Thursday, 18 August 2016

Poison City by Paul Crilly

While I mainly read crime fiction and non-fiction, I occasionally stray outside of my comfort zone. Poison City is an urban fantasy/horror and when I saw it on Netgalley I was drawn to it for a number of reasons. First off, the hero Gideon Tau, is part of the Delphic Division, a sub-section of the South African Police Occult Investigative Division. As a former current affairs journalist I have come across the Occult Investigative Division, which really did exist (I'm not sure if it still does) and was tasked with investigating the spate of ritualistic and multi murders that plague that country. So I was intrigued. The second reason was that Poison City, dealing with the occult as it does, reminded me of Simon Unsworth's work. Simon wrote The Devil's Detective, a hugely impressive novel set in Hell, and so I decided to give Paul Crilly a go.

Crilly is an established children's and YA author but apparently Poison City is his first book aimed squarely at adults. From the outset I was hugely impressed. The book is a blend of modern day life - we have the Internet, the wonders of modern technology - with magic and the occult. But this is no Harry Potter. While the latter Harry Potter novels were more adult in their themes, none approached the darkness of Poison City. Demons, vampires, avenging Angels and much, much worse fill these pages and Crilly has a way of bringing this all to life in a way that might well rob the reader of sleep.

Crilly's writing is as fine as can be, he really brings locations to life. I've never been to South Africa, let alone Durban, but I really felt like I had after reading this book. The smells, the sounds, the sights; close my eyes and I was there walking those streets. And like the best crime/noir/horror it makes the reader want to visit the location, however wretched. I've read that since The Wire there are tours of the inner-cities of Baltimore, similarly since Breaking Bad there are tours of Albuquerque. Well having read Poison City I want to visit Durban, however insalubrious it might be.

Most impressively about this novel, and something I've noticed other reviewers have mixed feelings about, are the religious aspects. This comes to the fore towards latter half of the novel and forces the reader to ask serious questions as to what they believe. Without giving too much away he forces the reader to confront the contradictions at the heart of the Judeo-Christianity, how God can go from vengeful spite in the first testament, to forgiving peacenik in the second. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a religious book, please don't be put off whatever your faith or none, but as a lapsed Catholic I have to confess to finding some of this uncomfortable stuff.

If I have one criticism of Poison City, it's that Crilly perhaps tries to fit too much into one novel. There are just a few too many characters and just a few too many strands to the plot. That said, this is a hugely impressive novel and one that I heartily recommend.

4 out of 5 stars       

The Time to Kill by Mason Cross

A while ago, when first writing this blog, I reviewed The Samaritan, Mason Cross's second outing for his hero, Carter Blake. I gave that book three out of five stars. It wasn't that I didn't like it exactly, it was well written, the character was likeable enough. I just didn't take with the whole serial killer story. Serial killers to me are just a bit dull, they've been done to death (excuse the dire pun).

But unlike others I given a lukewarm review to, the author Mason Cross actually responded. And he was really...nice about it. Oh the guilt! But then along came The Time to Kill (originally titled Winterlong) and I borrowed a copy from NetGalley. But I always regretted not reading book number 1, The Killing Season, so what to do? Well I quickly bought a copy of book number 1 and stared reading. And wow. It was great! The whole sniper on the rampage through America had me on the edge of my seat and while I suppose that classifies as a serial killer it was pretty darn original in a going-back-to-basics, none of this carving people up in exotic ways kinda thing.

When I originally reviewed book number 2 I suggested the author make more of his hero's military past, that perhaps he have him go up against his former comrades-in-arms. I don't want to claim credit for the plot of The Time to Kill, perhaps it’s just a case of great minds thinking alike (yes, I did just describe myself as a "great mind") but that's just what Mason Cross does. The Time to Kill sees Carter Blake being hunted by his former special forces unit who now worry that he'll prove an embarrassment, and more to the point, that he will divulge their murkier secrets.

The Time to Kill is a roller coaster ride of tension, a great read that touches on geo-political issues and the war on terrorism while delivering a darn good yarn. On the basis of this and book 1 (book 2 just not being my cup of tea, though as I say, there was nothing wrong with the writing) Mason Cross is certainly somebody who's writing I will watch out for.

5 out of 5 stars

Pumpkin flowers by Matti Friedman

This is an OK book. It's not a brilliant book by any stretch, but it's not bad either. It's well written, some of it is compelling, but it is blighted by two major problems.

The first is the structure. The book is essentially split into four parts. The first recounts the experiences of a young soldier, Avi, whose reminiscences are gleaned from diary entries and letters he wrote home. The second is based on the campaign by the mothers of some of the fallen for Israel to pull back from the Lebanon. The third part deals with the author's experiences of the army, and in particular his service in the base atop the Pumpkin, the hill which grants the book it's title. Finally, the fourth recounts the author's efforts to return to the Lebanon incognito after he has left the Israeli army and see some of the sights from the other side. The third and fourth parts are most compelling. The first not so much. Perhaps because I'm not Israeli and have never travelled to Israel, I found the third section dealing with the mothers' campaign a little difficult to relate to. More generally, I found this disjointed structure prevented the book from flowing and feel it would be better had the author concentrated more on fleshing out his own experiences.

The second major problem to blight this book is perhaps a bit more serious. And that's that not much happens. In some ways it reminded me of Jarhead, another war biography to garner critical acclaim (the Gulf War of 1991), in which I couldn't see the fuss. Both describe much sitting around waiting to engage the enemy and nothing much else besides. Now of course I'm aware of the problem here. I've never served in the military, of any nation. I'm fully aware that I'm writing this review from the comfort of my sofa. A perfectly valid critique of this review might be to point out that these books reflect the reality of war, that there is much sitting around and waiting, that it's not like the movies. And I get that, I really do. Opening my copy of Pumpkinflowers, I wasn't expecting Call of Duty, I really wasn't. But I've read a number of accounts of war and they're not all so banal. Perhaps some of those others are embellished. Perhaps it's because most of the stories that make it into print are the more sensational: special forces and the like. Perhaps both Jarhead and Pumpkinflowers describe a greater truth of a much larger body of soldiering.

And there is much to commend in this book. The author's highly dangerous journey back to Lebanon as a civilian is highly compelling, and while he had a Canadian passport, had it been discovered that he was an Israeli citizen and a former soldier at that, his life may well have been forfeit. But equally, there is some that grates. On the whole the author keeps politics out of intruding on his recollections of military life, but on the occasions that it does, his analysis is deeply depressing. He claims that the Israeli citizenry has all but given up on peace with its Arab neighbours and lays the failure of the peace process squarely on their shoulders. No mention of illegal settlements here, or of the Israeli's State's constant efforts to undermine anything even approaching territorial integrity for any future Palestinian entity. And when he gets to Lebanon, he seems oddly incurious as to what makes the poor Shi'ite communities that form the bedrock of Hezbollah tick.

Once again this is a biography and this might just reflect his honest opinions and outlook. And who am I to say he's wrong? But like the author, I'm only human, and thus can only review a book on the basis of my own perceptions and opinions. And that said, for the reasons outlined above, I can only really give this book three stars.