Review: The Cartel by Don Winslow

9780434023554Ten years ago Don Winslow wrote the thriller of the decade. The Power of the Dog was an epic thriller that detailed America’s thirty year war on drugs on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Ten years later he has done it again. Winslow blows The Power of the Dog away detailing the next ten years of the so-called “war” on drugs taking everything that was groundbreaking, epic and mind-blowing to a whole new level.

Art Keller and Adán Barrera square off again, only this time the stakes are much higher. There is a price on both their heads and Adán’s time in prison created a power vacuum in Mexico which has filled by a number of new drug cartels. Art is determined to track Adán down and won’t make the same mistake as last time. Art has learned the hard way that justice can only be delivered in person as corruption’s taint stretches far and wide, and across borders.

Adán meanwhile is slowly, and at times reluctantly, rebuilding his empire. But the drug trade has changed in Mexico. All the rules there supposedly were are being eroded, body by body. The cartels fighting for territory and power have militarised. They have also become media savvy which takes the violence and terror to unimaginable levels. Levels that are too sadly real as Winslow once again rips his story straight from the awful truth.

Like with The Power of the Dog Winslow slowly builds up the characters of the novel focusing solely on Art and Adán for much of the first half of the book. Not that there is anything slow about the cat and mouse game Art and Adán are playing. Characters are slowly brought in from the periphery. We are introduced to The Zetas – a force in the drug trade that is truly terrifying, we meet Crazy Eddie Ruiz aka Narco Polo and Jesus the Kid – whose nightmares will give you nightmares. When a series of betrayals occur the war on drugs becomes a true war and Mexico is literally and tragically torn apart. All the while it is business across the border, where the actual drugs are sold, used and abused.

Winslow dedicates the novel to all the journalists killed in Mexico in the last ten years. The dedication page is two full pages of names. We are introduced to the journalists in Mexico who cover the drug war through the battle of the Juarez Valley, the most heartbreaking point of the novel. We have already seen how law enforcement in Mexico at every level  is corrupted by the drug cartels now we witness how they systematically destroy the media and a population. And the violence goes up another awful level.

Bloody, brutal and at times barbaric Don Winslow shines a harsh light on the true war on drugs. A war that the west has ignored and has been complicit in. A war where tens of thousand of people have died, where hundreds of thousands have been displaced, all for the sale of a product into another country where nothing is down to address or curtail the soaring demand for a product that has torn another country to shreds. We have seen what drugs and the war on drugs has done to western cities and politics through brilliant shows like The Wire but we have no comprehension of the true horror being reaped in getting those drugs into western cities. (Both Winslow’s books should be made in to TV series rather than movies)

Don Winslow has again written a thriller that is impossible to put down and impossible to forget.

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One of the Best Thrillers of All-Time: The Power Of The Dog by Don Winslow

9780099464983I remember first reading this book and it absolutely blew me away. With the sequel, The Cartel, due at the end of June I thought it was time I revisited the book.

The Power of The Dog still rates as one of the best thrillers ever written. It has everything you could possibly want; love, power, betrayal and revenge set over twenty-five brutal years. It details America’s war on drugs and the complete farce it is on all levels. It portrays the devastating human cost of this “war” and the human indifference to this suffering by both sides and the never-ending tide of destruction that is cultivated and managed not by just by the drug cartels but by governments and their agents.

While The Power of the Dog is truly epic, ranging from Mexican Drug cartels to DEA officers, New York mobsters to CIA operatives in South America, the heart of the story is the slow deconstruction of Art Keller and his journey from crusader to eventual war lord. Art is the good guy who does bad things and the more bad things he tries to atone for the worse the bad things he does. We meet Art at the beginning of his DEA career, post Vietnam War, in Mexico in 1976  and his introduction to the drug world and the events put in motion that will eventually destroy him.

One of the things I love about Don Winslow is his style of writing, the way he paces his words with the story but with The Power Of The Dog he really underplays it. Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Dawn Patrol all ooze style. But here Winslow dials it back and let’s the story carry you along. The violence is absolutely brutal, nothing is held back including a shocking scene on a bridge in Colombia which I’m told is based in actual events.

I was also much more aware of the structure this time around. The 15 chapters of the book are surprisingly self-contained with a much more episodic feel than I remember. I always thought The Power of the Dog should be a 12-part HBO series because of the epic nature of the story being too long for a movie but after re-reading it I am even more convinced that a True Detective-style series would be amazing. You could easily have different episodes featuring Callan (his New York story and South American story), Adan and Nora’s stories with Art’s story the common thread tying everything together. The journey of each of the characters over the twenty-five years would be amazing to see over 10 hours.

There is not another thriller out there that comes close to The Power of the Dog. It is the anti-war novel of the “War on Drugs”. Just like a great war novel the absurdity of the war is laid bare for all to see and the reasons for the war are exposed for the hypocrisy and falsehoods that they are. And like all war there is no victor just never-ending victims of a vicious cycle of greed and power. But unlike others wars this one continues unabated, with no end in sight.

I can’t wait to see where Don Winslow takes the story in part two. I know it isn’t going to be pretty. But it is going to be insightful, meaningful and another damning indictment on the never-ending, morally corruptible war on drugs.

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9780434023554

This tapped into emotions no other book has done with me before.

9781408704950Review – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is a true enigma. She is a phenomenal bestseller with a cult following. There isn’t very much known about her but you wouldn’t call her a reclusive author either. The Goldfinch is her third novel in twenty years, a decade gap between each book. All of them worth the wait.

I can distinctly remember first discovering Donna Tartt. When I first started doing the buying 11 years ago there was a lot of fuss about a novel called The Little Friend because it was the author’s first book since The Secret History. I had no idea who the author was or why, after ten years, there was such excitement and anticipation for her second novel. My rep, who was selling the book in at the time, told me to read The Secret History. Which of course I did and was totally blown away.

It was unlike anything I had read before (or since). I am not big on classics, ancient or modern, but the world Tartt created in The Secret History sucked me straight in (just like the book’s protagonist Richard). She is one of the few writers whose writing is truly mesmerizing. I was straight on the bandwagon after that, dying for a copy of The Little Friend. Which I also loved.

A lot of Donna Tartt fans were disappointed with The Little Friend but I was not one of them. I think people were expecting another The Secret History which was always going to be impossible and Tartt gave us something completely different. The Little Friend is a bit of a modern-day To Kill A Mockingbird without the anchor of a parent and where the outside world is full of much more menace. 12-year-old Harriet, bright and bookish, believes she can solve the mysterious death of her younger brother 12 years ago. The death fractured her family and Harriet is determined to set things right. Again Tartt’s writing is captivating and I can still vividly remember a scene involving Harriet’s best friend Hely and some snakes. I later found out that Harriet was inspired by Mattie Ross in True Grit by Charles Portis, one of Donna Tartt’s favourite books growing up,which also has another unforgettable scene involving snakes.

In many ways The Goldfinch is a combination of elements of her first two novels but the only thing familiar is the once again mesmerizing writing that draws you into her world immediately. When I first started The Goldfinch it felt like I was holding my breath and when I came up for air the first thing I wanted to do was re-read The Secret History and The Little Friend. I’d forgotten the power of Tartt’s writing and wanted to re-immerse myself in as much of it as I could find. And then I plunged back into The Goldfinch.

The central character of the novel is Theo Decker and a painting called The Goldfinch. Through traumatic circumstances the painting comes into his possession and becomes a talisman throughout his life. I am not into art or paintings but Tartt has this ability to draw you into any subject, in very detailed and extraordinarily intriguing ways (including antique furniture and its restoration!). The book is almost 800 pages, every one of which is totally absorbing, compelling and majestic. Unlike Tartt’s previous two novels this story is also wide-ranging, from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam. The Secret History and The Little Friend were very localized stories where as The Goldfinch is much more spread out while still hauntingly focused. It is also very philosophical and tapped into emotions no other book has done with me before.

I hope we do not have to wait another ten years before getting to read Donna Tartt again but then again she can take as long as she wants. In the meantime I am going to revisit her first two books something I should have done before now but that’s the magic and the joy of great books. They are always there to be enjoyed again and again, even when you forget!

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