Book Review: Days Without End

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Days Without End is a tale of war, between men and against hardship, yet is narrated with a lyrical optimism even from within the worst of the carnage portrayed. Set in nineteenth century America, where white settlers are intent on removing the indigenous population before turning on each other in the Civil War, the voice of the narrator, Irishman Thomas McNulty, is richly authentic. He understands that the world cares little for the lives of the dirty poor such as him, but that life still has a value for all who can find a way to live.

McNulty spent his early years in Sligo, Ireland where he watched his mother, sister and then father die from starvation due to the potato famine. Alone and desperate, he crept aboard a ship bound for Canada, somehow surviving the hunger of the voyage and then a deadly fever on arrival. He makes his way south where, sheltering under a hedge in Missouri, he meets another young wanderer named John Cole. From then on they face their hardships together.

“I only say it because without saying I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there […] Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole.”

The boys find work in a saloon before joining the army. For a set of clothes and the promise of food they do whatever is ordered. This mostly involves killing Indians, living under threat of attack, or passing time playing cards. Life on the frontier is one of peril – from enemy, weather and deprivation – but this is familiar and to be endured.

When released from the army Thomas and John travel to Michigan to join a minstrel show being run by the former saloon owner. They take with them Winona, a young Indian girl whose family they helped slaughter. These three set up as a family, until the major from their former unit asks the men to join a new regiment he is setting up in Boston to fight for Lincoln against the southern confederate army.

Although the fighting is barbaric, the day to day conditions endured also take many lives. The men must find ways to survive alongside those who consider the Indians, the people of colour, even the Irish to be vermin, better for all if eradicated. Thomas’s love for Winona, who he regards as his daughter, will cost him dear.

A tale of men and fearsome battles, yet the quality of the writing proves it worthy of a wider audience than may take interest in such base subject matter. The characters, period and locations are vividly painted; the brutality but also the beauty of existence emotively portrayed.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement worthy of its Booker longlisting. Despite this I am not entirely convinced it attains sufficient reach to be the winner.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man, by James Carol, is the latest thriller in the author’s Jefferson Winter series and the first of his books that I have read. The protagonist is a former FBI profiler, now travelling the world as a freelance consultant assisting in hunting down serial criminals. Winter’s backstory as the son of a killer and possessing an unusually high IQ makes him an interesting creation. In this story, set in Vancouver, he teams up with Laura Anderton, a former detective turned private investigator.

Anderton headed up the police team tasked with investigating a series of murders in her city, carried out annually on 5th August. Each of the three victims to date was gagged, strapped to a chair, and left alone wearing a bomb which, when triggered, tears them apart. The method of triggering is this killer’s modus operandi yet conflicts with serial killers’ understood ways of working.

With 5th August approaching once again, Anderton has requested Winter’s help in the hope that they can prevent another death. Having been forced out of the police by a negative media campaign she is eager to solve this case for herself.

Anderton and Winter are being payrolled by Nicholas Sobek, a wealthy and controlling businessman whose beautiful young wife was the killer’s first victim. Initially Sobek was a suspect but the subsequent murders made this difficult to prove. He is intense and determined, his aim being to punish the man who took what was his.

The writing is engaging with many twists and turns offering the reader chances to guess at motive and connections. Winter is not afraid to take risks that the police could not countenance for fear of compromising their ability to present evidence necessary to secure a conviction. This is not so much a high action thriller as a deadly game played by cold cunning and methodical intelligence. There is little emotion in the narrative and this strengthens the intrigue.

The varied cast of characters adds interest with interactions affected by attraction and repulsion yet remaining professional. I was impressed that the author felt no need to inject romance, common in crime fiction yet often unnecessary for plot progression.

I enjoyed this book and would now like to read previous instalments in the series. It is a compelling and entertaining read.

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

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

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: Say Nothing

Say Nothing, by Brad Parks, is a crime thriller written from the point of view of an unusual protagonist – an American federal judge. These powerful justices are appointed for life, unless deemed unfit for the role due to breaking their oath of impartiality and fairness under the law. They may sentence as they consider appropriate. Rulings may be grumbled about but are rarely questionned.

The Honorable Scott Sampson enjoys the privileges of his elevated position to the full. He can take time out every Wednesday afternoon to go swimming with his children, six year old twins, Sam and Emma. Their home is a secluded farmhouse on the banks of the Chesapeake river with a broad swathe of woodland protecting them from public roads. His beautiful wife, Alison, holds down a challenging and worthy job working with children too intellectually disabled to attend mainstream schools. A foreign student, Justina, provides childcare in exchange for accommodation in a cottage on their land.

The story opens on a swimming day. Scott receives a text from his wife to tell him the twins have a doctor’s appointment so she will collect them from school. That evening, when she returns home, she is alone. They get a call informing them that if they ever wish to see their children again they must follow instructions that will be sent regarding a case due before the judge the next day. They are to say nothing to anyone about what is happening. If the kidnappers even suspect that they have sought help they will start chopping off the children’s body parts.

Scott feels that he has no choice but to comply. He also understands that he is only useful to these criminals if he can retain his position. Thus begins an intricate web of deception during which he must convince his colleagues that he is fit for his role whilst obeying the diktats being sent to him. Always he is trying to work out who is behind this nightmare scenario, and how to reach an end game that will see his kids returned to him unscathed.

The pressure Scott is under throughout is well evoked. He scrutinises everyone he knows in a desperate attempt to uncover how the kidnappers acquired access to his family along with a wealth of private information. His marriage is put under strain as he and Alison each suspect the other of indiscretions. At work his unusual behaviour must be convincingly explained.

The reader is offered snippets of what is happening to the twins but the mystery is what final outcome the kidnappers desire and why. Seen through Scott’s eyes, trusting anyone becomes a challenge. The pace of this unusual crime thriller gradually increases towards a shocking denouement.

Although there are cliches within the story – a picture perfect wider family, male ‘banter’, a beautiful wife, a professionally successful man who still finds time for his young children – the strength of the writing took me beyond these and wound me in. This was an engaging and pacy thriller. A fine UK debut for an author I would happily read again.

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

How to be an author – Guest post by Brad Parks

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Today I am delighted to welcome Brad Parks, author of Say Nothing, to my blog. In this guest post Brad shares his thoughts on what it takes to write a book. 

 

Having lurked around this blog, I’m aware that Jackie, my gracious host at Never Imitate, Jackie, is a woman interested in all things writing.

And given that I’m the new guy here – Say Nothing is my first book to release in the UK – I probably ought to just shove my hands deep in my pockets, mumble something nice about how you should write what you know, and call it a guest blog post.

Yeah, to hell with that.

I’m here. I’m going to rant. Because while I may be new around here, I’m not new to the writing community. I’ve hung around the bars, the conferences – and, most importantly, the bars at the conferences – long enough. I hear people talk about “talent” (such a misleading word), or “genius” (oh, please) or, worse, “inspiration” (I’ve got your muse right here in my pocket, pal).

And I feel like there’s one thing writers never talk about enough:

Stubbornness.

By stubbornness, I mean gamely bashing your head against the laptop screen – repeatedly and without letting up – until the words come out right; and then keeping at it, day after tormenting/boring/seemingly pointless day, until the whole manuscript comes out right.

And that has nothing to do with talent; or some kind of God-given genius; or, most of all, some blasted muse that will fly down on gossamer wings and alight on your shoulder.

It has to do with grit. And tenacity. And deciding you are simply going to be tougher than everyone else alive.

And you don’t have to be smart to do that. You just have to be breathing.

A small anecdote to illustrate what I’m talking about:

When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. Literally. There was one test – I think it was for seven-year- olds – where you had to rearrange blocks.

The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the catch was the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop.

I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved a problem that slightly-above- average seven-year- olds could do in a fraction of that time.

But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. And you don’t have to be the brightest seven-year- old – or even a dumb forty-two- year-old. You just have to be willing to do the work.

So, yes, my UK debut, Say Nothing, released last week. And maybe the publisher would like you to believe I am just some supremely talented – God, I hate that word – scribbler who was gifted this amazing story one day. But I know better.

And now so do you.

 

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. Say Nothing is his UK debut.

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Say Nothing is published by Faber and Faber and is available to buy now.

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This post is a stop on the Say Nothing Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed above.

Book Review: The Doll Funeral

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The Doll Funeral, by Kate Hamer, is a story of ghosts and the lasting influence of family and upbringing. Its protagonist is Ruby who is informed by her parents on her thirteenth birthday that they adopted her when she was just a few months old. Ruby is ecstatic at this news – suddenly she has hope. If she can find her birth parents she may escape the vicious physical abuse regularly inflicted on her by Mick, the man she believed was her dad.

For as long as she can remember Ruby has seen shadow people, some only once but others come and go. Living in the Forest of Dean she has grown up surrounded by trees and finds comfort in their protection. She decides to try to summon her birth parents by copying mystical techniques she remembers from her late grandmother. What follows weaves a poignant tale of a child desperate for love with elements of the supernatural.

Ruby meets Tom who has been abandoned with his teenage siblings by their hippy parents who have travelled to India to find themselves. They live in a huge, dilapidated house where they are expected to survive on food farmed or hunted. With winter approaching these young people are now struggling. They also harbour a terrible secret.

Both Ruby and Tom have been damaged by their forebears. It is not just the direct actions of parents but the lasting impact of their upbringing and the wider prejudices of those who live in the forest that has shaped how Ruby and Tom have been raised. Each generation inflicts their values, beliefs and aspirations on those who come next. Psychological inheritance can be devastating.

The story is bleak, filled with restless ghosts and crippled potential. The fluid construction of the tale makes it easy to read but the unremitting darkness of the subject matter offered little prospect of cheer for any of the characters.

As a parent it is hard to read a book such as this without considering how one’s own children may have been affected by values passed on to them. Ghosts need not take physical form to exert influence.

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

Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat

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The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer, tells the story of Beth and her daughter Carmel who is abducted when she is eight years old by an elderly man claiming he is her estranged grandfather. Beth is recently divorced from Carmel’s father, Paul, who left them for his girlfriend, Lucy. Where Beth is bohemian in dress and behaviour Lucy is chic and conventional. Sometimes Carmel would prefer if her mother were more ordinary. She resents that she feels constantly watched and constrained. Beth is doing her best but still suffers the aftershocks of the failure of her marriage. She seeks comfort from like-minded friends. She has not spoken to her parents in years.

Beth is naturally devastated when her daughter vanishes whilst on a rare day out together. The subsequent chapters told from Beth’s point of view cover the shock of loss, the need to keep searching, and then the painful coming to terms and finding a way to survive.

The chapters told from Carmel’s point of view are disturbing due to the situation in which she finds herself. Lies have been told to keep her from trying to return home. She is confused and unhappy but children have little control when the adults caring for them make decisions. She longs for love but can see no practical escape from the circumstances imposed.

Carmel has a gift which I felt was a weakness in the plot. Whilst I accept that there are happenings in the world than cannot yet be rationally explained this was a struggle to go along with. The attempts to monetise what she could do were plausible, but by making her abilities apparently real my engagement with the tale was weakened.

The writing is polished and I wanted to know the outcome so read on. I found the denouement something of an anti-climax. It was not that it was difficult to believe events could be concluded in this way but rather that it felt abrupt. I was looking for more nuance and depth.

I know that many other readers have adored this book so perhaps my expectations were too high. It is not one that I can recommend.

Book Review: Multitudes

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Multitudes, by Lucy Caldwell, is a collection of eleven short stories set in Belfast. As a native of the city and a fan of the short story form I approached this book with high expectations. I was not disappointed.

Several of the stories are told from the point of view of a child and the author has captured both the voice and the conflict of feelings at each age perfectly. It is easy to forget how torrid growing up can be: the desperate loneliness, being unable to articulate feelings, the fear of rejection by peers, of disappointing parents. These stories encompass the pain and pleasure of childhood social success and the damage this can cause.

My favourite story in the collection was ‘Through the Wardrobe’, a moving account of a young child uncomfortable in their own skin:

“You are sad. You’re only six years old but you feel sad a lot of the time, a tightness in your chest that you don’t have words for. Your mum says you’re a sensitive child […] she’ll stay till you fall asleep, you’re safe and nothing can hurt you. But it’s not outside you’re scared of. It’s something inside, and you can’t explain it”

Relationships are explored throughout: the pain of parenthood, the pain of being thirteen and friendless is a world that demands all fit in, the conflict when desire clashes with parental expectations.

In ‘Poison’ a pupil is attracted to her teacher with all the intensity that being fifteen entails. In ‘Here We Are’ two pupils find a love that will not be tolerated in a church lead community.

The writing is breathtaking, taut and rich in imagery. Each character demands empathy, even those imprisoned by their upbringing and beliefs.

I urge you to seek out this book. It is a fabulous work, fulfilling and rewarding to read.

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

Top 10 western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count

JM Gulvin

Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post by JM Gulvin, author of ‘The Long Count’. This book is the first in a new crime series featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie. I review the book here.

As part of the blog tour, JM has provided a list of his top ten western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count.

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10) IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD

The sixth book in the Dave Robichaux series, but the first James Lee Burke crime novel I read. Set in Louisiana it features the New Iberia detective on the trail of a serial killer, while a Hollywood film about the civil war evokes ghosts of the real dead. Not for everyone but the great thing about James Lee Burke is he’s never bound by what’s expected. He started life as a literary writer and, of course, it shows.

9) HORSEMAN, PASS BY

The book was written by Larry McMurtry, set in Texas in the fifties it deals with a dying ranch and a dying rancher. A tough but sensitive family story about the passing of one generation to the next, it was filmed in black and white as HUD, starring Paul Newman.

8) SHUTTER ISLAND

Perhaps a little far-fetched given one inmate is allowed the run of a mental asylum in 1950’s America, but brilliant just the same. The story of a man who killed his wife, he’s facing a lobotomy only we don’t know that and neither does he. Dennis Lehane wrote the book and Martin Scorsese made the movie.

7) THE HUNTER/POINT BLANK

The book was called THE HUNTER written in 1963 by Donald E. Westlake about a criminal called Walker seeking revenge on a fellow gang member who double crossed then shot him and left him for dead. It was filmed by John Boorman as POINT BLANK and starred Lee Marvin. Both the book and film are perfect examples of neo-noir. The film was remade later as PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson but it’s not a patch on the original.

6) LONESOME DOVE

This is a sprawling novel by Larry McMurtry. He’s a native of Texas and owns a bookshop in the small town of Archer City. It’s an epic western about the first cattle drive from the tiny town of Lonesone Dove, Texas all the way to Montana and features two of the best western characters ever created: Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call of the Texas Rangers. It was filmed for TV starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones.

5) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is one of those rare pieces where the book and movie are almost identical. The book is tough, brutal and uncompromising, as is the film. It’s depiction of how Texas was changing in the eighties is brilliant, a local man gets caught in a drugs war and suffers the consequences at the hands of one of the most ruthless assassins ever to grace a page.

Book by Cormac McCarthy – Film by Joel & Ethan Coen

4) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

The book was written by Ron Hansen and (as with “No Country”) book and film are pretty much the same. Hansen is a hugely underrated and immensely talented writer. The film stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. Affleck’s performance as Bob Ford who shot Jesse James in the back when he was 34 years old, is astounding. One scene is worth the whole movie alone, where a fearful Garret Dellahunt encounters the vengeful Jesse. It reeks of unspoken fear. The voice over from Hugh Ross captures the atmosphere exactly and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is brilliant.

3) LONE STAR

No book only a film. Made in 1996, it’s set in a small town close to the Texas/Mexican border. Three stories all rolled into one, the main thread is the murderous exploits of an old sheriff called Buddy Deeds as discovered by the current sheriff, his son. The ending comes from nowhere and by the time it’s over you feel you’ve witnessed something very special indeed.

2) COOGANS’ BLUFF

A Clint Eastwood classic movie made in 1969 about a deputy sheriff from New Mexico who goes to New York to bring home suspect James Ringerman, only Ringerman gets away. A chase through the city, it’s simple but brilliant fare and if anyone wants to get an idea of how John Q might appear, look no further than this.

1) ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

The first novel I read by Cormac McCarthy. 1930’s Texas and a way of life is dying away. Two young cowboys leave Texas and go in search of that same life south of the border in Mexico. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, they cross the Rio Grande on horseback and what follows is a spectacular adventure, both beautiful and brutal. The book put McCarthy on the map at the age of 59. It’s a love story, an adventure, a coming of age; but it’s the sheer quality of the writing that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

They made a film starring Matt Damon but I’d avoid that altogether and just read the book. It’s followed by THE CROSSING which is arguably better but it was reading ALL THE PRETTY HORSES that set me on my way.

LONGCOUNT_blog   The Long Count

The Long Count is published by Faber & Faber and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Long Count

The Long Count

The Long Count, by JM Gulvin, is the first in a new series of thrillers featuring Texan Ranger, John Q. The voice in the story telling is very much that of a modern day Texas Cowboy, laid back and fearless with a down to earth and gritty determination.

John Q is a veteran of the Korean War. He is famed for his gunslinging, for having the ability to draw and shoot before his adversary has time to pull the trigger on a threatening weapon. He is also a widower and loving father, a loyal friend who calmly counters the racism inherent in his state by deeds more than words.

Set in the 1960s, when Americans were starting to protest their involvement in the Vietnam War, the book opens with a vicious assault at a lonely railway station. John Q is enjoying a sunny Memorial Day by the river with his friend, Pious, and son, James. They make a gruesome discovery but before this can be dealt with John Q is called across state to investigate the railway station attack.

The assailant is making his way elsewhere, calmly removing those who get in his way. John Q is soon on his tail but with no apparent motive can only follow the bodies left in the attacker’s wake.

Due to proximity, the ranger is first to respond when an apparent suicide is called in. The local law enforcement officers declare it an open and shut case but John Q has other views. When the suicide’s son, Isaac, hears this he gets in touch. Isaac cannot believe that his father, a commensurate soldier from a family of valiant fighters, would ever take his own life.

Isaac tells John Q that he has just returned from his third tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only has he to cope with his father’s death but also the disappearance of his twin brother, Ishmael, who is unaccounted for following a devastating fire at the Trinity Asylum where he was being held. It emerges that Ishmael was the victim of ill conceived treatment by the recently appointed psychiatrist at this institution, but the doctor is determined to carry out his own investigations rather than allow the police to become involved.

The plot twists and turns as links between these events emerge. John Q remains one step behind the killer as the body count rises. An agitated Isaac takes matters into his own hands.

A skilfully written thriller although I did find the teasing out of the denouement a little overdone. I understand the desire to provide a concluding twist, and I had not guessed every detail. My impatience with the number of cliffhanger chapter endings before the final reveal coloured my satisfaction, neat though the ending was.

This is still a worthwhile read. The Texan voice is authentic and adds a welcome variation to the thriller genre. John Q is a fine creation and I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

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