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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”

Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene.
Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south.
Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters.
This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice.
Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism.
Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”).
Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney — book review

“That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. ”

The Long and Faraway Gone is a well written if somewhat uneven novel.

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I can definitely see why it has drawn comparisons to books by Dennis Lehane. Both authors render a strong sense of place, so much so that the settings of their stories transcend the role of backdrop, becoming an active character into their narratives, one that can—and will—sway the direction of the story.

One of the links between two apparently unrelated storylines in The Long and Faraway Gone is that they both take place in Oklahoma City. In the summer of 1986 two young individuals experienced tragic and traumatic losses: Wyatt was the only survivor in an armer robbery while Julianna’s alluring—and troubled—older sister Genevieve went missing during the annual State Fair.
Years later Wyatt—now a private investigator—and Julianna—a nurse—grow increasingly preoccupied over the past . Soon their obsessions will derail the course of their everyday lives as they jeopardise personal relationships, and their careers, by undertaking investigations of their own.

Wyatt’s humour and emphatic nature made him into a compelling protagonist. His story seemed a lot more fleshed out and coherent than Julianna’s. While I was willing to look past Wyatt’s mistakes, and understood why his stay in Oklahoma City affects him so much, I was unable to reconcile myself with Julianna’s appalling behaviour. Her narrative seemed to have a lot more padding, and while her ‘investigation’ definitely had some tense moments, I was always looking forward to return to Wyatt’s story.
It was interesting to see how their storylines occasionally mirrored one another, yet Lou Berney never resorted to throw an unlikely connection between the two as a way of linking these two stories together.

Berney, similarly to Lehane, is skilled in giving each of his characters—regardless of their role—a convincing personality. With a few clever descriptions, and by articulating those idiosyncrasy relating to an individual’s mannerisms or their way of speaking, Berney creates realistic and memorable characters. Regardless if we like them or not, his characterisation is such that they do not fall neatly into a ‘good person’ or ‘bad person’ category. Because his characters are rendered in such vivid detail, his dialogues crackle with energy. There are so many great lines and exchanges that make The Long and Faraway Gone into such an engaging novel.
The resolution to the main characters’ interrogation of their past, although unexpected, is surprisingly mundane. Berney doesn’t try to make the characters’ tragedy into part of larger and unlikely plot, providing instead solutions that are far more realistic.

In spite of a few minor quibbles—mostly relating to Julianna’s narrative—I thought that The Long and Faraway Gone was an engaging read and I am eager to read more by Berney.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane

“Guns, guns, guns. Three hundred and sixty degrees of pure violence.”

The thing about Lehane is that he can write bloody good thrillers. His gritty stories –reminiscent of hard-boiled crime novels– never fail to entertain. Moreover, he always, always, manages to surprise – if not shock– you.
Kenzie and Gennaro’s investigation is full of well-paced twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Like the other Kenzie & Gennaro novels, Darkness, Take My Hand has a great sense of place. The urban setting is vividly rendered through characters and the sharp descriptions of the narrator. Lehane’s observations are always nuanced, and while Kenzie might gives us the majority of the ‘picture’, all of the characters contribute to it. Lehane doesn’t elevate Kenzie’s opinions and intentions, in fact, time and again, he challenges the actions of his protagonist.
The narrator is another of this series’ strengths. Kenzie’s wise-ass commentary is always engaging. However, in comparison to A Drink Before the War I think there is more serious, or more complex, tone to him, one that brings his character fully to life. This added depth is also found in all of the other characters. Lehane’s has an ear for dialogue and the little things that characterise different people; it might be the way they talk and or move, as much as their own backstories.
Kenzie’s investigation never takes a predictable turn. From the very start we are given numerous factors that lead us away from what seems to be Kenzie’s main investigation, leaving us desperately in need of answers. Lehane shows interest in the psychology of criminals (fans of Mindhunter…read this): he does not give us easy answers, he is always fighting against the ‘good/bad’ morality.
Gripping and suspenseful, this novel is brimming with dangerous characters and an intricate mystery. It is a fast-paced thriller full of sharp-witted dialogues and action set against a mobile backdrop that thrums with life.

My rating: 4.5 stars

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A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

“Come on, kids.”
I stood. “Where?”
“There’s a bar around the corner. Lemme buy you drink before the war.”

Despite having read two of the later instalments of Kenzie & Gennaro, I was still able to enjoy this first investigation of theirs. They are perhaps less weathered than their future selves but their line of enquiry is equally engrossing. Lehane’s distinctive wit characterise a lot of the narration, and Kenzie’s wisecracks pepper his story. The tone of his later novels are somewhat less jokey: experience might have diminished Kenzie’s – very entertaining – wise-ass commentary.

No one spoke for a few moments. I think we were all too impressed by the realization that we knew someone who used “conundrum” in casual conversation.

The story is rooted in Boston: Lehane’s vivid rendition of the city pulses with life. He swiftly illustrates neighborhoods through amusing and accurate observations. Here is a nugget of his sharp-witted descriptions:

If Donald Trump puked, Copley Place is probably what would hit the toilet.

Yes, the building has marbles fountains and golden statues.
Lehane also takes time for more serious and reflective contemplations. A lot of his commentary addresses the way in which certain neighbourhoods appear to one another and how these preconceptions inflamate hate.
Part of the focus of this novel is the strife between the opposing gangs, however, I think Lehane incorporates a lot more than that through his plotlines. There are the ‘powerful and untouchable’ politicians, the police, the ones who have to live in a ‘war-torn’ terrain. Lehane emphasizes how they all similarly try to drive a wedge between them and ‘the others’. Kenzie is not a flawless rendered judgment-free character. He too shows – to his own remorse – prejudiced behaviour.
Kenzie is one of the novel’s strengths. He is so incredibly engaging that it is hard for the readers to want to leave him.

“I go on the presumption that everyone’s full of shit until proven otherwise, and this usually serves me in good stead.”

The story propels us through Kenzie’s investigation which include more than a few ‘rough’ encounters. While the action drives forwards the plot, we also get a lot of interesting and unhurried scenes which helps to give us a fuller picture of the characters involved.
Characters are another of Lehane’s fortes. Besides the endearing protagonist, we have a series of believable and complex characters vividly depicted through Lehane’s skillful style.
For example, through a few remarks, he aptly evokes Bubba’s ‘essence’:

“If Bubba could have been born in another time, like say the Bronze Age, he would have been all set.”

While the mystery and the plot are not as complex and intricate as the following instalments, this first novel introduces us to Kenzie, Gennaro and Bubba, and on the whole, it allows us for a more depth reading of their characters.

“The world according to Bubba is simple – if it aggravates you, stop it. By whatever means necessary.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

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Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Thrumming with suspense Mystic River is a gritty crime novel, one that focuses more on the psychology of its characters rather than the crime itself.
On the one hand, the story follows the violent death of a young girl, Katie, on the other, we have three young boys, boys who used to be friends until one of them is kidnapped. Lehane portrays grief in a vivid manner: we see how much Katie’s death affects those who loved her. Characters are fleshed out: they act in such a genuine way that they feel real. There is Jimmy who we know has had troubles with the law, and is hiding something, then there is Sean, someone who seemingly seems as if he’s doing rather well but really isn’t, and finally there is Dave, a complex and very confused man that has never really recovered from his kidnapping. An array of equally well-developed characters serve as friends, enemies, families of these three men. I was particularly aware of the way Lehane portrays masculinity, Jimmy, Dave and Sean showcase and battle with their emotions in a way that challenges ideals of men having to ‘bottle up’.
An engaging and challenging novel that is fueled by a solid plot. Lehane’s noir is one that combines tough scenes and edgy dialogues with more introspective moments, all of which are rendered beautifully by his dynamic prose.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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