Friday, 16 October 2015


Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich

‘Brother-versus-Brother in the dope-damned South.  This first novel has it all:  Moonshine, Maryjane and Mayhem!’.  So says James Ellroy on the front cover of this debut novel from Brian Panowich, and I have to say that yep, that blurb just about sums it up:  Mr Panowich packs more action, brutality, horror, and down-home humour into his relatively slim volume than most thrillers twice the size.  (But I'm still waiting to meet Maryjane!)
            All the sins get an airing here – moonshine;  weed-growing;  meth manufacture;  weapons trafficking;  all perpetrated by the Burroughs family, owners of land on Bull Mountain, a wild region in North Georgia.  Succeeding generations of sons have guarded the land and their various ‘industries’ and, though they have never made any of their vast fortune legally, the money is secondary to the love they feel for their ancestral home:  they are all prepared to fight and die protecting their rights to Bull Mountain, and anyone who thinks to oust them from there (particularly the law) had better be prepared to die, too.
            Clayton Burroughs is one family member who has gone against type – he is the local sheriff, enjoying an uneasy truce with his outlaw brothers up on the mountain, who hate him for what they see as his betrayal for joining ‘the other side’.  Their contempt grieves Clayton sorely, for every Burroughs feels a kinship to each other just as strong as their atavistic love of place;  but he is sick of all the killing;  he wants a good, peaceful life with his wife, not a short, bloody one.  He hopes this will happen.
            Until an FBI agent visits him with a proposition:  if Clayton can persuade his lawless family to give up a Florida criminal kingpin who is a weapons manufacturer and their main supplier, the FBI will give them amnesty from prosecution – providing they give up their various criminal means of income.
            As if!  Clayton knows his family well enough to realise their reaction to that proposition:  they would never betray a trusted business partner, and their contemptuous reaction to the sight of him journeying up that familiar mountain in his sheriff’s uniform, bearing the FBI’s offer like a dog hopeful of a pat instead of a kick – nope, this is never going to fly.  But …….
            He is a hopeful man.  He will grasp at any straw as a means to stopping the bloodshed and tragedy that have dogged his family for four generations:  he is willing to try it the FBI’s way, and hope the mess won’t be too impossible to clean up when that fails. 
            And fail it does, spectacularly.  Mr Panowich spares the reader none of the blood and gore;  nor does he let the action flag for a single minute:  his characters are all larger than life and for the most part twice as ugly;   they ride each page like marauding Vikings and they make the Hatfields and McCoys look like sulking parishioners at a Church picnic.  Every chapter has a twist and a hook, and no-one is what they seem – including FBI agent Holly, who has a secret agenda of his own.
            Mr Panowich’s rip-roaring debut novel lives up spectacularly to all the  flattering blurbs on its front cover:  FIVE STARS

Life after life, by Kate Atkinson

Once again it seems I have dragged the chain here;  I should have read and reviewed this gem many moons ago.  Instead I procrastinated, read heaps of other stuff (some of it not half as good) and now have caught up with it so that I can read its sequel, ‘ A God in Ruins. ‘
            I have to admit to confusion as to this unique writer’s motives regarding her plot,  the premise being ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’  This is exactly what the heroine, Ursula Todd appears to do, from the moment of her birth in 1910 until her last breath is definitely drawn fifty-seven years later:  in between-times she ‘dies’ many times, from strangulation at birth by her umbilical cord;  drowning at the seaside aged five;  falling from a top floor window whilst trying to rescue a beloved toy and so on into adulthood, when the Second World War presents many more ways of dying, from the horrors of the London Blitz to the ruins of Berlin and suicide for herself and her young daughter, rather than endure the bestiality of the conquering Russian troops.
            Miraculously for Ursula, death is averted each time by little twists of fate or the quick actions of others;  her young life is bolstered and protected by rock-solid supporting players, from her sound-as-a-bell middle-class parents Sylvie and Hugh, beloved sister Pamela and favourite brother Teddy. (Older brother Maurice is hateful, arrogant and only happy if he can make his siblings cry).  Stability is further provided by Bridget the scullery maid, arriving from Ireland at the age of fourteen;  and Mrs Gardner, dour-faced cook for the family, and no respecter of the class system.  These characters are the gold standard in this wonderful story;  they have their own dramas and tragedies to contend with and such is Ms Atkinson’s skill that the reader is just as involved with them as with Ursula and her stuttering, stop-and-start journey through her life.
            I cannot remember reading anywhere a more electrifying account of London during the Blitz:   in 1940, Ursula has volunteered as an ARP warden, and the terrible destruction and horrific sights she sees are experienced in all their stark terror by the reader, too:  Ms Atkinson’s prose is almost painterly in its harsh imagery, thankfully to be softened later by much-appreciated humour.
            It was unclear to me whether Ursula finally ‘got it right’ at the end of her many attempts to start her life anew, but it doesn’t matter:  it was great to make the journey with her.  FIVE CONFUSED STARS!  


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