Review: Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

Australian crime fiction is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to a handful of fresh female voices. Jane Harper’s The Dry was 2016’s darling and rightfully so — I called it “the year’s best achievement on the Australian crime writing scene” in my review, and named it my Book of the Year — and in 2015 I was absolutely blown away by Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay: “stripped-down and raw, and packs one helluva punch.” And then, of course, there’s Candice Fox, who has carved out a distinctive square on the map of contemporary crime writing with her Bennett / Archer trilogy (Hades, Eden and Fall), and  who ranks as one of my absolute favourite authors. Perhaps it’s too early to predict 2017’s Aussie crime fiction blockbuster, but one thing is for certain: Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake will feature in the conversation.

Crimson Lake introduces former Sydney-based police detective Ted Conkaffey, who was accused, but not convicted, of abducting a 13-year-old girl. But the accusation is enough. To his wife, his peers, and the general public, a lack of conviction isn’t proof of innocence, just evidence of a lack of proof. Ted is an outcast. The life he had is over, and so he flees Sydney to Cairns: specifically the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake. There he meets Amanda Pharrell — an accused and convicted murderer now operating as a private detective — and partners with her to investigate the disappearance of local author Jake Scully.

Veteran Fox readers will notice some thematic similarities between Crimson Lake and her Bennett / Archer trilogy. She is the absolute master of the enigmatic protagonist: characters with deep, dark secrets, who readers will follow and support, but with occasional hesitancy; because what if the worst is true? What if we’re  actually cheering on a killer in Amanda Pharrell? And Ted — our narrator — what if he’s hiding the truth from us? What if he is guilty of abducting the girl, and leading readers astray? We’re never quite certain — not totally — until the novel’s very end of how trustworthy and reliable Ted and Amanda are, which makes Crimson Lake incredibly compelling and propulsive.

Candice Fox’s prodigious ability to keep coming up with unforgettable characters elevates Crimson Lake beyond the standard police procedurals that proliferate the genre. Oh sure, Ted and Amanda’s investigation into Jake Scully’s disappearance is effectively handled — plenty of twists and red-herrings, and a heart-stopping climax to satisfy plot-focused readers — but it’s their uneasy comradeship, and their secrets which threaten to bubble to the surface, that make the novel a blast. It boasts Fox’s signature style, edge and humour to delight established fans, and will surely win new ones, too.

One of the best Australian crime writers just levelled up. If you haven’t jumped on the Candice Fox bandwagon, now’s the time. Crimson Lake will be one of 2017’s best crime novels, and Candice Fox has quickly established herself as one of our finest talents operating in the genre. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Read Crimson Lake — you’ll see.

Buy the book here…

Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ Series: A review of books 1 – 3

1. Slow Horses

Banished to Jackson Lamb’s personal fiefdom, Slough House, from the higher echelons at Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices, the ‘Slow Horses’ are a unit of MI5 misfits, desperate to atone for their past mistakes in order to escape purgatory, not entirely convinced Slough House isn’t an inescapable hell; that whatever they accomplish won’t be enough to circumvent their malpractice.

In erudition, action and temperament, Slow Horses proves Mick Herron is among the top tier of spy thriller writers. I ploughed through this first novel in the series and immediately started the second so I’ll be up to date when the fourth book, Spook Street, is published in February. In Slow Horses a boy is kidnapped and held hostage, and his beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the internet. Whatever their personal and professional failings, Jackson Lamb’s team — if you can really call them that — can’t just sit on their hands when it’s within their capabilities — well, maybe — to do something. So they break from their remit and get involved. But this isn’t a novel about the redemption of spooks, nor a straightforward action thriller, in which the good guys serve deserved justice to the bad guys, and everyone goes home happy. This is a novel full of greys; it exposes the intricacies of inter-agency turf wars and puts human faces and human costs on those who make it their life’s work to shield us from those who seek to do us harm.

Despite the economy of Mick Herron’s work, the large cast is fleshed out, and although few are likeable — Jackson Lamb, in particular, is a bastard — they’re characters readers will root for, despite their flaws and foibles. Most impressive is Herron’s graceful prose, which reminded me of Daniel Silva’s long-running Gabriel Allon series. There’s an elegance to Herron’s storytelling, rarely seen among his contemporaries, many of whom rush to the explosion without lighting a fuse.

Slow Horses is packed full of evocative detail, movie-tense action sequences, and a credible plot. I’m so glad the book was shoved into my hands. As I write this, I am halfway through Dead Lions and enjoying it just as much as Slow Horses.

Buy Slow Horses here…
2. Dead Lions

Slough House — a disregarded echelon of MI5 — is comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, who are assigned an endless supply of demeaning and feckless tasks in an effort to wear them down until the pull the pin on their careers. Ruled by the legendary Jackson Lamb — possibly the most abominable protagonist to have ever been spotlighted in espionage fiction —  the inhabitants of Slough House are skilled operators, whose vices and mistakes have demolished whatever usefulness they might have to the service. But when a former agent, Dickie Bow, is found dead on a London bus, Lamb and his subordinates take it upon themselves to investigate. Bow’s final text message — “cicadas” — has ominous repercussions:  it signifies the awakening of a sleeper cell of foreign agents, which dates back to the Cold War. Suddenly, Lamb’s Slow Horses are in a race against against time to determine their enemy’s target, and stop it from taking place.

Slow Horses was a remarkable spy novel, and this second in the series, Dead Lions, is a fine sequel. With the pieces already set up on the board, Mick Herron wastes no time in thrusting readers into a whirlwind, multi-stranded plot, which is orchestrated with Bach-like precision. Herron’s stories have the same complexity as Le Carre’s, but are written with the economy of Richard Stark, and this combination makes for an incredibly page-turning read. There is a large cast of characters involved, but each are fleshed out, and boast distinctive personalities; a rarity in this genre, when one could easily swap out James Bond for Jason Bourne, or Sean Dillon, or Jack Ryan, and not really notice any discernible difference.

Mick Herron has breathed new lie into the landscape of the espionage novel. I haven’t breezed through a series of books this quickly in a long, long time. As I write this, I’ve started the third novel, Real Tigers, and may well dig into Herron’s other novels while I wait for Spook Street in February.

Buy Dead Lions here…

3. Dead Lions

Over the course of a month I’ve smashed through Mick Herron’s three ‘Slough House’ novels — Real Tigers being the third in the series — as well as the standalone Nobody Walks. Prior to that, I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Herron, but thankfully, as a bookseller, I get to pay my newfound adoration forward, by shoving his books into customers’ hands and insisting he’s the modern equivalent of John le Carré. Which isn’t hyperbole, in case you were wondering: it’s a nailed-on fact.

So, for those who don’t know: Slough House is a disregarded echelon of MI5,  comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, ruled by the abominable Jackson Lamb. But when one of their own is abducted —  Catherine Standish,  scooped into the van of her ex-lover, Sean Donovan — the Slow Horses leap into action amidst savage narcissistic in-fighting within the halls of her majesty’s government.

Real Tigers is visceral, gritty and cinematic. It’s Mick Herron’s novel best novel to date, which makes it something truly special indeed. The fuse is lit in the first few pages of the novel and burns through the rest of the story until its explosive ending.

Buy Real Tigers here…

Review: Normal by Warren Ellis

9780374534974“He was a futurist. They were all futurists. Everyone here gazed into the abyss for a living. Do it long enough, and the abyss would gaze back into you.” So writes Warren Ellis in his novella  — originally published as a digital short — Normal, a concise but immensely satisfying psychological thriller.

When futurist Adam Dearden suffers a nervous breakdown, he is taken to a secret hospital — the “Normal Head Research Station” — which is a recovery station for those whose minds have come apart as a consequence of their occupation. When you spend your life contemplating the direction of mankind — are we circling the drain or reaching for the stars? — you’re bound to unravel, and that’s precisely what’s happened to the patients at Normal. The futurists are themselves divided into distinct types, and their differences essentially boil down to those who’re optimists and those who’re pessimists; is the glass half full or half empty? Are we headed for catastrophe or greatness? Ellis’s text doesn’t provide an answer, but will certainly make you wonder…

After one a fellow patients disappears in impossible circumstances, the patients at Normal are advised that government officials are launching an investigation — which is something nobody wants. So Adam forms a necessary alliance with a section of his inmates in order to get to the bottom of this mystery: and the answer might just break him once and for all.

It’s rare for me to wish a book was longer — I’m always so quick to advise cuts and merges rather than more pages — but Ellis’s premise deserves more room to truly shine. Normal is a novella that’ll make you quiver, but really, it could’ve been something shook you to your core. It’s a blast while it lasts, and I suppose it’s always best to leave an audience wanting more rather than having them glancing at their watches, but with some expansion, Normal could’ve rivalled Ellis’s fantastic novel Gun Machine. Instead it’s a solid detour, and a fun sampling of the writer’s work. Bring on his next novel.

ISBN: 9780374534974
Format: Paperback (191mm x 127mm x 12mm)
Pages: 200
Imprint: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc
Publish Date: 11-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Banished to Jackson Lamb’s personal fiefdom, Slough House, from the higher echelons at Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices, the ‘Slow Horses’ are a unit of MI5 misfits, desperate to atone for their past mistakes in order to escape purgatory, not entirely convinced Slough House isn’t an inescapable hell; that whatever they accomplish won’t be enough to circumvent their malpractice.

In erudition, action and temperament, Slow Horses proves Mick Herron is among the top tier of spy thriller writers. I ploughed through this first novel in the series and immediately started the second so I’ll be up to date when the fourth book, Spook Street, is published in February. In Slow Horses a boy is kidnapped and held hostage, and his beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the internet. Whatever their personal and professional failings, Jackson Lamb’s team — if you can really call them that — can’t just sit on their hands when it’s within their capabilities — well, maybe — to do something. So they break from their remit and get involved. But this isn’t a novel about the redemption of spooks, nor a straightforward action thriller, in which the good guys serve deserved justice to the bad guys, and everyone goes home happy. This is a novel full of grays; it exposes the intricacies of inter-agency turf wars and puts human faces and human costs on those who make it their life’s work to shield us from those who seek to do us harm.

Despite the economy of Mick Herron’s work, the large cast is fleshed out, and although few are likeable — Jackson Lamb, in particular, is a bastard — they’re characters readers will root for, despite their flaws and foibles. Most impressive is Herron’s graceful prose, which reminded me of Daniel Silva’s long-running Gabriel Allon series. There’s an elegance to Herron’s storytelling, rarely seen among his contemporaries, many of whom rush to the explosion without lighting a fuse.

Slow Horses is packed full of evocative detail, movie-tense action sequences, and a credible plot. I’m so glad the book was shoved into my hands. As I write this, I am halfway through Dead Lions and enjoying it just as much as Slow Horses.

Buy the book here…

Review: The Mothers by Brit Bennett

mothers-britThe Mothers is an outstanding debut novel: an engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking read about the importance of motherhood, and the hardships faced by girls who don’t have a female figure in their lives to help guide them. Bennett’s novel explores friendship, the impact of secrets, and the consequences of disloyalty, as three teenagers grow into young adults. Most importantly, it bestows insight into the lives of middle-class people of colour; a viewpoint I’ve rarely seen explored in all my years reading fiction, which is possibly my own fault — I don’t go looking for such stories, when I really should — but equally, such stories don’t seem to be published, which says a lot about the state of the industry, sure, but also about readers’ willingness to read such tales. As author Angela Flournoy put it in a New York Times article: “Writing about ordinary black people is actually extraordinary. It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.” That’s the point, I think: teenagers Nadia, Luke and Aubrey could easily be characters of any race. Their coming-of-age story — their interwoven destinies — has nothing to do with their race.

Few novels are as poetically searing as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Few books are able to say so much with so little. These three teens are united by the hardships they’ve already been exposed to: Nadia’s mother committed suicide, leaving no note, no explanation; Luke’s promising football career was ended by a freak injury; and Aubrey was forced away from home because of her abusive stepfather. When Nadia learns she’s carrying Luke’s baby, she decides not to keep it; Luke reluctantly scrounges the money for the abortion. It becomes their secret, which endures, leakily, for decades; it brings them together and tears them apart, time and time again, trailing them into adulthood. Even though I sensed where the story was headed, and the heartbreak that awaited, I couldn’t put the book down. I was crushed, repeatedly, by the ill-fated decisions made by the trio; but I continued reading, hoping for the best.

The eponymous “mothers” of the Upper Room church community serve as the novel’s narrator — their introspection frames Bennett’s novel — but if I’m honest, the conceit feels a little forced and unnecessary. There’s no need for the meta narrative, and it can be a tad intrusive at times; but in no way does it detract from the brilliance of Bennett’s debut.

Truly one of my favourite books of the year.

Buy the book here…

Review: Kill the Next One by Federico Axat

With more twists than a double helix, Kill the Next One is a relentlessly-paced, unputdownable psychological thriller. It zigs one way, then zags another, providing the kind of stomach-clenching, unsettling suspense readers associate with Lauren Beukes and Stephen King. Nothing should be taken at face value, but rest assured, Federico Axat is a brilliant guide.

Just like Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines series, Kill the Next One needs to be read unspoiled. This is a book that relies on the potency of its labyrinthine twists, and prior exposure has the potential to ruin the whole experience. The set-up barely scratches the novel’s surface: family man Ted McKay is moments away from pulling the trigger on the Browning pressed against his head. Then the doorbell rings, and Ted is presented with the notion of becoming part of a suicidal daisy chain: in exchange for killing someone who deserves to die, he will be killed, making his passing easier for his family. Easier to live knowing your husband / father was the victim of a random act of violence than by self-inflicted means … right? Things spiral wildly from there, quite brilliantly, and nothing is what it seems.

There’s a delightful boldness – – an incredible audaciousness — to Kill the Next One. Expertly paced and plotted, and extremely visceral, with bucket-loads of surprises and genuine chills, it’s sure to be one of the most-talked about thrillers of the year. Let’s hope Kill the Next One isn’t Axat’s only book to receive an English translation. He’s a writer to watch, and this book is one to savour.

Buy the book here…

Review: Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin

Although John Rebus’s  name is emblazoned on the cover of Rather Be the Devil, Ian Rankin’s ensemble cast is becoming increasingly intrinsic to the irascible detective’s world. And that’s not a bad thing. Thanks to the distinct personalities of Rebus, Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, and two Edinburgh gangsters – Big Ger Cafferty and Darryl Christie – this is a multilayered whodunnit that will keep even the sharpest readers asking questions until the very last page. Rest assured, loyalists: Rankin and Rebus remain as peerless as ever.

Rebus’s mortality has been hinted at in recent novels, but in Rather Be the Devil, it’s like a slap in the face. There is no avoiding it. Our mate Rebus isn’t doing so well. Prone to violent fits of coughing, he’s given up the cigarettes and limited his boozing. Which isn’t to say he’s a changed man. Rebus is like a dog with a bone; once he latches on, he won’t let go. The bone, in this instance, is an unsolved murder dating back forty years. Maria Turquand was murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the same establishment. It’s stuck in Rebus’s mind for all that time, marinating. And now, retired, free as a bird, he uses his contacts at Police Scotland – hello Siobhan! – to access the file.

Meanwhile, Darryl Christie – Edinburgh’s wannabe criminal kingpin – has been viciously attacked outside his home. Is this a new player making a run at Christie’s territory? Or an old enemy looking to move back in? Fox and Clarke are on the case, which of course, clashes with Rebus’s seemingly unrelated and unsanctioned investigation.

Throughout Rather Be the Devil, Rankin flits confidently between characters, painting a portrait of modern day Edinburgh as he weaves a smart, brisk mystery. He combines Rebus’s hard-nosed cynicism with moments of real sentimentality, which coalesce into an exceptionally good read, with an ending that suggests Rebus it won’t be too long between drinks before and his cohorts reunite.

This is vintage Rebus and Rankin. It’s always such a treat to enter the mind of one of the most interesting personalities in crime fiction. Stay healthy, John!

Buy the book here…

Review: The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

SAW print.inddThe Four Legendary Kingdoms begins with Jack West Jr. waking up in an unknown location and immediately thrust into battle. We quickly learn he has been chosen, along with a dozen other elite soldiers (including a very familiar face, much to my surprise and delight), to compete in a series of spectacularly deadly challenges in order to fulfil an ancient ritual with world ending consequences. So, yeah; the stakes, as always, are astronomically high. This isn’t a game West can escape from. For the sake of his loved ones — for the sake of everyone — he’s got to compete.

Reilly delivers fantastic stunts and vehicular mayhem in incredibly creative combat arenas. The plot and characters are ludicrous, but its all stupendous fun, and it moves at the velocity of a speeding bullet. Faster, actually. Reilly rarely lets his readers — or indeed his characters — rest. There are brief interludes between all the thrills, when the unflappably indestructible West gets the chance to lick his wounds, and Reilly gets the chance to feed readers background information. Sure, it can be a little clunky at times  — only Reilly could get away with the sentence, “Vacheron grinned evilly,” and the book is entirely void of subtext — but The Four Legendary Kingdoms is a rollicking blockbuster ride and perfect weekend fodder.

When it comes right down to it, other authors can try (and have tried) to emulate him, but nobody is better at the high-octane-high-body-count thriller than Matthew Reilly. It’s his domain, exclusively. Fans will delight in Jack West Jr.’s return, and of course, plenty of thread is left dangling for the inevitable sequels.

Buy now >>

Review: The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s journey with the LAPD came to a fittingly acrimonious ending in the final pages of The Burning Room a couple of years back. But while his departure made sense from a character perspective, I had my concerns for the future of Michael Connelly’s long-running series. We’ve seen Harry leave the LAPD before (which produced one of my favourites Bosch novels, Lost Light) but the blue religion and department politics play such a key role in Connelly’s work. How could Bosch possibly endure?

We got a partial answer with last year’s The Crossing; a rollicking team-up with the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller. It set up the obvious question: who is Harry Bosch without the badge? And how can he carry on his mission without it? Because working for Haller wasn’t sustainable; not in the long-term. The Wrong Side of Goodbye provides all the answers we need, and sets the series up for the foreseeable future. Bosch’s LAPD years are over, but the character’s best years might still be ahead of him.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye follows two distinct investigations, which unravel around each other but never intersect. One involves mega-wealthy industrialist Whitney Vance, who hires Bosch as a private investigator to locate a potential heir. His other case involves a serial-rapist dubbed the Screen Cutter, which Bosch is working as a part-time reservist for the San Fernando Police Department. Although it’s an unpaid position, it allows Harry the chance to once again wield a badge and carry on his mission, which is all the payment he needs.

The novel delves into Bosch’s Vietnam years, and his early years in an LAPD uniform. While Connelly has touched on these background details in the past, it’s never been to this extent, and he leaves a ton left over to excavate in future instalments. I always wondered whether Connelly might produce a novel set in the Vietnam or just after, focused entirely on Bosch’s war years or his early years with the LAPD; The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a far more nuanced approach, and I hope we see more information drip-fed to us in future books.

Michael Connelly’s latest is another masterpiece of crime fiction. Some authors get to a point where you run out of superlatives for their fiction; Mr Connelly reached that point long ago. The Wrong Side of Goodbye is the standard to which police procedurals should be held. No doubt the author will raise the bar even higher with his next release.

Buy the book here…

Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

9781743534908 (3)Few debuts have garnered as many accolades as Burial Rites, so if “second novel syndrome” is a real thing, it must apply doubly for Australian author Hannah Kent. Thankfully we’ve not had to wait long for Kent’s second novel — no decade-long interlude á la Donna Tartt — and it’s every bit as immersive as its predecessor. The Good People is a sparkling examination of Irish folk medicine and a lapsed belief system, and what happens when the real world – cold, stark reality – intercedes with these once-cherished folk traditions.

Set in south-west Ireland in the year 1825, tragedy unites three women together, and instigates an irreparable expedition that will challenge their beliefs, and see them clash against contemporary ideals. The tragedy in question centres around Nóra Leahy, who has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year. She is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old son, Micheál, who is severely disabled, both physically and intellectually. Micheál cannot walk or speak, and Nóra, knowing what will be said about the child, keeps him hidden from those who might consider his nature the evidence of otherworldly interference — touched by Them, the Good People.

Unable to cope on her own, Nóra hires a teenage servant girl, Mary, who quickly learns what sections of the community are saying about Nóra’s grandson: he is the cursed creature at the epicentre of their town’s grief. And in such circumstances, there is only one person they can turn to for help; one person who can force Them from Micheál, and return the young boy to his true self: Nance Roche, a woman with ‘the knowledge,’ who consorts with Them, and has demonstrated her healing abilities before. But her neighbours grow increasingly weary of Nance; the town’s new priest, in particular, is vehemently against her practices, and is gradually twisting the people’s opinion of her. Nance is determined to heal Micheál and prove her abilities to the township.

As with Burial Rites, the true genius of The Good People is Kent’s massaging of history — her many months of gruelling research — into her narrative. The Good People is layered with historical accuracy, bringing to life countless Irish customs without ever becoming bogged down in the verisimilitude. The plot is straightforward — the trio of women hurtle towards a conclusion most readers will anticipate but won’t be able to turn away from — and the characters, and their choices, will resonate long after you’ve put the book down.

Indeed, The Good People is a novel that will leave you marvelling at long-forgotten Irish customers and traditions, and have you question how the religious beliefs of today intercede with mankind’s increasingly practical and scientific nature. Kent’s artistry is that she needn’t tangibly pose the question; it’s the nuanced message of her novel, which will be enjoyed, and cherished, purely for its narrative alone.

Readers will inevitably ask, “Is it better than Burial Rites?” But I’m not sure it’s a question I can honestly answer. They’re both standouts; wonderful novels by an author with the world at her feet. The Good People boasts beautiful prose coupled with a brutal landscape and memorable characters. It’s a real literary treat.

Buy the book here…

Review: Dr. Knox by Peter Spiegelman

isbn9781782066934Peter Spiegelman’s Dr. Knox is an immensely satisfying noir thriller. Though the details of the plot add up to your typical potboiler story of conspiracy and corruption, of the rich and powerful preying on the poor, Spiegelman’s slight (but distinctive) twist on the formula elevates Dr. Knox above its competition.

Dr Adam Knox is a hero in the Philip Marlowe mould — but armed with a stethoscope instead of a gun. Abiding by the tropes of the noir hero, he is a well-intentioned man with a dark past, using his skills and his limited facilities to provide medical care for prostitutes, junkies, and other street dwellers of Los Angeles for whom visiting a hospital is not an option. To help make ends meet — to pay his staff, as well as rent — Knox provides an ambulatory service for LA’s shadier elements, working alongside his friend and former Special Forces operative Ben Sutter.

Knox’s life — and quite literally everyone he knows — is thrown into turmoil when a young woman named Elena deposits her son at the clinic, rushing out the door before questions can be asked. Clearly frightened, and visibly injured, Knox is certain Elena’s life is in danger — and therefore her son’s, too — so instead of contacting child services or the police, he hides Alex, and decides to unravel the mystery of Elena’s whereabouts, and her reasons for abandoning her child. The trail leads Knox into the path of violent Russian gangsters and an overtly corrupt corporation —both of whom will stop at nothing to terminate Knox’s investigation, and locate the mother and son.

Adam Knox is an enjoyable and compelling lead. We are in his headspace for the entirety of the novel, and’s the right mix of capable and completely out of his depth to make him likable. And while some of his past is unshrouded during proceedings, there’s plenty left for Spiegelman to uncover in future novels. The action and medical procedures are suitably hard-core, but never gratuitous (or overplayed), and while there’s some occasional monologuing, it’s thankfully never plodding.

Gritty, intense, and wildly entertaining, Dr. Knox is a damn fine crime novel. If Peter Spiegelman wasn’t on your radar before, he should be now.

Buy the book here…

Review: Home by Harlan Coben

9781780894218I slipped into hyperbole earlier this year when I reviewed Harlan Coben’s Fool Me Once. Deservedly so, upon reflection. I stand by it.  This isn’t an apology for my extensive praise. Nor is this review what you’re possibly expecting: “but wait, his latest novel, Home, is even better!” No, when juxtaposed, Fool Me Once is certainly the better thriller. It’s got that brilliant final twist, which hasn’t been topped by any other novel I’ve read this year, and certainly validates Coben’s ranking as the consummate master of the modern day thriller.

That’s right. He’s not just a master. Anybody can master something. But to be a consummate master? Wowzer.

But – and forgive the obvious pun – there is something special about coming home. About reuniting with a cast of characters you haven’t read about for some time. Myron Bolitar and Windsor Horne Lockwood III are two of my favourite characters in all of fiction, and we haven’t seen them (besides brief appearances in Coben’s YA Mickey Bolitar trilogy) since 2011’s Live Wire.

2011, guys and gals. That’s five years ago. God, we were do damn young. And look at us now. No, don’t – – !

Home brings these characters back, alongside the classic cast: Esperanza; Big Cyndi, Myron’s parents. Heck, even the kids wh0 starred in Coben’s YA series play a vital role in proceedings, and it’s great to be reunited with Mickey, Ema and Spoon. Their presence adds a cool continuity to things. So, sure; this book is for the fans. The readers, like me, who clamour each and every year for a new Myron novel. But there’s plenty here for “non-Myron” fans to enjoy. If indeed there even are such people out there.

The premise is straightforward: 10 years after two 6-year-olds vanished from a suburban New Jersey home, one of them is spotted in London. Obvious question: where’s the other? Myron gets involved because one of the kids, Rhys – – the boy who wasn’t spotted — is (or was) the cousin Windsor Horne Lockwood III, Myron’s best friend, and the friendliest psychopath you’re likely to encounter. In the past it has always been Myron’s lust for justice – – for righting wrongs, for doing the supposed right thing – – that pulled Win into deadly situations. This time the shoe is on the other foot. Win has always been there for Myron. And despite his pending marriage, Myron will always be there for Win. That’s the bro-code, didn’t you know?

Yes, there’s a big mystery here, and there are surprising twists (unleashed rather late in proceedings, admittedly, but no less effectively than in other novels) but it’s the emotion of the characters that really lifts Home above the rank and file. The heart and soul of this novel are the twin families coping with the loss of a child, and the extremes parents go to in order to protect them.

Ultimately, it’s just great to be back with Myron and the gang. The novel’s ending is possibly conclusive – – with a real lump-in-the-throat moment – – so who knows when we’ll see these characters again? In many respects, I wish I’d taken my time with the novel and truly savoured it. Instead, I smashed through it in less than 24 hours. That’s the true evidence of Coben’s class: his books are so gripping, you can’t put them down.

BUY THE BOOK HERE

Review: Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta

isbn9781473614581Rise the Dark, the second book in the Markus Novak series, is a masterful suspense novel, replete with crackling prose, nail-biting thrills, and a crackerjack pace. Dangling the plausibility of physic possibility, and pushing its characters to their physical and mental limits, Michael Koryta has crafted a thriller that will induce an unprecedented kind of page-turning compulsivity. In other words, it’s very, very good.

Picking up soon after the end of Last Words, Markus returns to Montana in pursuit of his wife’s murderer, Garland Webb, who has joined a cult hell-bent on bringing down the electrical grid and blaming it on Islamic terrorists. During his pursuit of Webb, Markus meets Jay Baldwin, who has been pulled into the cult leader’s nefarious plans following the abduction of his wife, Sabrina. Jay is a former lineman, whose knowledge of electricity and the grid is essential to the cult pulling off their spectacular feat; and as long as his wife is in danger, Jay will do precisely what they command, regardless of the consequences. Also involved with the cult is Novak’s mother, Violet – a physic reader, whose supernatural proclivities appear to be manifesting within Markus in the subtlest of ways, much to his chagrin.9781444742619

This hodgepodge of elements is thrown together and seamlessly blended into a damn fine thriller, with high doses of intrigue and tension. Novak’s mission of vengeance gives the novel severe personal-stakes, but the larger implications of the electrical grid going down skyrockets the potential implications of his failure. While Novak’s a fairly flat protagonist, the supporting cast adds much-needed colour and vibrancy. Uncle Larry, Violet’s shotgun-wielding brother, is a particular hit, but kudos needs to go to Kortya for allowing his two female leads to demonstrate genre-defying strength in their captivity. Rather than being utilised as stereotypical damsels-in-distress, and waiting to be rescued, they’re given ample opportunity to flex their sizable muscles, and kick plenty of ass.

With a genuine cliff-hanger that’ll leave you exasperated when you realise you’ll have to wait a year for any semblance of a resolution, Rise the Dark is one of the year’s best thrillers. Koryta is quickly climbing the ladder as one of my favourite authors.

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Review: The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

adam-sharpHow does Graeme Simsion follow-up his dual smash-hits of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect?  By penning a novel that is just as funny and poignant, but with a tumultuous moral core. Unlike the Rosie novels –  which I always pegged as romantic-comedies, or as ‘dramedy’ to enquiring readers – The Best of Adam Sharp is far more profound. There’s a lot more for the reader to marinate over. There is greater thematic depth. And it will resonate long after you’ve closed the book.

The Best of Adam Sharp introduces our protagonist – the titular Adam Sharp – as an almost-fifty IT contractor, whose life has reached that gliding point when there are few surprises left. It’s not a bad life – he lives comfortably, has a loyal partner at home, and has a few close friends – but it’s not what it could have been. Even so, it’s not like he is pining for something different; he’s made his bed and he is sleeping in it contentedly. Until he gets an email from his great lost love, Angelina Brown…

Two decades ago, on the other side of the world in Australia, Adam’s part-time piano playing introduced him to the aspiring actress and the two engaged in an unlikely love affair. It was never meant to be a long-term thing – their lifestyles prohibited a lifetime together – but despite the odds, they fell in love. Adam could’ve made a life with her – should’ve, he later things – but did not. They went their separate ways, out of touch, until now, when their extended email communique leads to Adam reuniting with Angelina in the flesh . . . alongside her husband.

The Best of Adam Sharp is about lost love and second chances. My feelings towards Adam varied during my reading; initially I was rooting for the guy, fist-bumping the air thinking, “Yeah, go get the girl, be with the person you’re meant to be with!” Then, later, my tune changed; I realised that Adam reforming his relationship with Angelina would break up a family, and those consequences seemed too grand for the sake of one man’s happiness. As I learned more of Angelina’s relationship with her husband, I reflected and decided, “No, Adam is definitely the right man for her, consequences be damned!” Only for my opinion to change twenty pages later…

This is a novel that will make you ponder the choices you’ve made. It will make you nostalgic, and reflect on where your life might be if you’d stayed with a former girlfriend; stayed in your hometown; moved to a big city; taken that job you turned down. And then it will force you to question how far you’d go for a second chance? Would you sacrifice all you have for what could be? And just because you can do something – should you?

The Life of Adam Sharp isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the Rosie novels, but humour still shines through, and plenty of moments had me guffawing. In fact, I feel like the comedy is more potent here because it’s sprinkled, rather than soaked through the text. Music plays a vital role in the narrative too, and it’s mainstream enough – The Beatles, Dylan, The Kinks – to ensure just about every reader will appreciate their references. Even when I couldn’t imagine the tune of a referenced song, I understood the subtext.

Graeme Simsion has done it again; authored a poignant, funny novel, that can stand proudly beside the Rosie novels, if not entirely outshine them.

Buy the book here…

Review: Nothing Short of Dying by Erik Storey

 

For the pure pleasure of uncomplicated, nonstop action, no thriller this year has come close to matching Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying, the first in what promises to be an adrenaline-fuelled series starring Clyde Barr.

Barr is the latest in a long line of loner heroes with violent pasts that belie their good intentions. Fresh from a stint in a Juárez prison, Barr is determined to make a fresh start, free from the chaos that has punctuated his life. But a frantic phone call from his youngest sister, Jen, halts any plans to ride off into the sunset. Jen needs his help, and as Barr himself asserts – which is a touch on the nose – “nothing short of dying” will stop him from coming to her aid. Problem is, Barr has no idea who has her or where she is. And he embarks on a spree of beat-downs and shootings that put Jack Reacher’s dust-ups to shame. Clyde Barr is a one-man army, as competent with his fists as he is with a rifle or bow. The introduction of Allie – inadvertently drawn into Barr’s violent journey – adds some much-needed emotional depth, and a touch of requisite romance.

Storey brings the rugged outdoor terrain to life, and Barr’s adeptness to life in the wild distinguishes him from the urban-minded heroes that populate most novels in the genre. When we meet Barr, he’s camping in the wilderness, having hunted for his dinner the night before; and he’s a technophobe, adverse to telecommunications and society’s reliance on electronic devices. Need someone to track footprints? Clyde’s your man. Want him to access your phone’s GPS? Look elsewhere.

Nothing Short of Dying takes off at breakneck speed and doesn’t let up. There’s not much nuance, and though the plot moves at the speed of a bullet, it moves at the same trajectory from start to finish, and offers few genuine surprises or curve balls. But for readers seeking rock ’em sock ’em action, Erik Storey’s debut will surely satisfy. If the author is able to add a touch more stylistic flair in Barr’s second outing, we could be witnessing the launch of thriller fiction’s next big brand.

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Review: Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s Dear Mr. M has all the trappings of a stylish literary thriller endowed with the author’s trademark black humour and wit. And it comes so close to being something truly resonant; inches away from being one of the year’s must-read books. Alas, its sagging middle undermines a brilliant start, and lessens the impact of its climax. With a finer edit – some slicing and dicing – Dear Mr. M would be truly spectacular. In its published form, however, it has to settle for merely being ‘good.’

Koch’s latest tells the story of a fading writer;  once celebrated, but now long past the apex of his career, which was the publication of Payback, a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. It told the story of a history teacher who vanished one winter after a brief affair with a student. His body was never found. M.’s novel distorted the facts of the case, and the premise of Dear Mr M. centres around the author being held accountable for his altering of events.

The novel has an interesting structure, told from various perspectives, the most captivating of which is undoubtedly a letter to M., written by the same person the author accused of murdering the history teacher in Payback. There’s a real tension here; these segments are utterly suspenseful and creepy, which inevitably make other sections of the novel feel sluggish.

Koch rips into the literary world in Dear Mr M., poking fun at publisher dinners, promotional tours, author relationships, etc. As someone working in the industry, I found some of his comments, through his characters, especially hilarious. The novel really shines in these moments, and echoes the dark humour present in Koch’s other work; The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool.

Despite its middle dragging on a bit, Dear Mr M. is a mostly gripping, brilliantly satirical literary thriller. It’s a novel I highly recommend . . . with a small caveat.

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Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Pages Review - Commonwealth - Ann

Ann Patchett is fast becoming one of my all-time favourite authors. Her new novel takes her talent to a new level totally engrossing you in the lives of two families who themselves get tangled up over the years due to a few choices of fate.

The novel opens in 1964 at a seemingly innocuous christening party. An uninvited guest arrives bearing a bottle of gin and a chain of events gets set in motion. Patchett jumps around with her timeline and doesn’t immediately follow the most sympathetic characters choosing instead to flesh out the least as you piece together how two completely separate families join together and how a tragic event begins to unwind them apart again.

This novel reminded me at times of Richard Yates and others of Richard Russo but Ann Patchett out shines both with ease, with precision, with damn fine writing and simply beautiful storytelling. This is probably one of Ann Patchett’s most personal novels (after reading This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage you can recognise some inspirations for her own life) but unlike one of the novel’s protagonists she manages to keep some distance between truth and fiction.

Ann Patchett has written a novel of immense beauty, charm, sadness and tragedy. She will have you laughing out loud as you read one minute and wiping a tear away the next. This is a book I could have, and still want, to read forever. I did not want it to end so lost I became, not just in the story and the characters Ann Patchett so vividly brings to life, but also in the words and way she tells her story. This book is quite simply marvellous. This is an American Classic in the making.


Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth presents the evolution of two American families fused together following the events of one hot Southern Californian day in 1964. It’s a thoughtful, poignant and moving novel, elevated beyond the traditional domestic novel thanks to the depth of its characters and their tumultuous experiences so deftly depicted by one of the great contemporary American authors.

The story opens during a seemingly innocuous christening party hosted by Beverly and Fix Keating for their second daughter, Franny. The celebrations are proceeding as planned – that is to say, mundanely – until a lawyer named Bert Cousins shows up uninvited, carrying a bottle of gin, which immediately livens things – particularly when he is introduced to Beverly, and develops an immediate infatuation, which results in their marriage, and their move to Virginia. And so, a new familial unit is established, comprised of six step-siblings; a unique blend.

Patchett doesn’t lay out her narrative chronologically, but events transpire seamlessly, cutting back and forth in the family’s timeline, and spotlighting a variety of its members. In another writer’s hands, this approach and such an extensive cast might be unwieldy ; but we’re in a master’s. Despite the novel’s epic scope, it’s confined to a wonderfully limited page-count (just eclipsing the 300-page mark), and its tragedies and revelries are incredibly potent.

Commonwealth is honest and heartfelt, presenting a family at their best and worst and most shambolic. It is packed with truths, and powerfully illustrations the importance of family, and the strength of that unit. It’s a novel that will make you feel, and grateful for the loved ones in your life.

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Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

9781447297574Brace yourself, dear reader. You’re about to be assailed with praise and hyperbole for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, which, at this moment, is on track to be my favourite thriller of the year. Right now, I can’t imagine anything toppling Dark Matter from its throne.

Dark Matter is an unabashed science fiction thriller. If the thought of multi-dimension travel – of our protagonist traversing alternate worlds – is too much of a leap from the grounded reality in which you prefer your fiction, okay, fair enough, perhaps this one’s not for you. But for everybody else, willing and able to suspend their disbelief, and accept the parameters of Crouch’s fiction, Dark Matter is a relentless and thrilling ride. What glues it together – what makes this novel work – is its heart.Dark Matter is a love story – punctuated with action and science fiction elements, certainly – but its romantic core, one man’s desire to reunite with his wife and son, is what makes the novel tick along.

Dark Matter is about the roads not taken. It’s about the choices we make – those large, momentous decisions we identify as important, and the smaller ones we barely recognise. Jason Dessen chose his family over his career as a physicist; so too his wife Daniela, who gave up her dream of being an artist. It’s not a decision they regret – they’re a content family unit, blessed with a teenage son – but inevitably there are moments when they wonder what might have been. And thanks to the Jason Dessen from an alternate reality – a world in which he focused on his career in science rather than his family, and created a multidimensional travel device – our Jason is about to discover what might’ve been.

Crouch sends Dessen to a range of close-but-not quite realities as he attempts to find his journey home, to his wife, to his son. In putting Dessen through such an emotional rollercoaster we bear witness to some truly gut-wrenching and poignant scenes. And just when you think the novel’s demonstrated all it’s got to offer – that Crouch is leading readers down a thrilling, but somewhat routine path as Dessen attempts to return to his world – he throws a curveball; an unforeseen plot twist that raises the states even higher, and propels the narrative through to its fitting climax.

Plenty of fiction has explored the idea of multidimensional travel, but rather than focus on the science, Dark Matter keeps the reader riveted because of its heart. How far is one man willing to go to reunite with his family? How much can he witness before he loses himself? You’ll tear through Dark Matter in one sitting to find out. Truly, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years.

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Review: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

black widowIn his foreword, Daniel Silva notes that he began writing The Black Widowbefore the Paris attacks of 2015. That his latest thriller is published so soon after the devastating terrorist attack in Nice — a cruel coincidence — demonstrates just how prophetic these geopolitical thrillers can be.

Daniel Silva writes smart, sophisticated, highly literate thrillers. The fuse always burns slowly, which makes the explosion all the more impactful. The Black Widow – the sixteenth Gabriel Allon novel – is no different. It begins in the Marais district of Paris where ISIS detonates a massive bomb, killing hundreds; including a friend of Gabriel’s. The French government enlists the aid of the impending chief of Israeli intelligence to eliminate the terrorist mastermind responsible: the enigmatic Saladin. And so, Allon endeavours to accomplish the impossible: infiltrate ISIS and prevent its forthcoming attacks.

Of course, Allon is a recognizable spymaster; he can hardly penetrate the terrorist network himself. So he enlists a civilian, the French-born Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, whose background makes her the perfect undercover agent. This is where Silva derives much of the novel’s tension: a young Jew, with no field experience and minimal training, hiding in plain sight in the heart of the caliphate. Can she possibly pull off the impossible? Those who’ve read Silva before will know his plots always divert into the unexpected. Nothing is ever straightforward.

For some time now, Silva has been transitioning Allon towards his role as the director, rather than an agent, of Israeli intelligence. For the first time in the series, Silva presents Gabriel as more of a supporting character rather than protagonist, and if The Black Widow is anything to go by, his future novels might have a wider cast, with Mikhail Abramov and Dina Sarid poised to play larger roles. On the one hand, it’s sad to see Allon fading from the limelight; on the other, it’s so rare for a series like this to exhibit such character progression. Most leads in thriller-fic are stagnant, so this is a refreshing change. And if this is indeed Gabriel Allon’s final call to arms, it is a brutally fitting finale.

Every Daniel Silva novel is a treat, and The Black Widow is no different. The consistency of the Gabriel Allon series is truly astounding. The man is peerless; I’m certain I’ve used this line before, but it deserves repeating: no other writer is as capable of providing as many thrills and genuine heartbreaks, as Silva. Whether you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer, if you’re looking for a great thriller, you’ll struggle to find better than The Black Widow.

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Review: I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

9781925355079I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the kind of novel you’ll read with your stomach clenched, mouth dry, heart pounding in your chest. It’s compulsive, unnerving, and downright unputdownable. It’s by far the most tense, atmospheric, and suspenseful book I’ve read this year – and also one of the best. Seriously, just thinking about it now, that ending . . . I’ve got goosebumps. And an insatiable desire to read it again.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about the fragility of identity and reality. But such a summary belies its edginess, and its sheer incredible craftsmanship. Every word is necessary; every sentence and paragraph framed with precision. It is smart, it is spooky; it’s a can’t-put-down-thriller masquerading as an examination into the human psyche. It takes place over a single night. Jake and his girlfriend are on a road-trip through a snowstorm to visit his parents on a remote farm. Which is when things get strange. After dinner, they choose not to remain at the farm, and drive home. But the dinner – their brief stop at the farm – has unwoven something, and the night unravels fast, climaxing when he leaves her stranded at an abandoned high school . . .

It is a psychological thriller? A horror story? An amalgamation? I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the kind of novel that defies bookstore categorization. I’d hand it over to anyone who reads in either genre; fans of Stephen King; fans of Gone Girl. It helps that the novel is short – a couple hundred pages – and its momentum is unstoppable. So even if you’re not sure this is your thing, by the time you’re asking yourself that question, you’re a quarter of the way through the book, and by then, you’ll need to know what happens next. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a masterwork of building intensity. It’s a masterpiece, full-stop.

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Review: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

truly-madly-guiltyTruly Madly Guilty mightn’t boast the edginess or outright boldness of Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, but don’t be fooled into thinking Liane Moriarty’s latest is anything short of compulsive. No other writer — I repeat, no other writer — is as capable of thrusting readers on such an emotional, exhilarating roller-coaster ride.

In Truly Madly Guilty, Moriarty explores the social and psychological repercussions of a barbecue in Sydney.  I know what you’re thinking: Uh oh! Sounds like a certain celebrated Christos Tsiolkas novel! And I suppose, as a story’s defining moment, the similarity is there to be pointed at, and possibly discussed at your future book club meeting. But Truly Madly Guilty is a very different beast, focused more on the unravelling of events leading to a catastrophic moment rather than the commentary on the middle-class provided by Tsiolkas (and just to make it clear here, The Slap is a fantastic book, and demands your attention if you haven’t read it — my storytelling sensibilities just happen to fall more in line with Moriarty’s).

The specifics of the barbecue’s catastrophic event emerge gradually. The hours leading up to that moment, the moment itself, and weeks afterwards are seamlessly intercut. Moriarty provides plenty of hints and red-herrings as to what might’ve occurred, but keeps the truth shrouded in mystery, building to the revelation, keeping readers on edge and mulling over the seriousness of what occurred. At various moments I wondered: did someone have an affair? A fistfight? A murder? I was desperate for answers, and Moriarty kept me hooked, on the edge of my seat — and when the truth was revealed, rather than deflate, rather than lose all that momentum the plot had garnered, the narrative’s focus shifts to dealing with the consequences, and poses a new question to readers: is there any coming back from this? Seriously,Truly Madly Guilty is packed with the twists and turns that put first-class thrillers to shame; and few wrap up as elegantly.

As always though, character remains king in Moriarty’s work, and the large cast presented here will live long in the memory thanks to their wildly discordant personalities and interwoven histories. There’s Erika and her husband Oliver, with their incredibly buttoned-up personalities; Clementine and Sam, and their two young daughters; and Tiffany and Vid, and their brainy daughter Dakota. Not to mention the old, irritable neighbour, Harry. Each possess characteristics readers will immediately recognise from people in their lives. Guilt manifests itself in each of them in very different ways, and all struggle to move mast the catastrophic events of the barbecue.

Unravelling at breakneck speed, Truly Madly Guilty certifies Liane Moriarty’s unparalleled ability to construct an emotionally-charged story filled with unforeseen twists. I can’t decide whether I enjoyed this more than Big Little Lies — but it doesn’t really matter. They’re both unequivocally 5-Star reads.

Buy the book here…

Review: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

Divided SpyRelentlessly fascinating, taut, atmospheric and immersive — get out your thesaurus and start looking for new superlatives. Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy deserves them all. Quite simply, spy thrillers don’t get much better than this.

While I hate revealing my ignorance, I must admit I was not familiar with the work of Charles Cumming prior to grabbing a copy of A Divided Spy from the shelf. I was looking for a page-turner, having just invested several hours in a book that was taking me nowhere but an unpleasant abyss, and the quotes accompanying the blurb seemed to promise as much. And for once, the blurb undervalued what was delivered: one of the best spy thrillers I’ve read in years.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Cumming’s Thomas Kell series, and while new readers mightn’t appreciate the depths of some of the relationships, and be privy to the entirety of their backstory, the novel can be read as a standalone. And if you’re anything like me, it’ll only entice you to immediately add the preceding novels to your reading stack!

Kell is a former MI6 officer, but after a lifetime of dedication to Queen and Country, and an operation that went particularly bad, he’s retired from the service. His days are now perfunctory, fueled by a desire for revenge against the Kremlin who took the life of a woman he loved. When Kell is offered a chance at vengeance, he takes it, and embarks on a mission to recruit a top Russian spy and turn him against his superiors — but with the Russian holding key information about  a devastating terrorist attack on British soil, Kell must decide what’s most important to him: personal retribution or protecting innocent lives. And can he live with the consequence of either decision?

A Divided Spy is a literate, exhilarating page-turner. It’s not a wham-bam actioner in the style of Robert Ludlum, whose best work  loosed bursts of violence on readers every second chapter, but that said, those who read thrillers purely for the gunplay won’t be disappointed by the novel’s conclusion. Indeed, Cumming’s sparse use of shootouts is precisely what makes the book stand out: it doesn’t need blockbuster action moments to propel the story forward, and keep you entranced. And that’s a surefire sign of a great thriller.

As things stand, A Divided Spy is my forerunner for spy thriller of the year, and it will take something truly spectacular to best it.

Review: A Hero in France by Alan Furst

9781474602914No other writer of historical espionage fiction is as capable of capturing the sights sounds, and tensions of the time as Alan Furst. Not only does he saturate the reader in the fine details, but his characters always resonate – even when they are distinct archetypes – and his plots are always complex and rollicking.  A Hero in France – published as a Hero of France elsewhere – is no different. It’s not quite peerless Furst – veteran readers will likely point towards Midnight in Europe or Mission to Paris as their favourites (or maybe that’s just personal bias…) but it’s a fine example of what the author is capable of. And thankfully, if you enjoy this one, you’ve got thirteen other World War II Europe-based suspense novels to discover. Lucky, lucky you.

Mathieu is the leader of a French Resistance cell in Nazi-infested Paris. Mathieu is not his real name, but in this time of war, his true identity is irrelevant. Set in a key period during the war – when Britain had stepped up its bombing campaign, and just prior to Hitler invading the Soviet Union – the book’s plot follows several of Mathieu exploits. From concealing downed British pilots and smuggling them home, to the nitty-gritty of being a resistance leader and securing funds and garnering allies, Furst portrays the difficulties of Mathieu’s wartime mission with aplomb. He does this by highlighting the scarcity of items we take for granted, and letting his characters truly luxuriate with them when the opportunity arises. And it’s these moments that truly elevate A Hero in France. While other writers can match Furst in the suspense stakes, few are as capable of humanising their characters.

The novel possesses a sombre tone – appropriately so, too – but its characters never wallow. A Hero in France is a novel about heroes, and presents courageous men and women doing their utmost to protect and defend the principles they believe in. While its concluding pages are a tad trite – plot threads tie together a little too neatly, which momentarily suspends its authenticity – readers looking for a short, impactful burst of World War II escapades should look no further.

Buy the book here…

Review: Black Magick Vol. 1 – Awakening by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott

9781632156754Part police procedural, part supernatural thriller, the first volume of Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott’s Black Magick is a standout on every level — possibly the best work of their careers — and will leave readers eagerly waiting the follow-up.

Rowan Black is a detective with the Portsmouth Police Department — and a practicing witch. Not the type that dons a black hat and flies on a broomstick; no, contemporary witchcraft is a tad subtler than that. Still, Rowan has always struggled to keep both aspects of her life separate, and when she becomes the target of a mysterious organisation with a keen interest in the supernatural, everything she holds dear comes under threat.

Nicola Scott’s art is the true highlight of Black Magick — which takes nothing away from Rucka’s script, his characterisations, or the overarching plot, all of which are truly stellar — it’s just … wow. Superlatives are reserved for work like this. Scott utilises a unique grey wash, with only slight traces of colour, to great effect; and her panels are hyper-detailed, and her pages effectively constructed, to make this a real pleasure to read. It’s hyperbolic sure, but there’s no question: these pages confirm Nicola Scott’s status as the best artist working in comics.

A gripping page-turner from beginning to end, Rucka and Scott’s first instalment in their “witch noir” series is an absolute blast. They might not have created a new genre, but they sure as hell have redefined it. Forgive the pun, but Black Magick is absolutely spellbinding, and one of the best things I’ve read all year.

Buy the book here…

Review: Shtum by Jem Lester

Jem Lester’s exceptional debut, Shtum, poignantly depicts the love, anger, guilt and exhaustion felt by the parents of a young boy with severe learning disabilities.

The autism afflicting eleven-year-old Jonah isn’t the kind most readers will be familiar with – that is, the kind displayed by Raymond in the movie Rain Man, or Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Such is the profoundness of Jonah’s autism, he will never develop language; he communicates through laminated cards. Added to that is his complete unpredictability and fearlessness; he is a boy who requires constant monitoring, and is never anything less than a handful. But crucially, Jonah is not a caricature – an embodiment of autism at its highest spectrum. He is a boy with a personality. He is distinct. He is special, like all children. He is the son of Ben and Emma Jewell, and despite their perpetual exhaustion and fluctuating emotions, there is never any doubt, Jonah is loved, and he always will be. But life is not easy – for any of them. And the sad reality is, Jonah needs better care than they can provide at home. He needs placement at a specialist residential school – but the rigmarole involved in securing a slot seems insurmountable when the novel begins…

Both Ben and Emma are at breaking point. The cracks that have always existed in their marriage have turned into chasms. So, believing the breakdown of their marriage would increase the likelihood of Jonah’s placement at a specialist school – it’s a decision that needs to be made by the courts, based on assertions by various well-meaning social workers – Ben and his son move into his Jewish father’s home. This is not a match made in heaven; father and son have a strained relationship, and neither have ever showed much interest in making peace. But for Jonah’s sake, they put aside their differences, and over the next few months Ben battles his own demons, all the while coming to terms with the breakdown of the various relationships in his life, while the shadow of Jonah’s hearing looms large.

Jem Lester’s Shtum is darkly comical, searingly honest, and unputdownable. It’s a book that needs to be read, so that people understand the challenges facing the parents of children with developmental disabilities, and the ripple effects of these hardships – but also because it’s simply a stunning work of fiction, absolutely absorbing and affecting, and in my opinion, one of the finest novels I’ve read this year.

Buy the book here…

Review: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

NightingaleLoosely based on Kate DiCamillo’s own childhood,Raymie Nightingale tells the story of ten-year-old Raymie Clarke and her plan to get her father to come back home after he eloped with a dental hygienist.

The year: 1975. The place: Florida. Feeling alone and adrift, Raymie is determined to learn how to twirl a baton in order to win the title of ‘Miss Central Florida Tire 1975.’ She thinks, by winning the title, her photograph will be in the newspaper and be seen by her father, which’ll make him so proud he’ll want to return home, and life will resume as before. Also aspiring to win the competition are two girls, Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski, both of whom have also lost parents and are seeking ways to move on with their lives. And while this triumvirate start off as competitors, their particular quirky personalities soon merge into friendship, worthy of tagging as the “three Rancheros” by Louisiana. Together they get into all kinds of mischief – but never just for mischiefs sake. Their series of adventures are a consequence of their combined determination to help each other through the challenges they face as individuals, which can only be overcome together.

DiCamillo’s simple prose is so elegant and delightful, offering a meditation on life, death, and friendship in such a way that will enthral younger readers, and adults alike. Raymie Nightingale is unquestionably my favourite children’s novel of the year and deserves mass accolades and designation as a modern classic. It really is that good, and earns an everlasting spot in your child’s bookshelf – or yours!

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Review: Superman, Vol. 1 – Before Truth by Gene Luen Yang & John Romita Jr

Before TruthThe Superman titles have undergone a renaissance recently, sparked by the arrival of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder on ACTION COMICS, and followed by Geoff Johns’ and John Romita Jr.’s brief stint on SUPERMAN. Now Gene Luen Yang steps up to the plate – the acclaimed writer of American Born Chinese – with Before Truth, the first volume in his run on SUPERMAN. And with Romita Jr. by his side, he’s redefining Clark Kent for the ‘New 52’ generation. Fans rejoice: we’ve finally got a Superman who’s emblematic of the character we know and love, who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way; but also renewed and rejuvenated under this new stewardship.

Before Truth picks up where Johns’ The Men of Tomorrow arc ended. Superman has discovered a new power – a solar flare that obliterates everything in its radius, but leaves him powerless for up to 24 hours. Why introduce a new power into Superman’s mythology, you might ask? Well, this version of Superman is de-powered; he’s not quite the God-like being readers have become accustomed too, so the solar flare ability is effectively a ‘last resort’ option. When all else fails, when Superman has got to lay it all on the line, he ignites. This allows Yang and Romita Jr. the opportunity to showcase Clark Kent’s misapprehension of the human condition; a few sips of alcohol leave him inebriated, and he’s developed a newfound appreciation for food. These are small touches, but they add layers to a Clark Kent who has been fairly uninteresting since DC relaunched with the New 52.

Before Truth introduces the villain Hordr, who has learned Superman’s secret identity and threatens to expose him to the world unless he does precisely what’s demanded of him. Aided by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Superman deliberates between his desire to maintain a normal life as Clark Kent and refusal to bow down to the villain’s command. But ultimately, it might be a decision that’s taken out of his hands . . .

Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s SUPERMAN is, simply, a rip-roaring superhero tale. They haven’t aspired to redefine Superman’s character or continuity; rather, they’re focused on telling a good story and implores readers to pick up the subsequent volume. There’s no doubt about that. Solid characterisation, rapid pacing, great Romita Jr. art – it’s all here. A Superman story for readers, old and new, to enjoy.

Buy the book here.

Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steve Rowley

9781471146640Both laugh-out-loud funny and weep-into-your-hanky heartbreaking, Lily and the Octopus introduces a spectacular new voice and leaves its mark on the landscape of great fiction. For anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet, anyone who has struggled to find meaning in the face of death and feared its residual solitude, Steven Rowley’s debut is unmissable and provides a potent catharsis.

Ted is a struggling writer whose life is in somewhat of a downward spiral. It’s not careening, it’s still salvageable, but it’s on a definite decline. His dachshund, Lily, is his only salvation; the one constant in his life, who stood by him during his breakup, through good times and bad. Their bond will not be unique for dog owners; I’m guilty of occasionally conversing with my Golden Retriever as though he understands and can answer back. He can’t do the former – not with words, anyway; but sometimes I’m positive Eddy knows precisely what I’m saying…

Things take a turn for the worse when Ted discovers an “octopus” – a tumour – on Lily’s head, and realises his greatest friendship, the companionship he’s held dear for so many years, is nearing its end. The manifestation of Ted’s reaction – which fall across the emotional spectrum – form the basis of Rowley’s novel. We all struggle with mortality – our own, our loved ones – but for the emotionally-challenged Ted, it’s potentially more than he can cope with.

Much of Lily and the Octopus is biographical – Rowley admits as much in his note in the endnote of the novel – and he utilises this raw, true emotion to pummel the reader with emotional gut-punches that will leave you heartbroken.  But it’s more than a replay of real-life events; Rowley’s novel is packed with inspired digressions and forces readers to question the relatively of truth. It finds a perfect harmony between truth and fiction.

Lily and the Octopus has earned comparisons to The Life of Pi and The Art of Racing in the Rain — and deservedly so. So poignant and true, it’s a novel that will break your heart — and you’ll know it’s doing so from its opening pages —but despite it, you won’t be able to put it down, or want it to end. It is, quite, simply magical. Certainly one of the finest novels of 2016.

Order Lily and the Octopus here!

Review: Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

Every Exquisite ThingEvery Exquisite Thing is a powerful and heartfelt novel about adolescence, and the perpetual journey of self-discovery. Nanette O’Hare is a teenager who been pigeon-holed into her role as dutiful daughter, industrious student, and soccer star. She has immersed herself into the life that has been moulder for her, rather than allowed the freedom to find her own path. She’s simply caught in a slipstream; going with the flow.

But when her favourite teacher gifts her a worn, battered copy of the out-of-print cult classic novel The Bubblegum Reaper, Nanette’s life skews wildly. First she befriends the reclusive author of her now-favourite novel; then she falls in love with a troubled young poet with a twisted perspective of justice; and as she begins rebelling against her life’s ‘regular scheduled programming’ and attempts to recalibrate her life according to her own desires rather than everybody else’s, she realises just how difficult it to be comfortable in your own skin, and be true to who you are, in a world that habitually rejects personalities outside its inhibitive definition of ‘normal.’

The beauty – and sadness – of Every Exquisite Thing is its trueness to the blight of adolescents everywhere. All of us, at one point or another, and even as we’ve moved beyond our teenage years into adulthood, have struggled with the shackles placed upon us by our family or friends, or society in general. How many of us persisted with something because it has been expected of us? Or because weassumed something was expected of us? And who’s to say those ‘shackles’ were wrong? Untethered, would we have made better choices? Who’s to know? The point is, we can either conform or rebel, and neither option guarantees success or failure. We’re all on a journey, and we just have to hope we have smiles on our faces at the end of it. Life is a serious of choices, but as an adolescent, those decisions can seem unfathomable.

Every Exquisite Thing is a true-to-life tale that impresses thanks to its authentic characters. Matthew Quick’s always had that uncanny knack of perfectly encapsulating the teenage psyche and detailing their struggles. This isn’t necessarily an innovative take on a traditional narrative, but it’s emotionally true, and is ripe with enough humour and a likable cast to propel it above its competition.

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Review: Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

9781760276539The cynic in me wanted to view Derek Fridolfs’ and Dustin Nguyen’s Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice as a perfunctory vehicle to spotlight younger versions of DC comics heroes and villains ahead of the release of the blockbuster film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I’m a sucker for the DC’s ‘trinity’ – Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman – and I’m a long-time admirer of Dustin Nguyen’s art. So despite my hesitations, I pulled a copy from the shelf and dived in… and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was delighted. This is a book that’ll have both adults and kids in stitches, scouring pages for inside jokes and references, and enraptured by the core mystery. In other words, it’s a winner.

Young Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince form their own Junior Detective Agency in the halls of Ducard Academy in Gotham City when they realise there’s more to their new boarding school for ‘gifted’ children than meets the eye. They’re an oddball triumvirate, each displaying the divisive characteristics that’ve been portrayed in the comics for decades. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the school’s secret headmaster, overcoming the villainous obstacles in their way including fellow students Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the Joker, as well as dastardly school staff including General Zod, Hugo Strange, Vandal Savage, and so forth.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is layered with references that young fans and older will enjoy – but every element is explicated well enough to ensure the layman won’t be left lost and confused. This is fundamentally a story about friendship – how different personalities, regardless of upbringing, can be moulded into an effective team – with a good amount of super-heroics thrown in. It’s told through traditional comic book pages, journal entries, pamphlets, text messages, and report cards, and the variation enhances the tale’s readability. The only flaw I identified was the novel’s pacing. The story takes its time to get going – it’s not plodding, but necessarily measured in order to establish the characters and their world – but in contrast the climax feels rushed, like suddenly the storytellers realised they were running out of pages. It’s not a major issue, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the novel’s successes, but it’s a noticeable stumble.

This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a kid. It’s fun and quirky, but doesn’t talk down to readers. I’d love to see further adventures in this universe, and there’s certainly a ton more characters to explore from the DC Universe.

Buy the book here…

Review: Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley

Cambodia NoirTake your time with Cambodia Noir. Savour it. Although the journey is dark, it is truly unforgettable.

The great Otto Penzler – distinguished editor of mystery fiction in the United States, and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City – once said of noir: “[It] is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with.” For the characters who populate these tales, there is no happy ending. These people spend their lives stitching themselves up inside their own body bag. Their demise is entirely their own doing; they are trapped in a fate of their own construction, a prisoner of inevitability.

The spiral of once-great war photographer Will Keller, the protagonist in Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, began years ago. An inauspicious photograph taken in Kabul inspired his relocation to lawless, drug-soaked Cambodia, where he spends his days floating from one score to the next, taking any job that pays, while he fills his nights with sex, drugs, booze, and brawling. Keller’s terminal, and he knows it; he just doesn’t care, pushed far beyond the point of no return. But his spiral toward oblivion is interrupted by Kara Saito, a beautiful young woman who begs Will to help find her sister, who disappeared during a stint as an intern at the local paper. Unfortunately for Keller, there’s a world of bad things June could gave gotten mixed up in. The Phnom Penh underworld is in uproar after a huge drug bust; a local reporter has been murdered in a political hit; and the government and opposition are locked in a standoff that could throw the country into chaos at any moment. Keller’s best clue is June’s diary: a disturbing collection of experiences, memories, and dreams, reflecting a young woman at once repelled and fascinated by the chaos of Cambodia. But is there any truth to the young woman’s words?

Cambodia Noir is propulsive and electric. It’s classic noir revitalized in a setting rarely explored in the genre. Nick Seeley uses the skills honed as a reporter, and submerges the reader in the sights and smells of Phnom Penh, celebrating Cambodia’s culture and its idiosyncrasies even as he shines the spotlight on its dark underbelly. It’s a novel that is thematically weighted, with an ending that begs for discussion. You won’t read a finer contemporary noir novel than this.

Buy the book here…

Review: Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley

Cambodia NoirTake your time with Cambodia Noir. Savour it. Although the journey is dark, it is truly unforgettable.

The great Otto Penzler – distinguished editor of mystery fiction in the United States, and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City – once said of noir: “[It] is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with.” For the characters who populate these tales, there is no happy ending. These people spend their lives stitching themselves up inside their own body bag. Their demise is entirely their own doing; they are trapped in a fate of their own construction, a prisoner of inevitability.

The spiral of once-great war photographer Will Keller, the protagonist in Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, began years ago. An inauspicious photograph taken in Kabul inspired his relocation to lawless, drug-soaked Cambodia, where he spends his days floating from one score to the next, taking any job that pays, while he fills his nights with sex, drugs, booze, and brawling. Keller’s terminal, and he knows it; he just doesn’t care, pushed far beyond the point of no return. But his spiral toward oblivion is interrupted by Kara Saito, a beautiful young woman who begs Will to help find her sister, who disappeared during a stint as an intern at the local paper. Unfortunately for Keller, there’s a world of bad things June could gave gotten mixed up in. The Phnom Penh underworld is in uproar after a huge drug bust; a local reporter has been murdered in a political hit; and the government and opposition are locked in a standoff that could throw the country into chaos at any moment. Keller’s best clue is June’s diary: a disturbing collection of experiences, memories, and dreams, reflecting a young woman at once repelled and fascinated by the chaos of Cambodia. But is there any truth to the young woman’s words?

Cambodia Noir is propulsive and electric. It’s classic noir revitalized in a setting rarely explored in the genre. Nick Seeley uses the skills honed as a reporter, and submerges the reader in the sights and smells of Phnom Penh, celebrating Cambodia’s culture and its idiosyncrasies even as he shines the spotlight on its dark underbelly. It’s a novel that is thematically weighted, with an ending that begs for discussion. You won’t read a finer contemporary noir novel than this.

Buy Cambodia Noir from Boomerang Books here…

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy BartonElizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is a delectably quiet, understated, but powerful novella. It is about a woman unravelling the tapestry of her life, with particular emphasis on the five days she spent with her estranged mother by her side during a nine week hospital stay. Don’t let its page count fool you; this is a story of great depth and plenty of nuance, brought to life through Strout’s flawless, elegiac prose.

The novel is about relationships, predominantly between Lucy and her mother, but also with her father, a professor from college, a neighbour, a former writing teacher, the doctor who cared for her during her stay in hospital, and many more. Strout exposes the complexity of these relations, unveiling the dark undercurrent that runs between some, divulging parochial love affairs and unjustified, one-sided friendships and affiliations founded on falsehoods. But whereas other writers might do this clunkily, with long-winded passages of meandering lyricism, Strout’s narrative maintains its distinct poetry without the unnecessary accoutrements.

My Name is Lucy Barton delivers hard, emotional truths. Honest and affecting, it’s a real treat, and achieves more in its 200 pages than most other novels you’ll read this year. This is storytelling at its deceptively-simplest and finest.

Purchase My Name is Lucy Barton here…

Review: Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Fool Me OnceForgive me for throwing out this hackneyed phrase — but Fool Me Once is a world-class thriller. I mean, seriously; just when you think Harlan Coben has reached his apex, when you’re thinking there’s no way he can beat what’s come before, he produces his best, most compulsive novel yet. Shudder in fear, fellow thriller writers; Coben has set the bar stratospherically high this year.

As always, Coben’s latest is peopled with believable characters thrust into seismic situations.Fool Me Once stars Maya Burkett, a former special ops pilot, home from the war, and suffering from PTSD following a decision she made in combat. This is a woman who has been through much in recent years; the death of her sister, and more recently, the murder of her husband, Joe. Despite that – her festering demons – Maya is determined to stay strong for her young daughter. So when she glimpses her dead husband on a nanny-cam just two weeks after his death, the familial normalcy she is striving for threatens to completely unravel. Maya finds herself digging deep into the past, uncovering the shocking truth about her husband and the kind of man he really was — and the kind of woman she is.

Coben’s mastery has always been the blindside; the plot-twist readers never see coming. I consider myself a ‘veteran’ thriller reader (see this patch I sewed onto my jacket?) and particularly gifted at predicting these dramatic zigzags (I am waiting for Professor X to sign me up to the X-Men, because I consider this my mutant power). But the grand finale here shocked me; it rocked me to my very core. I turned the final pages with my mouth agape, disbelieving, but believing at the same time. Because this is a twist that doesn’t feel contrived; it makes sense. It’s like an awakening; the journey up until now takes on a completely new meaning. If my reading stack wasn’t already threatening to topple and crush me in my sleep (why couldn’t my mutant power be invincibility?!) I’d re-read Fool Me Once with this new mindset.

Sure, it’s a little humourless at times — occasionally I’d find myself missing the Myron Bolitar’s one-liners (although a recent Tweet suggests we’ll be reunited with that old favourite soon) and the zinging dialogue of some of Coben’s wittier protagonists — and the novel takes slightly longer than usual to kick into high gear; but the build-up is worth it for that gut-punch of an ending. With Fool Me Once, Harlan Coben has once again proved to be the consummate master of the modern day thriller. I know better than to assume he won’t one-up himself next year.

You can purchase Fool Me Once from Boomerang Books here.