Thursday, 28 December 2017

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

Vinny Duffy and his best friend Jonty are two Catholic lads in a dead end town in Northern Ireland. It’s the early 90’s and they’re drop outs, earning their money washing up for the local Chinese takeaway, just looking for their next joint and pint. Being Northern Ireland however, Sectarianism is never far away, and alongside the usual trials and tribulations faced by feckless youth everywhere, Vinny and Jonty also have to avoid a beating or worse from Loyalist gangs, especially during the marching season. When Vinny gets in a car with two Loyalist thugs, he fears the worst, until that is they crash into a field. Miraculously, they escape unscathed, and a bond of sorts is built between them. When the two Loyalists steal a batch of Ecstasy from Loyalist paramilitaries - another unique feature of the province we learn, while the drug trade everywhere is controlled by gangsters, in Northern Ireland it’s controlled by the terrorist gunmen - who better than Vinny and Jonty to sell it for them?

Skintown is basically a coming of age novel. We follow Vinny as he travels from Indy kid supping pints and sneering at Acid House, to fully fledged raver. Along the way he finds true love, takes copious amounts of drugs, makes new friends across the sectarian divide and deals with the local bully who has it in for him. As someone who grew up in the 90’s and who experienced the rave scene, in many ways this was a nostalgic read for me. There were many situations that Vinny found himself in to which I could relate. But you don’t have to have been submerged in Acid House to enjoy this book, the themes it touches upon are much wider than that.

One of the great aspects of this novel is how the author brings to life what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland in the 90’s. To those who grew up in the mainland, the depiction of the province is both familiar and alien: They listen to the same music, drink the same beer, have the same hobbies; but sectarian prejudice is around every corner, riots occur regularly and the British Army back up the police when things get out of hand. Horrific and life changing violence can occur at a moments notice, most frighteningly on the occasions when one group or another sets off a massive bomb. While IRA bombings occurred on the mainland, they were oh so much more common in Northern Ireland.

This novel is set just before the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and once again, while this news was greeted with relief throughout the UK, in Northern Ireland it meant so much more. The author depicts this well; Vinny, Jonty and the other characters are warily pleased by the news but distrustful that the long conflict that has blighted their lives can really be at an end.  Vinny in particular dreams of escaping the rural backwater he’s in, has set his sights on the bright lights of Belfast, where perhaps he can find his future. The characters in Skintown are all well drawn, but none more so than Vinny, an intelligent but rootless young man who dropped out of school and has no qualifications, but who wants more from life than just claiming the dole.

This is a laugh out loud read, there are parts which are sidesplittingly funny.  For those who grew up at the time and were involved in the rave scene it will certainly bring back emotional memories. But it’s also poignant and touching. This is a bitter sweet book that also has moments of real melancholy. Ciaran McMenamin is a writer of real talent and if Skintown is anything to go by he has a bright future as a novelist.

5 out of 5 stars

Bad Moon Rising by Arthur M. Eckstein

With Trump in the White House, growing tensions in the Middle East and with North Korea, and suggestions that Russia has undermined democracy in the West, it’s tempting to believe that we’re living through unprecedented times. Reading about the discord of the 1970’s is a good antidote to this. To be clear, I borrowed Bad Moon Rising from NetGalley for other reasons. I’ve long been interested in the militant political movements of the time, most famously the Black Panthers, but also the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) who kidnapped the heiress Patty Hearst, and the Weather Underground, the focus of this tome. This last movement were perhaps the most successful. The Black Panthers were destroyed by the FBI COINTELPRO programme, while the SLA were finally smashed in the mid-seventies, and though many of its members went on the run and weren’t caught for decades, when they finally were found many were jailed. The Weather Underground however fared better. In part this is due to the fact that after a disastrous explosion in a bomb factory which killed a number of its members, the group eschewed bombings that might kill, and instead pursued a policy of destruction of  property, in part they were just better at rooting out informants.

Bad Moon Rising is a fascinating account of this movement, the members of which now live openly in the United States having avoided prosecution. It is a fascinating account of the FBI’s failure to catch, build cases against, and convict its members. But to me the real importance of this book is a reminder of just how precarious the period was compared with the world of today. For anyone who didn’t live through the seventies (myself included) it is difficult to understand just how fragile the political situation was and the author does a great job of teasing this out. For all Trump’s faults, as yet he has not led his country into a disastrous war (though some might suggest that it is only a matter of time). Nixon on the other hand, escalated the war in Vietnam (already a quagmire when he came to power) by authorising the carpet bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia, and ground invasions of Cambodia and Laos, all of which were deeply controversial and sparked massive unrest amongst the antiwar movement. 

Similarly, while resistance to Trump is spirited, it does not compare to the depth of feeling and antipathy that the antiwar and leftwing activist movements held for Nixon and it is in this contest that armed movements materialised. The Weather Underground can only be understood in this context. The paranoia of the Nixon Administration, an instability at the heart of his government which led directly to the events of Watergate, is also apparent here. Nixon and his team really did see the Weather Underground as an existential threat. While in some ways this is surprising, for in reality the movement achieved little and their actions were certainly far less destructive than many contemporaries - the IRA, PLO, the Baader Meinhoff Gang in Germany - all killed many more people and destroyed much more property, but again, perhaps the administration can be forgiven for exaggerating the danger the group posed when one considers the febrile atmosphere of the time.

Of course, this comparison between Trump’s nascent administration (let’s remember he has only been President for just over a year) and Nixon’s might prove premature. Trump might well lead the United States into a disastrous foreign intervention and the resistance towards his administration might well become more militant. There are already worrying signs. Putting aside his baiting of North Korea and his deepening of US involvement in Afghanistan (lest we forget, he recently authorised Mattis to increase the number of US troops in the country), the far right is increasingly flexing its muscles as evidenced most vividly in Charlotsville, while militancy on the left is also on the rise: for example, one leftwing group, Redneck Revolt,  was reported by The Independent to be arming working class people who want to defend minorities from attack. In such circumstances, one could well imagine the tide turning and Trump’s America mirroring the turmoil of Nixon’s. But until then, Bad Moon Rising is both a fascinating read in and of itself and a helpful anchor. As yet Trump has been more blowhard than real threat. For all his rhetoric he’s arguably achieved very little and America is still a relatively tranquil place compared to times gone past. Lets hope it stays that way.

4 out of 5 stars

The Hanged Man by Simon Kernick

This is the second in the latest series of novels by the acclaimed British thriller writer, Simon Kernick. While you can read this easily enough as a standalone, I quickly bought the first in the series, The Bone Field, and read that which undoubtedly added to my enjoyment. While this is a new series of novels, it does feature recurring characters from previous books, namely Ray Mason, a former Met detective now with the National Crime Agency, and Tina Boyd, also a former Met detective but now a private detective.

In The Bone Field our two protagonists had uncovered a crime ring abducting young women and sacrificing them in a devil worshipping ceremony. The plot of The Hanged Man follows the events of the previous book with Mason and Boyd trying to bring the criminals to justice. The gang includes a major organised crime figure and his chief enforcer and a sinister brother and sister linked to the establishment, so this proves incredibly difficult. There are also hints that a wider network of connected, establishment figures is involved and that they are being shielded by powerful people.

While primarily a crime thriller, there are hints of a supernatural element to this latest series of novels. This is an interesting development because until recently this genre blend was not popular amongst mainstream publishers. In fact, one of my favourite authors, James Oswald, initially self published his Inspector McClean series because no publisher would touch a supernatural/crime thriller mash up (Oswald has since been snatched up by Penguin). Kernick’s latest series isn’t as much of a genre blend as Oswald’s work, the devil-worshipping element is very light indeed, and there are other influences, namely the recent spate of allegations concerning organised child abuse amongst the establishment. That said, this is somewhat of a departure from his usual work which tends to focus on either ordinary people who stumble upon gangsters or cops investigating organised crime.

Some of the characters in The Bone Field and The Hanged Man are very well drawn indeed. The villains in particular. Mr Bone, the chief henchman of the organised crime boss is as sinister as they come and a great villain, while the sister, Anthea Delbarto, is malevolent and menacing in the extreme. The heroes, Ray Mason and Tina Boyd, are also well drawn, but the problem with using recurring characters in such high-octane thrillers as Simon Kernick writes is that it starts to stretch credulity that so much could occur to them. There are points in both novels where the author has to quickly recap what has happened to them in their lives - for example Tina Boyd has been shot twice, kidnapped once, been held hostage and been involved in at least three killings. I doubt any Met police officer has ever had all that happen to them in their careers and when typed out on the page it’s obviously ludicrous. That said, Kernick isn’t the only author to use recurring characters in action packed series and the same criticism could be levelled at numerous others, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher for example, so this isn’t a major concern. Perhaps the secret is not to spell it out and draw too much attention to the fact that so much has happened to one person.

All in all The Hanged Man (and it’s forerunner, The Bone Field) is a pretty good novel and is well worth a read. It ends on a cliffhanger, a third instalment is on the way, and I will definitely be reading it.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman

In recent years there’s been a crop of crime writing emerging from the British Asian Community, brilliant writers whose work I’ve been honoured to review. Khurrum Rahman and his East of Hounslow joins Imran Mahmood’s debut You Don’t Know Me; Amer Anwar’s Western Fringes; A A Dhand’s Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero.  So how does he compare? Well Rahman lives up to the competition and some.

East of Hounslow tells the story of Javid Qasim, “Jay”, a petty drug dealer carving an illicit living for himself on the streets of West London. He’s Muslim, but he’s not religious in the slightest, barely observant. He’s typical in fact of many young men who wander from the straight and narrow in these times of austerity, stagnant wages and a dearth of opportunities. But Jay is Muslim and through no fault of his own that is going to lead to problems for him. It starts when his local mosque is desecrated. Jay pitches in to help clean up the mess and repair the damage but it’s quickly apparent that some hotheads are stirring up trouble trying to get some of the local youths to hit back. Jay goes along to a meeting, more to look out for his gullible and impressionable friend. For similar reasons, when his friend gets drawn into the hype to hit back at some random whites, Jay goes along to keep him out of trouble. Of course, trouble is what they get, not least Jay’s car being swiped in the ensuing chaos, which so happens to have all the drugs he has on credit from a powerful drug lord in the boot.

Meanwhile, MI5 have their eyes on Jay as a potential recruit. They believe a cell of Islamic extremists is operating in the area and feel Jay would be the perfect informant. From here Jay’s life gets complicated and very dangerous. The druglord, Silas Drakos, is the unforgiving type. MI5 meanwhile sink their claws into him and Jay is recruited. So, he ends up juggling keeping an eye out for Silas’s henchmen, infiltrating a dangerous cell of extremists, all the while struggling with both his own sense of identity and MI5’s demands.     

There are many things to like about East of Hounslow. It’s a thriller that moves along at a great pace and tells a compelling story, but it’s so much more than that. One thing I particularly liked about this book is the author’s depiction of Jay’s recruitment by MI5. As a current affairs journalist, I’ve had occasion in the past to meet with anti-terrorist officers, civil servants in the Cabinet Office, and others who’ve worked with the Security Services. One thing many writers get wrong is the process of source recruitment. Contrary to common belief, those employed directly on the staff of the intelligence services, those who receive a wage, pay their taxes, get a pension at the end of thirty years or whatever, aren’t “agents”. Rather, these are case officers or intelligence officers. An agent is the person the intelligence officer recruits on the inside, what the police might call an informant. The police vernacular is much more honest about all this. The police call their “agents” sources or informants and thus the people the police recruit are never really under any illusions as to their role. The people the security services recruit however, by being called “agents” rather than informants or sources, might be. The author teases this out brilliantly. When Jay is first recruited he has these images in his head from James Bond movies, he has this idea that he’s going to receive the special watch that fires poisonous darts or receive training in spy-craft. He doesn’t get how expendable he is. Throughout the narrative the tension builds as Jay begins to suspect the truth and his handler attempts to manage his expectations. Then there’s the tension between his handler who feels a duty of care to Jay and others in MI5 who see him as merely a tool.

Another aspect of this novel I liked, especially in the current climate, is how the author gets across how ordinary young Muslims can be radicalised through disenfranchisement and alienation, until they’re willing to commit the most heinous acts of terror. At no point does the author glamourise this process, or make excuses for those who cross the line from fundamentalism to violent jihad, but the portrayal of his characters does explain how this process might occur. While the ending, without divulging spoilers, is frighteningly plausible; indeed, a recent event made me think it might be scarily prescient.

East of Hounslow is an incredibly assured debut. It can be read on many different levels. If the reader prefers, it can be enjoyed as simply a thriller. But to my mind it is so much richer. This is a cutting critique of the war on terror, the techniques the Security Services use to foil plots, the mistakes they make when doing so. It is also a commentary on the life experiences of young Muslims living the UK today, the tensions between their Britishness and their Islamic identities, the competing influences that pull at their psyches. However one chooses to enjoy this novel, it really is something special and should not be missed.

Apparently, we haven’t heard the last of Jay and indeed the book while wrapping itself up nicely is ripe for a sequel. I for one can’t wait for Jay’s next outing, for if it’s anything like East of Hounslow it’ll be great.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen

In recent years Nordic Noir has been the irrepressible buzz phrase in crime fiction. The bookshelves heave with crime thrillers set in some frozen locale. I must be one of the few crime thriller fans never to have been caught up in the whole craze. Don’t get me wrong, there are many Nordic Noir novels I’ve read an enjoyed, but for me the story has always been paramount and I’ve enjoyed novels set all over the world just as much. That said, one of my absolute favourite Nordic writers is Antti Tuomainen. I loved his novel The Healer, a dark tale set in the aftermath of catastrophic climate change, while his novel The Mine, a tale of corruption set in Finland’s mining industry, was sublime.

While I might not be a fully paid up member of the Nordic Noir phenomenon, I do love noir. The darker and grittier the better. Until now, Antti Tuomainen’s work has suited me perfectly which is why I was a little concerned to read that for his latest work he was lightening the tone somewhat. Apparently, he was going to write something “quirky”. Was I about to lose one of my favourite authors? Well I needn’t have worried. The Man Who Died is a lighter novel, but in the mould of Fargo. This is quirk with a pitch-black heart. 

Jaako Kaunismaa is a mushroom entrepreneur. He and his wife, Taina, having discovered that the Japanese have a fondness for the mushrooms growing in the local forests, started a business that picks, freeze dries and exports them. But Jaako’s been feeling ill of late and the book begins with him visiting the doctor to receive some rather bad news: he’s been poisoned. It appears that somehow he’s ingested toxins and his organs are failing. Jaako returns home planning ion telling Taina the news only to find her having sex with the company’s handyman. His wife’s infidelities aren’t his only problem for their mushroom company also has a new competitor, almost overnight some men with dubious backgrounds have opened a mushroom processing plant complete with the latest machinery.

So Jaako now realises two things, firstly that he’s been murdered and second that he isn’t short of suspects. Was it Taina his unfaithful wife? The covetous handyman? His company’s new competitors? Some combination of two or all three? The Man Who Died follows Jaako’s quest to solve the crime of his murder, while saving his company, the last thing he care for now he’s lost his wife.

This is a great book and I enjoyed it immensely. The comparisons with Fargo are apt for The Man Who Died shares the same black humour and is populated by similarly hapless characters. Reading the book, you just know that the story is going to end badly for some and part of the fun is trying to guess who will come to the stickiest end. Having finished the novel I don’t feel like I’ve lost one of my favourite authors after all, rather that he’s just reinvented himself. Will he go back to the darker noir? I hope he does occasionally, but equally I would like to see more of these Fargoesque stories. Perhaps he could alternate. But whatever the author chooses to write I’m sure it will be enjoyable.

5 out of 5 stars