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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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Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley — book review

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“I was so hardened to suffering that somehow even the casualties of history fell outside the borders of my self-imposed sovereignty.”

In spite of its short length Walter Mosley’s Trouble Is What I Do packs a punch. This is noir at its finest. Mosley doesn’t waste words, and we can tell that by the fact that each description and dialogue in his novel has a certain significance.

“Slowly, he lowered onto a chair, looking at me as if I was the bad news he’d been waiting for his entire life ”

The very first opening pages of Trouble Is What I Do grabbed my attention. Mosley’s first person narrator is Leonid McGill who as a ‘crook’ turned P.I. is all too familiar with navigating the crime world. When Phillip Worry, known as Catfish, a 92-year-old bluesman, asks Leonid to deliver a letter it would seem like a fairly straightforward task. Except that this letter is addressed to Penelope Sternman, heiress of one of America’s most wealthy and influential families, and the contents reveal her black lineage. Her father, Catfish’s son, is a corrupt racist who will stop at nothing in order to keep his parentage secret.
Thankfully, Leonid is the man for the job. Aided by old ‘friends’, he sets out to deliver this letter.

“Catfish had given me drink and song and trust. These were sacred gifts and, in a way, I was born again.”

Leonid’s distinctive narration makes him stand out from other P.I.s. He is charming, incisive, and, unlike many other detectives, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He doesn’t need to throw his weight around, his reputation precedes him: “This man you’re walking up on is Leonid McGill. He’ll break half the bones in your body for business and the other half for fun.”
Yet, in spite of his past, readers will be able to see how humane he is. His moral compass does waver, but only occasionally. Speaking of his past, Mosley manages to give Leonid a lot of history without rehashing his whole life story.
The dialogues are snappy, in equal measure amusing and tense. Leonid’s lyrical narrative provides us with evocative descriptions that truly bring his world to life.
Leonid’s engrossing assignment provides a relevant commentary on race that doesn’t provide readers with simple answers. The ending is surprisingly heart-rendering.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane or for those who are interested in reading a more poetic take on noir.

“At one time I blamed my father’s abandonment for these sins, but I had learned that in the end, wrong is wrong and every man has to carry his own water.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

While this might not be Lehane’s best novel, it is one of his most suspenseful ones.
Having watched the screen adaptation years ago, I was worried that I would not be able to find the twist as shocking…well, I shouldn’t have worried. Lehane is always able to shock his readers.
A story that thrums with tension, Shutter Island constantly questions its own narrative and characters. A mounting uncertainty accompanies readers – and the story’s protagonist– in what soon reveals to be a puzzling – and inexplicable – mystery. The disappearance of a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane brings U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule, to Shutter Island. Teddy’s investigation is further complicated by the island’s uncooperative staff and an incoming hurricane. In the midst of these adversatives Teddy is forced to confront his own past. A confined setting and plenty of suspicious characters add more fuel this mystery.
Lehane’s ability to flesh out different characters is as good as ever. Through a few sharp observations, or a word or two, he is able to bring characters to life: they are all remarkably vivid. Teddy, Chuck, the orderlies, the doctors, they all strike an impression in the reader.
Lehane’s very immediate style intensifies the emotional charge of his scenes. Also, his narration reflects the protagonist’s state of mind, causing an instantaneous reaction in the reader.
This a story if violence, denial, and trauma. While it may be upsetting (*ahem*…devastating…) it is also incredibly engaging novel, one that poses plenty of challenging questions.

My rating: 4.5 stars

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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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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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