Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet

The French region of Luberon is popular with tourists and wealthy Parisians. They find the southern accents charming and the scenery bucolic. But who are the people building their villas? Who populates the villages? Who speaks with the accents that they find so beguiling? Families such as the one that this novel is centred around are who: working-class families that are living hand to mouth and who’s lives are ones of quiet desperation.

Sixteen-year-old Céline is pregnant and won’t tell her family who the father is. Her fifteen-year-old sister, Jo, is a tomboy and more worldly-wise. She has dreams of escaping this small-town life, and out of all the family, she’s the one most likely to make it. Severine, their mother, is like Céline: at one time she had it all, was the one every boy wanted, but then she got pregnant young, settled down, and her dreams were dashed. Manuel is the father, a gruff son of Spanish immigrants, a man whose ancestry has him feel an outsider in his French homeland, and who is too fond of a drink and too quick to use his fists. On the periphery of the family are Manuel’s friend, Patrick, and his wife, Valérie. Then there's Saïd, a childhood friend of the girls with a soft spot for Jo, who lives just down the road.

At heart, this is a novel about desperation. Céline’s pregnancy is the catalyst that brings tensions that have long bubbled beneath the surface to the fore. Jo has always longed for escape, and the escalating family strife brings this to a sharper focus. Severine and Valérie each feels unfulfilled by their respective marriages and live lives of regret. Both now see and experience this more clearly in the aftermath of Céline’s shock pregnancy. But it is Manuel, and to a lesser extent Patrick, for whom Céline’s pregnancy has the most devastating psychological consequences. They have long fostered resentments and slights, felt their masculinity and pride under threat, and the pregnancy awakens this ever further.

The Summer of Reckoning could have been set in many a post-industrial setting around the world, where those working in traditional industries have long felt threatened by immigration and globalisation. These are the people who have all too often been forgotten and courted by the political extremes. While such politics don’t feature in this novel, one can well imagine Manuel being seduced by the politics of the far-right, and his willingness to blame his Arab neighbours, and in particular, his daughters’ friend, Saïd, is particularly troubling.

A brilliant novel with no easy answers and no unrealistic and rosy culmination, this is a very powerful read.

5 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz


This is the third in the author’s series of crime novels featuring her protagonist, Hamburg state prosecutor, Chastity Riley. 

A series of seemingly random arson attacks on vehicles is sweeping Hamburg. When the latest is found to contain a man trapped inside, who later dies, and it transpires that he’s related to an immigrant crime family, Chastity is put in charge of the homicide investigation. What follows is a story that could be lifted right out of the news. During the European migrant crisis of recent years, Angela Merkel’s government allowed a large number of refugees into the country. As with any population, while most were hardworking people who just wanted to get on with their lives, and build futures for their children, a minority were involved in criminality. This is the thread that runs throughout this novel, and thus as well as being a very good crime thriller, Mexico Street also tackles a contemporary issue that is very much at the forefront of German political discourse.

I’ve followed the Chastity Riley series from the start, initially due to its location. I first visited Hamburg when working in documentary television. A few years after 9/11, I was working on a documentary about the Muslim Brotherhood and the links some of its members had to the al Qaeda Hamburg Cell. I spent a good few weeks in the city tracking down interviewees. I got to know Hamburg pretty well - it’s more salubrious neighbourhoods, and it’s less so - and the city has a real atmosphere and personality that I fell in love with. It’s also the perfect setting for crime fiction. For Hamburg has it all: a banking district; high priced housing for the rich; canals that run throughout the city; a port (which ranks third only to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in importance in Europe); the Reeperbahn, a notorious red-light district; and poorer neighbourhoods, some of which have attracted infamy (the Al-Quds Mosque, which Mohammad Atta and the other members of the Hamburg Cell of 9/11 attackers attended, was situated in another red-light district near the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof rail station).   

Throughout the series, and not least this latest outing, the author has really captured this mood, and her noir style of writing is absolutely suited to both the location and the characters. This is most evident with the heavy smoking, hard-drinking, protagonist Chastity Riley. But as with the previous books, Mexico Street contains a compelling and well-drawn supporting cast, both a smattering of regulars from the previous titles and the antagonists new to this novel.

Mexico Street, like the author’s previous titles, is a brilliant crime novel. If you’ve ever been to Hamburg, this is a book for you. If you haven’t, but like a crime novel with a real sense of place, and set somewhere that hasn’t too often featured in crime fiction, then this is a novel for you. Or if you just like your noir pitch black and treacly like the strongest of coffee, then this novel is for you. 

5 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb


This is the fourth in the author’s series of Florida-set crime thrillers, which feature female bounty hunter protagonist, Lori Anderson. While Loris is based out of The Sunshine State, she’s not averse to travelling out of state in pursuit of a felon and that is what she does in this title, travelling to Chicago to trap the head of major crime family. 

Unlike in previous titles in the series, Lori is not tracking down a criminal on the run this time but helping the FBI operate a sting. Employed off the books by the FBI, her target is Cabressa, a major league criminal who is determined to obtain a priceless chess set for his own private collection. Her job is to act as the person in possession of at the chess set in order to get close to him and spring there FBI’s trap. Needless to say things don’t go according to plan and when a blackout plunges the building where the meet has been arranged things spiral out of control.

Lori is a compelling heroine and like previous titles in the series, this is an action thriller with a difference. There’s a lot of thrills and it’s certainly a page-turner, but it’s not as macho and imbued with testosterone as some of the titles that feature male action heroes. Though this is not to say that there’s no action, or that Lori isn’t as tough as nails. 

The characterisation is strong, the relationship and complications between the characters compelling, and the plot is tightly woven. This is a great fourth outing for Lori and series continues to go from strength to strength. I look forward to book five.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Black 13 by Adam Hamdy

As someone who has an enduring fascination with the far-right, Adam Hamdy’s Black 13 was a novel that I was looking forward to reading. 

I must stress at this point, that my fascination with the far-right doesn’t translate into approval or support, quite the reverse. But as a former current affairs television journalist, I was always interested in how people bought into their poisonous ideology. I worked on many a programme that looked at the far-right and spent many an hour studying them. But the best way to educate people is not documentaries or non-fiction, important as these mediums are, but to incorporate such research into popular entertainment. And that’s exactly what Adam Hamdy has done with Black 13.

Scott Pearce is an ex-MI6 officer, and former SAS man, who’s been exiled by the spy agency. After single-handily foiling a major terror attack in Pakistan, Pearce was convinced there was a wider conspiracy and despite being ordered not to, continued to investigate. Dismissed as a crank and conspiracy theorist, he was forced out and now continues his investigation off-the-grid while working as a climbing instructor. When a lawyer turns up in Thailand where he’s working with footage of a former colleague lying dead on a London street with two thugs standing over him, Pearce is dragged into a major far-right conspiracy that threatens bloodshed the likes of which the UK has rarely seen.

Black 13 is first and foremost a high-octane and gripping spy thriller, in the genre of Jason Bourne. The action is well portrayed, and it is an exciting and page-turning read. This is a book that has film or tv-series adaptation written all over it. But while it can be enjoyed simply on that level, there is a bit more depth to the novel than that.

For a start, the author has done his research on military and espionage topics and there are a number of revealing passages that hint at some of the capabilities in use by the intelligence services. I worked in current affairs television for almost twenty years and in that time I made a number of contacts of my own. There were points in the book where I read things that I know aren’t widely disseminated.

More important is the author’s use of the far-right as the plank of the novel’s plot. Far-right violence is the single fastest-growing threat, and while still dwarfed by that of Islamist terror, it’s quickly catching up. It’s high time that popular entertainment takes note of this, as this is how issues are disseminated most widely. While as a former current affairs journalist I have nothing but respect and appreciation for serious journalism and non-fiction, I’m under no illusions that it’s through popular entertainment – computer games, Hollywood movies, music, genre fiction – that awareness is raised most. Again, the author’s clearly done his research and has familiarised himself with the far-right.

This leads me to my only criticism of the novel, and it’s a small one. The author is at pains at points in the narrative to suggest that it is at the extremes of politics where the danger lies and seems to suggest that the far-left is as dangerous as the far-right. While this is undoubtedly true in the broader, historical sense (few would deny that Stalin was as much of a monster as Hitler) it is simply not true in the current climate in which the book is set. The violence of such groups as Antifa is undoubtedly troubling and counter-productive but simply pales into insignificance when compared with groups such as Combat 18 or National Action. Find me an Antifa equivalent of Anders Breivik who murdered 77 and injured over 319. Or the Christchurch perpetrator who murdered 51 and injured 40.

*SPOILER WARNING*

Towards the end of the novel, there are strong hints that the far-right plot has been sponsored from abroad, and I’ve seen that the author’s next novel (and the sequel to Black 13) is titled, Red Wolf. It’s clear where this is going – that the far-right was sponsored by Russia (or elements within) with the view to destabilising the west. As it’s well established that Putin’s Russia has indeed sponsored far-right organisations and parties throughout the west for just such a purpose, this is not far-fetched and shows once again that the author has done his research.

In conclusion, Black 13 is a brilliant novel, a page-turner than can be enjoyed on the beach but also carries an important message. This is a great read and I look forward to the next book in the series.

5 out of 5 stars

Fascists Among Us by Jeff Sparrow

I’ve always been fascinated by the far-right and how people can buy into their poisonous ideology. As a current affairs journalist, I spent a good part of my career studying this phenomenon and met more than my fair share of far-right extremists. If anything, the situation is far worse now than ever, with internet forums and social media helping to spread the virus that is far-right ideology.

Jeff Sparrow, using the Christchurch massacre and its perpetrator as a starting point, has investigated the phenomena of far-right terror and the new breed of so-called lone wolf attackers (though he explicitly debates the usefulness and efficacy of the term) that have been radicalised by the darker recesses of the far-right internet and social media sites.

This is a short book, a primer if you will, but it’s surprisingly comprehensive. It takes a concise, but deep dive, into the history of far-right ideology, before going onto a discussion of places like 4chan and 8chan, which cultivated the culture of shitposting and redpilling, where it’s often difficult to know who is being serious and who is not.

To the author's credit, he also examines lesser known (though just as important) aspects of far-right ideology, such as how the far-right have embraced ecology and people's increasing concern with the environment, and imbued it with their own hatred of foreigners and refugees. 

This is a very good book and well worth a read. It can be read in just one sitting, which is no bad thing as it’s more likely to be read by a greater number of people as a result.

5 out of 5 stars

Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-Ha

The movie Parasite alerted those who might not have encountered South Korean storytelling that this is a nation that has produced some serious talent. Parasite reminded us of South Korea’s movie making, Bong Joon-Ho just one of a number of filmmakers to make their mark with their films, but South Korea also has a number of talented writers of narrative fiction, not least Kim Young-Ha.

South Korea’s story telling tradition has a reputation for being quirky, eccentric, and often times more than a little disturbing. The films Parasite, The Host, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance are just some that have showcased that, and the nation’s narrative fiction is no different. Diary of a Murderer, an anthology of short stories, is very much of this vein, and in the way of South Korean storytelling, the four stories contained within its pages are challenging to the readers sensibilities to varying degrees. 

The titular story, which gives the book its title, is about a retired serial killer with Alzheimers who learns that his daughter is dating a man he suspects to be a serial killer. He thus decides to kill the boyfriend before it’s too late and he’s lost his mind. This story is really a novella and takes up half the book. The other three stories are much shorter but are similar in that they have twists aplenty. 

This is a great collection of short stories and really showcases the brilliantly surreal nature of much of South Korea’s storytelling and the talent of the author, Kim Young-Ha. I’ll definitely be looking out for more from this writer and might well read one of the novels he’s written.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 6 March 2020

Containment by Vanda Symon


This the first novel by this author that I’ve read, but the third in the author’s series of New Zealand set police procedurals. That said, Containment is a self-contained story (excuse the pun on the title) and there is no need to have read the author’s previous titles to either enjoy it or follow the story (though of course, you might want to).

Sam Shepherd is the heroine and she’s a detective with the Dunedin police force. Sam is something of an outsider, not fully accepted in the masculine world of the police force, let alone its detective branch. But she’s earned the grudging respect of her colleagues and is more than capable at her job. Her closest colleague is Malcolm “Smithy” Smith who’s something of a mentor to her, while her nemesis is her boss, DI Johns, who’s determined to make her life hell.

The story opens with a beached cargo ship, the locals looting it. When Sam tries to break up a fight over some stolen loot, one of the participants knocks her unconscious. Later, the body of a decomposed man is found in the sea. When the police realise that the two men – the decomposed man and Sam’s attacker – are linked, things start to get interesting. Soon it transpires that something was on the ship that shouldn’t have been and that the men were involved in something no good.

Containment is told in the first person and from Sam’s perspective. The characters are well-rounded and Sam and Smithy in particular are likeable. The sense of place – a provincial city on the coast of New Zealand – is well developed. This is a good, solid police procedural, centred in a part of the world that doesn’t all-too-often feature in crime fiction. 

4 out of 5 stars