Friday, 30 September 2016

One Man's Opinion: THREE KINDS OF FOOL by MATT PHILLIPS


‘He tried to remember his insurance deductible, but that felt too regular and he crushed the thought like an insect.’

Jess Forsyth is the kind of character I love to read about. There was no silver spoon in his mouth when he was born and life’s been against him from the start. He’s made a lot of choices along the way and not all of them have been wise. Even so, he wants to do the decent thing. If only he had a stronger will and a little more in the way of luck.

An encounter with gun peddler Mikey at some point before our main story begins, landed Jess in prison. He was lucky though, because the woman (Kersey Sims) who put him in prison senses something about him and has become a kind of a mother/grandmother figure. She’s given him a second chance and he’s happily living life on the straight and narrow as a pool cleaner to some of California’s wealthy folk when we meet.

All might go well, only another encounter with Mikey sets things on a new course.

Mikey invites Jess to come along on a job. The aim is to shake down a drug dealer, Griffin, at his mansion. As they carry out their crime, a young woman is killed and there’s a lot of mopping up to be done and this is where things really start to spiral beyond anyone’s control.

Griffin wants his money back. Mikey isn’t sure about what’s going on. Jesse has fallen for the dead girl’s friend Shawny. Shawny knows there’s more money in the house and she wants it. Jess wants Shawny and the money. And there’s a loose cannon called Rimbaud who, like the poet he’s named after, just loves to explore life and find new experiences.

What I like about this book is the way the gears change so smoothly. You have a really good balance between the build up of tension and action scenes that always serves the plot well. More importantly, the whole series of crime capers has the secure foundation of strong characters. We get to know Jess through his interactions with the criminals mentioned earlier, but also through more tender and complex situations with one of his pool owners, with Shawny and with Kersey Sims. We also get to ride with him through his dreams and watch them as they spill out into his reality.


Three Kinds Of Fool (US) offers plenty of nourishment for the reader. You can get your kicks from the adrenaline-fuelled deeds or you can savour the thought-provoking elements and let them twist up your thinking for a while. There’s no real room in here for good or bad and black and white have swirled together to make a new kind of grey, which is just the way I like it.     

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE FEVER by MEGAN ABBOTT


“You spend a long time waiting for life to start – her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realise that it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.”

While reading The Fever (US) by Megan Abbott, my world felt very brittle. The foundations of life seemed egg-shell thin as the book eroded them layer by layer. It’s not an easy thing to explain - you’ll have to read it to fully understand - but being the father of a teenage daughter with two other children fast approaching their adolescent years means that this story hit close to home. It made me all too aware of shifts I can already sense taking place underneath the surface, many of them I’d rather ignore.

In this novel, a group of friends is devastated when one of them has a serious fit in a very public place. Word travels fast via the super-highway of social media and panic sets in around her school. The effects are magnified when another of the group has a fit as this opens speculation about what might be going on. There are fears that a vaccine might be to blame or that there’s a sexually transmitted disease doing the rounds. Others worry that it might be related to the old lake where swimming is now forbidden and around which legends swirl like mist. The public health board get involved, but their covert investigation only serves to add fuel to the fire.    

Deenie is left in a vulnerable position. The dynamics of her group have already been evolving in ways she can’t control and she is painfully aware that something has gone from her life forever. Her encounters with sex have raised questions and doubts as much as they have introduced new pleasures to life. The tension behind these developments built well and, even though I couldn’t fully grasp the hysteria portrayed within the school community, I was thrilled and drawn in as the story unfolded.

This one is told from the points of view of Deenie, her brother and father, which allows us to see the situation from a range of perspectives. Particularly powerful for me was the father’s angle. He’s spent his life devoted to his children and at this critical stage it seems like he’s lost them. The past has gone and so has their need for him to be at the centre of their worlds. He’s battered by the conflicting needs to protect them and to leave them to work things out for themselves. He wants so much to do the right thing when the very concept barely exists any more. 

There’s also a plenty of power in the portrayal of the young adults as the rug is pulled from under them and they try to make sense of a world that is constantly moving.

The Fever is an unsettling work. Abbott dissects the character with the scalpel-sharp precision of an anatomist. It’s amazing that she can portray so effectively the mix of excitement and pain involved in growing up from a young woman’s perspective, but more impressive that she can so naturally inhabit the personas of a teenage male and middle-aged man. It’s a beautifully written story that has a satisfying twist to help tie everything up and I’d like to recommend this one to the house.  

  

Saturday, 24 September 2016

99c Mystery and Thriller Promotion


Another Mystery and Thriller promotion, this time for 99c deals. This one features my own Mr Suit (a personal favourite of mine) and a wide spread of other titles. Well worth checking out folks. The offers are good for 24th and 25th September. Happy hunting. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE LAWYER: SIX GUNS AT SUNDOWN by ERIC BEETNER


‘There was a time when The Lawyer would have said no man deserved to die in the dirt. That time had long past.’

The Lawyer was once a good man who did his work with the law on his side. Following on from the murder of his family he’s still a good man, only now he’s prepared to use different tools to find justice.

He’s on the trail of Big Jim Kimbrough and winds up in a town called Sundown. While there he is horrified by an act of barbarity carried out by local bully Buchanan who drags a local black man into town to be hung because he’s stolen a slice of pie. The Lawyer can’t tolerate this and steps in to try and alter the planned course of events. Unfortunately, Buchanan has the backing of twisted minds and those who rely on him for employment. Intervention means going up against practically the whole town.

With only one ally, The Lawyer draws his line in the sand and becomes the target of the deranged mob that doesn’t appreciate his set of values.


The Lawyer: Six Guns At Sundown (US) is a quick and enthralling read. The usual Western props are present in abundance and the action is delivered with the tension and pace that you can confidently expect in a story by Eric Beetner. Themes of the underdog against the hoard and of the just against the brutes may be commonplace, but the element of racism that forms a key platform for the tale brings an extra dimension that is compelling and offers a reminder that though things have changed, there’s still a way to go.  

Thursday, 1 September 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE THINGS I LOVE WILL KILL ME YET by ROB PIERCE


The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet (US) attacks the senses with unpredictable shifts of theme and tone and has the power to stun, move and create uncertainty. The sum total of the collection is even more powerful than its considerable component parts and it is, therefore, a shining example of an anthology. Best of all, the stories continue to live on after the words have been left behind; it’s this stirring of my imagination that I enjoyed most of all. Terrific and inspiring fiction.

All due respect to the publisher, All Due Respect - yet another belter from their team. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE KILLER IS DYING by JAMES SALLIS


‘Towards the end, back when he still lived at home, his father, well along in years (fifty-plus when he was born), would spend afternoons stalking about the front yard, staring at what was left of the city’s curb, at remnants of paint on the side of the house, at abandoned birds' nests and tree trunks. He had always believed the old man to be thinking. About how his life had gone, maybe, or the meaning of it all. Slowly he came to understand that the old man wasn’t thinking at all, he was searching - looking aimlessly about, with a dull but persistent hope, for something he’d never had.’

The Killer Is Dying (US). The cops are dying. Everyone is dying. That’s something we all have to come to terms with at some point in our lives.

It took me an age to read this one even though it’s not a long book. I started it just before the Olympic Games which, when they began, quickly absorbed much of my attention and spare time. It wasn’t just my preoccupation with sport that slowed my reading, however. That’s also down to the fact that there isn’t a clear and driving narrative to the story and also because each chapter is dense and powerful and requires a good deal of focus. 

The killer is on a job that goes unexpectedly wrong. As we get to know him, we loop back through his life to find his history is colourful and interesting and that he also has a wonderfully philosophical view of the world. He’s also a very particular kind of hit man and an extremely successful one. Hits are set up on the dark web and are advertised as doll sales. They’re carried out clinically and yet with a form of compassion at the same time.

He’s been chased down by a couple of cops who are also surrounded by death. It’s their business. They’ve seen a lot and each case has had an impact of sorts. The cop we get to know well is Sayles. What’s interesting in this novel is the sense I had that the differences between hunter and prey are minimal. They’re human and therefore share setbacks and suffering on a regular basis. What they have in common is bigger than what they do.  

The third strand comes in the form of a youngster who is forced to bring himself up when his parents leave. He makes his living selling interesting items and passes the time by surfing obscure corners of the internet and by reading stories to old folk experiencing their final months down at the local care home. He also happens to be confused by a procession of dreams which come from the killer’s consciousness.

As these parts converge and are woven together, they become so tight that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from another. They share a consciousness or a way of being of sorts. They’re all reflective and tied to their memories as well as being able to see wonder in small things around them.

In the end, I was won over by the author. I can’t really explain why I liked it so much, but can tell you that I loved being in the company of these characters as their lives unfolded before me. It was refreshing to be taken on meandering journeys, random tangents and through regular lists of simple things. There’s just enough in the police investigation to keep the pace moving in a forwards direction. Each page has something outstanding to appreciate whether that’s a nailed phrase, a moment of poetry, a meditation, a philosophical musing or just a swift kick out at complacency.


The Killer Is Dying is light yet meaty. Mundane yet exciting. Beautiful yet horrifying. Oh how I love a contradiction.   

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Dancing with Myself: CHRISTINA HOAG interviews CHRISTINA HOAG


You’ve written a nonfiction book about gangs, Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, and now a novel about a gang called Skin of Tattoos. Girlfriend, what’s up with all the gang shit?

I first encountered gangs as a young newspaper reporter in New Jersey, USA, when I was assigned to write a story about a notorious motorcycle gang delivering Christmas toys to a local hospital. I went to interview them in a small suburban house, very normal-looking apart from the bunch of Harley choppers out front and its rather gloriously hirsute occupants, who insisted they belonged to a “club” not a gang. I was fascinated by them and their lifestyle. Years later, I interviewed gang members deported from Los Angeles to El Salvador, where they had landed like fish out of water because they’d left Salvador as babies and small children during the civil war. Some barely spoke Spanish. That was before gangs spread like a pandemic and really took control of northern Central America. Anyway, their stories resonated with me, and formed the genesis of Skin of Tattoos, which is about a Salvadoran family who fled one war zone only to arrive in Los Angeles and find themselves in another, which is basically what happened to thousands of refugees.

You’re a white, middle-class, middle-aged lady, so how the hell did you write so convincingly about this whole other world?

Research. Much of it was done in the context of my job as a journalist. I was able to interview gang members, their girlfriends and parents, prison inmates, as well as numerous sociologists and other experts who study gangs, and police officers who work in gang units. I also read a heap of books about gangs, including memoirs by gang members, who tend to write their stories whilst they’re incarcerated, and others who work with gangs, ranging from priests to anthropologists. I also had the benefit of co-authoring a book on gang intervention – that’s the Peace in the Hood book you mentioned. Before you ask, gang intervention is about taking former gang members and training them to be street peacekeepers, to interrupt the cycle of retaliation that drives gang violence. My co-author is a former Black Panther who’s been working with gangs in South L.A. since the seventies. I’m proud to say the book is being used a textbook for various courses at the University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Hmm, do you think we can ever get rid of gangs?

As long as we have economic inequality and discrimination in societies, gangs will exist. You don’t see middle-class kids joining gangs, for the most part, or middle-class neighbourhoods being claimed as gang turf. The key element that fuels gang formation and membership is the perception in disenfranchised sectors of society that gangs offer more opportunity – money and status - than conventionally accepted paths in life. It’s worth mentioning that not all kids in these neighbourhoods join gangs. In fact, most don’t. Gangs particularly appeal to youths who have little family stability. The gang becomes their surrogate family; it gives meaning to their lives. One interesting thing I found in Los Angeles, where gangs really took hold in the 1970s and are now in their third generation, is that gang affiliation runs in families and is a source of pride, even among former gang members! The real way to combat gangs is improving access to education and jobs in disadvantaged areas because that diminishes the need for belonging to a gang and resorting to a life that ends in death, prison or the hospital.

This is starting to sound way too much like some stodgy BBC interview.

Well, you did ask.

All right, what else can you tell us? Any other books you’ve written that aren’t about gangs?

I have a recently released YA suspense novel called Girl on the Brink. It’s sort of a romantic thriller, but it’s got an important social message. It chronicles a teenager’s abusive relationship and her recovery from it.



Crikey, you’re really into these cheery themes, aren’t you?

I’ll put it down to my background as a journalist. I’ve spent years, decades, actually, writing about the problems of the world.

It certainly shows. I’m starting to crave a Xanax talking to you.

I really don’t want to drive you to pills. Do you want me just to tell you some of my favourite crime novels?

Righty-o.

One is Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the story of a Mexican woman who ends up running a drug empire in Spain. It was really before its time, before all the cartel violence in Mexico, another favourite theme of mine. Okay, okay, I won’t go there. Anyway, I couldn’t put it down. Another is Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian classic first published in 1881 about bushrangers and cattle rustlers in western New South Wales. Loved it. My favourite fictional detective, by the way, is Australian, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, a half-Aborigine who solves crimes in the western Queensland. Arthur Upfield wrote the books in the early 20th century.

Two from Down Under? What gives?

I was born in New Zealand, grew up in Sydney.

And now you live in Los Angeles? Wait, I’m not even going to ask that one.

I was hoping you wouldn’t.  


Christina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld (Martin Brown Publishers, August 2016) and Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016). She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014). She resides in Los Angeles. For more information, see www.christinahoag.com.