Rosie’s #BookReview Team #RBRT Noir #Thriller BLACK IRISH BLUES by @andrewcotto #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here

#RBRT Review Team

Olga has been reading Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto

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This is my first experience reading this author’s work, although when I checked his biography I realised that he had not only been writing for quite a while, but this is not the first novel he publishes with Caesar Stiles as the main character, although the first one was published in 2012, and it’s only available in paperback. It makes perfect sense when we read the story, as there are references to what has happened before, but it is not necessary to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one.

The description of the book provides a good overview of the plot, especially as I want to avoid any spoilers. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the genre of this short novel, and although it might sound like an impossible combination (and I suspect the author wouldn’t agree), if there was something like a “noir-cozy” or a “hard-boiled-cozy” this would be it. Let me explain what I  mean, because I know the two concepts seem impossible to reconcile. What I mean by cozy is that the novel has not only a pretty peculiar protagonist (who left his home in quite traumatic circumstances and has been wandering the roads of America ever-since), but many of the other characters that make an appearance are also unique (a fantastically charming “good” baddie, an intriguing father, a bodyguard with plenty of style, a driver-cum-guide with plenty of hidden talents, a rich businessman with an alternative view of life…); there is also a strong focus on a small town and its inhabitants, peculiarities, and power structures and games; and a lot of attention is paid to Caesar’s cooking, with lengthy descriptions of some of his favourite dishes and how to cook them. Cozy mysteries tend to combine the actual mystery with some sort of side attraction or plot-line (cooking and baking are quite popular, but there might also be magic, paranormal elements, acting, song contests or a multitude of other subjects). The crimes investigated in that genre can be serious (murders are quite common), but the investigation itself is not discussed in too much detail; it is hardly on the level of a police procedural novel, and the level of violence tends to be either very minor, bizarre or cartoonish rather than realistic, or not discussed in detail. This novel, like many American novels, depicts a small-town that is far from the white-picket fence oasis urban dwellers imagine. It has a dark side, and there are plenty of non-cozy subjects that make an appearance (prostitution, corruption, prejudice, hints of racism, organised crime, bullying and child abuse…), but although I can’t go into detail, let’s say that the nature of the mystery/crime and the ending of the novel are a bit surprising considering some of the  less-than-savoury themes discussed. 

The style is definitely noir/hard-boiled, with dialogue that is stylised, hard-hitting, witty, and eminently quotable; there is gloomy foreshadowing, there is threatened and actual violence inflicted (although rather than gore and over the top ,it felt fairly restrained in its description, perhaps because the story is narrated in the first person by Caesar and, as he reminds us a few times, he’s got used to enduring violence due to his previous experiences and can take a beating), I’ve already mentioned some of the topics typical of the genre, and as the story is set in the early 90s, we have plenty of characters misbehaving (smoking, drinking alcohol, flaunting their money and being conspicuously materialistic)  but not much swearing; we have an old Sicilian curse; a character from the wrong side of the tracks with criminal connections who has lost most of his family by the time we meet him. There are plenty of rich descriptions that bring to life the place and the characters, and the book —which is rather short (a bit long for a novella, but pretty short for a novel)— covers lot of ground in very few pages. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered, surprises of all kinds that keep popping up, and friends and enemies are not always easy to tell apart.

I liked the central character and plenty of the other characters that make an appearance, although some we don’t get to know very well, and there are a few truly despicable ones. The fact that Caesar tells the story and is quite a contemplative person, who has a lot of stories in his past and plenty of memories to reflect upon helps us connect easily with him and with the characters he likes, even if some of them are ambiguous and not what they seem to be. He is trying his hardest to make things right and to put an end to the family’s curse; he is eager to reconnect with his past, to leave a worthy legacy and to help others; and although he is not whiter than white (in fact, we learn that he’s done some pretty questionable things), he does have a sense of what is right and wrong and of morality that most readers will probably feel comfortable with.

As mentioned, the writing style is quite descriptive, and the descriptions not always help directly advance the story. However, they contribute to create a picture of the places and the people we are reading about, and they also fit the narrative style of the protagonist, who is often told he should write his story, and who notes that he used to write lengthy descriptions of the places he visited and of the people he met  in his letters to his mother all throughout the many years he was away. There are scenes of action; there are contemplative moments; there are cooking interludes; and there are memories and flashbacks interspersed in the  novel, so the pace is not relentless and the storyline does not rush at breakneck speed, but it flows well, and it packs a lot of information and story into very few pages.

Without giving too many clues, I can affirm that I really enjoyed the ending, and it worked well for me. It is evident when we read the novel that the main character has a past, and recent events in his life have had a lot of impact in his current situation, but there is enough information provided for those of us who like to fill in the blanks in order to give us a good sense of the psychology and the complexity of the main character, and to make us wonder what will happen next, while at the same time offering us a full and complex story with a satisfying resolution. In sum, this is a short novel that manages to combine many genres, with a strong and likeable protagonist and some pretty memorable secondary characters, a vividly depicted setting, dark subjects aplenty, a noir writing style without extreme gore or swear words but full of unforgettable quotes, and enough cooking reference to delight gourmets, especially meat-eaters (not my case, unfortunately). A very interesting author with a unique writing style, and one I’ll make sure to keep my eyes on in the future.

Book description

Black Irish Blues is the return-to-origin story of Caesar Stiles, an erstwhile runaway who returns to his hometown with plans to buy the town’s only tavern and end his family’s Sicilian curse.

Caesar’s attempt for redemption is complicated by the spectral presence of his estranged father, reparation seekers related to his corrupt older brother, a charming crime boss and his enigmatic crew, and – most significantly – a stranger named Dinny Tuite whose disappearance under dubious circumstances immerses Caesar in a mystery that leads into the criminal underbelly of industrial New Jersey, the flawed myth of the American Dream, and his hometown’s shameful secrets.

Black Irish Blues is a poetic, gritty noir full of dynamic characters, a page-turning plot, and the further development of a unique American character.

AmazonUK | AmazonUS

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #LiteraryFiction THE BIRD THAT SANG IN COLOR by Grace Mattioli @fixion4change

Today’s team review is from Frank, you can find out more about Frank here

#RBRT Review Team

Frank has been reading The Bird That Sang In Color by Grace Mattioli

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What is the secret of happiness? According to Donna, the first person narrator of this family saga, it is doing your own thing, not making room in your life for other people.

Donna is one of six children of second generation Italian migrants living in a New Jersey suburb. Her story begins in 1970 and continues in instalments at 3 and 4 year intervals until the present day.

At the centre of the story is her older brother, Vincent, the ‘Bird that Sang in Color’ of the title. The family is comparatively well to do. All six children have everything they could possibly want. Not unnaturally their father tries to control their lives, steering them towards college and a well paid career, or, in the case of the girls, to marry a rich man. He is an alcoholic who is frequently abusive towards his wife, the matriarch who does her best to protect her children from his angry outbursts.

It is a pattern that repeats in Donna’s own marriage to a young law graduate with whom she has four children. Unlike her mother, Donna is able to have a life beyond her family responsibilities, returning to college, first as a mature student, then as a teacher. Throughout, she feels responsible for Vincent as well as her own family, encouraging him to make more of his talents as an artist and musician. It is only when she is much older that she realises how mistaken she has been.

“I started trying to convince him to listen to our parents and to take himself real seriously and go for all that stuff that I thought was necessary for him to be happy, like a good career and a family, a house, a nice car, the whole nine yards. . . [Now} I realized that he was happy without all those things, and the big irony was that I had all those things, but I was unhappy. . . I had it all, and I was miserable.”

I opened my previous review for Rosie Amber by arguing that it is wrong to characterise a book by the gender of the intended readership. After reading The Bird That Sang in Color, I’m less certain. This is very much a woman’s book, in that it presents an essentially feminist interpretation of family life, showing us the sacrifices that women make and extolling the life choices of the one male character who eschews such responsibilities.

As a man, I would have wanted to see some recognition of the fact that the comfortable life that Donna and her siblings lead is as much the consequence of their father’s hard work, and the rents paid by the tenants of the apartments his property company owns, as of their mother’s home-making. The same goes for her husband. She seems to take for granted his working two jobs whilst studying. She glosses over his frustrations at his inability to convince a biased jury that the person he is defending deserves their sympathy. She even conceives a fourth child despite being aware that he does not want it.

All too often feminists who condemn traditional family values because they limit women’s lives overlook the fact that men’s lives are similarly limited. The imperatives attached to being the sole, or main, breadwinner imprison men just as securely into careers chosen for the income generated rather than the pleasure taken in performing the task.

I disagree profoundly with Donna’s answer to the question “What is the secret of happiness.” And I suspect that, if she were honest, she would realise that her own happiness, in the company of her children and grand children, is just as valid as that which she imagines Vincent achieved in his life free of responsibilities. More so, because it has been bought by the sacrifices she and others have made.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, and not only to women readers. Firstly, because the periods and places are so well realised, with the kind of simple, yet revealing, strokes Donna admires in her brother’s drawings. This is writing of the highest quality. Secondly, because, whilst I disagree with the central message, it is a book that makes you think, to question your assumptions. And that is something that the best literature sets out to do. I am grateful to Grace Mattioli for making me question my own beliefs about the nature of happiness.

4 stars.

Book description

Part family drama and part self-actualization story, this is about Donna Greco, who in her teens, subscribes to a conventional view of success in life—and pushes her freewheeling, artistic brother, Vincent to do the same. However, he remains single, childless, and subsists in cramped apartments. She harbors guilt for her supposed failure until she discovers a sketch-book he’d made of his life, which prompts her own journey to live authentically.

While this textured story combines serious issues such as alcoholism, death, and family conflict, it’s balanced with wit and humor and is filled with endearing, unforgettable characters. The story spans decades, beginning in 1970 and ending in the present. Readers will be immersed in this tale as it poses an intriguing question: “What pictures will you have of yourself by the end of your life?”

AmazonUK | AmazonUS

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