Book Review: The Contract

The Contract, by JM Gulvin, is the second book in the author’s John Q series of crime thrillers. You may read my review of the first one here. Set in 1960s America, the protagonist, John Quarrie, is a fearless and determined Texas Ranger. He is a modern day cowboy with a strong sense of justice for all, in a country still divided by race.

The book opens with a robbery at a gunstore in small town Texas. This leads to a shoot out and car chase. To save his own life, Quarrie takes down an assailant. When he investigates the perpetrators he finds another dead body with links to New Orleans. Flying there to follow up on one of his few leads, Quarrie becomes embroiled in a secretive plan that involves many in the state’s law enforcement agencies. He struggles to work out what is going on and why. His presence and the methods he employs while out of his juridiction are resented by many. Quarrie suspects he is being manipulated but does not know by whom. There is nobody he can trust.

Although the reader is offered snapshots of all those involved, the extent and reasons are only slowly revealed. There is a large cast of characters with a variety of links. I struggled at times to follow the numerous threads.

Having said that, this is a compelling read. The action remains tense throughout and is rarely predictable. The story is written in a voice that is original and engaging. There are links to historical events of the time and to a variety of conspiracy theories. Given today’s political situation, the attitudes of many of the characters is chilling.

The reveals at the end provide a good mix of the unexpected, some satisfying if a tad dodgy come-uppances, and a few loose ends in keeping with the story arc created. Quarrie gets things done the old style Texas way, which is not always appreciated. His methods do, however, provide an entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

This post is a stop on The Contract Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Butchers of Berlin

The Butchers of Berlin, by Chris Petit, is a crime thriller set in the city in 1943. Germany is no longer in ascendancy. The effects of the Second World War have resulted in a thriving black market and deprivation for all but the wealthy and powerful elite. Fear and betrayal are rife as the authorities work towards their stated aim of creating a Berlin that is ‘Jew free’. The remaining population have set aside many of their peacetime principles in order to survive.

The protagonist is August Schegel, the son of a wealthy English aristocrat now married to a German businessman. Schegel is a junior detective despised by his boss. Working in financial crime he cannot understand when he is called upon to investigate a double homocide. As the victims appear to be Jews, found dead on the morning of a major exercise to round-up and deport all remaining ‘undesirables’, he finds it odd that any effort is being put into an investigation.

There is an atmosphere of distrust amongst Schegel’s colleagues who are eager to provide the results that will please their superiors. When Morgen, an SS officer, is assigned to assist Schegel it is unclear what is now required of the younger man. Schegel is aware that there are irregularities in the investigation and that corruption is rife at all levels. Attempting to uncover the truth would be a dangerous path to take.

Sybil Todermann, a Jewish seamstress, has escaped the mass round-up and is in hiding with her girlfriend. They have friends in common with Schegel but all favours come at a price. The women now require false papers yet this puts them at the mercy of dangerous men. When more bodies start appearing, grotesquely mutilated and some containing forged currency, paths intersect.

In a vast slaughterhouse in the city Schegel finds what he believes is a killing room for people rather than animals. The shortage of manpower, food, and the dehumanisation of the Jews has allowed sadists to get away with barbarism. The Gestapo become interested in Schegel’s findings as do informers originating from several of the occupied territories. Who their taskmasters are remains unclear. Morgen is still not sharing with Schegel what his remit may be.

This is a lengthy story with a convoluted plot and disturbing desriptions of calculated viciousness. That it reads as a true depiction of life at the time makes for discomfiting reading. The writing is assured, the threads well constructed and managed, but still I struggled to engage. The accuracy of the horror and knowledge that so much of what is related happened detracted from my ability to feel entertained.

Reading a war story from the German perspective was interesting, also the views of the English, Irish and Americans who in some way supported the regime. I admire the author’s ability to craft a convincing tale even if I struggled to quell my revulsion and enjoy the unravelling of the mystery. It is a timely reminder of the true horror of war and the depravity such conditions unleash.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Book Review: The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.

The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.

“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”

When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.

“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”

The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.

A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Ronald Laing

Ronald Laing, by David Boyle, is a short biographical study of the Scottish psychiatrist, who enjoyed a brief period of fame and notoriety in the 1960s and 70s before the existentialism of the era gave way to the monetarism of the Thatcher years. Straplined The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist, the author explores what drove the doctor to work towards changing the way patients with mental illnesses are treated. Laing was not alone in this endeavour but his work was influential.

In the 1950s, when Laing first started to practice medicine, the mentally ill were incarcerated in large institutions run for the benefit of their staff and society rather than patients. The traumatised inmates were routinely drugged, subjected to ECT and, occasionally, lobotomised in an attempt to control and then standardise their behaviour. They were often treated with contempt by those tasked with deciding on treatment.

“When cruelties are permitted on people or animals, it seems to lead to active dislike among those charged with their care.”

Laing’s approach favoured cutting back on drugs, improving accommodation and autonomy, and listening to what patients had to say. He believed that mental healing could occur with minimum intervention given time and the right conditions. He questioned the definition of madness arguing for greater acceptance of difference. Such radical notions were frowned upon by the medical establishment but fitted well with emerging societal tolerance for individualism and freedom.

The decades in which Laing lived were pivotal to the acceptance and then rejection of his ideas. His personal development was also a factor. Laing took LSD and suffered from alcoholism. He was volatile and something of a philanderer. His fall from grace was exacerbated by his personal behaviour.

The book is divided into sections charting the milestones in Laing’s career and the context in which these occured. With my interest in psychology and sociology I found it fascinating.

“For Laing and his closest collaborators, we are all isolated individuals. He used to speak of trying to divest himself of all forms of collective identity. It was the collective categorisation that Laing raged against, especially of those in mental distress.”

Laing died aged sixty-one having fathered ten children and published numerous books. His work continues to influence psychiatric thinking even if aspects have been discredited. The author mulls what he would have made of the standardisations imposed today on medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as on other areas of life such as education.

A film about Laing’s life titled Mad to be Normal and starring David Tennant has recently gone on general release. This book would provide an excellent introduction and background for interested viewers.

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Interview with Sanjida Kay #TheStolenChild

Today I am delighted to welcome back to my blog, Sanjida Kay, who is celebrating the publication of her second psychological thriller, The Stolen Child. You may read my review of this deliciously chilling story here. Sanjida kindly agreed to answer some questions which I put together as I read the book. I hope you find her answers as interesting as I did.

1. Publicity for books these days takes many forms. I enjoyed watching the book trailer (see below) and the interview you posted on YouTube about the inspirations for the book (also included below). I know that, amongst your many roles, you have worked in broadcasting. Was it your choice to use these media to promote your book?

Thank you so much for having me back to your blog, Jackie! I’m glad you liked them! I’ve spent years working as a TV director and presenter, so it’s fun to be able to use those skills, particularly in something as creative as a book trailer. Cameraman, Rob Franklin, shot one of my BBC documentaries, and contacted me recently to ask if we could work on a book-related project. Not only did he do an amazing job filming the trailer and the Q&A, he enlisted the help of a drone pilot, Jack Stevenson, who shot some incredible footage of Evie when she’s lost on the moor, wearing only her Frozen dress.

2. I love the jacket design for The Stolen Child and this is brought to life in your book trailer. Did you have any say in the picture used?

It was a shock when I had my first novel published at the age of 25, to discover that authors have NO say in their book covers. I’m so fortunate to be published by Corvus Books, though, as I’ve loved both the book jacket for Bone by Bone, my first thriller, as well as the second one for The Stolen Child. I think their design has perfectly captured the colour, the wildness and the desolation of the West Yorkshire moors.

3. The undercurrent of unease that pervades the story had me suspecting just about every character introduced. Did you know how each their roles would play out when you started writing them?

I had a brilliant brainstorming session with crime writer, Sarah Hilary, when I first came up with the idea for The Stolen Child. She suggested I make a number of characters sound suspicious and I’m glad I did. When I began writing, I knew who would be a suspect, and how, to a certain extent, but I hope I’ve managed to push that sense of distrust all the way through.

4. One of the themes in the book is trust and how fragile it is under pressure. With your imagination, do you ever catch yourself pondering the secrets your acquaintances may hold?

I suppose it’s no great surprise that my PhD was on Theory of Mind, which is essentially how we know what other people are thinking. Apparently, most of us can cope with up to six levels of ‘intentionality’, which could go something like this:

Does she know that I know that I think she’s wondering who else knows what she knows about what her sister believes is her half- sister’s secret?!

So, yes! Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child tap the commonly perceived threat in dark, lonely locations.

5. Has writing such disturbing stories affected the way you react to, for example, looking outside when alone in your house at night with your daughter, or walking in isolated locations?

Like many women, I will often choose not to walk home at night or to go for a run in isolated places because of the potential danger. I feel a lot safer in the countryside than I do in the city, though. But I don’t suppose watching seven seasons of The Walking Dead has helped my anxiety levels!

6. Your protagonist in The Stolen Child is an artist. Have you ever tried your hand at painting?

I took an A level in art, but I didn’t carry on painting for long after that. I’d love to have the time to return to it at some point. Luckily, I’m friends with a brilliant artist, Elaine Jones, and I grilled her on how she paints, as well as how she manages to juggle being an artist, with bringing up two small children.

7. And finally, you mentioned you brainstorming session with Sarah Hilary and thank her in the book’s acknowledgements. Does hanging out with other authors of dark, twisty thrillers affect the way you think?

Bristol is a brilliant place to live if you’re a novelist: it’s full of talented thriller writers, such as CL Taylor, Jane Shemilt and Gilly Macmillan – and Sarah is nearby, in Bath. It’s certainly refreshing to be able to meet up now and again and have an in-depth chat about writing with people who understand what you’re going through and can cheer you along the way. We’re all quite normal on the surface.

Thank you so much Sanjida, I love the hint of suspicion you have left us with there!

Now, doesn’t the book look fabulous?

The Stolen Child is published by Corvus Books and is available to buy now.