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

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

This is a novel of many parts and does not have a plot as such. Instead we have a cast of characters on the Burn Estate in Middlesbrough. Like many a post-industrial town in the north of England, Middlesbrough has struggled with the decline of heavy industry. Once upon a time known as Ironopolis due to its output of pig iron (hence the title of this novel), with the closing of plants and factories it’s suffered entrenched unemployment and associated social ills.

The Burn Estate of the novel is to be demolished and this serves as the backdrop to the stories of its residents. Another backdrop to the novel is the folklore tale of Peg Powler, a witch or faerie of some kind that lures children to water and drowns them. Peg haunts all the stories within the book and is a constant supernatural presence. Finally, there’s Vincent, a local hard man and bully who stalks the estate striking fear into those around him. The six stories that make up the narrative of Ironopolis flesh out these three threads while painting a vivid picture of life in the Burn Estate and in Middlesbrough more broadly. 

Ironopolis has been billed by some critics as a “working class” and a “northern” novel. As someone who is not of that background I cannot judge, but it certainly felt authentic. These are powerful tales that grapple with the issues and challenges that the residents of the estate have to face. But equally it tells their stories with real warmth and this is no simplistic “poverty porn”. 

The story that most touched me was that of Jim Clarke. He embraces the Acid House scene in the 1980’s but eventually tragedy strikes and those he had considered friends are nowhere to be found. As someone who went to many a rave party in the early 1990’s, this story mirrored to some extent my own experiences. The rave scene is often viewed through rose tinted glasses, but as hard man Vincent points out (even a thug can have transitory moments of wisdom) every youth movement thought that they had the answer but eventually passed into history. And the rave scene was as shallow as any, as Jim and I discovered to our cost (though my experience was nowhere near as catastrophic as his).

Ironopolis reminded me of a novel I’m yet to read but have heard much about and that’s Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. The reason Ironopolis reminds me of this novel, or rather the description of it that I’ve read, is that the narrative skirts around various issues. From what I’ve read Reservoir 13 features a missing teenage girl but does not really touch on this at all, but rather reveals the life of the English village and its residents from where the girl came. This is similar to Ironopolis’s approach; indeed, a number of girls have gone missing from the Burn Estate, their missing posters dotting the landscape. But like Peg Powler and the hulking presence of Vincent, these missing children are less the focus of the narrative and more supporting structure. Like Reservoir 13, Ironopolis is really an exploration of people and place.

This is an intriguing and emotional read and the stories of from within its pages will stay with me.

4 out of 5 stars