Book Review: Why Stuff Matters

Why Stuff Matters, by Jen Waldo, is a story of grief, avarice, ageing, and the suspicious resentments that define those whose lives have amounted to little more than material possessions. Set in a run down mall in small town Texas, USA, its cast of characters would garner sympathy if they weren’t so ornery and grasping. Into this mix is thrown the protagonist, Jessica, who has inherited the mall from her mother and moved in to escape the pain of the life she had built and then lost. Her moral compass has been displaced by anger and heartache.

Jessica sleeps in the cavernous third floor of the mall. Unlike her elderly tenants she has few possessions. When the story opens a tornado is building that passes through the town leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Hard won belongings stand no chance against such a capricious force of nature.

Amongst the dead is an octogenarian named Pard Kemp who had rented a booth in Jessica’s mall. Pard left no family and had never specified what was to become of his stock in the event of his death. The remaining tenants waste no time in dividing his stuff amongst themselves. They vie with each other in an attempt to ensure that if anyone gets more than the others it should be them.

It falls to Jessica to arbitrate, despite knowing that whatever decisions she makes will be regarded as unfair. When guns are found in Pard’s booth she puts them in her safe, giving the tenants two weeks to agree how they should be removed as she refuses to allow unlicensed firearms to remain on her property. Another tenant, Roxy, asks to borrow one as her ex-husband is in town and she claims she is in danger. Within days Roxy has shot the man dead.

What follows is a series of events leading inexorably towards a reckoning. A body must be disposed of, the police distracted from the scent of wrongdoing. Into this mix arrives Lizzie, the twelve year old daughter of Jessica’s husband from his first marriage. Without agreement Lizzie is foisted on Jessica for the summer. The girl quickly finds herself a place within the politics of the mall, a young novelty fawned over by the elderly tenants eager to profit from her presence. Lizzie and Roxy each trigger further situations against which Jessica quietly rages.

The plot is in many ways farcical yet it is presented with an adroitness that enables the author to portray issues of loneliness, ageing and the value of humanity over things. Each of the cast of characters has reason to rail against much that life has demanded of them. Their greed, foolishness and sense of righteous entitlement were still frustrating to read.

The writing flows and the plot is well paced leading to a satisfactory denouement, possibly the only uplifting part of the tale. I suspect other readers may find humour in many of the scenes depicted. With more people living into old age the growing elderly population will be as mixed in morality as any other demographic. It is interesting to see them cast here as rogues, using their ailments to gain advantage.

A well constructed, thought-provoking read but, for me, too relatable not to be dispiriting.

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

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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: 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.