Review: Kilo: Life and Death Inside the Secret World of the Cocaine Cartels by Toby Muse (2020) #Kilo @tobymuse @EburyPublishing @EmmaFinnegan @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Book Blurb

“Join the deadly journey of cocaine, from farmer to kingpin.

Meet Maria. Maria doesn’t see herself as a criminal. She’s just a farmhand picking the crops that never lose money: coca.

This is Cachote. He prays to the Virgin of the Assassins that his bullets find their target. If he misses, he’ll have to answer to the cartel who pay him to take out their enemies.

Pedro works in the coca labs. But this laboratory is hidden deep in the jungle, and he turns coca leaves into coca paste, a step just short of cocaine.

And finally, here is Alex. Alex is a drug-lord and decides where the drug goes next: into Europe or the US. And he wields the power of life and death over everyone around him.

Following one brick of cocaine from Colombia’s jungles to the Pacific Ocean as it races to join global underworld economy, Kilo is an unprecedented journey to the violent heart of the cocaine industry. On the way we will meet drug lords, contract killers, drug mules, cartel witches, as well as the Colombian police and US Coast Guard who are desperately trying to stop the kilo reaching the consumers in the world’s richest countries.

Toby Muse has been on the ground in the drug war for over a decade, earning the trust of those involved on all sides. Telling the human stories of how the world’s second most popular drug gets from the Colombian jungle to the London street corner, Kilo is a devastating account of a multi-billion-pound business whose influence reaches across the world.”


Kilo plunges the reader straight into the action. We begin in the jungle, as the peace brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016 reveals its weaknesses. Without the stability of a single, known rebel organisation, new armed groups sweep in, and the fighting escalates. The author is fully aware of just how complicated the situation is in the jungles of Colombia, and does not waste time trying to explain the various different groups in detail. For the majority of those living in the countryside, it matters little who the perpetrators of ‘the Violence’ are anyway; it only matters how many people are being killed at any one time. Muse deftly articulates the feelings of the coca farmers, most of whom would love to escape from a life of growing this illegal crop, but who are offered no viable alternative. Coca is all they know, and the help promised by the government never materialises. The author’s access gives us an insight into the reality of life in rural Colombia, and the scene is a desperate one. Attempts to stop the spread of coca farms seem futile; the authorities risk their lives to pull out bushes they know will be replanted almost immediately. The farmers know better than to look to the government to help them. Muse talks with men and women who sound utterly defeated by their circumstances, and it is harrowing to hear the hopelessness in their voices.

In the small towns, their product, now in paste form, is passed on for a modest sum that is still more than they could earn by any legal means. The farmers celebrate with drink and prostitutes and return to their farms. Already it is clear that Muse excels at character, painting beautiful, haunting portraits with a few words. Of a nineteen-year-old prostitute in La Gabarra, Muse says:

“So much life has passed across this face, through this body. This woman has seen more of humanity in this ghastly cell than I’ll see in several lifetimes.”

From the countryside, we move to Medellin. As an avid fan of the series Narcos, I felt on more familiar territory here, in Escobar’s old stomping ground, but Muse delves far deeper than any fictional account could. Cachote, the assassin, is described by the author with the deadpan humour that is scattered throughout this book:

“He’s not cursed with an abundance of smarts, but he’s got the malice and the balls to do this job.”

One of the many aspects which make Kilo such an original and engaging read is how effectively Muse allows his personality, or at least his personal thoughts, to leak onto the pages. I read more fiction than non-fiction, and have occasionally found journalistic writing to be too dry for my own taste. There is no such problem here; not only is Muse a wry, thoughtful and often amusing guide, but it is also clear that the journey he is bravely undertaking has a profound effect on him. He wrestles with the big questions: “How many live honestly only out of fear of the law?” and he does so with an openness which made me warm to him as a narrator, even as I felt awed by his courage.

War correspondents are fully entitled to a certain amount of swagger; but while Muse does have moments of being shockingly blase in dangerous situations, there is a strong recognition of the line between his role as witness and that of the participants in this endless war. He does not let his interview subjects off the hook for their crimes, but he recognises that this is a society in which many young men do not expect to live past thirty; in which murders are not “solved in forty-two minutes by attractive cops on the small screen”, but are instead a fact of daily life. I experienced a very small jolt of my own when I realised that the book that Alex, the drug-lord, considers his ‘self-help bible’ The 48 Laws of Power, sits on my husband’s shelf with his other management books. The phrase ‘accidents of birth’ springs to mind.

As the kilo rolls out of Medellin, destined for either Europe or the US, Muses’s focus shifts to the authorities engaged in the endless war on drugs. At the airport, he witnesses the arrests of drug mules, and the stories of how drugs are smuggled make for some grim reading. But it is the section in which he joins the Coast Guard in the Pacific that provides some of the most thrilling and dramatic prose in the book. Muse is a fantastic writer; his short, punchy sentences contain a sparse beauty, and as he rides the high seas with the crew of the James, the exhilaration of successful drug busts and the despair of failed attempts are captured in exquisite, gripping detail:

“As the adrenaline slowly rises in the blood, the teams joke and banter in the darkness. Electricity flows through the air. Excitement. Anticipation.”

Here in particular, the narrative pulls you inside it, lets you feel the spray of the ocean and the almost unbearable tension of the endless cat-and-mouse games played out across the vast expanse of the Pacific.

Reading Kilo is an immersive, thrilling and deeply engaging experience; this is not a book to sit back and read passively. In terms of the narrative drive, the conceit of following a single kilo of cocaine from the coca farms through the small towns to the cities, and from there on its way abroad, is simple and elegant. It works exceptionally well, providing natural shifts from one setting to another, creating the effect of a series of linked short stories, each one as vivid and richly populated by memorable characters as the last. The relentless movement urges you on, with barely time to pause for breath between each captivating instalment in the kilo’s journey. This is aided by Muse’s visceral writing style, which makes the reader feel as if they are diving head-first into cold, murky water with every new chapter. His writing is almost a physical sensation; it chills the blood with its bare, spare honesty.

It is difficult to express quite what an impressive feat Kilo is. Toby Muse takes the very best of investigative journalism and combines it with a huge talent for character, description and good old-fashioned story-telling. Habitual readers of both non-fiction and fiction will find themselves compelled to read on, to follow the kilo on its fascinating and often terrifying journey. It is a voyage of discovery masterfully helmed by a writer who has given so much of himself to tell us this story.

I had initially decided not to mention the current global situation in my review, but on reflection I feel it would be remiss of me not to emphasise that if you are looking for a book that will take you on a wild ride straight into the heart of a completely different, far longer-term crisis, this expertly crafted work will block out all other noise and occupy your thoughts for a good long while: an achievement that cannot be overstated in these strange times.

About the Author

Toby Muse is a British-American writer, television reporter, documentary filmmaker and foreign correspondent. He has reported from the front lines of the conflicts in Colombia, Iraq and Syria. He has embedded with soldiers, rebels and drug cartels, producing exclusive reports from cocaine laboratories and guerrilla jungle camps. He lived in Bogota, Colombia for more than fifteen years, reporting across South America and the endless drug war.

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Book Depository:–Life-and-Death-Inside-the-Secret-World-of-the-Cocaine-Cartels/24507810

Publishing Information:

Published in hardcover and digital formats on 26th March 2020 by Ebury Publishing

With many thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review, and to #damppebblesblogtours for letting me be a part of the tour.


Review: Finding Clara by Anika Scott (2020)

The blurb on the back of the proof copy (which I was kindly sent by Klara Zak at Cornerstone, Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review) states that: “this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance,” and it is absolutely clear from the opening pages of this book that the author is presenting us with something quite new here. This is far from yet another historical novel set in World War II. To start with, the story opens in 1946, with the protagonist, Clara, in hiding in Hamelin, Germany. The war is over, but its effects loom large; everyone is hungry, everyone is struggling to survive. Deceit is all around, from Clara’s false name and papers to her relationship with a doctor whose past, it is quickly discovered, is stained in horrors. Immediately the reader is presented with the idea of a reckoning, of actions hidden under the cloak of wartime being dragged into the light. It is hugely confronting, uncomfortable and above all, impressively unique as an opening. I could feel myself recoiling from the Doctor almost physically, and even from Clara herself. It is a bold writer who casts such doubt on her protagonist so early in a novel, but it pays off.

Guilt and culpability are important themes in this book, as Germany comes to terms with the actions of its citizens during the war years. Scott handles this immensely fraught issue with a skilful touch – characters wrestle with their consciences constantly, and there are no easy answers for anybody. Clara’s story is intercut with that of Jakob, a black marketeer who, for me, provided an anchor, a character who, though by no means perfect, is less troubling than Clara herself in terms of someone to root for. There is also another character who has short, effective chapters dedicated to his experience, but to say more here would be a spoiler. When Clara returns to her hometown of Essen, where she once ran the Falkenberg iron works and became a wartime icon, the tension is ramped up. Pursued by Captain Fenshaw, who has discovered her true identity, Clara must try and discover what has become of her best friend, Elisa, and her son Willy, before Clara herself is caught.

There are plenty of twists and turns as the story rattles along, and Scott is adept at both vivid description and action-packed scenes. The plot is complicated without being convoluted, and although it initially frustrated me that we only hear second-hand about many of the ‘big events’ of these characters’ lives, eventually I came to see this as a real strength of this book. The sense of ‘the aftermath’ hangs on every page, and makes for a unique narrative experience. Though part of me was deeply curious to see Clara running the iron works, or Jakob at the Russian front, I realised that there is something incredibly true-to-life about having to rely on people’s narrated versions of significant events. To a great extent, that is how history works.

This is a book which approaches its historical period at a slant. It does not dive into the action of World War Two, but takes the time to methodically and intelligently dissect the problematic ‘what comes next’ that is not often dealt with in fiction. I have to say that I applaud Scott for not writing about Clara’s wartime experience, for choosing this hugely complicated arc for her character. There were occasions when I would have liked Clara’s inner struggles to be more directly linked to the plot, but again, I think it is more natural and nuanced to have the two running parallel rather than just being cause and effect. This is a book that really got me thinking. It is both a gripping, character-driven story and, I believe, a novel that offers a profoundly courageous alternative to traditional historical fiction tropes.

Finding Clara was published by Hutchinson on 5th March 2020. It will be published in the States by William Morrow as The German Heiress on 7th April 2020.

About the Author: Anika Scott lives with her husband and two daughters in Essen, Germany, where her debut novel is set. She grew up in Michigan, USA and has degrees in International Politics and Journalism. She began her career wanting to be a CIA agent and had security clearance from an internship at the State Department in Washington, but CIA applications included never being able to write stories or keep a diary. Anika loves stories too much for that, and so became a journalist instead. She was staff on the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune before becoming a freelance journalist in Germany: her work has appeared widely in the US and European media. She runs an online resource about post-war Germany at

Guest Post by Paul Hawkes: Reading List Top Ten

In a very special blog post today, I am handing over to my dear father-in-law. Currently in isolation in Tenerife, he has so far been my most diligent student by a very long way (my five year old has already rebelled and taken over the ‘school’ at home) and has been sending me daily answers to the ‘Big Fat Isolation Quiz’ I sent out to my parents and parents-in-law.

So, without further ado, here are his answers to Question 3: Reading List: List 10 books that are important to you, fiction or non-fiction, and why I should read them.

Paul: “I have cheated here in two ways. First, the books that I am recommending are not necessarily the best by each author; and I have not read one of the books on the list! Read on to discover why…

1.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre (1974)

John Le Carre, like Graham Greene, is an author to be savoured. He has a very distinctive style, in that he rarely ‘introduces’ characters, they just appear. This can be initially disconcerting as you wrestle with ‘Who, where, why, WTF…?’ . However, afficionados/as (now that I am learning Spanish!) just let it all wash over them. JLC will see you through!

Tinker Tailor is not his best book, but you must start here. To understand JLC’s cold war spy masterpieces, they are ideally read chronologically as the characters evolve and develop.

Unfortunately, you will probably not have seen Alec Guinness play George Smiley, the ‘hero’ of the stories. as the brilliant serialisation of a later novel, Smiley’s People, was broadcast in 1982. However, once you have a picture of him, nobody could be more George Smiley.

If you decide to embark, watch this clip to see the definitive Smiley:

But of course, the cold war ended and JLC moved on, arguably becoming a better writer and storyteller. If you don’t fancy Cold War thrillers, go for one of the later books such as The Night Manager or The Constant Gardener.

2. Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (2016)

Operation Mincemeat is a true story from the Second World War. It reads like a thriller and, indeed, it is a thrilling story. If you want to lose yourself in a tale of incredible ingenuity which was of massive importance to war in Southern Europe, this is a must. And Macintyre has a whole range of other books detailing some of the more astonishing, and until recently, unpublished aspects of Britain’s secret war.

3. Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Philip Green by Oliver Shah (2018)

Oliver Shah clearly lays out what an odious and amoral character Green really is. No business knowledge is required. You will never shop at Top Shop again!

4. The End of The Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

A beautiful and evocative book, written by one of the greats of the 20th Century. I am sure that you have read many Greene’s, but if you haven’t, start now. So many diverse stories, wonderfully told. And it was a great film, too!

5. A History of 20th Century Britain by Andrew Marr (2011)

Extremely well-researched and written, this book by Andrew Marr leads you step-by-step through the century to where we are now. I found it fascinating as I lived through half of it! If, however, you are simply curious, read it now. I have encountered no better modern history of Britain.

6. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start up by John Carreyou (2018)

This is the story of Theranos, the blood-testing start up that attracted massive investment, and the support of some of America’s most powerful people, based on lies and hubris. Whilst there are many very good business books, this one stands out for me because of its sheer scale and the (undoubted) psychopathy of the start up’s founder.

7. The Bat by Jo Nesbo (1997)

This is the book that I haven’t read. It is the first book in the Harry Hole series. I started with Book Two and missed an opportunity! Harry is an alcoholic detective working in Oslo (read it with Google Maps open beside you). The books should be read in order if possible. Once you’ve met Harry, it’s difficult not to want to follow him, his personal story and his tales of dark deeds under Norwegian skies.

8. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015)

Why are world politics and economics as they are? You will never look at a map, or consider countries, in quite the same way after reading this geographical insight into world history.

9. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2008)

I worked for much of my career in (what was then called) Direct Marketing (DM), i.e. direct communications to consumers in the attempt to persuade them to buy goods or services by (what was then called) mail order.

DM was built upon the statistically robust testing of different aspects of direct communication (i.e. the offer, the price, the medium, the copy/design), such that the skilled practitioner began to understand the foibles of human nature. Of course, it helped if you worked for a large company as more money allowed for more testing, which brought greater learning, faster.

Offering consumers choice is a good thing, right? Wrong! The more choice you give someone, the less likely they are to make a buying decision.

Did you know that if you offer three variants of a product with escalating commitment periods (say 3 months, six months or a year), or increasing features, (Base Product, Product + and Product ++), the vast majority will choose the second option?

There used to be books written about DM by some very clever people with years of experience, as it was very different to ‘traditional’ marketing and advertising. John Wanamaker, the founder of Macy’s, famously said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Direct marketers knew what worked and what didn’t because they had developed their techniques to measure it.

For various reasons that are beyond my remit here (happy to explain at some other time), these skills were lost – not just in the UK but around the world. (I sound a bit Nicholas Parsons on Just a Minute there!). However, some clever academics (of which Ariely is one) decided to mathematically test human buying behaviour using experiments to replicate the live buying decision. They wanted to understand (not simply measure) the differences between what people say they will do and what they actually do. The science of Behavioural Economics was born.

If you want an entertaining and very readable insight into this ‘new science’, Ariely’s book is one of the best.

10. The Second World War by Antony Beevor (2012)

Quite simply, a tour de force written by one of Britain’s foremost historians. If you’ve ever wondered about the chronology of the War and how all the pieces fit together, this is the book for you. Masterfully researched and brilliantly written.”

A massive thank you to Paul for letting me share this. I really would suggest giving this a go and getting your friends and family to send you their Top Ten Reads – you can learn a lot about someone from their favourite books (and it might even save you writing a blog post or two…!)

Review: The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey (2020)

I had a very good feeling about this book. A historical novel, touted as appealing to fans of Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry, two writers I adore, and featuring a director of the natural history museum (my spiritual home) as one of the protagonists, it sounded right up my street. I was sufficiently intrigued to preorder the absolutely beautiful special edition, and I didn’t wait long after receiving this treasure of a book before diving in.

I was not disappointed. Hetty, who has been promoted due to the outbreak of World War II, is entrusted with the task of evacuating the museum’s mammal collection to Lockwood, a rambling manor house full of dark corridors and empty rooms. Her first person narrative is intercut with that of Lucy, also recently “promoted” to lady of the manor by the deaths of her mother and grandmother in a car accident. Healy uses the contrasting narratives to brilliant effect, countering Hetty’s rational pragmatism with the swirling anxieties of Lucy’s nightmares and uncertainties. I was immediately drawn to Hetty, whose strength of character and independence is tempered with highly realistic insecurities about her role in a male-dominated world, but it was Lucy who worked her way into my imagination as I continued reading this sensitive, beautiful book. I felt so sorry for her, I almost cried at points, and I shared Hetty’s desire to protect her from the mysteriously sinister house she is bound to.

The developing relationship between Hetty and Lucy is one of the best love stories I have read for a long time, perfectly capturing the gradual realisation of romantic and sexual tension, the joy of discovering each other’s bodies, and the anguish of separation. If I was a bit younger, I’d probabaly say I was “shipping” them or some such (no idea if I am using that right).

The Major, Lucy’s father, is a fantastically odious character, and I enjoyed hating him alongside Hetty. As the story unfolds, he becomes increasingly sinister, and I thought his transformation from cantankerous old man to full-blown antagonist was extremely well done. Lucy’s late mother also casts her shadow over the book, and is a beautifully mysterious and complicated character, putting me in mind of Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea. (The Major, too, has echoes of Rhys’ Mr Rochester.)

The novel’s finale is both surprising and somehow inevitable, and it had me riveted. This really was a book that I felt very sad to reach the end of, not only because of my affection for the two protagonists, but because of the way in which Healey manages to turn both the manor house and the museum animals into major characters in their own right, leading to an immersive and almost visual reading experience. And I am definitely going to start using Hetty’s quirk of classifying people as animals, no question. I think I’m an African small-spotted cat. And you?

Review: Spark by Naoki Matayoshi, Translated by Alison Watts (2019)

I am absolutely fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of comedy. The complex, delicate relationship between comic and audience, and the contrast between the inner lives of struggling comedians and the persona they project on stage has always struck me as a gold mine for fiction, though not necessarily a humorous one. Last year I read David Grossman’s powerful novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), and there are some parallels with this Japanese novel, though Spark has a lighter touch. I was very intrigued to read it, and jumped at the chance to receive a copy from Pushkin Press (a publisher I have loved ever since discovering one of my favourite translated novels, Journey By Moonlight, through them) in exchange for an honest review.

In Naoki Matayoshi’s short novel, we are thrown into the world of manzai comedy, a double-act tradition involving the classic straight-man-plus-fool combo. The main characters, Tokunaga and Kamiya, are not comedy partners, but kohai and sempai, pupil and master, each part of their own separate comedy duo. The novel is narrated by Tokunaga, who is a sympathetic guide to the manzai circuit, a flawed individual, certainly, but possessed of a self-awareness and empathy that make him a pleasant protagonist to follow over the course of the book. The narrative fast-forwards through the stages of Tokunaga’s career, slowing down at intervals to explore his years-long friendship with Kamiya, mostly in the context of drunken nights out in Tokyo. Their relationship is absolutely central to the book, and it is beautifully drawn. The bond that they forge stands in contrast to the isolated existence of these two men, who are both young at the start of the novel; they seem to have little connection with their family, and even their comedy partners are colleagues rather than friends. Romantic interests are limited to Kamiya’s friend Maki, who lets him live with her but whom he keeps at arm’s length, saying that she deserves better. The delicate exploration of Tokunaga and Kamiya’s friendship is all the more affecting in the light of the absence of other bonds.

Kamiya, as presented through Tokunaga’s tender portrayal of his friend, is a fascinating, utterly original character; the image I couldn’t shake while reading about him was of a Janus-faced man wearing both the comedy and tragedy masks, though in fact it is his authenticity that stands out above all else. Tokunaga admires his friend’s courage, despairs at Kamiya’s inability to fit into the mould even a little bit in order to make a decent living, and, rather wonderfully, rarely tips over into jealousy of Kamiya’s flashes of brilliance. There is a strong lesson to be learned here about the importance of artists supporting one another, and it is handled with grace and beauty. As with much behind-the-scenes comedy, the novel is not laugh-out-loud funny – the dissection of humour is never as comic as the actual comedy itself – and it takes a while to get used to the specific style of back-and-forth repartee that manzai involves. I experienced the best kind of culture shock with this novel, the same unfamiliarity and almost other-worldliness that hits me when I read Murakami, who is shamefully pretty much my only other experience of Japanese literature. The translation, by Alison Watts, is skillfully done, with the touches of Americanisms bringing a subtly hip, edgy quality to the writing.

The ending of this book kicked it onto another level for me. I gasped out loud: the absurdity of the final ‘twist’ was funny, sad and quietly devastating. I certainly won’t spoil it here, but instead I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read this fast-paced, fresh, and surprisingly tender novel. And yes, I will be checking out the Netflix series.