and the subplot.

The novel ends well and the author ties up all the loose ends and story lines, but I did find some issues with novel as a whole. For starters while the rioting spreads throughout London and to other cities in the country there is virtually no mention of this. Even in the scenes that feature the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, the focus is almost exclusively on the Lovelace Estate where trouble first started. At one point the Met Commissioner is told that other cities have got the problem under control and now he needs to get the Lovelace under control. And that’s about the only mention we get of the wider situation. Similarly, the Commissioner and his deputy seem totally unconcerned with what is going on elsewhere in Greater London. While there is some attempt to explain this by the fact that a chemical plant is sited near to the Lovelace, it's not convincing enough an explantation for the total lack of interest for elsewhere.  

The only other issue I had was with characterisation. Most of the characters are well drawn and I congratulate the author on that, but the exception is the Home Secretary. It's pretty apparent early on that he is one of the novel’s major villains. The problem is that at times the author’s portrayal of him borders on the parody; a Machiavellian figure constantly plotting, with a total absence of loyalty or principles, I felt that should he have been given just a few redeemable features his characterisation would be stronger for it.

All in all, this was an enjoyable and thoughtful novel and it's certainly worth a read. But I wouldn't say it was the most compelling story I've read, nor would I say it gave me a greater understanding of how and why a community can explode into disorder.

I would award this 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 11 March 2016

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart - Blog Tour

If I was to choose one word to sum up this historical crime novel it would be “sassy”. While that might sound like a cliché, it's apt. Girl Waits With Gun wouldn't ordinarily be my taste in fiction, I'm not massively into historical novels and I prefer to read grittier Noir-ish work, but having been offered the chance to join the blog tour by those kind folk at Scribe I dived in and am glad I did.

Our protagonist is Constance Kopp, a giant of a woman who towers over most men. She lives with her two sisters, Norma, who’s dour and obsessed with pigeons, and Fleurette, who’s frivolous, petulant and immature. Being 1914 and thus preceding the feminist revolution, this arrangement is unusual to say the least and source of some concern to their brother, Francis, who lives in town with his wife Bessie.

The action kicks off with the three women travelling in their horse drawn carriage when a motor car – still a novelty back then – crashes into them. The driver, Henry Kaufman, and the goons he has travelling with him, are aggressive and surly, refusing to apologise or concede blame. The Kopp sisters take his registration number and soon discover that he is a local silk mill owner. Constance writes to him to request compensation for their damaged carriage and soon they are receiving threatening letters. Constance in particular refuses to back down and the harassment escalates to include vandalism, shots being fired at them and arson. Constance reports this to the authorities and while some don't take them seriously, the local sheriff does, and he becomes a major character in what follows.

The plot of this novel is relatively straightforward, there are no major surprises or twists, but like with many historical novels what brings Girl Waits With Gun alive is the setting. I particularly enjoyed the insight the author gives into the casual sexism and misogyny women had to face in the early 20th century, which while I was aware of, she brings vividly to life. As women, they're clearly regarded as second class citizens, who’s opinions and judgements aren't to be as trusted as men's. There’s little in the way of overt prejudice, rarely is it spoken, it's more subtle and pernicious than that and the author brings this out without ever laying it on too thick. People inquire as to what her husband would think, when Constance makes inquiries,  Jury members snigger at moments of their testimony, and of course women who bear children out of wedlock are ostracised and sent to homes for those who’s virtue has fallen. Other issues the novel touches upon are the dreadful working conditions in the mills and the pall of pollutants which hang above the mill towns in an era pre-dating any environmental regulations.

This is a heavy going novel, far from it; through the vehicle of the Kopp sisters, peculiar and ahead of their time, and their battle with the bullying and overbearing thug of a mill owner, the author pens a witty and beguiling tale. And all the more surprising because while a novel, the basic story is true. Apparently this is the start of a series, Constance Kopp having won her battle went on to become one of the US’s first female deputy sheriffs, and future instalments will novelise her further adventures. I for one will stop back for more.

I give this 5 out of 5 stars