THE GUILLOTINE CHOICE by Michael J. MALONE & Bashir SAOUDI (a review)

Maybe you’ve seen the movie Papillon (1973), starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, or maybe you’ve read the 1968 book by Henri Charrière. You did both? Great, stay around.
For the others, maybe you have no clue what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re on the wrong blog. That’s ok, you can stay too. Everyone is very nice around here. Unless you’re in one of the books I’m reviewing. Especially in this one, The Guillotine Choice by Michael J. Malone & Bashir Saoudi, a better written, more enthralling book than Papillon.
Henri Charrière (portrayed by McQueen in the film) is condemned to hard labour for life, and is sent to the infamous penitentiary (le bagne de Cayenne) on Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, from which he claimed to have escaped before being caught again and sent to another bagne, in El Dorado.
Although his story was later dismissed as being mostly fiction (official records show he escaped from a smaller, inland prison and was never imprisoned on Devil’s Island) he nonetheless shed light on the atrocious brutality and inhumane conditions under which prisoners were kept in the penal colony. They were barely fed, regularly beaten, and housed in unhealthy quarters. Many inmates were broken as much mentally as physically by the guards, and they surely would have preferred a death sentence to life imprisonment. On Devil’s Island, it is said that the death-rate was very high –over 80% of prisoners died during their first year there; in part due to the extreme conditions, and also due to suicides (although no statistics are available for the latter, one can easily imagine how it would have been a better solution than torture and hunger and all sorts of diseases like yellow fever, leprosy, etc.)
It can be worse
I don’t know if Bashir Saoudi has ever read or watched Papillon but if he did, it probably hit a little too close to home, knowing that his father, Kaci, had gone through an experience even worse. Bashir had often tried to get his father to tell him about that period of his life. All he knew was that Kaci had spent time on Devil’s Island. But Kaci didn’t want to talk about it. Bashir persisted, maybe because he yearned to know his father better, and one day Kaci changed his mind and let the story out.
Bashir asked questions and listened for a few hours. He kept it all on tape. Then, after his father’s death, Bashir decided that he needed to tell the story to the world. After many years of research, trying to fill in the gaps where his father didn’t remember, Bashir asked novelist and poet, Michael J. Malone, to write the book. They spent a good 10 years working on Kaci’s story. In a recent interview, Bashir mentioned that about 90% of it is true facts, and the rest is fiction.
Kaci’s story (or part of it)

In the early 1920s, when Algeria was still a French colony (and would be for another 30 years or so), Kaci was 17 years old and working for a French company. A born and raised Berber, he had become, against all odds, good friends with his French employer who had even welcomed him into his family. But one morning, while Kaci and his boss were walking to work with the company’s weekly payroll, in gold coins, they were robbed and the employer, his good friend, was killed. Two of Kaci’s cousins, who knew the day and time when Kaci and his boss paid the employees, had waited on the road and attacked them. One of the cousins had then decided on the spot to kill the Frenchman.
Because Kaci was with his employer when it happened, he was arrested along with his cousins; the employer’s last words before dying were to the police. He said that Kaci was innocent but that he knew the killer. Kaci was then given a choice: reveal which one of your cousins is the killer and you’ll go free, or spend the rest of your life in prison with both of them. Kaci knew that a death sentence meant that his guilty cousin would die under the guillotine, in a public execution. Kaci refused to let that happen.
All three were sentenced to 25 years on Devil’s Island, plus ‘doublage’, which meant that they’d be prisoners for 50 years (if they survived). It was similar as being condemned to a life sentence. They’d never see their loved ones again, nor would they ever come back to Algeria.
At this point in the book, you already feel as if you’ve read an entire novel; you’ve been through so many emotions that you wonder if you have what it takes to go through what surely awaits Kaci and his cousins (remember that one of them is also innocent of murder, even though he played his part in the robbery). And you remember that they went through hell for real and they deserve to have their stories read, even if it is 90 years later.
While a prisoner, Kaci discovered the real meaning of pain, of hunger, of fear, of fighting for your life and facing death. But he also learned about true friendship, about compassion and redemption. He met love and jealousy, both never too far from the other. Through all of that, so far away from his native land, among thousands of others but a stranger in a very strange land, Kaci discovered everything about himself.
The intensity of the story will pull you into it as gradually as clouds announcing a storm over the sea, and it will hold you tighter before suddenly taking you away from your safe world as fast as raging waves. Michael J. Malone (Blood Tears and A Taste for Malice) wrote this novel with just the right balance of détails and restraint, perfectly pacing the narration with descriptions and dialogues, never going over the top when describing scenes of violence while neither shying away from necessary details about the horrors of living, of suffering and dying, sometimes quietly, but at times painfully.
Bashir Saoudi did a remarkable job of research and his choice of Michael J. Malone to write the book couldn’t have been better. This is a story that is often difficult to read because you keep thinking that it happened for real, not only for Kaci but for many other prisoners on Devil’s Island and elsewhere (still does today, in fact). On the other hand, The Guillotine Choice is also a beautiful homage to courage, resilience, and compassion; it is a vibrant proof that human nature can remain good, even in the heart of the darkest, most evil of places. Kaci Saoudi has had plenty of time to gaze long into the abyss, but he has never let the abyss gaze back into himself.
Rating: 4 thumbprints (see here for rating system)
Visit Michael J. Malone’s blog, say hello on Facebook or tweet on Twitter. And don’t miss his other books Blood Tears and A Taste for Malice, two excellent crime novels that I highly recommend.
May 26th    


I’m way behind in my list of scheduled reviews, so I’m writing six shorter ones this week, one per day --what about a week having seven days, you ask? I’ll tell you in the next paragraph. (At least I'll aim for one per day, if I skip one day I'll make it up with two on another day). Don’t go thinking these books are not worth longer reviews though; they are definitely worth it and the money you’ll spend buying them will be an investment towards many great hours of reading.
On Sunday, I have rookie Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home (Harvill Secker/Random House UK), on Monday, Michael J. Malone’s The Guillotine Choice (Contraband), on Tuesday, Eliot Pattison’s Original Death (Counterpoint Press), on Wednesday, John McFetridge’s Black Rock (ECW Press), and on the following days, it will be reviews of recently published French translations: on Thursday, Michael Robotham’s Déroute (JC Lattès) and finally, on Friday, Michael Connelly’s Le cinquième témoin (Calmann-Lévy). These two were originally published as The Wreckage (Mulholland) and The Fifth Witness (Little, Brown). 
In total, we have one Brit, one Scot, two Yanks, an Aussie, and a Canuck. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? Well, if you don’t read them, the joke’s on you.
As for day seven of the week, next Saturday, I’ll be posting my review of Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead (Little, Brown), along with a short Q&A. I wanted to post it last week but decided to wait until May 31st, which is closer to the book’s publication date of June 3rd. Also, at some point during the week, I’ll review I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (Atria), a book that is getting a lot of buzz. I’m only at page 100 at the moment, but so far it is holding up to its high expectations.
OK, ladies first. Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home reads like a story written by a seasoned author. It is everything that many debut novels are not: the writing is tight, well-paced, and intelligent; the plot is original and the characters behave like real human beings. The duo of investigators, DI Zigic and DI Ferreira, work for the Hate Crimes Unit, something we haven’t seen much in crime fiction.
The first victim is a migrant worker who seems to have been beaten unconscious before being burned alive in a small shed. For Zigic, Ferreira and their entire team, gaining the trust of the community is the first obstacle to overcome if they want to obtain information and thus work the case effectively. We’ll follow them through every step of the investigation, their tasks at work, and also into their personal lives.
Dolan’s narration expertly tracks the characters’s perspectives to help us understand them, their frustrations and motivations, their fears and dilemmas; she also gives them distinct voices and great dialogue while creating interactions that move the plot forward. Their inner-thoughts are also often rendered with a great visual touch, as in this excerpt: There were many boxes in her head, all tightly locked and shoved away in the dark. Over time some of them fused and she was spared the memories she didn’t want to face, but others corroded and leaked, snatches of conversations and strange faces swimming up unexpectedly, provoked by the smell of a certain tobacco or a snatch of music on the radio. Others snapped open without warning and slapped her between the eyes.
The plot, which can at first seem a little light, becomes gradually more complex as other events complicate the investigation. The reader quickly finds himself hooked into it all until the very end. Great for fans of Mark Billingham. I want more stories with Zigic and Ferreira. But more specifically, I want more books by Eva Dolan.

Rating: 3 1/2 thumbprints
Eva Dolan has a blog here, and you can find her sometimes on Facebook or Twitter at @eva_dolan. 
May 25th



NATCHEZ BURNING by Greg ILES (a review)

(This is part of a TLC Book Tour)
Natchez Burning is an ambitious novel (the first of a trilogy) of close to 800 pages, and to make it justice I would need to write a much longer review, almost an analysis or a short thesis. I don't have the time to do this, and you certainly wouldn't be interested in reading it either. But for those who don't want to read even a short review and are only interested in knowing if a book is good or not, well, hell yeah this is a great novel! Go buy it without waiting for my (or anyone else's) assessment of it. With Natchez Burning, Greg Iles has written a memorable saga that is both suspenseful and engrossing; it kept me awake when I should have been asleep, and it held my interest even during my favourite team's (the Montréal Canadiens) playoffs games (which can also be filled with very stressful moments).
Natchez Burning is for anyone who enjoys a story that goes back and forth in time and in different eras. This is for those who enjoy a novel filled with rich, realistic characters that seem to move on their own and leap out of the page; and also for anyone who enjoys a quest for the truth and for justice, whatever the era or the country.
In Iles's novel, Penn Cage, lawyer and mayor of Natchez (Mississippi), wants to help his father, Doctor Tom Cage, who's accused of the recent murder of Viola Turner, a former nurse who worked with him in the 1960s. She was black, he's white; they might have had an affair, and possibly a child together. Penn needs to find the truth about his father's past. The problem? Doctor Cage doesn't want his son's help; instead, he calls on an old friend from his time in Korea as a war medic.
Mixed in all of this is the story of Henry Sexton, a journalist who spent his entire career researching events from Natchez's darkest time, when the Ku Klux Klan was still very much active. The KKK, which objective was mostly regional, in Mississippi, spawned a group called The Double Eagles; these men, who fought for the US during the Korean War, were looking at a much bigger picture. They played a greater role in the scheme of things; taking the law into their own hands, they took control everywhere they wanted to, always receiving support and some direction from those with money and ambition.
Through the years, Henry Sexton has amassed thousands of pages of information, plus many interviews and photos linking these influential business men, politicians, and cops to racial murders. They let him because he was a small time journalist and while he sometimes wrote articles about Natchez's past, he never implicated anyone specifically. He was waiting for all the clues that would unearth the whole chain of events, implicating everyone, the 'big guys' at the top included; then he would write his big story. So he was never a threat to anyone until recent events uncovered some crucial elements that can now complete his research. He's just become a threat; but the Double Eagles know how to deal with a threat.
I can't say more. And I haven't told you the half of it. At close to 800 pages, I found that a few parts could have been edited out, mostly where some info is passed on the reader more than once (or where the urgency of Doctor Cage's situation is underlined a little too much). Aside from that, Iles shows his writing abilities by describing the worst and the best of what humans are capable of; from scenes of extreme violence to the beautiful narration of a love story. You'll be swept up by the passion of Iles's writing, and you'll be emotionnally involved in the story through its themes of racism, of greed, of love, and of justice. One of the more complete novels I've read in the past five years.

If the next two books of the trilogy are as good as this one, the series will become a classic.
Rating: 4 thumbprints
Rating system:
1 = not good (but you won't see many of those because I hate wasting time on negativity)
2 = not bad (but one or two major flaws; I probably wouldn't recommend reading it)
3 = great book (some flaws but none major)
4 = very entertaining (missing a little something to make it 5)
5 = excellent (will become a classic on my list of all-time favourites)
You can visit Greg Iles on his website, on Facebook or Twitter, etc.
May 19th


AMERICAN WOMAN by Robert POBI (review and giveaway)

Even though I really enjoyed Robert Pobi's Bloodman (aka Eye of the Storm) and Mannheim Rex, I wasn't sure I wanted -or needed, for that matter- to read a novel about a serial killer of kids. Fortunately, Pobi knows how to write and how to tell a story; he doesn't go for the melodramatic and he doesn't try to horrify with blood on every page. That's not saying you won't be troubled by the horrific murders -there are details on how the bodies were maimed and butchered- but Pobi doesn't dwell on them.

The focus is put on the search for the killer and on the many characters, especially the parents of the victims, but the most interesting one is Alexandra Hemingway, the NYPD detective who is leading the investigation. Unsure of how to react to the news of her (unplanned) pregnancy, 'Hem' is still trying to understand recent, dramatic events in her life and coping with the repercussions that have shaken her to the core. Plunging deeply into the darkness of a vicious killer won't help but we certainly understand her and why she finds it difficult to face her future as a mother. The eternal question "why should I bring a child into this violent world" can seem like a cliché (and it might be one) but when you deal with this violence on a day-to-day basis, as Hem does, the question definitely needs to be examined.

The chase for the serial killer will be exhausting for 'Hem' and the entire police department as well as for the reader. Pobi presents a vast and interesting cast of characters; you will come to know them well and understand their motivations. Many will even end up on your list of suspects. Be prepared to be shocked by the murders, but also by the ending of the book. One of the things I admire about Pobi is that he never goes for the easy resolution that will satisfy everyone; he seems to enjoy keeping the readers on their toes and leaving them with more questions than answers.

If you like edgy crime fiction that doesn't shy away from reality checks, Pobi is now a name to add to your list of essential reads.
I guarantee that you will at least be entertained.

Rating: 3 1/2 thumbprints

UPDATE, WINNERS ANNOUNCED:  Paul Levine of Scottsdale, Arizona; Mary Bouchard of Ottawa, Ontario; and Luke Thornton of Plattsburgh, New York. Congrats, and thank you to everyone who participated, your books are in the mail.

I have three signed copies of Robert Pobi's novel Eye of the Storm (previously published as Bloodman). Send me an email at for a chance to win. Giveaway ends on Saturday, May 17th, at noon (Montréal time). You can read my review of this book here.

For more information on Robert Pobi and his books, visit his website here.

Thanks for reading!

May 11th