Saturday, 27 August 2016

Dancing with Myself: CHRISTINA HOAG interviews CHRISTINA HOAG


You’ve written a nonfiction book about gangs, Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, and now a novel about a gang called Skin of Tattoos. Girlfriend, what’s up with all the gang shit?

I first encountered gangs as a young newspaper reporter in New Jersey, USA, when I was assigned to write a story about a notorious motorcycle gang delivering Christmas toys to a local hospital. I went to interview them in a small suburban house, very normal-looking apart from the bunch of Harley choppers out front and its rather gloriously hirsute occupants, who insisted they belonged to a “club” not a gang. I was fascinated by them and their lifestyle. Years later, I interviewed gang members deported from Los Angeles to El Salvador, where they had landed like fish out of water because they’d left Salvador as babies and small children during the civil war. Some barely spoke Spanish. That was before gangs spread like a pandemic and really took control of northern Central America. Anyway, their stories resonated with me, and formed the genesis of Skin of Tattoos, which is about a Salvadoran family who fled one war zone only to arrive in Los Angeles and find themselves in another, which is basically what happened to thousands of refugees.

You’re a white, middle-class, middle-aged lady, so how the hell did you write so convincingly about this whole other world?

Research. Much of it was done in the context of my job as a journalist. I was able to interview gang members, their girlfriends and parents, prison inmates, as well as numerous sociologists and other experts who study gangs, and police officers who work in gang units. I also read a heap of books about gangs, including memoirs by gang members, who tend to write their stories whilst they’re incarcerated, and others who work with gangs, ranging from priests to anthropologists. I also had the benefit of co-authoring a book on gang intervention – that’s the Peace in the Hood book you mentioned. Before you ask, gang intervention is about taking former gang members and training them to be street peacekeepers, to interrupt the cycle of retaliation that drives gang violence. My co-author is a former Black Panther who’s been working with gangs in South L.A. since the seventies. I’m proud to say the book is being used a textbook for various courses at the University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Hmm, do you think we can ever get rid of gangs?

As long as we have economic inequality and discrimination in societies, gangs will exist. You don’t see middle-class kids joining gangs, for the most part, or middle-class neighbourhoods being claimed as gang turf. The key element that fuels gang formation and membership is the perception in disenfranchised sectors of society that gangs offer more opportunity – money and status - than conventionally accepted paths in life. It’s worth mentioning that not all kids in these neighbourhoods join gangs. In fact, most don’t. Gangs particularly appeal to youths who have little family stability. The gang becomes their surrogate family; it gives meaning to their lives. One interesting thing I found in Los Angeles, where gangs really took hold in the 1970s and are now in their third generation, is that gang affiliation runs in families and is a source of pride, even among former gang members! The real way to combat gangs is improving access to education and jobs in disadvantaged areas because that diminishes the need for belonging to a gang and resorting to a life that ends in death, prison or the hospital.

This is starting to sound way too much like some stodgy BBC interview.

Well, you did ask.

All right, what else can you tell us? Any other books you’ve written that aren’t about gangs?

I have a recently released YA suspense novel called Girl on the Brink. It’s sort of a romantic thriller, but it’s got an important social message. It chronicles a teenager’s abusive relationship and her recovery from it.



Crikey, you’re really into these cheery themes, aren’t you?

I’ll put it down to my background as a journalist. I’ve spent years, decades, actually, writing about the problems of the world.

It certainly shows. I’m starting to crave a Xanax talking to you.

I really don’t want to drive you to pills. Do you want me just to tell you some of my favourite crime novels?

Righty-o.

One is Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the story of a Mexican woman who ends up running a drug empire in Spain. It was really before its time, before all the cartel violence in Mexico, another favourite theme of mine. Okay, okay, I won’t go there. Anyway, I couldn’t put it down. Another is Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian classic first published in 1881 about bushrangers and cattle rustlers in western New South Wales. Loved it. My favourite fictional detective, by the way, is Australian, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, a half-Aborigine who solves crimes in the western Queensland. Arthur Upfield wrote the books in the early 20th century.

Two from Down Under? What gives?

I was born in New Zealand, grew up in Sydney.

And now you live in Los Angeles? Wait, I’m not even going to ask that one.

I was hoping you wouldn’t.  


Christina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld (Martin Brown Publishers, August 2016) and Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016). She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014). She resides in Los Angeles. For more information, see www.christinahoag.com.


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS by JT ELLISON


All The Pretty Girls (US) is a well put together police procedural that maintains a keen interest from the beginning.

The book opens right in the action as we join a serial killer enjoying a moment of murder. It’s great to get into the mind of the perpetrator straight away and the sinister mood haunts the rest of the tale as the book progresses.

Taylor Jackson is charged with leading the police investigation. There’s a sense of building urgency to her work as the killer becomes increasingly active.  The banter between officers works really well and keeps up the momentum of the story, as does the involvement of Jackson’s secret partner, FBI profiler John Baldwin when he is brought in to unpick the case.

As well as the police investigation, an ambitious TV reporter has been selected by the killer as a point of contact. Though she’s unsure why she’s been chosen, she begins to see it as a lead that might take her from local success to national star. It’s a lead that she can’t resist. As she is drawn further into the killer’s world and begins to put things together, she begins to see that the situation is closer to home than she could ever have imagined and she is forced into a position that none could envy.

The killer continues to make appearances throughout and I enjoyed these insights into his world. His mind is twisted and his methodology is to take the hand of one victim and leave it with the body of the next. These moments offer a contrasting darkness to the energy of the other strands of the plot.

As things approach their conclusion, the action comes thick and fast. There are pleasing twists and turns all off which lead to a satisfying conclusion.


I enjoyed my read. The pacing and the strands are handled with skill. Things do rely on a number of coincidences and unlikely connections, but the key elements are enough to brush these issues firmly to the side. This one was perfect for summer holiday distraction and will lead me to more of the author’s work and to more Taylor Jackson in the future.    

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: HEART OF DARKNESS by JOSEPH CONRAD


‘One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse.’

Marlow recalls an adventure to his shipmates on the Thames. Like any recollection, the story is offered through the filters of memory and experiences and is prone to the exaggeration of detail and key elements. This allows for a richness of description of people and place as well as for the cranking up of tension throughout.

Marlow falls into a job of captaining a steamer on its journey along the Congo to meet up with a renegade ivory trader called Kurtz. Kurtz is the one-time darling of the company, but his success and obsession seems to have gone awry and the respect that he was once held in has festered into the fear and contempt of those he works for.

As the story progresses, a sense of impending horror builds. Each of Marlow’s encounters offers foreboding. The chances of surviving the heat and conditions seem slim. The pictures that are painted of Kurtz offer contradictions, but unify in the danger they emit. As the time comes for the steamer to arrive at Kurtz’s camp, I felt and genuine panic and curiosity about what was about to follow. For me, this engagement is brought about because of the device of the story-teller addressing the audience directly. It’s also heightened by superb detail where all is viewed through whatever the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles might be.

The bulk of Heart Of Darkness (US) is beautifully put together. The power of the unseen and threatened is immense. If there’s an issue for me, then it’s that the journey is so much more than the arrival. Kurtz, such a giant throughout, is something of a shadow of himself by the time we meet. That which is unseen shrinks as the curtain is pulled back. This is clearly intentional and it’s more than likely that I’m missing the point, but the sense of anti-climax I experienced has been difficult to shrug off. Maybe the issue was that I was expecting Brando to make an entrance and it felt more like they’d sent on an understudy who had never really acted before.

I thoroughly enjoyed much of this one. The unpeeling of humanity down to raw flesh is brutal. The levelling of civilisation to an animal common denominator is unsettling. The conflict between the futility of life and the need to fully suck out all of its juices battles to leave a sludge that’s as dark as the title suggests. The voice of the storyteller is perfect and the images conjured are vivid throughout. The destination may not have been the one I wanted to reach, but I’m delighted that I finally went along for the ride.     


Saturday, 13 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: A KILLING KINDNESS by REGINALD HILL

My first read of a Reginal Hill and therefore my debut Dlaziel and Pascoe. Having not seen any of the TV series, I arrived with no baggage and few expectations other than the hope I might find a little holiday escapism via a police procedural.


A Killing Kindness (US) was a pleasant surprise. It follows the investigation into an ongoing series of murders that have in common the final resting poses of the victims and follow-up quotes from Shakespeare that suggest there’s an element of compassion in the killings in a twisted kind of way.

Like another recent read of mine, Ed McBain’s Ghosts, there is a supernatural element. In this case it comes in the form of a medium of Romany heritage with the ability to see beyond the concrete. Just as with Ghosts I was surprised at how much this aspect enhanced my engagement and how this element was successfully used to add tantalising ingredients to the work of the detectives.

The plot of this one is nicely put together and all the pieces fight tightly. The whodunit issue drives the story forwards well, but it was the characterisation that I enjoyed most about the book. On the surface (and possibly beneath) Dalziel is a brute who derives pleasure from being obtuse, unpleasant and behind the times. Pascoe juggles the case with his domestic life and the imminent arrival of his first child. He provides an excellent filter through which we observe the case and one that allows us to see Dalziel’s warts as well as his hidden qualities. There’s also the extremely ugly Sergeant Weild, a gay officer who is hiding in his closet while doing some brilliant work as he fixates upon finding their killer. Weild’s plight is handled with sensitivity and shines a light on the work place as an environment that can be difficult for anyone who doesn’t quite fit.

The red herrings work well, the bit players are strong and distinctive, the desire to find justice is maintained, its pace is spot on and there are elements of surprise in the wrapping up of the piece that left me satisfied.


All in all, I found the holiday escapism I was after and quite a lot more.   

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: GHOSTS by ED McBAIN


I’m a big fan of Ed McBain’s  87th Precinct novels and the truth is that the more of them I read, the bigger the fan I become. The central characters are brilliant conceptions, the plots are strong, the tangents and the humour always a treat and the police teams always manage to overcome the chaos of their departments and of the city in which they serve.

Ghosts (US) has just become my favourite of the bunch I’ve tackled. That could be because of the growing warmth I feel for the detectives, but I think there’s more to it than that.

It’s Christmas and Chanukah all wrapped up in one. Carella and Meyer Meyer take on the case of a couple of murders in a swanky apartment in a wealthy part of town. One of the victims is the writer of a successful ghost book. He’s survived by his wife Hillary who claims to be a medium, has a twin sister and happens to be the spitting image of Carella’s wife Teddy. As the case continues, there are more murders to contend with. There’s also a heavy snow that’s making life difficult for everyone and which is creating openings for Carella as he is forced to spend time apart from his family. The net of the investigation tightens and is complicated by the contributions of Hillary who is determined to use her powers to get to the bottom of what is going on. The weaving together of these two strands leads to a superb and rather unusual ending.


In Ghosts, the process of tracking down the criminals is as strong as ever. What I very much enjoyed about this one was its sexy edges and undercurrents. The book also flirts with the supernatural and rather than detract from the tensions of the tale it really does enhance the drama and the flavour of the piece.

Monday, 8 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: CANARY by DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI


‘Suburban dope has been stepped on so many times, all you smell is sneaker.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Canary (US) by Duane Swierczynski. Not only is it tense and gripping, it’s an awful lot of fun.

Straight-laced Sarie is learning to thaw out a little and succumbs to the charms of a male friend (D) at a party. She drives him to a dealer’s house which is under surveillance by determined cop, Ben Wildey. As the night moves on, Sarie is caught with her friend’s drugs and decides to take the fall. The only way out of the situation is for her to term informant for WIldey and she sets about investigating local happenings to see if she can earn her freedom without landing D in trouble.

The story follows her efforts as she becomes more and more involved in the shadows of the underworld to solve her own problem. Part of the pleasure here is watching her learn from her mistakes. She’s no inhabitant of the drugs scene, but she applies herself in the way she knows best to find solutions.

As she gets deeper and deeper into difficulty, the world around her tightens its grip. Her little brother knows something’s up and is tracking her movements. Her father manages to shrug off his love of the drink to work out why things are going so obviously wrong. D is trying to help and yet his good looks and free spirit are confusing matters. Wildey is forever tightening the screw in order that he can fulfil his lifetime mission of cleaning up the city. The dealers are all watching their backs (some more effectively than others) and, if that weren’t bad enough, there’s a leak in the police department that’s leading to the deaths of confidential informants and Sarie is quickly rising to the top of the murderer’s list.

The plot in itself is cleverly handled. What makes it work with such strength is the quality of the characters involved. Strong emotional bonds are created with them and the overlapping of the multiple points of view is seamless.

Sarie’s angle comes from diary entries to her dead mother and these allow for us to get in close and personal to her hopes and fears. This helps us to understand the changes she undergoes as life as she knows it disintegrates.

Wildey is also a fabulous cop creation. He has angels and devils in his family tree and has decided to side with his police heritage. His desire to succeed in his missions is equalled only by Sarie’s commitment to everything she does. He wants to bust Chuckie Morphine so badly that he is ruthless, yet he also has a tender and protective side that complicates his relationships with his informants and helps to make him very sympathetic.  

The energy in this book is strong. It reaches into dark and complicated places. Bad things happen and it’s clear that nobody is safe and no amount of caring is going to offer them protection. To balance the heavier issues, a sensitive touch and a deft use of humour mean there’s an uplifting quality to the work.  

A read that gave me lots of pleasure that I reckon you’ll love. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

One Man's Opinion: THE GUNS OF RETRIBUTION by ICY SEDGWICK


'He hated all the women and he hated God. He's been trying to get back at both ever since.'

Grey O’Donnell is a bounty hunter. With his young partner and mute Apache brother, he boards a train to catch his latest target red-handed. Unfortunately, the sheriff from Grey’s home tome of Retribution is also on board. The sheriff and Grey have history and it’s not of the good kind. The sheriff twists the situation to his advantage, arrests Grey and makes plans for his demise.

Thankfully, Grey’s friends help him out of a tight spot and they land up in the new town of Sandwater where they meet an array of interesting characters who enjoy the peaceful nature of their home.  

The old vendetta between Grey and the Sheriff is soon reopened, though, and sparks and flames soon follow.


The Guns Of Retribution (US) is full of contrasts - the two towns, Grey’s comrades, a pair of sisters central to the plot,  the cowardly and the brave and the good and the not so. The action scenes are nicely handled, the tension is built at a satisfying pace and there are whip-cracking lines peppered throughout. Predictable events are avoided and the spanners and hammers that are thrown into the works are most welcome. Entertaining stuff and a solid deal at 99p/99c.