Fiction Review

Narcopolis: A Novel of Bombay by Jeet Thayil

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Here at The Poisoned Pen, we never shy away from the grittier things in life. In fact, we like it grisly, murderous, complicated, metaphorical, fantastic, and everything else in the entire range of literature. Maybe because we can see our characters losing control over their lives, we are instantly drawn to the drama that will ensue, or maybe it is the vicarious thrill of doing something dangerous and illegal, something that we would not dare to do in real life. Whatever the reason: murder, incest, violence, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, they are all superb backdrops to a really great story. We have reviewed books about drug culture before. The Panopticon was a huge success as a novel and is reported to have secured a movie deal to be made by Ken Loach. Annoyingly, it will have to have a different name as there is already a movie that came out in 2012 with the name “Panopticon”.
 
Right name, wrong movie
It is the same situation with “Narcopolis”. The novel by Jeet Thayil won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature in 2013, quite an achievement for a first novel, but if a movie version is ever made it will have to be under a different name to avoid confusion with a futuristic thriller coming out later this year (2014). The novel is set in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1970s and is the story of several characters who are already part of the opium scene descending further into their own personal hell. Part of the fascination with the novel rests with the author himself. Thayil was an alcoholic and drug addict for twenty years so when he writes of the hallucinations and the cravings, you know that he is speaking from experience, which makes the fate of his characters even more poignant. If you are worried that this genre of fiction glamorizes drugs and substance abuse, rest assured that there is nothing glamorous about the actions of any of the characters.  In fiction, as in real life, the reality of addiction is dark and desperate.
 
The main characters
Rashid is an opium house owner and it is in his den that we meet the other characters. In a way, he is proud of his den. He has the best opium, the best hostess, and the best reputation of all the dens. As he begins to get sucked down into the opium life, however, he starts to lose his grip on it all. His business falls away, unable to compete with the newer, nastier, quicker and harder hitting drugs of the 1980s, and yet he is now powerless to do anything about it.
Dimple is the center of this almost plot-less novel. She is the opium den hostess, a eunuch who turned to opium to relieve the pain of her operation, only to find a whole new world of pain opening up. It is her skills at making up pipes of opium that help to draw other people into the den, yet she is more aware than anyone else in the novel of what is waiting at the end of the line. She is a truly tragic figure, in that she cannot escape her fate. Customers who come and go from the den have a choice of whether to walk away from opium, or stay and spiral into addiction. Dimple has never had that choice, and she faces her ultimate demise with fortitude, fighting only with an attempt to educate herself in order that her life not be wasted.
Mr. Lee’s story is, in a way, the story of opium itself, escaping from China to India. It is he who leaves Dimple his genuine Chinese opium pipes in his will, in exchange for her promise to return his ashes to China, a promise she never manages to fulfill. Of all the characters, we get more back story of Mr. Lee, possibly because it is through him that the opium pipes come to Dimple and thence to Rashid’s den. By the book’s end, heroin and its offshoots have taken over as the self-obliteration of choice, and Rashid’s son runs the den like a business, with total contempt for his staff and customers. In the way that we all love the era in which we were young, no matter what the economic and political situation around us, the opium den with its horrors is viewed with nostalgia.
 
Style
Thayil was a poet before he was a novelist and his skills with words shows throughout the novel. The first chapter of the book is one long, breathless sentence that makes your head spin and your heart race, much as an opium high might do. It is a book both painful and sad, and yet it manages to be funny in places as it flicks from one character to another without much happening directly, while outside the den, Bombay grows up and changes into a harsher version of itself.
Reviewed by Anonymous 

Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart by Marci Jefferson 

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Girl on the Golden Coin Jefferson PP Flirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of Charles II. Despite the luscious gowns and extravagant jewels she wins for herself, we don’t envy her the high-wire balancing act she must maintain as she tries to win first one king’s influence and then another, while concealing the tragic secrets that would destroy her family and herself. That she manages to hold onto her virginity and her dignity for much of this engaging book while obeying the selfish commands of various powerful women and men is a testament to the inner strength and resiliency of Frances Stuart, the famous mistress of Charles II.  This remarkable woman carries the book—we deeply want her to find happiness and an identity that will allow her to remain true to herself. The first step that she must accomplish is to understand her own nature and sense of purpose. That isn’t easy in the treacherous seas of the courts she grows up in, nor is it easy to find when everyone who should love and protect her is out to use her. Frances carries the weight of her mother’s and siblings’ futures as well as her own. This is a book about an admirable woman in morally ambiguous circumstances where the price of failing at any one moment can destroy a family or a country. That’s a lot of pressure on one young woman, and the turns and twists of her life will keep you thrilled on every page. That Jefferson has so fully and accurately recreated the splendor of the Restoration court—its rich fabrics, gems, palaces, dalliances and betrayals—adds to the delight.

 

Review by Judith Starkston, Judith’s websiteFollow on TwitterFacebook

So West: Crime Time

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Time to once again saddle up and ride the crime soaked mesas and saguaro studded vistas of Arizona.  The local chapter of Sisters In Crime, the Desert Sleuths, has a new anthology out and its hot as a pistol and dangerous as a cornered rattler.  Each year the gals(and a few guys) produce a new collection of Arizona-set crime tales.
This years brace of 20 tales is, I believe, the strongest yet.  Under the editorial lead of the immensely talented Deborah J. Ledford a great set of stories has emerged.  Called “So West: Crime Time” the Sisters In Crime have done themselves proud.
The stories range from comic to bloody.  There is irony and shocks galore.  The entire physical gamut of our state is made use of and the people we meet continually surprise us.  Rather than single out my favorites (I have no wish to incur the wrath of any of these lethally imaginative writers by slighting someone) I want to praise all 19 women and one man for their superior efforts.  These are stories to savor throughout the year.
Arizona has a strong and varied community of writers from all genres.  This collection is in the vanguard of getting that message out.  This is the third in the “So West” series and they are all fine examples of our homegrown talent.  All 3 collections are available at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale.  This is a great chance to support a wonderful local resource and to get a great reading experience.

reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz

Chance by Kem Nunn

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With huge dollops of The Big Lebowski and rife with twisted noir tropes Kem Nunn’s latest book, “Chance” arrives like a run-away wrecking ball.  This dense and madly enjoyable novel has the requisite femme fatale, the big city corrupt cop and enough shady characters to please any fan of the psychological socio-crime novel.  This is a high-wire act of a book that runs flat out and never falters.  Mr. Nunn has always been an author on the edge and here he grabs his story by the throat and squeezes it for all it’s worth.
“Chance” is the title and chances are what Mr.Nunn takes in this roiling cauldron of a psycho thriller, social satire and gleeful gore fest.  Dr. Eldon Chance, a neuropsychologist, sets forth on a classic noir path that soon turns into a trip down a rabbit hole of horrors.  His journey becomes a series of switchbacks that gather speed towards a climax that is as hilarious as it is profound.
Since being overwhelmed by Kem Nunn’s first book, “Tapping the Source”, I have been a huge fan of his writing.  With “Chance” he delivers big time.  This is much more than just a crime novel.  Rich with echoes of Hammett and everything since, he pulls us along at lightning speed in this clever and richly plotted novel.  Issues of parenting, manhood, and the failures of the modern family ricochet around the central plot.  This is a rich and heady stew that charges ahead on twin rails of suspense and humor.  To reveal anymore of the story would be to temper the page-turning joy of this brilliant take on the classic San Francisco noir-clouded novel.  Clever, funny and exciting, “Chance” is the product of a terrific writer at the top of his game.  Don’t miss it.

reviewed by STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZFor further reading:

Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Delivering Death by Julie Kramer

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delivering deathAnother page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in Minneapolis is still sparring with her intellectually stunted, over-sexed boss while trying to keep her career afloat. Then there’s her ex-fiancé, who she’s not so sure should stay exed, except he seems to be awfully tight with his attractive new boss so there seems no hope there. Misery does love Riley, but you won’t be miserable reading as Riley’s dry, cynical humor carries a twisty plot that will keep you guessing. Perhaps I should have opened with “tooth-aching” instead of bone-chilling because that’s the clue that starts Riley off on her lethal investigation—the arrival of human teeth in an envelope. Were they taken out while someone was alive? What on earth do they mean? Someone less brave (or less in need of a story) might have left it up to the police to sort out, but Riley plows right through a mass-marriage, a mortuary and any number of other gruesome settings to get things uncovered. Her persistence might get her killed—or someone else she cares about.

Reviewed by Judith Starkston

For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston’s novel, Hand of Fire (coming fr Fireship Press, Sept 10 2014), set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

Until Death by James Thane

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In a well written and skillfully rendered police procedural James Thane fulfills the promise of his first book, “No Place to Die”.  The compelling characters that we met in his first novel return and remain as vivid and fascinating as ever.  Sean, a police detective, is still recovering from his wife’s death.  He is consumed by his work and his grief.  His partner Maggie, not long divorced, is in a new relationship that she is very conflicted about.  Both cops are private people and how they cope with their respective problems while maintaining a healthy working relationship makes for a dynamic reading experience.

The story concerns a date book that is lost by a female “escort”.  Gina Gallagher is a personal trainer by day and a high class hooker by night.  When the men in her date book start showing up dead and threats are made to her, then Sean and Maggie start a hunt that is a race against time.

Gina is portrayed in a realistic and yet sympathetic manner.  The story ramps up quickly and becomes a page turner in the best sense.

We are presented with a twisted skein of false clues, unreliable witnesses and motives galore.

The novel is set in Scottsdale, Arizona and makes full use of this unique location.  Thane gives us a palpable feel for the place by using real locales.  We get a true sense of both the city’s shape, it’s people and it’s life.

Any readers who like Michael Connelly and the tense urban dramas he portrays will find this book a terrific read.

 

A Shadow Review
Steve Shadow Schwartz

For further reading in a similar vein try:
PENANCE by Daniel O’Shea

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

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Bilyeau’s first book, The Crown, brought us the determined but naïve Joanna Stafford, Dominican nun and daughter of a disgraced aristocratic family, during Henry VIII’s reign. InThe Chalice Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has sent a more experienced but no less stubborn Joanna out into the secular world where she’s trying to build a quiet life as a weaver of tapestries. A mysterious prophecy and those who would like to use it to further their power and political desires drag her unwittingly into a bizarre plot against the king and his plans to undermine “the true faith” in England. The most powerful people in England once again tug and pull at Joanna, alternately threatening her life (and those she loves) and courting her as an essential element to their plans. Joanna’s devotion to the Catholic Church and her abhorrence of Henry’s destruction of the cloistered life make her willing to participate to a certain extent—a dangerous vulnerability as it turns out—but she becomes entangled in acts that she never anticipated and that violate her deepest beliefs. Faith, its value, and the willingness of supposedly true believers to exploit faith for their own ends, become intriguing, multi-faceted themes in this book. Bilyeau continues from her first book the subtle, complex development of Joanna’s character and combines that with a fast-paced, unexpected plot to hold the reader’s interest on every page. From mystical prophets to court intrigue to the challenges of romance and love amidst those who had once sworn themselves to chastity, The Chalice is writ large across England and the Continent as history and supernatural mysticism combine in this compelling thriller.

 

Reviewed by Judith Starkston

This review first appeared in The Historical Novels Review Issue 64 May 2013.
For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston’s novel, Hand of Fire, set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol

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This is the first submission in the Minnesota Trilogy, written by the award-winning, Norwegian author and translated by the esteemed Tiina Nunnally.  The setting is the northern part of Minnesota by Lake Superior and the small surrounding communities. The area is populated by Scandinavian immigrants inter-twined with the Native Americans. Lance Hansen, a U.S. Forest Service officer finds a badly wounded visitor and his brutally murdered traveling companion. Both have come from Norway to explore the area. Little is known about them, personally, but they have been observed to be pleasant and enjoying themselves on this trek. Because of jurisdiction requirements, the FBI is brought in, as well as a detective from Norway. Much of Lance’s life is wrapped up in the genealogy and history of the area. He’s been studying a 100-year old murder which gradually provides clues to the current crime, suggesting his estranged brother may have been involved. The tale is rich with history and environmental descriptions which add to the story. The author and his wife lived on Lake Superior for two years, adding authenticity. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good writing, a strong sense of place and an interesting mix of characters.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Swedish and my last place of residence was Duluth, MN. Needless to way, there was some nostalgia but, more importantly, a reminder of the fury of blizzards and Lake Superior, which made me re-think another location.

Staff Book Review by K. Shaver

Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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“The Panopticon” is the title of a daring first novel by Scottish poet Jenni Fagan, and it describes a halfway house/rehab facility from whose center the administrators can look into the living quarters – including the bathrooms – of every youthful inhabitant, male and female. The story’s central character, Anais, is an angry, sexually-active 15-year-old juvenile delinquent who clings to her eroding humanity while completely mistrusting the adult world after dozens of failed foster home assignments and the murder of a prostitute mother-figure by a customer. To her, the  Panopticon is simply a continuation of the “experiments” the authorities (and life) have always put her through, trying to break her will. She has been sent to this detention home deep in the woods after allegedly beating a  policewoman bad enough to put her in a coma.  Anais, who is usually stoked on whatever drugs are available – and in the Panopticon, the drugs are freely shared via windows and shoestrings – cannot remember the beating despite frequent police interrogations. But the truth is almost irrelevant, since Anais is such a nasty habitual offender that the authorities seem willing to hold her responsible for the policewoman’s condition in retribution for her other offenses. Anais finds her natural “family” at the Panopticon. The lost children who inhabit the facility bond to survive, much like those in “Lord of the Flies,” or “A Separate Peace,” but with more sexual agility, and fiercely protect their own against administrators, guests, and outsiders whom they encounter when allowed out on tightly-scheduled free time. The authentic Scottish dialect is not at all hard to follow, and the writing is snappy, gritty, and profane, with humor often softening the nearly-unceasing misery facing these children . Fagan leads us into all the dark and personal places where her characters live, and we watch them as they abuse themselves and others, casually turn from one drug to another, and curse the irresistible life in which they seem forever trapped, without giving thought to the consequences of their actions or their futures, for they cannot imagine living long enough for either to be meaningful.  The book is alternately depressing, sad, and joyful. You will come away from “The Panopticon” desperately wishing someone would “save” Anais, but frustrated at her own inability to keep the demons at bay.

reviewed by: Lawrence A. Katz 

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

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It is a huge challenge to review the remarkable and disturbing “Alex,” by Pierre Lemaitre, an award-winning 2011 thriller recently translated from the French, without giving away any of the many twists and turns. The book begins, routinely enough as thrillers go, with the kidnapping of a lovely young woman, Alex, from the street where she has been shopping for wigs (early clue). She is held in a cage in an abandoned warehouse, tortured, left to the rats. But why? What is her captor’s real motivation? What has Alex done to deserve such abuse?
Solving that puzzle is left to Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven, a 4’11” malcontent who has just returned to police investigative work after the kidnapping and death of his own wife. As Camille and his team uncover, piece by piece, the tortured backgrounds of Alex and her kidnapper, with little help from Alex’s family, it becomes evident that Alex is both victim and predator, and that the seeds of her fate were planted many years earlier.
Well-written and cleverly-plotted, this psychological stunner will please readers who were fascinated by Lisbeth Salander and loved books like Thomas Harris’ “Silence of the Lambs” and Denise Mina’s “Field of Blood.” Be prepared for some long nights under the reading lamp, a chilling tale of abuse and revenge, and a denouement that is shocking and immensely satisfying.
Reviewed by Lawrence Katz