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 Familiar Dark by Amy Engel — book review

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“We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Once again I find myself in the minority but I just didn’t find The Familiar Dark to be a very riveting read. From its gratuitous and cliched opening pages (in which two twelve year olds are murdered) to its stagy finale, I had a hard time believing in the story I was reading.

Some of my favourite books, such as Winter’s Bone and Sharp Objects, depict rather bleak realities, but they do so convincingly. Here, Eve Taggert’s narration is so exaggeratedly ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ as to be hard to buy into. Although she says that she has spent all her life in the same small town, she often describes its people’s ways through comparisons (saying things on the lines of ‘in other places people would react differently/here rules are different’). Given how insular her world is, it seems weird that she would so often view her town and her family through an outsider’s lenses.

The many metaphors about darkness and poison also struck me as contrived. Eve’s circumstances spoke for themselves. Abuse, neglect, sexual harassment, rape, poverty, and addiction are the norm in her town, especially for women. Would she really waste her time thinking of allusions or similes for ‘darkness’?
In spite of her truth seeking/no bullshit attitude she conceals certain knowledge from the reader…for what purpose? To ‘shock’ us? It seemed weird that Eve, who is able to see through her community and the dubious intentions of the people around her, would lie to herself and to us about someone’s identity.

Eve’s narration aside, I did find the novel to be evocative. The dialogues where for the most part believable as was Eve’s grief. Her search for the truth behind her daughter’s murder is filled with both tense and sorrowful moments. Her rage was also convincing, as were her reflections regarding the limited options women in her position have.

The Familiar Dark sacrifices realism for the sake of dramatic twists. Moments of poignancy or insight into Eve’s life are often lost beneath the author’s overemphasis on ‘darkness’.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson

Perhaps I was expecting The More They Disappear to be more of a mystery. We know from the very start that Mary Jane is the one who shoots sheriff Lew Mattock. Mary Jane is a young drug-addict. She loathes both herself and her parents. Her boyfriend is the only one person she cares for, and together they believe they can be like Bonny and Clyde. Mark, the wannabe Clyde, is a college student who likes to buy and sell Oxy.
The deputy, Harlan Dupree, is forced to step up, taking the role of sheriff in a town that is torn by addiction and corruption. Harlan is viewed as a piss-poor replacement, yet, he does try to solve Lew’s murder. His investigation will reveal that Lew was incredibly corrupt and not quite the good man some believe he was. Except that most people, everybody but Lew’s son, knew just what sort of bully Lew could be. Harlan’s methods are rather inadequate. His efforts were shadowed by his constant mopey thoughts. Most of the characters, in fact, shared the same sense of self-pity. They all have horrible parents, they are all made fun of, they all have ‘inner’ potential…While I appreciated that no one was likeable, I found that by having 0 sympathetic characters I wasn’t that involved in the outcome of the story. Harlan and Lew’s son (what was his name? What was the point in him?) were so similarly bland that I confused one for the other. Mary Jane and Mark were the stereotypical angsty kids. The many sets of ‘couples’ and parents seemed all alike: the man is an asshole, the woman is a depressed chain-smoker.
The writing too was off-putting. Needless sex-scenes and lots of ‘nipple’ being described.
The More They Disappear offers depressing themes in a depressing manner. What could have been a raw and genuine portrayal of poverty and drug addiction turns into a ‘race’ for who is the most ‘misunderstood and unappreciated’ character. Pity parties are off-putting.

My rating: 2 stars

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Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

“This is how sudden things happened that haunted forever.”

Equal parts poetic and stark, Winter’s Bone is a short and compelling read. It follows sixteen-year old Ree Dolly who, after her father skips his bail, risks losing her home.

“Fading light buttered the ridges until shadows licked them clean and they were lost to nightfall.”

Ree’s life is far from easy: not only does she live in an incredibly bleak and desolated area but she also has to take care of her two younger brothers and her heavily medicated mother. It is made soon apparent that above all else, Ree is a survivor. Still, things go from bad to worse, when she starts looking for her father in her family network.
Woodrell does not shy away from describing the harrowing conditions and treatment Ree receives. Despite this, it is not all gloom and doom. He also offers brief glimpses of hope, such as the touching friendship between Ree and her best friend, or Ree’s interactions Uncle Teardrop.
Woodrell’s realistic portrayal of such a harsh community paints frightfully convincing scenes and interaction; his characters offer many shades of gray: they are all – regardless of their roles – equally believable in that they are far more than ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Ree, for obvious reasons, was the character who shines the most: she was both tough and surprisingly witty. I really did ‘feel‘ for her, especially given the situation she is.

“She would never cry where her tears might be seen and counted against her.”

The writing itself is something perfectly fits the story and its setting: Woodrell’s prose offers multitude of beautiful metaphors and similitudes. He does not tell us how Ree feels, he shows us.
I could best describe this as being a lyrical portrayal of an especially brutal place.

“The heart’s in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

A compelling heartfelt story that delivers a solid emotional punch.
Focusing on the dynamics between Hawley and Loo, a father and her daugher, this novel brings to life both everyday instances and more charged scenes, such as the ones given in Hawley’s ‘bullets’ chapters.
The writing itself reads smoothly, and is perhaps reminiscent of the one of Ann Patchett and/or Alice Hoffman. Tinti describers seemingly mundane scenes in a way that is incredibly compelling: by focusing on the details she is able to craft a vivid picture.
Loo’s relationship with her father is depicted with incredible honesty; their earnest relationship is what the story is built on. Hawley’s past is also relevant to the story, serving as to explain some of his actions and behaviours with Loo later in his life. The violence of his past is at times juxtaposed with Loo’s – less intense – experiences.
Bittersweet, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, is a sweeping and deeply felt tale recommended for people who have enjoyed the film Léon: The Professional or even True Grit.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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